The Beach Boys' Last Wave

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The subject is dropped, and Wilson leans back, looking worn out by the effort to convince his cousin of the value of songs that may not be as well known as "Surfin' Safari" but that show the evolution of the Beach Boys beyond their teenage hits. This argument dates back to at least 1965, when Wilson began to write personal, adventurous music for the monumental Pet Sounds, while Love preferred to keep cranking out two-and-a-half-minute surf hits. When Wilson set off into avant-garde terrain the following year with Smile, Love disliked the abstract lyrics, which he described to me as "acid alliteration." Wilson has said that Love's disdain is one reason he abandoned Smile, though Love denies this.

"Mike's an entertainer," says Foskett. "Brian is an artist. There's room for both, but it's a fundamental difference, and pretty hard to reconcile."

The issue of the set list has caused friction on the tour so far. Love, who licenses the Beach Boys name for 125-plus shows a year with his own band (which also features Bruce Johnston), prefers fast-paced sets packed with early-Sixties hits and covers. Wilson, for the past 14 years, has toured with a 10-piece band that delivers luxurious arrangements of Beach Boys hits and gems resurrected from deep in his catalog.

"The set list is the script of the play," says Wilson's horn player, Paul Von Mertens, the co-musical director on the Beach Boys tour (along with Scott Totten, from Love's band). "So the question is, what story do we want to tell?

"It could be a lot worse," he adds. "Just that we're all onstage together is a miracle. It's a tentative peace that's been worked out, and no one wants to upset the balance, or risk everything falling apart."

"It's tricky," Love tells me. "Brian's been doing his tours the way he wants to for many years. And I've been doing the same thing. I have always felt that people come to see you on the basis of what songs you're known for. I would never think of not doing our biggest hits. That would be foreign to my way of thinking."

Wilson shrugs when I ask him about his vision for the Beach Boys tour. "I'd like to scare people a little."

Last May, the Beach Boys got together at Capitol Studios to test the waters for a 50th-anniversary reunion. The objective that day was to remake "Do It Again," a 1968 single that itself was a throwback to the group's early sound. But Wilson had something else in mind, too – so he asked the Beach Boys to gather around the piano to sing some new music he'd been working on. "None of them knew what he was doing," says Joe Thomas, a longtime Wilson collaborator, who was enlisted to help bring the reunion together. But Wilson kept on – "C'mon, guys, let's go."

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beach Boys

"When he first started playing the chord progressions," Love remembers, "I was standing there, thinking, ‘Wow, that's cool, that's a certain type of Brian Wilson chord change.' I thought, ‘Shit – he's got all his talents intact.' "

Then Wilson began to call out instructions for the vocals – "layering in our voices," says Jardine. "Somehow he had worked out this entire arrangement in his head. He knew each person's range, and just stacked one voice on top of the other."

An hour later, the Beach Boys had cut their first new track together since 1985, "Think About the Days," which appears as the hymnlike opening to the new album, That's Why God Made the Radio. "I thought it would be cool to show we've still got something special up our sleeve," Wilson says. "And the guys came through for me."

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