Beach Boys 101: Peter Bagge’s “In Defense Of (And Praise For) Mike Love”

One rainy day last year I decided to do the Internet a favor and digitize […]

David Zahl / 5.9.12

One rainy day last year I decided to do the Internet a favor and digitize Peter Bagge’s brilliant, contrarian essay, “In Defense Of (And Praise For) Mike Love.” Ever since, I’ve been waiting for the right time to post it, and the 50th anniversary of the band seems like as good an opportunity as any. It was originally published in Hate Annual #2 back in 2001, and despite sincere disagreements about some of the points he makes–indeed, about his main point!–it’s still hands-down the best piece of Beach Boys writing I’ve ever come across, capturing much of what makes the band such a bottomless well of fascination, i.e. the astounding breadth of their talent and the absurd degree of contradiction (and humanity) at the heart of it all. As far as this site is concerned, there’s such a simultaneous abundance of ‘iustus’ and ‘peccator’ in their story, it really boggles the mind. Plus, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the advocacy of someone so universally detested scratches the grace itch. So this is the entire thing, minus the excursus on the production genius of Carl Wilson, which means it’s much longer than your average post. But if you’ve ever wanted a crash course in the singular charms of The Beach Boys, look no further! Of course, Mr. Bagge, if you’re out there, just say the word and we’ll take it down. Oh and apologies in advance to those with mental disabilities:


MikeLoveWhen I was still just a kid back in the 1960s, The Beach Boys posed something of a dilemma for me. The sound of their music appealed to me, but I was simultaneously turned off by their squeaky clean, fun-in-the-sun image. Even when I was 10 years old I fancied myself an outcast. I resented jocks and cheerleaders and anyone else who seemed well-adjusted and “normal,” and they seemed to be the people that the Beach Boys were making music for.

However, my best friend at the time had a hip, eccentric uncle who took notice of our obsessive passion for pop music, and he encouraged us to forget about all that cars and surfboard stuff and to let the Beach Boys’ music speak for itself. So we did, and by the early ‘70s they had become my favorite group. I liked EVERYTHING they did: Pet Sounds, Holland, Surfin’ USA; ALL of it. Not only did I love their singing, but I was also fascinated by the chameleon-like way they continually reinvented themselves – all the while remaining insanely cheery proponents of whatever it was they were selling at that moment, whether it was Hawaii’s killer waves or TM or practical footwear. I loved their entire shtick.

I also saw them perform live back in 1973, and that concert remains the most amazing musical performance I’ve ever seen in my life. They sounded fantastic, and their distinct personalities were on full display as well, particularly Mike Love’s and Dennis Wilson’s. The latter wasn’t even drumming for the band at the time, so he just wandered about the stage like a drunken ghost, singing a little here, plinking on a piano there, and occasionally admonishing an audience that still and always consisted primarily of jocks and their cheerleader dates to “shut the fuck up” during the ballads. “Al just did a beautiful job on ‘You Still Believe In Me’ and you idiots weren’t even listening!” he bellowed. Not very professional behavior, even though I wanted them to shut up, too! But such is the nature of live rock music, and Mike Love – the world’s ultimate cheerleader – understands this as well as anyone, as he lead the audience in one big sing-along of their rockin’-est and best loved hits. It was corny as hell, but it was also great. These songs were the main reason – and for many, the only reason – we were all there, and to hear them performed by the band that made them at the height of the musical powers was a thoroughly satisfying experience. He gave people what they wanted, and we were all better off for it!

Being a Beach Boys fan at that time wasn’t an easy task, though, since by that time EVERYONE considered themselves to be a hippie and a “rebel,” and the negative attitude I had towards them at the height of their success was now shared by the entire universe. The Beach Boys were uncool, and it was hard to explain to my peers why they should consider them otherwise. Unlike now, when almost everyone I know seems to have a deep love – or at least a grudging respect – for the Beach Boys’ music. Make that BRIAN WILSON’s music, since some folks seem to have an even harder time of separating their music from their image than I did (they probably resented jocks and cheerleaders even more than I did), so the only way they can justify getting into the Beach Boys at all is by fancying themselves as Brian Wilson fans first, and Beach Boys fans second (if at all). They could never appreciate their music at face value, but could only get into them after they heard about all the VH1 horrors that they went through as children, as well as the psychic price that Brian wound up paying for his own success.

