The Beach Boys’ unsung hero Mike Love shares the band’s secret sauce
“Our goal was always to create the best vocal blend and the most sophisticated harmonies in a rock song.”
By Mike Mettler
Who doesn’t love The Beach Boys? Besides being a national treasure, they’re a clear influence on modern bands, including the likes of Tame Impala, Animal Collective, The Apples in Stereo, The High Llamas, The Flaming Lips, and Radiohead — to name but a few — and it’s not hard to see why.
Alongside the boundary-smashing achievements of their friendly rivals, The Beatles, the sonic template set forth by studio guru Brian Wilson on indelible Beach Boys songs like Good Vibrations and envelope-pushing albums like Pet Sounds — both of which celebrated 50th anniversaries in 2016 — set the tone for the production, arrangement, and song-composition standards for popular, alternative, and (yes) electronic music in the ensuing decades.
Often lost in the perpetually ongoing Beach Boys accolade parade is the band’s lead vocalist, Mike Love. In Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy — one of the best autobiographies released this past year — Love plants the flag for his own inimitable contributions to The Beach Boys oeuvre. While there’s no question Wilson is The Beach Boys’ well-documented and universally acclaimed studio wizard, Love is most definitely the band’s resident hookmeister, and the man who came up with many of the lines you can instantly sing off the top of your head from songs like I Get Around, Surfin’ Safari, the aforementioned Good Vibrations (one of your humble Audiophile columnist’s sound-quality benchmarks, BTW), and even the always polarizing Kokomo.
Love acknowledges that while some people continue to “demonize” him when it comes to The Beach Boys saga, he also knows it all ultimately circles back to the great music they made (and continue to make) together. “If you subtract all of the fame, all of the fortune, all of the misfortune, and the interest you see in all of the squabbles, and you pare it down to just the music, it’s mainly about creating the harmonies, and what led to those harmonies,” Love told Digital Trends.
“And because you’ve got such a limited amount of space in a song in which to communicate,” Love continued, “every word counts. It’s nice when every word has a meaning and a purpose and a place. I’m always thinking, ‘How are these lyrics going to hit multiple generations or be more meaningful?’”
Digital Trends called Love during a short tour break to discuss the best way to listen to Beach Boys music, how they create their “sonic oasis,” and the key ingredients that go into the band’s harmonic “secret sauce.” Why, just thinking about all those wonderful harmonies is giving me excitations…
Digital Trends: After writing this book, do you feel the legacy of The Beach Boys is going to last well past our respective individual lifetimes?
Mike Love: Well, I think the music, if it’s not immortal, it’s pretty damn close. Some of these songs have lasted over 50 years, and they’re received in concert as jubilantly today as they were back then. That’s an indication there’s a lasting power in the music.
Writing the book was quite a process — including the audiobook, which I did in my home studio. They said, “We can have an actor do it,” and I said, “Why? It’s my story.” It took a bit of doing, and it was very emotional at times, like talking about Carl [Wilson]’s last concert, or my sister dying and other loved ones dying.
It was not easy to read all the chapters. It’s one thing to write it out; it’s another thing to speak it, and relive it. It was a little tough. At times, I had to stop, regain my composure, and go again. The whole thing was quite an emotional experience.
As a listener, what do you feel is the best way to hear Beach Boys music — vinyl, mono, stereo, surround sound, download, or…?
I think it will always be vinyl. There wasn’t a lot of stereo going on in the early Beach Boys recordings. Brian could only hear out of one ear, so it was always a mono thing. [Because of a childhood incident, Brian Wilson is essentially deaf in his right ear.]
I actually talked to Brian once about that. I said to him, “So you actually compose in mono? That’s very interesting!” And he told me, “Mono was very important. I only have one good ear, so I only hear mono anyway. I know in my head, in my brain, how to do it. My goal is to try to make the listener know and feel what I sound like.”
Oh yeah? So that was the reason! (laughs) With technology, people like to put things here and there all over the place in multiple channels like you mentioned. It is an interesting aural experience if you’re able to hear it, and if you have your hearing — which, unfortunately, Brian didn’t have. But he did pretty damn well in the music business without both ears functioning!
It does seem to have worked out in a really magical way for everyone who listens to your music.
Well, you know what? You didn’t need all the fancy trappings of multiple channels of surround sound to hear that right mix of bass, guitar, drums, vocals, keyboards, and everything else off of a mono car speaker — which is the way so many of us got our music back 40 or 50 years ago. It just needed to come out of that one speaker kicking some ass to hit a person right in the chest! (both laugh)
And there was also a generation listening to that music on a transistor radio under the covers, late at night.
