Spearheaded by Brian Wilson back at the helm, the Beach Boys temporarily enjoyed a long-awaited artistic renaissance in 2012 with That’s Why God Made the Radio, their first album of all original material since the pretty dire, Mike Love-sanctioned Summer in Paradise 20 years previously. The title cut of Radio, awash in strong harmonies and tasteful retro sunshine pop, was unleashed as the debut single, charted Top 30 Adult Contemporary, and was chosen the 30th best song of the year by Rolling Stone.
Although self-taught, open-handed, untamed rock drummer Dennis Wilson and baby brother, lead guitarist, and calming studio wiz Carl were long since deceased, the group conquered 73 sold-out amphitheaters and festivals worldwide before frontman Mike Love controversially quashed the 50th Reunion Tour in a letter sent to The LA Times.
Wordsmith Jon Stebbins has admired America’s Band going back to 1963 when he was a five-year-old kid coming of age in the East San Francisco Bay Area. Hearing “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ USA” excitedly roar out of his big sister’s AM radio speakers transfixed the future Beach Boys chronicler, accountable for penning Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy, The Lost Beach Boy: The True Story of Beach Boy David Marks, The Beach Boys FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About America’s Band, and The Beach Boys in Concert! The Complete History of America’s Band on Tour and on Stage with Ian Rusten.
As Stebbins candidly affirms in an insightful interview dropping below, the Beach Boys have experienced more highs and lows than probably any other musical band of brothers. Hang tight as Stebbins examines why 1964’s All Summer Long remains his favorite Beach Boys album, dispels the notion that Dennis didn’t keep time on the group’s sessions, recalls seeing them play to 50,000 salivating fans at the Day on the Green show, defends the masterpiece that is Pacific Ocean Blue, and what went down when he saw Dennis sitting alone on a picnic style bench near a frozen ice cream stand.
The Jon Stebbins / Beach Boys Interview
What prompted your Beach Boys journey?
I became a Beach Boys fan very early in life. I grew up in the East San Francisco Bay Area in a town called Livermore. My sisters were teenagers in the ’60s, and although I was only five years old in 1963, I distinctly remember hearing the Beach Boys on the AM radio — “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ USA” — and being really excited when my older sister brought home the brand new Surfin’ U.S.A. LP.
That album became a daily ritual in our home, and I felt a strong connection to the faces on the back cover. The Beach Boys were the coolest thing around, yet things changed after we saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show the following year. We fell into intense Beatlemania in my home and got a bunch of Beatles’ records, and other British Invasion albums, too.
Nevertheless, the Beach Boys remained in our household mix. My family purchased All Summer Long and the Beach Boys Concert LPs [both 1964] and played them to death. I was in love with the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Animals, etc…but the Beach Boys always seemed like the home team to me.
They were singing about my California culture as opposed to something exotic and foreign. All Summer Long is still my favorite Beach Boys LP. Although my devotion as a fan has ebbed and flowed — I doubt there is another band who had so many highs and lows over such a long period — I’ve been a Beach Boys fan at my core from age five.
Why is All Summer Long still your favorite Beach Boys’ album?
All Summer Long evokes the feeling of a summer in California in a way that lets you access it again and again every time you put the record on. For 1964 it was a masterpiece of progression [e.g. “I Get Around”, “Little Honda” and Girls on the Beach”] tinged with nostalgia [“All Summer Long” and “Do You Remember?” There is a joyous vibe that is tempered with melancholy.
The Beach Boys were still a garage band playing most of the instruments, but the production and vocal arrangements were getting more sophisticated. Tracks like “Hushabye” and “We’ll Run Away” feature some of Brian and the group’s best vocals.
The album represents Brian on the cusp of greatness, with all of the potential for greater things still ahead of him. All Summer Long is a golden moment, and the quintessential Beach Boys album in my opinion.
How did the myth get started that the Beach Boys didn’t play on the majority of their sessions?
I think the myth came about when writers like David Leaf wanted to give Brian major credit for creating things like Pet Sounds independently of the Beach Boys. Somehow that was conflated into a perception that the Beach Boys barely played instruments on any of their classic records, and especially that Dennis Wilson was replaced by ace session drummer Hal Blaine on nearly everything.
The truth is the Beach Boys, including Dennis, played the instruments on the majority of their albums and singles, far more than the Wrecking Crew. That said, the Wrecking Crew did play on many Beach Boys classics [e.g. “Help Me Rhonda”, “California Girls”, and “Good Vibrations”].
However, Pet Sounds is really the only Beach Boys album that is nearly 100% Wrecking Crew with little Beach Boys participation on the instruments. Prior to that, the Beach Boys played a major musical role in the studio on every album.
On projects like All Summer Long and Shut Down Volume 2 , it’s still mostly all them, with a few selections either augmented or played by the Wrecking Crew. Before that it’s 99% Beach Boys.
When did you first see the group in concert?
I first saw the Beach Boys in May 1975 at the Oakland Coliseum in California with Chicago. To be quite honest, I’d partied a bit too much that day to have any clear recollection of it.
Fortunately, the Day on the Green show in Oakland — June 2, 1976, presented by legendary rock promoter Bill Graham — really stands out in my mind. Fifty thousand fans were dancing and singing along for hours. Plus, it was perfect weather, and the group looked and sounded fantastic.
That was the first time Brian was on stage with them in many years. He came out on about the fourth or fifth song and sat behind a piano and played along. I had no idea he was going to be there…he just kind of appeared. It was truly a spine tingling thing to witness.
