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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Beach Boys Reunion That Almost Wasn't

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As late as last summer, it looked like this year's 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys wouldn't offer much reason for fans to get excited. Yes, rumors of a 50th anniversary tour were flying, but at that point Brian Wilson was saying he didn't think he would join in the festivities. Wilson, the main songwriter and visionary genius during the Beach Boys' 1960s heyday, for a myriad of reasons, has rarely worked with the band on any meaningful level since the early 1970s.

One reason, of course, was the debilitating mental issues that left Wilson unable to make music altogether for more than a decade. But he had returned to music in earnest in the late-1990s, recording and touring with his own band on a regular basis, even in 2004 reconstructing and recording his own version of Smile, the intended follow-up to Pet Sounds, the landmark 1966 Beach Boys album. Smile had been shelved and left uncompleted as Wilson's drug problems and mental issues, as well as disagreements within the band over the music being written and recorded, kept Wilson from finishing what figured to be a groundbreaking album.

Without Wilson, the 50th year of the Beach Boys looked to be pretty much like any year since the mid-1970s. Lead singer Mike Love would put together a version of the band that usually included longtime Beach Boys guitarist Bruce Johnston, and the group would play a show that revisited the celebrations of surf, sun and girls that characterized the group's hits.

But the door was always left open for Wilson, Love says, and eventually he walked through it. The band's reunion eventually led to this summer's That's Why God Made the Radio, the first new Beach Boys studio album to include Wilson since 1996's poor-selling Stars and Stripes Vol. 1.

Wilson initially rejoined the Beach Boys to record a new version of the band's hit "Do It Again" for a Wal-Mart-exclusive greatest-hits CD/magazine commemorating the band's anniversary. During those sessions, Wilson was impressed that the famous Beach Boys vocal blend was still there, Love says.

"He looked at me and said, 'How can you sound so good for a 70-year-old?'" Love recalls. The answer from Love: "I've been practicing for all of these years."

What was also still intact, along with some good humor, was Wilson's uncanny ability to arrange the Beach Boys' vocals and harmonies. "He knows our voices so intimately and thoroughly that he can still do it," Love says of Wilson's vocal arrangements. "I mean, 'That's Why God Made the Radio' must have every chord there is in it. It just moves all over the place."

That song, of course, is the title track of the new album, and it is classic Beach Boys: a sunny vocal melody matched to lyrics that fondly recall the power of hearing a great song on the radio, topped off with the layered vocal harmonies that helped define the Beach Boys sound.

But in a significant sense, That's Why God Made the Radio is not exactly a full-fledged Beach Boys album. Though all five current members—Love, Wilson, Johnston, Al Jardine and David Marks—sing on the record, Love says several songs were initially intended for a Wilson solo album and were co-written by Wilson and his producer, Joe Thomas.

Ironically, the Wilson-Thomas songs, particularly the album-ending trio of "From Here to Back Again," "Pacific Coast Highway" and "Summer's Gone," are the album's most complex and satisfying moments. Lyrically, they find Wilson looking back, but realizing he's not 21 anymore—a dose of hard reality that isn't present in tunes like "That's Why God Made the Radio."

A few of the new songs are included in the set the Beach Boys are performing on the 50th anniversary tour this summer. In addition to the hits and a few new songs, the group has been doing some deeper tracks from the catalog, such as "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." That song from the Pet Sounds album is closely associated with Wilson, and its lyrics reflect the emotional difficulties Wilson experienced during the Pet Sounds/Smile period.

"With Brian (touring), it made it possible to open things up with songs like that," Love says.

The Beach Boys headline the Marcus Amphitheater at Summerfest on Sunday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m.