Before the Eagles got back together in the '90s, they said it would happen when "hell freezes over." We can imagine the situation was just as hot in Surf City for the long-fractured Beach Boys.
To borrow a phrase from a well-known band to the north, what a long strange trip it's been for the group, from the first hit in 1962 to this tour that, almost miraculously, brings the surviving members together for a 50th anniversary.
It's not surprising that the Beach Boys, with a canon of classic American songs that have long transcended the group's "era," would still be popular after all this time.
- Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
- When: 8 p.m. Friday.
- Tickets: $80.25-$353.25; 412-456-6666.
What's fascinating about the Beach Boys is the delicate workings of the internal engine. More specifically, it's hard to think of another band that, for a long stretch of its career, found its leader diminished to an optional player.
Not every pop genius who sits down at the piano and puts pen to paper is cut out to be a road warrior. It was clear as early as 1964 that Brian Wilson -- who will take the stage with the Beach Boys Friday at the Benedum for the first time here since 1987 -- was not going to be that guy.
SOUNDTRACK TO FUN
Brian, now 69, suffered a nervous breakdown aboard a plane in 1964, and from that point on, he was a part-time member of the group he founded with his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and classmate Al Jardine three years earlier.
Initially, he was replaced on bass and vocals by Glen Campbell, who, coincidentally, will be in Pittsburgh on his Goodbye Tour next week. A year later, when Mr. Campbell, famed for being a member of the studio session band The Wrecking Crew, left to pursue his solo career, the band hired Bruce Johnston, who has been a Beach Boy for life (with the exception of a brief stint in the mid-'70s). So, when the Beach Boys went out, as early as 1964-65, Brian, who wrote surf songs without being a surfer, was writing rock songs without actively rocking.
Pittsburghers got an early look at the Beach Boys at the Syria Mosque in 1964 and then as part of the Dick Clark Caravan at the Civic Arena in 1965.
"I remember being on the bus," Mr. Jardine says of the Caravan, speaking by phone Tuesday from NBC Studios, where the band was playing "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." "I don't remember much more than that. Just flashes, glimpses of that. I think we may have intersected with the Caravan tour. But we didn't actually go on the whole tour. We backed up other bands in the early years. I remember we backed up Dee Dee Sharp and Jackie DeShannon, maybe even the Righteous Brothers occasionally."
Back at home, Brian was just getting started as a hitmaker, and through '64-66, he was creating the soundtrack for young fun with "I Get Around," "Help Me, Rhonda," "Do You Wanna Dance," "California Girls" and other hits fueled (arguably) by the best harmonies in the history of pop.
"We would have done simpler parts like the Everly Brothers -- two parts -- but then the Wilsons had too many kids," Mr. Love joked on Fallon.
While the Beach Boys were on the road thrilling kids with the hits, Brian became a more polished and sophisticated craftsman, culminating in 1966's "Pet Sounds," a seminal pop classic that rivals the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" in the discussion of the greatest albums of all time.
"Musically, it was so beautifully written and executed. It was so subtle. I would call it a subtle 'Sgt. Pepper,' " Mr. Jardine says.
Much of it was far removed from the surf music and Chuck Berry-influenced car songs that the band was playing. Still, the rest of the Boys embraced it, knowing that times and pop were changing.
"We had to embrace it," Mr. Jardine says. "We were on tour so much. The problem was, our touring band was in the '60s and the recording band was somewhere, I don't know, in the '90s. We had to bridge that gap between the successful touring band and the recording band. We had to have the public assimilate that music."
Reconciling the two sides of the Beach Boys was a dilemma but less of a hardship than what was to come.
As the psychedelic '60s wore on, Brian's fragile mental state, issues with drugs and creative conflicts with the band and label came to the fore during the making of "Smile," an ambitious concept album that remained incomplete until he finished it ... in 2004! Parts of it would see the light of day in 1967 as "Smiley Smile," a lesser project that still came with the brilliant "pocket symphony" "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains."
Although the late '60s/early '70s were something of a lost era for Brian, the band, under Carl's leadership, was trying to reinvent itself with the albums "Surf's Up" and "Sunflower" -- at a time when edgier rock ruled.
"[They] were very difficult to market," says Mr. Jardine. "We shed our identity. We completely shed the striped shirts and the surfboards and were starting to make music. People weren't ready for that, and the labels didn't know how market the Beach Boys, particularly with a name like that. They typecast you into a certain genre, and it's difficult to move beyond that."
With the Woodstock culture already beginning to fade, nostalgia for the old Beach Boys kicked in with the release of the "Endless Summer" compilation in 1974. Brian got back on board in 1976 for "15 Big Ones" and even started rejoining his brothers on the road from time to time.
How difficult was Brian's on-and-off status as a touring member over the years?
