It’s a given that at least two generations of Bakersfield music lovers fondly remember the Beach Boys. This is the iconic American band, after all.
What’s a little more surprising, and infinitely more flattering, is that the Beach Boys fondly remember Bakersfield.
Mike Love, an original member of the surf-and-sand California band, who brings the current lineup to the opening night of the Kern County Fair on Sept. 23, reminisced about the city in a recent phone interview, even name-dropping a local radio station that spread the Top 40 gospel in the early days of rock ’n’ roll.
“We did the strangest thing one year,” said Love, 74. “We played on the roof of a radio station — I think it was KAFY — and the kids would drive up in their cars and we would play from the roof!
“It’s like a homecoming to us, because Bakersfield played a pretty important part in the Beach Boys getting airplay all over the place. The town is near and dear to our hearts. It may not be our hometown but it’s damn close.”
Perhaps no other pop band in history can be compared so closely and favorably to the Beatles. Like the Beatles, the Beach Boys started out writing lightweight but finely crafted pop tunes before eventually evolving into true artists, culminating with 1966’s “Pet Sounds,” widely regarded as one of the most accomplished, influential albums of the rock era.
But as Love’s cousin and Beach Boys creative genius Brian Wilson headed into more cerebral and challenging directions in the studio, Love wasn’t entirely sure how the experimentation would be received.
“I think when you go into the studio as a musician, you really try your best to do the best recording that you possibly can, and so you feel very hopeful every time you do a song,” Love said. “But, there are some songs that just stand out, they become special, and they become special for millions of people.
“I knew ‘Good Vibrations’ was so unique. but because the track was so unique, I was thinking, ‘Wow, how are they going to take this song in Omaha,’ ya know? Because it’s one thing in California and parts of the East Coast where it’s pretty sophisticated, and it’s another where people are leading normal lives somewhere and here comes something that sounds so psychedelic. So I wrote the lyrics from the standpoint about a boy and girl: ‘I’m picking up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations’; everybody understands that. My cousin Carl did a beautiful job singing it. He’s not with us anymore, unfortunately.”
At its core, the original Beach Boys were a family band. The trademark harmonies came from years of singing Christmas carols together and at Love/Wilson family gatherings. Of the four family members, only Love and Brian Wilson remain; Carl died of cancer in 1998, and middle Wilson brother Dennis, the group’s drumming heartthrob, drowned in 1983.
“The thing that made the harmony between all the family members was the music, and creating the harmonies was something we loved to do. We’d take an Everly Brothers song that is a two-part harmony, and they had a beautiful blend, but we’d make it three parts. “Or we’d do the doo-wop songs with all their four parts, or the Four Freshmen who were an amazing group of singers that had some incredible four part harmony. We learned two or three of their arrangements and we still do one to this day, a cappella.”
The band, with Brian Wilson back on board, released an album of original material in 2012, titled “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” followed by a 50-year reunion tour involving Love, Wilson and original member Al Jardine. As the tour was winding down, Wilson had expressed a desire to continue, but Love nixed the idea, citing commitments with his current lineup of the Beach Boys.
“I love Brian, I love hanging out with him; I love being at the piano with him. I mean we’ve done some history-making stuff together. But on that 50th-anniversary tour, I was told that I’d be able to get together with Brian and write, but it was not allowed — by his side, not my side. So I don’t think it has anything to do with Brian himself. I’ll leave it at that.”
Love has no comment — because he hasn’t seen it, he said — on his portrayal in the recent film “Love & Mercy,” told from the perspective of Wilson.
“It’s been a lifetime of great, and not-so-great, experiences. ’Cause human beings have problems: issues, wars, economic and personal issues and we felt the pain that most people felt. We’ve been so blessed to have our music so loved around the world.”
The current lineup features only Love from the original band, though member Bruce Johnston, with the Beach Boys since 1965, counts as a veteran. Expect to hear hits from throughout the band’s long history, including the songs that best captured the Southern California ethos of sun, surfing, cars and girls — songs that resonated with listeners worldwide, even with those who had never stepped foot on a beach.
“One side we’d do surf and one side we’d do cars, because we realized everybody didn’t have access to the ocean all over the U.S., but everybody loved cars back in the day. So that was our formula.”
The Beach Boys’ appeal isn’t limited to age, or even generation — the group is one of those few that have transcended from popular to timeless. With 170 shows booked this year — including some in Australia and Germany — the group doesn’t seem to be slowing down. If it’s up to Love, it won’t.
“People ask me if I ever want to retire or if I ever think about retiring, and I say ‘No!’ As long as I’m healthy and as long as people want to hear our music, then that’s what we want to do.
“We see grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the show to show the kids the songs that they loved growing up, and that was a part of their life. And now , it’s a part of their grandchildren’s life. It’s just absolutely amazing.”