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Beach Boys: A California Saga

The surfin' boys of summer try to figure it all out

October 28, 1971
The Beach Boys on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The Beach Boys on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

Brian began murmuring . . . "World Climatic Regions . . . Face of the Moon . . . Geodetic Satellites. What does geodetic mean? Of the earth? Of the earth, it must be, it must be the relation of the earth to the satellites, that's right." He was like a man trying to fight his way out of a pocket of time. "Is there any part of the earth that never has any sun?"

Part One: Mr. Everything

I'm not a genius, I'm just a hardworking guy.
Brian Wilson

The night I saw Bergman's Skamen was the night I decided to try out the Radiant Radish. It had just opened a few days before in West Hollywood and was purveying health foods right across the street from the Black Rabbit Inn. The movie had left me shaken; perhaps the little store wasn't as surreal as it seemed. It certainly seemed surreal. At eleven o'clock at night there was no overhead lighting; the only illumination came from fluorescent tubes in the food bins. The only other person in the store was the counter man, the owner, Magic Christian Brian Wilson.

I handed him a bottle of Vitamin B-12 I wanted to buy. He said, "What you want is a B-complex."

He ran his fingers over the rows of bottles, seeking just the right supplement. "Did you get a call for B-12?"

"A call?"

"From your doctor. If you got a call –"

"No."

"Well, now, unless there's a call, we – you can't –" He would not sell me any B-12.

* * *

Producer Nick Venet speaks of his association with the group, beginning with Surfin' U.S.A.

"I signed them to Capitol Records. It was a master purchase. They brought the first record ready-made. They had a minor release earlier on an independent label, a local chart record, I think it was 'Surfin'.' The father had brought a master of the second record. He wanted to make a new deal. He wanted to sell the master and was asking $100, a small royalty. He didn't want very much . . . a very humble man.

"I was the only person at the label under 62. He played me the record and it was really good. Probably the best record I heard that year. Sensation. They produced it, Brian and the guys, and it was a-fucking-terrific.

"We bought the master. Gave him $300 for it and made him a good royalty deal. He wanted to give us the publishing and I had to advise them to open a small company with the boys, with the group, split it between them and keep the publishing.

"The day the record came out it was a hit. I think it broke in Phoenix, Arizona. California had put it off, in fact some of the people in California had put it down. The record just broke all kinds of sales records in New York City and everything for us that year. The Beach Boys became very important.

"Brian had all the odds against him ever having more than two hit records. Brian was a square peg in a round hole. Brian was five years too early with his business thinking, with his creative thinking, and yet he made it. But he suffered for it. And I'm sure he's paying for it today."

Suffered how?

"Brian bled a lot for demanding changes. It cost him more money to make records. See, the company used to absorb the cost if you used their magic studios. Brian had to pay for his studios.

"He was one of the first acts on a major label to bust out of the major label syndrome of coming into their studios at their appointed hours and using their facilities – good, bad or indifferent – at their union scales and their hours, changing engineers for dinner breaks, banana breaks, pee breaks, all that bullshit; he's the first one to be allowed to go outside. That's a pretty heavy trip for a kid of his age.

"Brian Wilson liberated California for producers and musicians. New York was the center for recording. Brian Wilson – and a lot of people may not agree with this, if they don't they're full of shit – Brian Wilson brought a lot of action to California for young producers and young musicians. He used guys who were not the A-line. Guys that are being called studio cats today at that time were young guys; Brian Wilson used them extensively, and they became heavy studio cats.

"He also was the first guy to do it until it was right. He damned everyone till it was right and then he gave them the record; he took his chances. A lot of us would get chicken after four hours and say, 'We'd better get off the tune.' Brian would hang in there for nine hours, no matter what the cost. I used to think he was crazy, but he was right. Brian was tough to work with. Brian really demanded.

"Do you realize that 70 percent of the jingles you hear on the air and on TV evolved from Brian Wilson's records? Think about all the ads, from Coca-Cola to Seven-Up; from Thom McCann to some bank in Cleveland. Before they used to have that chick do her be-bop-a-do-wah in the air at the end of each commercial, with the guys who weren't traveling that week with Stan Kenton doing the background. Even on Top 40 radio, they had those pseudo-jazz changes in the station tags. Brian Wilson's records changed all that. Check out those jingles. They come off of Beach Boys riffs.

"Brian was making music in those days, he wasn't making speeches, and it was OK, because no one was using words then. A reflection of last Saturday, that's what his music was on the Coast. It was honest. It was for all time.

"You really can't pull an individual record. Even 'Good Vibrations' is an evolution of 'Surfin' U.S.A.'

"If Brian had started today — I think the record industry is more equipped to handle a Brian Wilson, set up a life style for him so that he could live and work without ever worrying about going broke. In those days they really didn't care where the fuck you were going. If you had a hit record and wanted to spend all your money, fine, because the law of averages was you weren't to have one tomorrow.

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Song Stories

“Nightshift”

The Commodores | 1984

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