Bruce Johnston and Mike Love, front center, and the Beach Boys will perform at the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24.
The Beach Boys catch a wave to BinghamtonTweet
Bruce Johnston has his theories why the music of the Beach Boys has been loved by fans of all ages for the past half-century.
“It’s why people go to Disney World: It’s fantasy, it’s clean, it’s safe, it’s interesting and it’s innovative,” said Johnston, who has been a member of the group since 1965. “For grandparents exposing their grandchildren to the Beach Boys, the only four-letter words used are girl, surf and cars.”
Fifty years after forming in Hawthorne, Calif., the Beach Boys are still cruisin’ across the United States. The group, now featuring original member Mike Love and Johnston, will perform at the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24. Lawn tickets ($30) are still available (Call 777-ARTS or go to binghamton.edu/anderson-center).
The songs performed by Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, Love, Johnston and Al Jardine are part of one of the most impressive catalogs in rock history. The band has had 56 Top 100 records, including 15 Top 10 records, such as “Surfin’ U.S.A.”; “I Get Around”; “Fun, Fun, Fun”; “California Girls”; “Help Me Rhonda”; “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”; “God Only Knows”; “Good Vibrations” and “Kokomo.”
The setlist changes for each concert, Johnston said, as the group will go deep into the catalog and pull out songs such as “Ballad of Ole Betsy” from 1963’s Little Deuce Coupe album and “Kiss Me, Baby” from 1965’s Beach Boys Today! to go with the hits.
“It’s a different setlist every night because we play in so many different configurations,” said Johnston, who recalled the Beach Boys rehearsing at a Binghamton high school in the early 1970s for a New York City show. “The nights before we see you, we’ll have played in tents up in New England. So we make it a little younger in the afternoon because kids are there. The next place, we may make it a little older.
“It’s an impressive setlist because of a guy named Brian Wilson writing with (lyricists) Mike Love, Tony Asher and Roger Christian. I think that’s why it is so impressive.”
The Beach Boys’ current tour has taken the group from coast to coast and to countries such as Great Britain, Spain and Ireland. The traditional tour comes at a time when many of the Beach Boys’ peers – and even much younger acts – are residing in Las Vegas and Branson, Missouri.
“Mike Love and I never got involved with drugs,” Johnston said. “Neither did Al Jardine. When you are healthy all of your life, this is easy to do. The longer we do it, it goes from walking to jogging to running. Your voice gets stronger. I don’t get tired out.
“We are like my dog. My dog is 18 years old and no dogs live that long. But he doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t realize that when he’s in the yard he is doing isometric exercises! We just go out and do our thing.”
Brian Wilson and Jardine tour with their own groups, and Dennis and Carl Wilson have both passed away (1983 and 1998, respectively). Love and Johnston are now joined by Love’s son, Christian, John Cowsill (formerly of the successful family group The Cowsills), Scott Totten, Randall Kirsch and Tim Bonhomme. The current group has drawn praise from fans for its musicianship and harmonies.
“We’ve had a lot of great people in the band besides the original members,” Johnston said. “They are able to keep the standard of vocals up to the recordings. In the Beach Boys, every part is an exact part. It’s like cheerleaders having a pyramid. If someone falls down, the whole pyramid collapses. You have to be on the money (vocally). You can’t deviate from the part.”
Johnston should know. He has been providing vocals – along with work on keyboards and bass – since being asked to join the group in April 1965, when Brian Wilson took a break from touring.
But Johnston’s musical career actually began as a teenager in California, where he worked with Phil Spector and even played in Ritchie Valens’ backup band.
“The last time I saw Ritchie Valens, he said, ‘Bruce, I just recorded a song about my girlfriend (“Donna”) and I recorded the Mexican wedding song (“La Bamba”).’ I was already at the advanced age of 16!”
Johnston then became a producer and an integral part of the surf-music phenomenon popularized by the Beach Boys. In 1963, he sang on and produced “Hey Little Cobra”, a Top 5 record by the Rip Chords. He also had several minor hits as a member of Bruce and Terry with future Byrds producer Terry Melcher.
Johnston rarely ventured into the spotlight after joining the Beach Boys, but he made an impact when he did.
“I wasn’t brought into the band to write songs,” he said. “I think Brian and Mike had that covered. As Brian kind of withdrew, I wouldn’t push any of my songs, but because you had to deliver albums, by default I put more – but not many – of my songs on albums.”
Johnston’s “Tears in the Morning” and “Deirdre” were highlights of 1970’s Sunflower album. Surf’s Up (1971) featured what Johnston calls “the best song I ever wrote”: “Disney Girls (1957).”