It’s Brian’s story that so many poor, misunderstood, hyper-sensitive idealists can’t get enough of. Not only was Brian the main musical genius behind all those great records, but he’s also that most romantic type of Genius: the Idiot Savant, the Tortured Soul. He’s become the straight male nerd’s Judy Garland. Hey, who DOESN’T love a gifted retard (assuming you don’t have to live or work with one, that is)? This Lovable Eccentric (so the legend now goes) was only interested in expressing himself through his music, ma-an, only people around him couldn’t leave this Goose who Laid the Golden Records alone and nearly killed him because of it. He “just wasn’t MADE for these times,” MA-AN! He’s too GODDAMNED BEAUTIFUL for this world! *Sob!*

It’s a great story, ya gotta admit, and it even has a loud ring of truth to it, assuming you want to believe that selling tons of records wasn’t always a prime interest of Brian’s as well. But like all great legends that feature a hero, victim or martyr, there has to be a Villain. And in the Legend of Brian Wilson, the man who has been case as the villain is his cousin and former band mate, Mike Love.

On the surface Brian Wilson and Mike Love are polar opposites. Mike Love is by all accounts an arrogant, charmless asshole, and I have no reason to doubt that this is true. While Brian spent years rolling around in a sand box stuffed to the gills on LSD and forgetting what day or even what year it was, his cousin is a health nut and control freak who gave up booze and drugs years before it was fashionable to do so. Yet in spite of all this clean livin’ Love also has a violent reputation, and is considered something of an unforgiving bully, while Brian is thought of as some big roly-poly teddy bear who loves everyone to pieces.

And while we’re at it, let’s get some of Mike Love’s many other well-documented “crimes” out of the way: That he’s a shameless egomaniac who never tires of tooting his own horn, in spite of the fact that his voice had the least range of any of the other original Beach Boys, and he never became proficient at playing a single musical instrument while his band mates could all play many; that he’s notoriously litigious, and his need and desire for money seems to be bottomless – thus, whenever a battle is raged over commercial pandering vs. musical experimentation, he argued for the former almost every time (which isn’t always a bad thing necessarily, which I’ll get to later). He also is an active and longtime member of the Republican Party. So if it came down to spending any time with either Mike or Brian, I think most of us would choose Brian hands down.

The thing is this: most of us will never have the opportunity (let alone the desire or intention) to hang out with either of these two fellows, so what they’re like as people is ultimately meaningless to us as far as their musical legacy is concerned. All that matters is what we hear, think and feel when we play their records, and that’s why I’m amazed and appalled so many of these “back door” Beach Boy aficionados, the very ones who used to be unable to separate the band’s music from their All-American image, are now unable to separate Mike Love’s art and contributions to the band from his own reputation as a human being. They claim to like the Beach Boys in SPITE of Mike Love, and in no way BECAUSE of him. This annoys me greatly for two reasons: one is because these “back door” types also tend to be the same people who write reviews and liner notes and post on message boards, so their opinions tend to become ersatz “facts” when left unchecked; and two: not only am I a fan of Mike Love’s music, but I can’t see how anyone who claims to hate him can also be a sincere fan of the Beach Boys. To me the two are inseparable, and that’s because of Love, not in spite of him.

To begin with, Mike’s ambitions and musical sensibilities were never really as “at odds” with his cousins as 40 years of bickering would make it appear to be. The Beach Boys never would have lasted as long as they did otherwise! And for all their differences in personality, Mike Love and Brian Wilson have a LOT in common. For one thing, they’re both completely insane. But it’s the GOOD kind of insane (for an artist type, at least), in that they both feel a mad compulsion to act out on all their mad ideas and whims, in spite of what the average Joe might think of them because of it. They have absolutely no sense of shame whatsoever, and never did.

Brian and Mike also were both extremely fickle, faddish and compulsive. When they got into something they REALLY got into it: they’d write songs about it, create BANDS about it, tell the ENTIRE WORLD about it! Right from the start their music exhibited a very strong obsessiveness, in that their second LP was almost entirely about surfing, while their fourth LP was entirely about CARS (this in spite of the fact that they still called themselves the BEACH boys, a mere technicality that they always managed to ignore). That fickle obsessiveness continued throughout their career, and it particularly exemplifies almost everything that Brian and Mike have written, whether they’re collaborating or not.