I used to have a transistor radio at home, and when I was supposed to be asleep, I was listening to the R&B doo-wop songs or rock ’n’ roll from the L.A. stations that would play that stuff.
All that comes out in your songwriting. As you put it in the book, you created a “sonic oasis.”
That’s true. Yeah, I came up with that term. The Beach Boys are like a sonic oasis to get away from your problems for a song, or an album, or a night at our concert. And that’s a really nice thing.
A lot of people stream music, and The Beach Boys are humongous on streaming services — there’s 56.5 million plays for Good Vibrations alone on Spotify, for example. As an artist, what do you feel about people listening to your music in that fashion?
I think if that’s the only way they listen to their music and the only way they have access to it, I guess that’s OK — but it’s never going to be as good as the vinyl on a great turntable. You’re not going to get all of the nuances and the full range of sound that you do on the vinyl. There are so many hours of labor that go on in the studio to make these things sound perfect, and to hear them on an iPhone is not exactly the best way.
Even Ambha, my 20-year-old daughter, has been collecting vinyl for several years. She’s got all the great stuff: George Harrison, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin — she has virtually everything! But she likes Lana Del Rey and Amy Winehouse too. She’s a well-rounded listener.
Regardless of what format I’m listening to, The Beach Boys’ trademark four-part harmonies always come through. How do you feel about being a pioneer in that regard?
Well, the pioneers were The Four Freshmen, and, to a lesser extent, The Mills Brothers, The Four Preps, and The Hi-Lo’s. Those guys were more pioneers than we were, I think. But because of Brian’s incredible ability to structure harmony, it’s not only about singing the notes; it’s about our blending together — that seamless blend of sound. That was always our goal: To create the best vocal blend and the most sophisticated harmonies in a rock song.
If you listen to the background vocals of Little Saint Nick (1963), it could be like we’re the Vienna Boys Choir, you know? (chuckles) It’s beautiful choral harmonies in a rock song. That absolutely distinguishes The Beach Boys from so many other groups. There are dozens of great groups — hundreds of them — but ones that can do the harmonies and blend the way we do… not so many.
Which Beach Boys songs would you consider to be the best examples of showcasing those harmonies?
There are many examples of that. You’ve got In My Room, Surfer Girl, The Warmth of the Sun — all those ballads with the pretty harmonies.
You know, not everybody gives that much importance to harmonies. We, of course, did. We were obsessed by it, by doing them beautifully. In fact, to this day, we’re obsessed with re-creating those harmonies onstage as much as humanly possible with the way they were on the record.
I think people come to see you based on what they know of you — unless they’re just coming out of curiosity, and that happens too. They’ll buy a couple of tickets and go with a fan who is interested in us. Our job is to convert that person who’s just there casually with no preconceptions, and make them a fan! (chuckles) We take the sound quality of our shows very seriously.
Hearing you do those harmonies live is something else, I have to say.
The secret ingredient for me in all of it is the love of creating those harmonies together. In the book, I talk about my mom’s family coming from Kansas during the Dust Bowl era and camping on the beach in California. All they had was music. They didn’t have any money. They could sing, they could dance, and they could play the piano. Music played a huge, enormous role in their lives, and that was the atmosphere in which I grew up.
When we got together on the holidays and at those birthday parties and family gatherings, it all boiled down to singing songs and harmonizing to a great degree. It’s the love of creating those harmonies that was a family tradition, if you will, that comprises the special ingredient of a Beach Boys song.
That essential ingredient — the secret sauce, whatever you want to call it — has always been the harmonies. And there’s a purity involved in the creation of those harmonies that had nothing to do with fame or fortune or any of that. It just had to do with the pure love of getting together and harmonizing. All of that other stuff that some people like to talk about — they’re missing the point. Harmony is at the center of it. That’s at the heart of it, literally and figuratively.
Getting those isolated harmonies on the Stack-O-Vocals tracks on Disc 4 in the Pet Sounds box set is like manna to the ears. They give you a natural sense of the joy of that vocal connection you all shared. I could listen to an entire album of just you guys harmonizing, honestly.
Yeah, that disc with just the solo harmonies is amazing. You listen to that, and you get it.
Pet Sounds itself is a great legacy marker. When somebody wants to describe another artist’s sonic achievement, they’ll often call it “their Pet Sounds.” It’s the benchmark for others to measure their work by.
And that’s pretty neat. Rolling Stone has this coffee table book — I have it in my house — of the Top 500 Albums of All Time. No. 1 is [The Beatles’] Sgt. Pepper, and No. 2 is Pet Sounds. That’s pretty good company — though I’d like a recount! (both laugh)
eThis article was originally posted on Digital Trends