And so we come to February 1998, the worst month in the Beach Boys’ history.
Mike Love and Alan Jardine had, over the previous few years, grown increasingly distant, to the point where it was almost impossible for the two men to work together, with Carl Wilson being the peacemaker who could allow them to be on the same stage. For some time, Love had been planning to replace Jardine with David Marks, who had shown up for occasional shows (notably a performance for Baywatch in 1995) [FOOTNOTE: Love claims that Jardine was likewise planning to replace Love, with Peter Cetera from Chicago] — Love and Marks had remained friendly, and Marks had become a remarkably proficient guitarist in the decades since he had left the band.
But all these plans became up in the air when in early 1997 it was announced that Carl Wilson (who had been seeming increasingly unwell for some time) had cancer. Carl continued to perform until the end of August, often having to sit through the performance and use an oxygen mask between songs (though he always stood for “God Only Knows”, no matter how much effort it took him, according to those who were at the shows). But after August, he was no longer capable of performing, and David Marks replaced him, rather than Jardine, for the last few shows of 1997.
After that, Love performed a few shows as The California Beach Band, with the Beach Boys’ backing band members, and sometimes with either Marks, Bruce Johnston, or both, but without Jardine. And Love was making plans to have a “Beach Boys” that would no longer involve Jardine at all.
The first that Jardine realised this might be a possibility was when watching the Superbowl on TV, on January 25th, 1998, when he saw the pre-game show, featuring “A Tribute To The Beach Boys Featuring Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, David Marks, Glen Campbell, Dean Torrence, and John Stamos”. He’d not been told about the show.
And also watching the Superbowl together were Brian and Carl Wilson. They discussed Brian’s forthcoming solo album, Imagination, on which Carl had been planning to guest on a track. Carl told Brian that he wouldn’t be able to do it, and that he was dying. He said “You know, Brian, I’m not gonna be able to make it”, and Brian’s response, the last thing he ever said to his brother, was “I think I’m gonna stay for a while”.
Carl Wilson died on February 6, 1998. Other than a single previously-contracted private show [FOOTNOTE Oddly, on the same day as Brian’s first solo show, a TV taping to promote the Imagination album, at which Johnston also appeared.], Al Jardine wouldn’t appear with the Beach Boys again until 2011. Mike Love would soon get the license to use the Beach Boys’ name for his own touring band (featuring Johnston and, at first, Marks), but the Beach Boys as an actual band died with Carl Wilson.
And the evidence of this came almost straight away.
Love had, over the years, recorded many tracks with Adrian Baker (who had been the touring falsettist with the band in 1981-2 and 1990-92, and would rejoin in 1998, staying with Love’s band until 2004). Various of these tracks have turned up over the years on promo recordings and limited-edition releases. The most well-known of these, because of its February 1998 release date, is Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and David Marks of the BEACH BOYS Salute NASCAR and Union 76 Gasoline, a CD that was available for a limited time through participating petrol stations only, released by Love’s MELECO label.
This CD is, in this series of essays, standing in for all the various releases of material from the Mike and Adrian sessions, such as Summertime Cruisin’ (a CD that was given away free in 2001 by participating Canadian Chrysler dealerships to people who test-drove a car). Other than two Baker originals on Summertime Cruisin’, these CDs all consisted of rerecordings of Beach Boys hits, along with a few covers of similar-sounding 60s hits.
While the CD claims Love, Johnston, and Marks as artists, Marks is inaudible on the album — it’s claimed he supplied guitars for the album, but the guitars sound identical to the guitars credited to Baker on other such CDs, and I suspect he’s not present at all. Johnston’s only musical contribution is apparently the keyboard on “Don’t Worry Baby”, the closing track (some of the backing vocals sound a little like him, but I’m reliably informed he wasn’t present for any vocal sessions).
I specify “musical” contribution, because Johnston is present on the excruciating intro, in which over a synthesised instrumental backing similar to, but legally distinct from, “Good Vibrations”, we hear the following spoken:
Hi, this is Mike Love of the Beach Boys. As you’ve probably figured out by now, cool cars and hot fun at the beach have always been close to my heart. That’s why I’m pleased to have recorded, with the help of Beach Boys Bruce Johnston and David Marks, and our buddy Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean, some of our all-time favourites.
This is Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. Beach lover, NASCAR lover, and the fuel that fuels me from high school all the way to my family life? 76. A million thank yous to Adrian Baker, our music producer, and I hope you enjoy our music.
[Mike again] This CD is brought to you by 76, the official fuel of NASCAR, and I’m hopin’ these songs will bring you as many good vibrations as a chequered flag at Daytona Beach.
This will give you an idea of the level of the whole CD.
There are ten tracks proper on the album, eight of them remakes of Beach Boys car songs, plus two covers of Beach Boys-sounding car hits from the 60s: “Little Old Lady From Pasadena”, with Dean Torrence guesting on vocals, and a version of Ronnie & The Daytonas’ “Little GTO”.
“Little GTO” is one of only two listenable tracks — it actually has quite a bit of energy, and Adrian Baker sounds surprisingly like mid-60s Brian Wilson on it. The other track worth a listen is the surprising inclusion of “Ballad of Ole Betsy”. This is a song that Love has always had a strong personal affection for, and which he regularly includes in his band’s shows (usually now sung by his musical director Scott Totten). Here, Love takes the lead, in his lower register, and he actually manages a remarkably affecting performance — were it not for the cheap drum sound, this version might actually be better than the original.
But past those two — neither of which is great, but which are both not unpleasant — the CD is dire. The harmonies, mostly by Baker and session singer Paul Bergerot, are horrible. Baker’s tone is all wrong, sounding more like Frankie Valli than the Beach Boys; his vowel sounds are all off, as he’s a British person putting on an unconvincing American accent; and his pitching is inconsistent. He can occasionally (as on “Little GTO”) sound OK in a backing vocal role, but when he takes lead parts, as on the chorus to “I Get Around”, he just sounds unpleasant. His version of “Don’t Worry Baby”, the final track here, is astonishingly poor.
Love doesn’t sound much better. In the late 90s and early 2000s Love was having his own pitching problems, and sounding almost self-parodically nasal. And the backing tracks are rough approximations of the originals, but created largely digitally, with bad drum programming, and with Baker’s guitars sounding like the only live instruments. The tracks sound like karaoke backing tracks to which Love has added lazy vocals.
These days, Love sounds as good as he ever has, and the touring Beach Boys are once again a band that more than does the music justice. But in 1998, with this coming out within weeks of Carl Wilson’s death, the album seemed to be a tacky plastic tombstone on the Beach Boys’ career.
But while the Beach Boys were winding down, Brian Wilson’s solo career was restarting itself…
[The next “what is music?” post will be up either tomorrow or Monday]
This post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?