To my ears it’s almost impossible to tell Mike and Brian’s lyrics apart. They’re both incredibly CORNY, for one thing. And funny. And gimmicky and sentimental. And they’re almost ALWAYS selling something: school spirit, cool water, yummy carob cookies, etc., etc., etc…. Their songs are always ABOUT something, which is amazing when you consider that so many of the ‘60s peers specialized in poetic vagueness, daring the listener to guess at what the song is really about, whereas when Brian and/or Mike write a song called, say “Add Some Music To Your Day,” you can be pretty sure that that song is going to be about adding some music to your day! Their lyrics are as literal as you can get. No guessing required!

The irony is that when Brian is credited with writing such lyrics they’re considered wacky, imaginative and eccentric, while when Mike gets the credit they’re dismissed as pedestrian and dumb. Even in Brian’s case this type of material is simply considered filler in comparison to what’s generally considered by most critics to be his two masterpieces: 1966’s Pet Sounds LP and 1967’s unfinished Smile LP, the music from which can all be heard on subsequent LPs and CD collections. Not only is the lyrical content of the former much more serious and weightier (and “artier” and experimental on the latter) than anything the Beach Boys have done before or since, but Brian collaborated with lyricists other than Mike Love (for the most part) on both, which would suggest that he was better off NOT working with his cousin. In fact, Love was rather vocal in his disapproval of the lyrics on both of these LPs at the time they were making them, which only adds to his reputation as a philistine and anti-Art – that he’s the Anti-Brian!

Pet Sounds is indeed an artistic masterpiece, although it’s taken most people 25-30 years to agree with that assessment, since with the exception of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B” (the latter of which was included at the record company’s insistence) it’s not a very easy record to listen to all the way through. This isn’t a party record. You have to be in the mood for it. You could hardly even categorize most of it as “rock” music, for one thing. It mostly consists of baroque sounding ballads, with complex, convoluted arrangements; and the lyrics are rather pensive and introspective, to the point of being self-obsessive and maudlin. Brian has had his introspective moments going all the way back to 1963’s “In My Room” but with Pet Sounds he decided to make such navel gazing the THEME of an entire LP! This sort of “departure” was unheard of for anybody to attempt, let alone the fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys, and the fact that Mike Love felt that it smacked of career-suicide doesn’t seem like an unreasonable concern. Years after the fact, Love-bashers like to point this out as an example of his lack of vision and foresight, but one thing Love predicted with 100% accuracy was that Pet Sounds would alienate a lot of their current fans and hurt their credibility with radio programmers, which indeed it did.

In classic compulsive Beach Boys fashion, Brian Wilson recruited a TOTAL STRANGER to help him with the lyrics on Pet Sounds. Brian apparently was so moved by the lyrics to a bank commercial (?!?!?) that he saw on TV that he tracked down the guy that wrote them, who turned out to be an ad agency copywriter named Tony Asher. I have no idea what Asher has done before or since Pet Sounds, and he certainly has no reputation as a great writer or creator on his own. What he did possess that the other Beach Boys didn’t, however, was a college education. He knew what words like “ego” and “ennui” and “existentialism” meant, and thus was able to help Brian express the convoluted emotions he was feeling at the time in a more literate fashion than Brian could have done on his own, let alone by collaborating with a former gas station attendant like Mike Love.

So it came as no surprise that Love was agitated when he first heard some of these new songs. Sure, he was threatened by the appearance of yet another rival cutting into his songwriting royalties, but he didn’t exactly relate to this high-falutin’ hoo-hah either. While Love and the rest of the band were out on the road selling Brian’s records and adding to HIS royalty checks night after night, Brian was sitting around doing drugs and gettin’ all philosophical with college-boy Asher. “Hang On To Your Ego”? What the hell does THAT mean?!? Personally, I STILL don’t know what it means, 35 years later! The only “sense” I can make of the original lyrics to that song (which Love re-fashioned into what became “I Know There’s An Answer”) is that like most conscientious egomaniacs, Brian was mortified by the size of his own ego, and thus tried to claim that he had his under control, or denied that he had one altogether. The fact that he allowed Mike to re-write these lyrics at all suggest to me that Love called bullshit on his cousin, which is why Brian gave in.

