The Beach Boys were in the middle of a major comeback when they hit the road in the summer of 1976 to promote their new album, 15 Big Ones. Earlier in the decade they were struggling to fill theaters and seemed hopelessly passé, but the huge success of American Graffiti in 1973 and stadium reunion tours by CSNY and Bob Dylan with the Band the following years showed that 1960s nostalgia could be extremely lucrative when presented in the right way.
Kicking off the Beach Boys comeback was the greatest hits double LP Endless Summer, which hit shelves in June of 1974. Richard Nixon was two months away from resigning and the country was in a deep funk, so millions of people were delighted to relive their carefree youth by putting “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “I Get Around” on their turntables. The album shot to Number One and Beach Boys tickets began selling like crazy. The group responded by putting together a new backing band and devoting nearly its entire show to 1960s classics.
The Beach Boys played a staggering amount of concerts in 1974 and 1975, but by 1976 they knew it was time to actually cut a new album. Manager Steve Love came up with the idea of a “Brian’s Back” campaign where the long-absent Beach Boy would produce the disc and join the group on tour for the first time in over a decade. It was the best way to maximize attention for the project, even though Wilson was 250 pounds and battling severe addiction and mental health issues.
He was placed under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy and coaxed into the studio, which caused no small degree of turmoil in a band that had grown used to operating in his absence. This also wasn’t the Wilson of 1966 and he had virtually no new songs or a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish, so they ultimately decided to concentrate on cover songs like Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” and the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.” The handful of Beach Boys originals like “That Same Song” and “Susie Cincinnati” were, to be charitable, underwhelming.
This all took place just as Saturday Night Love was becoming a major cultural force, and creator Lorne Michaels was a huge fan of the group. He got NBC to air a special called The Beach Boys: It’s OK in November that would mix live concert clips with comedy segments like Dennis Wilson judging a beauty pageant and Mike Love on an airplane. The highlight was an amazing bit where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd dress up like the “Surf Police” and march into Brian’s bedroom, telling him that he’s in violation of the “Catch A Wave Statute” and he has no choice but to go surfing.
The scene switches to a Trancas, California, beach where Brian is forced into the water, still wearing his robe, and somehow manages to not drown while attempting to surf. The joke, of course, is that the author of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” had never actually been surfing. “He was not happy about it,” Michaels told Rolling Stone in 2006. “It was almost a baptism.”
Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz was on the beach at the time and captured the amazing image that appeared on the cover of a November 1976 issue. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Wilson said he could vividly recall the photo shoot. “I was saying to myself, ‘God, I hope I can keep this robe on so nobody can see my belly!'” he said. “I was very self-conscious about my weight. When you look at this [cover], my belly doesn’t look that big because I have the robe on, but believe me, it’s big!”