LOS ANGELES — The sands of time can be cruel, sure, but sometimes they settle for wryly ironic. After years apart, the three surviving founding members of the Beach Boys will launch a 50-date, 50th anniversary tour in April and at every show they will ask the musical question, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?”
“It is weird,” said Mike Love, who turns 71 next month, about singing those young man’s lines from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” “We do another one, ‘When I Grow up to Be a Man’ — the opening is incredible, it’s got fantastic harmonies — but yeah, it’s written from the point of a young guy looking to the future and here we are, very much in that future.”
For anyone who’s followed the riptide history of the Beach Boys, this is a future that seemed very unlikely; after years of feuds and legal filings — most notably by Love, who sued to get his share of royalties — who would have expected Love, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine to be in harmony again? The trio are joined by two other longtime members, Bruce Johnston and David Marks, for the golden anniversary tour, which includes a June 2 stop at the Hollywood Bowl, a booking that is sand-packed with Southern California music history.
More than that, the reconstituted Beach Boys have also been in the studio at Ocean Way Recording on Sunset Boulevard — a site that was called United Western Recorders back when they recorded much of “Pet Sounds” there — and say that they are about halfway through a new album.
“We just had to make our minds up to do it,” Wilson said. “It’s a thrill, I like being with the guys. I didn’t see them for a long, long time and then I’ve been seeing them recently because we’re getting ready for our tour.”
The world got a glimpse of the new old group Feb. 12 at the 54th annual Grammy Awards, and the performance was a reminder that Wilson has an air of fragility around him and — despite his undisputed stature as sonic genius — his stage capabilities are limited, to say the least.
That may not matter much. The music of the Beach Boys is so soaked with nostalgia and affection that many fans will go to concerts just so they can sing the old songs. Gary Bongiovanni of Pollstar, the concert industry trade publication, said after years of knockoff tours (by groups that used the name but usually had only one Beach Boy member on stage) this real-deal edition of the group has sunny prospects.
“In many ways this is the group’s first real tour in decades,” Bongiovanni said. “This tour should be very successful if they don’t get too greedy with the ticket price. Their Grammy appearance did put the band back in front of the public but it’s hard to tell if anyone was put off by the obvious lip-synching.”
The group (and Grammy producers) stridently deny that there was any canned component of the performance but, even so, more than a few critics said the graybeard act was creaky or lethargic.
Johnston knows that when audiences are paying for tickets, the group will have to live up to its own legend.
“I never hoped for (a reunion), because I never thought any of us wanted to do it,” the 69-year-old Johnston said at rehearsals for the awards show. “We have probably, you know, the presidential honeymoon of six months but then we have to show something to keep it going. We have to make sure we have a great flowing song list but also make sure we don’t sound like a greatest-hits band. We have a lot to balance.”
On a more recent afternoon at Ocean Way, the group was the picture of loose-limbed relaxation — although that didn’t apply to Wilson, who was aching from a procedure on his bad back and was forced to skip the day’s sessions. Without him, Love was working intently on lyrics while the other three members talked about the old days — and that Hollywood Bowl date that each has circled on their calendars.
“Right over there is where Jan & Dean did all their stuff, in the next studio,” Johnston said with a nod. Marks added: “I remember I wandered over here one day and I saw Rick Nelson in the studio and I was so jazzed to see him.”
Jardine and Marks tried to piece together a quick mental scrapbook of the Beach Boys shows at the Hollywood Bowl through the decades. There was the 1962 show, for instance, with the Fairmont Singers, Shelley Fabares, Soupy Sales, and then the 1965 bill with the Byrds, Sonny & Cher and the Righteous Brothers.
“The first time we played there was in 1962,” said Marks, who joined early enough to play on “Surfin’ Safari,” the group’s debut album. “Debbie Reynolds was there and she sang. She went nuts and jumped into the pool in front of the stage. She had an acoustic guitar and she started smashing it, too. She invented the Who’s thing before the Who.”
All the members shrug off or sidestep questions about past acrimony. Love said that much of the perceived animus was a projection from outside.
The members are far more interested in talking about the tour ahead and their spot at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band are on the bill, too.
“I’d like to reach back into the catalog a ways and go back to ‘Lonely Sea’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter’ and esoteric things that people haven’t heard in a long time or ever,” Jardine said. “That would be lovely. “
Two members of the band’s original lineup — drummer Dennis Wilson and singer-guitarist Carl Wilson — died in 1983 and 1998, respectively. Jardine recently found a track that Carl Wilson had sung, a bridge he had recorded. It’s going to be included on the new album in a song called “Waves of Love.”
“So Carl’s voice will be on the new album,” Jardine said with a sad smile. “I wish there was a way to get Dennis on there, too.”
Nothing draws the old circle closer together than a question about Wilson and his general well-being. Everyone around Wilson is protective of him and there’s a touch of reverence in each of their voices when they talk about his musical gifts.
“There’s no one in the history of modern pop music that is any better than my cousin Brian in terms of structuring harmonies,” says Love. “Just in the studio the last week or so, you can hear it in these chord progressions and the chord changes and so on. It’s remarkable. There are many great artists and great singers and great players but it’s the Beach Boys’ harmonies that made us what we were and what we are.”