All of the above happened all over again – and then some – a year later when Brian collaborated with a young oddball composer/arranger named Van Dyke Parks on the bulk of the music for what was to be the Beach Boys’ next LP, Smile. By all accounts, Mike Love REALLY balked when he came back from the road to hear what these two drug addled lunatics had been cooking up in his absence. While much of it was inspired and borderline brilliant, these new “songs” were barely songs at all, but rather were endlessly repetitive snippets that neither Brian or Parks were quite sure how to assemble into a workable whole. It’s for this reason that I’m sure Brian wound up shelving the entire project, since the task of editing it down to something presentable was a daunting one indeed. He managed to do so with when he released “Heroes and Villains” into a functional three-and-a-half minute single, but in doing so he had to throw away a lot of great material from what was originally an 11-minute “Heroes & Villains” “theme.” The thought of wrestling with the other dozen or so musical “themes” that he and Parks came up with must have seemed daunting indeed, especially since Brian most likely could no longer always remember what he had in mind when they started recording some of this self-indulgent nonsense in the first place!

And then there were the lyrics. If Pet Sounds was a “departure” for the Beach Boys, Smile was a 180-degree turn. Carl Wilson once accurately described V.D. Parks’ lyrics as “airy fairy,” and Parks has admitted himself that the lyrics he wrote for Smile don’t mean a goddamned thing. He was just “painting with words” as was the mode of the day back in 1967. But unlike the more talented lyricists of that time, his lyrics usually didn’t even do a good job of creating imagery in the listener’s head. At least to me they don’t. They’re all just a bunch of fancy words cobbled together, and it’s up to the music alone to create a feeling or mood. The lyrics were just along for the ride. And this, to Mike “teen poem” Love, was the very antithesis of was a Beach Boys song – or ANY song, for that matter – is supposed to be about.

Another problem with the material Wilson and Parks came up with together for Smile was that it wasn’t rock music AT ALL. As is the case with Parks’ own solo material, much of the musical stylings and instrumentation harkens back to a much earlier era – as far back as the 1890’s, even – with occasional overly ambitious attempts at Aaron Copeland-like pomposity. Brian himself had always been brilliant at taking unconventional instruments (like he did so famously with a cello and theremin on “Good Vibrations”) and turning them into “rock” instruments, but the same cannot be said for the Smile tracks. Here such cornball, old fashioned sounding instruments such as the clarinet and the xylophone are used as they’ve always been used, which is to make corny, old fashioned sounding music.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, of course, only that wasn’t their intention. Their intent was to be “avant garde” and create something new out of the old for The Youth of Today to get into, and on that score they utterly failed. This was also VERY problematic when you’re writing it for an established act like the Beach Boys, who happen to be a ROCK band. Sure, they never were the most rockin’ band around, but their fan base still consisted almost entirely of restless, easily bored teenagers who not surprisingly want to ROCK OUT when they go to a “rock” concert. Could anyone really expect Mike Love to sing this meaningless, cornball, Victorian music without a word of complaint?!?


To listen to Van Dyke Parks talk now, the answer is yes. How DARE Love criticize our legendary, critically acclaimed music? Of course, it wasn’t critically acclaimed by anyone at the time they were making it (though there was plenty of hype surrounding Smile during its creation). At the time his response to Mike Love’s criticisms was to concede everything and then turn and flee, leaving Brian to fend for himself. Maybe the diminutive Parks thought Love was going to beat him up, which may not have been an unreasonable fear. But now that he’s got three decades’ worth equally wimpy Love-hating music critics backing him up he’s not the least bit afraid to tell Love what he REALLY thinks of him! Through the media, that is, not face to face.