“We were playing Carnegie Hall for a ‘rediscover the Beach Boys’ show – yet one of a million times, right?” he said with a laugh. “I saw these Northeastern kids who couldn’t wait for us to come out so they could show us, ‘Hey, we can inhale marijuana. Isn’t this cool?’ I thought, ‘Wait a second. When I was their age, what was I doing?’ So I wrote about what it was like to discover having a girlfriend at 15 or 16 and what was on the radio. So there was ‘Patti Page and summer days on old Cape Cod.’ It’s really about where I was in high school at the age these people came to see us at Carnegie Hall. It’s almost an anti-drug song.”
“Disney Girls” was covered by artists ranging from Art Garfunkel to Cass Elliot and was one of 28 songs featured on the Beach Boys’ 2007 compilation The Warmth of the Sun.
“It’s never been a hit, but it has sold 7 million albums,” he said. “How weird. It’s so cool.”
Johnston’s greatest fame outside of the Beach Boys would come in 1976, when Barry Manilow took a Johnston composition about the power of music called “I Write the Songs” to the top of the pop charts. A year later, the hit earned Johnston a Grammy for Song of the Year.
“That wasn’t a song that would be for the Beach Boys,” he said. “Had it been a Beach Boys recording, we would call that song a ‘career-ender.’ It would’ve been a No. 1 song, but it would’ve been like giving the Rolling Stones ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree!’”
Johnston recorded a solo album, Going Public, in 1977, and had a dance hit with a disco remake of the surf instrumental “Pipeline.” He also contributed background vocals to Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
On the current tour, Beach Boys fans can hear Johnston’s lead vocals on songs such as “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Wendy” and “God Only Knows.” The original version of the latter, included on the classic 1966 Pet Sounds album, featured only three vocalists: Carl Wilson on lead and Brian Wilson and Johnston on harmonies.
“’God Only Knows’ is really difficult,” Johnston said. “I have to almost jump out of my skin in concentration to try to get it right. It might not be difficult for someone else, but I’m the only person who sang on the original recording. That’s why I do the lead.”
Johnston, 69, said he hopes to take the next decade to get some of his songs in television and movies.
“At the end of the day, I can do a lot of things, but my real talent is in writing,” he said. “I sing OK, but Brian, Mike and Al, please - these guys have amazing voices.”
As for the Beach Boys, Johnston said he believes there will be some kind of a “reunion-ette” to mark the group’s half-century and he would like to see David Marks, who played guitar on the first four albums, included in the long-anticipated event.
“Mike and Brian are talking about writing together,” Johnston said. “Maybe something will come out of that. I honestly don’t think you should be trying to run the Olympics 45 years later. … But I think people would be glad some of us are still around.”
Bruce Johnston on the history of “I Write the Songs”
Many people do not realize that Bruce Johnston’s “I Write the Songs” was recorded twice before Barry Manilow turned it into a No. 1 pop and adult-contemporary record in early 1976.
“I knew that the song had a really good shot in its day for somebody to record it,” Johnston recalled. “I played it for (music mogul) Clive Davis long before it was ever recorded. He said, ‘Bruce, this is going to be a hit.’”
The Captain and Tennille recorded the first version of the song as the final track of their debut album in 1975. Never released as a single, the song offers a strong Toni Tennille vocal that is forced to compete with a relentless female choir and unnecessary horn section. Later in 1975, a Johnston-produced version of “I Write the Songs” was featured on David Cassidy’s The Higher They Climb album. Complete with Beach Boys-like harmonies from Johnston and Carl Wilson, Cassidy’s “Songs” was deservedly a big hit in Britain, but the album flopped in the United States at a time when the teen idol was facing a Keith Partridge backlash.
“I produced two of his albums on RCA,” Johnston said of Cassidy. “He’s never been able to overcome The Partridge Family. And that’s a shame. He’s a totally cool guy who plays great guitar and sings great.”
Davis then urged Manilow, a hot singer-songwriter on his Arista Records who was coming off a No. 1 hit called “Mandy,” to record Johnston’s song.
“(Manilow) sits on it and says, ‘I can’t record that. People are going to think I’m an ego-maniac: I write the songs!’” Johnston said. “Eventually, he makes an over-the-top production with Ron Dante, who was the lead singer of The Archies. The record did so well that the Grammy world voted it for Song of the Year. There was no Hollywood manipulation.”
Johnston recorded an understated version of “I Write the Songs” on his 1977 solo album Going Public. But it was Manilow’s version that became the standard and earned Johnston a place in Grammy history.
“I felt very lucky,” Johnston said, “but I always believed that Brian (Wilson) and Mike (Love) deserved songwriting Grammys long before I should get one.”
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