"Not too," says Mr. Jardine, also 69. "We were equipped. We had the right personnel, and if Brian did come it was a bonus. It was always better with Brian. He just wasn't up to it at the time, the touring band, and the public wanted to hear the hits. He had to find his own way back into the picture."
The popularity for the band ebbed and flowed like Malibu waves, based on the public's fickle appetite for nostalgia. In the wake of "Endless Summer," the Beach Boys were committed to a show of old hits. When the band headlined Three Rivers Stadium in 1978 with the Steve Miller Band and Jan and Dean, only 16,000 fans turned out to see them.
"Well, actually, 16,000 is a decent turnout," Mr. Jardine says, adding, "unless it's in a stadium that holds 100,000." (In this case, 55,000-plus.)
In reviewing that show, the Post-Gazette's Barry Paris lamented that the Beach Boys were now steeped in nostalgia. Nonetheless, he praised the concert and predicted that "the Beach Boys will be making biannual comeback tours through the year 2008, which is when their lifespans and my mortgage are scheduled to run out."
Nostradamus Paris nearly nailed that one, properly anticipating the market for nostalgia, while underestimating the durability of Brian and cousin Mike, now 71, by a mere four years, and counting. (He never could have predicted a top ticket price of $350!)
Brian was playing select shows when the Beach Boys toured in 1979 (stopping at the Arena) and 1980. Bearded and somewhat bloated, he was at the keyboard and in good voice when the band performed at the Stanley Theatre (the same venue it will be appear in Friday) in the springs of 1981, 1982 and 1983, the latter being the final curtain for madman drummer and true surfer Dennis, who drowned that December at 39.
The last time the Beach Boys were here with Brian, in 1987, nearly 9,000 fans enjoyed the harmonies on a nice June night with the Arena dome open, beach balls bouncing around and Brian looking fitter and healthier.
THE WAY BACK
In 1988, the year of the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Brian, under the restrictive care of therapist Eugene Landy, split off and released an acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful first solo album. The Beach Boys, unfazed, soared back to the top of the charts with the tourist-y sounding "Kokomo," the song most likely to be ridiculed by the hard-core fan base. Mr. Love continued to front the band through the '90s (it headlined Star Lake in 1990 and '93), while filing and winning a suit against Brian for past song royalties, claiming co-authorship of some of the songs.
With Carl's death due to cancer in 1998, the Beach Boys became Wilson-less for the first time. Even after the departure of Mr. Jardine, Mr. Love kept the train rolling, more on the casino/ribfest circuit, in the '00s as the only original member, as Brian soaked up lots of love as a solo artist.
Despite the legal and occasional creative differences, Mr. Jardine claims things were never as ugly as they appeared. "Agents and managers can really screw things up, and you gotta transcend all that, or else you'll never know what future opportunities you might have, and this [reunion tour] is a good example of that."
The surviving Beach Boys gathered in 2006 for the 40th anniversary of "Pet Sounds" and, in late 2010/early 2011, rumors started to bubble about this 50th anniversary reunion. At the Grammys in February, Brian -- looking like a deer in the headlights but sounding sweet as ever -- took the stage with the Beach Boys, including long-lost original member David Marks, for the first time since 1996.
To fuel the reunion, the band recently emerged from the studio with "That's Why God Made the Radio," the first new Beach Boys album since '96 and the first with Brian's contribution since '89. Mr. Jardine doesn't hesitate to rank the album, due June 5, with a classic.
"This is purely Brian Wilson genius at work, this new work is esoteric and uses unusually creative production techniques, and songwriting, I think very similar to 'Pet Sounds' in many respects, production wise. It's charming and it's sophisticated and loaded harmony, for those who still enjoy things like that."
He realizes that new albums from 50-year-old bands, rare as they are, don't always fly off the shelf at the iTunes store.
"You know, it's a different world now. Who knows? I know our hard-core fans will love it. It depends on so many factors, how it's perceived. You can have the best product in the world, but it might miss the boat, like 'Pet Sounds.' Thirty years ago, it wasn't appreciated like it is now. Now it's considered one of the greatest albums of all times."
On tour, the Beach Boys are backed by members of the crack band, featuring members of the Wondermints, that has been backing Brian on recent tours, along with a few from Love's outfit. How easy was that choice to make?
"Easy!" he says. "Whatever works for [Brian], with his comfort zone, is good for me. He's the one who sacrificed everything for this band. He deserves all the comfort he can get."
The tour's extensive set list hits all sides of the Beach Boys career, running through the hits, as well as the tender solo and mid-period material that has launched many an indie-pop band in the past generation.
"It's amazing the strength of the catalog is so deep that people are only now able to assimilate it," Mr. Jardine says. "When they hear Brian do 'I Just Wasn't Made for These Times,' there will be a lot of tears shed."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. First Published May 10, 2012 4:00 AM