The amazing thing is this: Not only DID Mike Love wind up singing this stuff, but he sang it beautifully. As was the case with Pet Sounds before it, these aren’t simple “Barbara Ann”-like singalong songs we’re talking about. They were and remain among the most ambitious and complex vocal arrangements ever heard on a rock record, involving hours and hours of painstaking rehearsals and retakes. I urge anyone who has access to it to listen to Mike Love’s performance on the long version of “Heroes and Villains”: there he is, Mr. Philistine, not only singing these difficult melodies and harmonies and STUPID, PRETENTIOUS lyrics that run counter to his entire belief system, but singing them with style and gusto. And almost all of it wound up on the cutting room floor! The ENTIRE ALBUM wound up on the cutting room floor as a result of some massive drug-fueled paranoid anxiety attack on Brian’s part. All that labor down the drain, just because Brian the Artist suddenly realized that Smile would never sell nearly as well as Sgt. Pepper (which, in spite of all ITS artistic pretensions, was still a “rock” record). So rather than compete with the Beatles, Brian turned his band into irrelevant non-entities in one fell swoop. Way to go, dude! Far from Love and the others standing in the way of Brian’s creativity, they gave him WAY TOO MUCH leeway, thus giving him enough rope to hang himself and the rest of them with him.

I always wondered why the Beach Boys didn’t break up at this point (or why Mike Love didn’t at least strangle his cousin). Yet in every book or article I ever read about them that possibility never even came up. Well, they were family, but rather than jumping ship once the going got rough they seemed to become tighter than ever during the next few years. Love seemed to have become as whacked-out, creatively and otherwise, as his cousins at this point, in that while their next dozen or so records all were fine artistic endeavors to varying degrees, none of them came close to the commercial success that they enjoyed prior to 1967, and Love seemed as clueless as the rest of them when it came to figuring out how to reclaim their success.

By this point the Beach Boys became a democracy as well, rather than simply Brian Wilson and his Puppets. This gave the rest of them a chance to prove themselves as composers and producers – roles that Mike Love usually came up the shortest in, since as I already pointed out he was the least musically proficient. Still, as was the case with their earlier records, many of the most enjoyable songs during this post heyday era are ones that are co-written or sung by Love. I’ll never forget the time I heard “Cool, Cool Water” (from 1970’s brilliant Sunflower LP) being played on some groovy FM radio station at the time it came out. This re-worked Smile outtake is a very spacey, loosely arranged song full of lush, wistful harmonies, but being a non-rocker it only had half my attention at first – that is, until it came to a break where all the music stopped except for Love’s a cappella voice singing:

In an ocean, or
In a glass;
Cool water is
SUCH a gas!

That was it! I was hooked! I mean, of course I was laughing my head off at those hokey lyrics and Love’s twangy voice, but from that moment on that song had my FULL attention! That was also when I decided that I had to start buying their LPs, figuring there had to be more of such whacked out brilliance like “Cool, Cool Water” on them that was worlds away from “I Get Around.” And I was right.

The first LP I bought by them was 1971’s Surf’s Up, which is one of their best – if not THE best LP the Beach Boys ever made. The entire record has a feel to it that is simultaneously soft yet intense; it’s like “soft rock” that keeps you on the edge of your seat! The one song that breaks this mood, however, is “Student Demonstration Time,” which is basically the old rockin’ blues standard “Riot in Cell Block #9” with new “socially relevant” lyrics provided by Mike Love. This song is often looked upon as a black stain on the Beach Boys’ career by most critics and aficionados for two reasons: One is that the lyrics seem to be a too deliberate and seemingly insincere attempt to “get down with the kids” who were protesting the Vietnam War at the time; and the other is because its jarring, raucous-y production is too abrupt a contrast from the rest of the LPs’ carefully constructed “gentle” sound.

Both of these criticisms are totally valid, but they ignore two very important points: One is that the lyrics are pretty funny, and the other is that it’s a great sounding, well-performed rock tune with a terrific, blistering lead guitar! It was my FAVORITE song on the LP when it first came out for that very reason, since it took us all a while to fully appreciate the “quieter” songs on the record. It was like a combination of hard rock and MAD Magazine. What’s NOT for a 13 year old to like?

By the mid-‘70s, nostalgia for the pre-hippie era was in full swing, and the Beach Boys were unable to resist capitalizing on it. Their early hits were selling in the millions all over again, and they suddenly were very much in demand as a concert attraction as well – although it was mostly drunken frat boys and sorority sisters who just wanted to hear “Fun Fun Fun” that was flocking to see them. Mike Love was more than willing to indulge them anyway, and as a result became the whipping boy of their hard-core fans who blame him for the Beach Boys’ “selling out.” Again, this is totally ridiculous. For one thing, The Beach Boys continued to put out occasional LPs of new material, but ever since the release of 1973’s Holland most of these LPs were pretty mediocre, and this was not entirely Mike Love’s fault. In fact, the most embarrassing record of all was 1977’s The Beach Boys Love You LP, which was almost entirely written by a supposedly rejuvenated Brian Wilson.

