The Beach Boys are Still Surfin’

Ahead of the band's Friday show at Merriweather, we chat with Mike Love about the band's legacy and its most underrated song.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Fifty years after the Beach Boys' first hit, “Surfin,’” Brian Wilson and Mike Love have reunited with Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks for a new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, and a tour that stops at Merriweather Post Pavilion this Friday. We talked to Love about starting out as a band, working with Wilson again, and his favorite under-the-radar Beach Boys song.

50 years ago, what was your hope for the Beach Boys?

Originally we just wanted to sing, because we grew up in a household  with a tremendous amount of music. My mother sang, and my uncles had a quartet together, so at family events the adults would do the songs they liked, and my cousin Brian and I would go off and do doo-wop or the Everly Brothers or Chuck Berry. Growing up in that atmosphere, it was just natural for us to think in musical terms.

How did your first record come about?

We were approached by a producer in 1961 who wanted us to do a folk song. We said, “We like the Kingston Trio, we like Peter, Paul & Mary, but we’re more into rock and roll and R&B.” So we prevailed upon him to let us do a song about a subject near and dear to our hearts, and came back a few days later with “Surfing.” That was the first song we recorded, and the first radio hit we ever had.

Did you have any idea at the time that you’d struck on such a unique sound?

Well, we did know that nobody had ever written a song about surfing. Yet everyone we hung out with in southern California was into that lifestyle. I think that’s what caught the interest of the people like us—the beachgoers. We didn’t assume anything would be a hit, but we knew it was unique. It was very simple, our first song, but it was catchy, and the second one was catchier, and after that, my cousin Brian just took to the studio like a duck to water. Brian has a tremendous ability to structure fantastic chord changes and complex harmonies, which is what distinguished our songs from so many others.

Can you tell us about the new album?

The title song, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” is a really, really great song. The radio was such an important thing for so many of us growing up in the ’50s and ’60s—it was the mass communication mechanism. The song is an ode to the radio and all it meant to us in music. It’s nice that it attributes the creator for its existence—the chorus goes, “That’s why God made the radio, and waved his hand and gave us rock and roll.” It’s a pretty sweet song.

Are you enjoying working with Brian again?

Yeah. Brian’s innately musical. He’ll go to the piano with all these song ideas and structure the harmonies, and it’s just like it was in the mid-sixties. We were in the studio a few months ago doing a song called “Do it Again,” which is kind of appropriate to us getting together again. He went to show us the parts that he could sing, and spontaneously came up with these great vocal parts. It reminded us of what Brian used to do all along, which was come up with these brilliant, complex harmonies.

If you had to pick one song to leave behind as your legacy, what would it be?

Ooh, boy. Probably “Good Vibrations,” because I think it was the biggest hit we had up until “Kokomo” in 1988. Rolling Stone recognized it as the single of the century, which is quite an accolade, I must say. That song is so unique, and it has such a brilliant arrangement. I wrote the lyrics as a kind of flower-power poem to the psychedelic era of the time.

Are there any songs that flew under the radar that you really love?

“The Warmth of the Sun.” The lyrics are kind of a lament. The person you fell in love with no longer feels the same way, but at one time you were loved, so that was the warmth of the sun. Even though the situation isn’t what it once was, the memory of having been in love is better than never having been loved at all.

The Beach Boys play Merriweather Post Pavilion this Friday, June 15. Tickets ($45 to $125) available at merriweathermusic.com.

This article appears in the June 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.