I saw them again in December 1976 at the Oakland Arena…that was a great show. Brian played bass, and Dennis sang “You Are So Beautiful”. The next time was summer ’78, and then in L.A. at the Universal Amphitheatre in ’79 with Mike Love and Dennis fighting on stage.
I haven’t seen them that often compared to a lot of fans — maybe 15 times. Once Dennis was dead , I wasn’t that interested. I’ve seen Brian solo about 12 times or more. I’ve seen Al Jardine’s band a few times, Mike and Bruce’s band once, and I’ve seen Dave Marks many times. I’m a guitarist, so I’ve even performed with Dave a couple of times — once with Dave, me, and Jeff Foskett. I can’t tell you what a mind-blower that was for me. The 50th Reunion Tour in 2012 was really fantastic — the New Orleans Jazz Fest and Hollywood Bowl being the highlights for me among the four or five times I saw them that year. The reunion shows were far superior in both performance and energy. I wish they had kept it going.
What part of Dennis’s persona hooked you?
I always liked Dennis’s persona — the surfer and wild drummer with long hair. I thought he was the coolest Beach Boy immediately back in 1963, and I never stopped thinking that. But the big surprise came in 1977 when Pacific Ocean Blue came out, and it just blew away anything the Beach Boys had done in years.
Come to think of it, the first time I was truly disappointed in the Beach Boys was hearing some of the material on 15 Big Ones . The singing was very rough, and to that point they’d never released a record where the singing was not at a very high standard.
Dennis was so far ahead of where his band mates were at the time — 15 Big Ones, Love You, and MIU. The production and arrangements on POB are very ambitious and mature. While Love You is a highly original and quirky record, its presentation is amateurish compared to POB.
Dennis’s performances on songs such as “River Song” and “Moonshine” sound like where Brian might have gone had he kept his confidence, and kept experiencing the world instead of staying in bed. I consider POB to be one of the top 5 or 6 Beach Boys’ records, period.
When did you meet Dennis?
I moved to L.A. in summer 1978 at age 20 to pursue my own musical endeavors. I had a band called the Point, and we made some indie records and played around Southern California. Being in L.A. was great because you would literally just run into these guys around town. I met Brian in ‘79…Mike and Bruce Johnston, too.
But I met Dennis in September ’78 in Westwood Village. My roommate — and band mate — knew I was a Dennis Wilson freak. I had sealed copies of POB that I used to give to people just to turn them on to Dennis’s work. I was a big, big fan of that record.
One day my roommate saw Dennis bringing his sons to a video arcade that was near where my friend worked in Westwood. Our apartment was just a few minutes away by car, so my friend jumped in his car and came running into our apartment, yelling “Come with me quick — Dennis is in Westwood!”
So I dropped everything and jumped in the car — with no shoes on. He drove me to where he’d seen Dennis and dropped me off. I turned around and there he was — sitting alone — on a picnic style bench near a frozen yogurt / ice cream stand.
I just walked up and introduced myself. I didn’t mention the Beach Boys, but I said I was a big fan of his solo album and asked if he was going to do another one. He told me he’d just finished it [Author’s Note: Widely bootlegged with unfinished sounding masters, Bambu remained officially unreleased for 30 years. When remixed and released as part of the 2008 Sony Legacy reissue of Pacific Ocean Blue, it was met with critical acclaim and impressive sales].
Anyway, this is a long story, but the bottom line is that Dennis was kind enough to sit and chat with me for quite a long time. He treated me like a person, and not like an annoying fan. He asked me about my music as much as I asked him about his.
It was a special day, and a conversation that continued to have meaning for me for many years. It still does today, and obviously it led indirectly to some interesting things for me. I’ll never forget the now famous Dennis quote that originally appeared in my book, Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy, and was subsequently used to promote the reissue of Pacific Ocean Blue — “Everything that I am or will ever be is in the music. If you want to know me, just listen.”
Like heat from a blast furnace: The sheer raw force of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson
It is tough to reconcile Dennis Wilson no longer being among the living. The heart and soul of the Beach Boys emerged…
Surf’s up on Al Jardine’s bombshell ‘SMiLE’ revelation
Read Beach Boy Al Jardine’s bombshell “SMiLE” announcement plus a revealing history of arguably the greatest lost…
Persistence pays off: Beach Boy Al Jardine spills the beans on ‘A Postcard from California’ and…
Founding Beach Boy Al Jardine delves into debut solo album A Postcard from California, tracking vocals at Big Sur with…
The Beach Boys’ misunderstood 1972 rock opus, ‘Carl and the Passions — So Tough’
“I need a breeze blowing softly, to keep my wind vane from standing, I need a whole lot of sunshine, to keep my sundial…
I can hear music: The Beach Boys lowdown with passionate wordsmith Mike Eder
Learn all about Brian Wilson and “SMiLE’s” demise, Mike Love’s ego, emotion-wallowing drummer Dennis Wilson and the…
‘The Beach Boys in Concert’ — The complete lowdown on the band’s legendary voyage
Released in the aftermath of the Beach Boys’ critically lauded 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour, The Beach Boys in Concert…
The Beach Boys clobber Chicago— Backstage with band expert Mike Eder
Beach Boys historian Mike Eder is interviewed about the group’s sold-out Chicago show during their acclaimed 50th…
The complete songwriting list of ‘Wichita Lineman’ Glen Campbell
A 55-year recording session cat posthumously nominated in 2017 for a Grammy Award for Best American Roots Performance…
The ultimate list of Rick Nelson’s songwriting chops
Second only to Elvis Presley during rock ’n’ roll’s ’50s pinnacle, Rick Nelson ultimately stockpiled 52 singles on…
© Jeremy Roberts, 2012, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email email@example.com and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.