Love You is a bizarre and occasionally (though seemingly unintentionally) hilarious LP. It’s also a piece of shit. Its production level is that of a sloppy demo (which indeed is what it was), and the singing and harmonizing on it is atrocious. Thus the two qualities that one could always expect from a Beach Boys record – beautiful singing and flawless production standards – are completely lacking on this thing, which makes me wonder why it was ever released in the first place. The reason it WAS released was mainly to serve as “therapy” for Brian Wilson, sadly. Brian had become a mental and physical wreck by this point, so “drastic measures” were being employed by his family and therapist to get him back in the swing of things. Plus the band hoped that their newfound popularity would fuel Brian’s confidence, and that having him back in the saddle might help them find their old gold record magic all over again. A win-win situation for all concerned! But MAN, they could not have been more wrong.

So once again Mike Love found himself indulging his crazy cousin, pouring his heart into odes to Johnny Carson – JOHNNY CARSON, f’r Godsake! – in the misguided hope that this was all for the best for some reason that doesn’t even make sense anymore. It was Smile all over again, only they weren’t even making GOOD music by anyone’s standards this time! These new lyrics – written mostly by Brian himself – were retarded, as in TOTALLY retarded, like an actual mentally retarded person wrote them: “If Mars has life on it, I might find my wife on it…” And Brian’s own singing in particular sounded horrible. At this point Brian had become ashamed of his formally inimitable choirboy voice, and deliberately ruined it in a horrifically misguided attempt to sound like Randy Newman, of all people. The end result was nothing short of a musical tragedy.

But Love went along with all of it anyway. They all did. Who knows what any of them was thinking at this point. Maybe he even LIKED this new music they were making! I’ve never heard him claim otherwise. Like I said before, they’re all a bunch of obsessive/compulsive crazy people. Once they start heading in a certain direction they don’t seem to be able to stop. What I find so odd, though, is how Love can be saddled with this sell-out/philistine reputation when at the same time he can take a willing part in such hopelessly non-commercial pieces of insanity as The Beach Boys Love You.

Mike Love Haters are also usually the same people who claim to love The Beach Boys Love You, which not surprisingly has become a “cult classic” along the lines of The Shaggs. I’m highly suspicious of people who claim to love this record, though. It’s Brian at his lowest, for one thing. I feel like I’m examining his hemorrhoids when I listen to it. And like I said before, it’s the antithesis of everything that made the best of the Beach Boys’ music so amazing. Even at face value this record is an amusing novelty at best, and in the context of what they were capable of making it’s a travesty. My gut reaction to anyone who claims to love The Beach Boys Love You is that deep down they still hate the Beach Boys.

During more recent days Mike Love has had several episodes that have helped seal his reputation as a butthead: His cringe-inducing tantrum of an acceptance speech at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame (though hearing someone rag on his peers rather than kiss their asses made for an entertaining change of pace); his lawsuit against Brian Wilson over a greater share of past songwriting credits (which may have been a simple act of greed, but his case couldn’t have been entirely groundless since he did in fact win); and the recent and highly rated TV docudrama about the band’s history, which many people feel was “orchestrated” by Love, and thus showed him in a better light than he deserved. He also recently sued Al Jardine – who he’s been estranged from since Carl’s death – for touring under the name “Beach Boys Family and Friends,” since he claims sole right to the Beach Boys name – this in spite of the fact that he’s the only original Beach Boy left in the “official” version of the band. Like I said before, I cannot deny that the guy sounds like a king-sized ass. Yet in classic crazy Beach Boys fashion, Brian joined Love in the suit against Jardine – this in spite of the fact that Brian’s own daughters, Wendy and Carnie, were part of Jardine’s touring troupe (thus constituting the “family” in the “Family and Friends” moniker)! So again I have to wonder how anyone can easily define either of these two as the “good guy” and the “bad guy.” They just sound like a couple of nuts to me!

Mike Love is one of my all time favorite singers. He’s an EXCELLENT singer! To criticize him for not having as much range as his band mates is insanely unfair, since NOBODY had the range that Brian, Carl or even Al Jardine had in their prime (and this criticism often comes from the same people who will praise people like Lou Reed or Bob Dylan or Neil Young to the high heavens, totally ignoring the fact that none of them can barely carry a tune). Yet for all of their range the other Beach Boys’ voices don’t communicate quite as directly as Love’s does. The rest of them sang almost TOO well, in that they oftentimes sounded too angelic and not quite human. Love’s nasally, almost Hank Williams/C&W vocal style added a casual, cozier HUMAN touch to the Beach Boys sound. It provided a perfect contrast to the other member’s lead vocals – the songs where he shares the lead with Brian or Carl are always the most quintessentially “Beach Boys” sounding of the Beach Boys’ recordings – while adding a much needed ballast to their harmonies.

As I said before, Love is also a natural born salesman, and this comes through in his singing delivery as well. He always sounds like he’s standing right next to me, talking right into my ear when I hear him singing. His voice jumps out of the radio or record player and gets RIGHT IN YOUR FACE, but never in some screechy, obnoxious, punk rock way, since that wouldn’t be good salesmanship. Instead he cajoles you into wanting to JOIN him on whatever new fun trip or fad he’s into, and in fact his voice has convinced many to move to California, to take up surfing and/or practice TM – as well as buy millions of Beach Boys records. So it’s no coincidence that most of their biggest and most played hits are sung or co-sung by Mike Love. Even their biggest post-1960s hit, “Kokomo,” was co-written and sung by him, without Brian Wilson being anywhere in sight. And yeah, I know, you hate that song because you’re a smarty-pants hipster and that song is way too square for you, and you still associate it with the Tom Cruise vehicle that it was featured in. But my point is that a lot of people did like it, which goes to show that Love’s voice has as much to do with the Beach Boys’ success as Brian’s musical genius.

I sometimes wonder what the Beach Boys would have been like if it were only the three Wilson Brothers and no one else. After all, they were the guitar/bass/drums nucleus of the group, and their sibling harmonies would certainly have sounded fantastic. Plus Brian, Carl and Dennis are the three members that most hardcore Beach Boys fans idolize and romanticize to an almost absurd degree, since they allegedly were the ones with “soul” and “artistic integrity.” So I’m sure that many of them must have fantasized of this Wilsons-only scenario with heavy “if only” sighs.

I don’t think it would have ever worked, though. For one thing, Brian and Dennis were notorious fuck-ups, and being the youngest I doubt that Carl would have had much luck keeping them in line. Plus Carl and Dennis’ own musical sensibilities tend to be rather unremarkable and pedestrian as witnessed by their own solo records (Beach Boys fans tend to greatly overrate Dennis’ songwriting abilities – he’s had his moments, but most of his compositions were insufferably maudlin, plodding ballads), while Brian could be terribly stubborn and self-indulgent when left to his own devices. They all WANTED fame and fortune, and had the talent to achieve it, but they lacked the focus and discipline that their cousin had. They all knew it too, or they would have kicked Mike Love out of the band ages ago. It was three against one, and Dennis in particular couldn’t stand Mike, though Dennis hardly had the authority to kick out anybody. Yet if Carl was able to kick his own brother BRIAN out of the band (which he actually did at one point) he certainly could have given Love the heave-ho at anytime, but he never came close to doing so. He knew which side his bread was buttered on.

Talent is useless without content and context, and Mike Love always provided Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys with both. For 20 odd years Brian would often hook up with other collaborators (or “new best friends” as author Steven Gaines dubbed them), and produced great work with many of them, but he always would go back to working with his cousin. The concept of the Beach Boys was Brian and Mike’s to begin with, and it provided all these other collaborators with a context to work with and bounce off of. Plus Mike and Brian were the same age, and both grew up in the same grim suburb in the same psychotic, dysfunctional family, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the “purest” Beach Boy songs were always the ones the wrote together.

Love it or hate it, the Beach Boys represent an enduring image. They’re an ICON, and icons are rarely created by accident. Somebody had to both think of it and BELIEVE in it first. Brian gave the band their substance, but Mike was the one with the almost single-minded vision of what the Beach Boys stood for, and continues to keep that image alive in spite of everything. For Brian, the Beach Boys were just a vehicle for his music, but for Mike Love the Beach Boys were – and are – Everything.