How the Beach Boys became two separate, warring factions

March 3, 2020, 9:30 PM UTC
Beach Boys At The Beach
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 1962: Rock and roll band "The Beach Boys" pose for a portrait with a vintage station wagon in August 1962 in Los Angeles, California. (L-R) Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson (under Mike Love), Brian Wilson, David Marks. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Beach Boys began in the early 1960s as teenagers harmonizing in a Hawthorne, Calif., living room. Six decades later, they’ve sold over 100 million records worldwide, but they tour as two bands—and one’s petition to boycott the other wound up with 140,500 signatures.

The latest bone of contention? Trophy hunting.

“It has been brought to my attention that…the Beach Boys touring group licensed by Mike Love are headlining at the Safari Club International Convention in Reno, Nevada,” the band’s cofounder Brian Wilson said in a statement early last month. “This organization supports trophy hunting, which both [original member] Al [Jardine] and I are emphatically opposed to.”

Love—the band’s lead singer and Wilson’s cousin—responded in his own statement: “We look forward to a night of great music in Reno and, as always, support freedom of thought and expression as a fundamental tenet of our rights as Americans.” (Neither Wilson nor Love was available to comment for this piece.)

It’s no secret that Wilson and Love have their differences. Their legacy has been pockmarked by lawsuits, all hurled by Love—for songwriting credits in 1993, against Jardine using the Beach Boys name on tour in 2003, and over a free CD included with Brian’s solo album Smile in 2005. 

Beach Boys Perform
Left to right: Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Love perform in 1964.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Wilson, who crafted forward-thinking Beach Boys classics like 1966’s Pet Sounds, tours in a deluxe tour bus with a sumptuous backing ensemble. Meanwhile, Love flies coach between gigs at fairgrounds, casinos, and corporate events, and mostly sticks to pre-1966 fun-in-the-sun hits.

But two bands performing Beach Boys music is nothing new. In fact, they’ve been cleaved in two almost since the beginning.

Brian stops touring with the band

In December 1964, three years after their formation, Brian suffered a nervous breakdown on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston for a concert. He soon flew home and was briefly replaced onstage by Glen Campbell before they hired Bruce Johnston, who is still with the band, in 1965.

While at home, Brian crafted Pet Sounds with the Wrecking Crew as his band and the other Beach Boys mostly as backing singers.

Brian Wilson directs from the control room while recording the album “Pet Sounds” in 1966 in Los Angeles.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During this time, Love took a somewhat contrarian stance, reportedly dismissing Pet Sounds as audible only to “the ears of a dog,” which he later denied saying.

Regardless of who said what, their opposite public images—Brian as tortured artist, Love as calculating businessman—were arguably calcified. It didn’t help that drummer Dennis Wilson publicly called the Beach Boys mere “messengers” of his brother’s genius.

“Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys,” Dennis said. “He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.”

Carl takes over

As Wilson’s schizoaffective disorder gradually consumed his life, his brother Carl stepped in as the band’s de facto leader.

Without Brian’s innovative approach, the Beach Boys’ popularity hit a low in the late 1960s. Although the other members were developing rapidly as artists, they opted to take creative half measures, holding their breath for Brian’s return. 

In 1969, the Beach Boys completed their Capitol Records contract with 20/20, an album of outtakes from earlier, Wilson-led albums. The following year, they signed with Reprise Records, and, with that year’s Sunflower, they rebooted their image as earthy SoCal songwriters.

The Beach Boys perform in concert at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., before a crowd of more than 60,000 music fans, June 26, 1978.
Ira Schwarz—AP Images

“I was scared at the time Sunflower came out,” Brian wrote in I Am Brian Wilson. “I felt like the band was slipping away from me.”

“Carl had assumed Brian’s role as our producer,” Love stated in his 2016 memoir Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy, written with James S. Hirsch. “[He] was well-suited to be a leader.”

Regardless, in 1976, they trumpeted Brian’s comeback—a bit prematurely.

“Brian’s back”

Brian returned to the band for 1976’s 15 Big Ones, a patchwork of originals and covers that earned lukewarm reviews.

“The record company made a big deal that I was on it,” Brian wrote in I Am Brian Wilson. “They had a big campaign with a ‘Brian’s Back!’ slogan.”

“There was only one problem,” Love wrote in Good Vibrations. “Brian wasn’t back.” (During the ensuing concerts, he claimed, Brian “sat on his stool in some medicated haze.”)

“A deeper schism emerged,” Love wrote in Good Vibrations, of what was happening between his and Wilson’s camps. “When we traveled, we chartered two planes, the costs be damned.” He usually flew with Johnston, and Wilson with Jardine.

In 1981, Carl took a leave of absence and was replaced by Jeffrey Foskett, who stayed with the band when Carl returned a year later. In 1983, Dennis drowned at age 39.

But just as the Beach Boys were close to being finished off, they were suddenly buoyed by an island-themed hit.

“A tropical contact high”

In 1988, Brian Wilson heard the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” on the radio, not knowing who it was by.

“When someone told me who was singing, I couldn’t believe it,” he wrote in I Am Brian Wilson. “It had such a cool sound and such great harmonies.” (Love claimed psychotherapist Eugene Landy blocked Wilson’s involvement; Brian simply stated he “couldn’t make it” to the session.)

The tropical-themed single—a writing collaboration between Love and producer Terry Melcher, John Phillips, and Scott MacKenzie, with Van Dyke Parks on accordion—was released as part of the soundtrack of the 1988 film Cocktail and peaked at No. 1.

All the while, Carl remained the glue of the band, shepherding them through projects like 1996’s Stars and Stripes Vol. 1, a collaborative album with country stars. In 1998, he died of lung cancer at 51, which effectively ended the band as a solitary unit.

The band fragments in two

Carl’s death left the band without their band director, their lead guitarist, and their co–lead singer, but it didn’t mean everyone was ready to call it a day.

“I could have retired or at least scaled back dramatically,” Love wrote in Good Vibrations. “But I wasn’t about to do that…I’d go crazy sitting around.”

The touring license for the Beach Boys is owned by Brother Records, the band’s holding company and record label, with Love, Jardine, Wilson, and Carl’s sons Justyn and Jonah as shareholders. As Love tells it in Good Vibrations, Brian Wilson was offered a license to tour under the name, but he turned it down. 

Love with the Beach Boys in 1975.
Fin Costello—Redferns/Getty Images

A few months later, Love claims, Brother Records sued Jardine on financial and compliance grounds, and Jardine lost his license. (Jardine declined to comment for this piece.) Love was then offered exclusive rights to the Beach Boys name, which he accepted.

Despite the win, Love still owed Brother Records 17.5% of all touring revenue, which went directly to the shareholders. This didn’t include management and agent fees, which further left him in the hole.

Love hit the road with his own Beach Boys, featuring Johnston, Foskett, guitarists Scott Totten and Brian Eichenberger, keyboardist Tim Bonhomme, and drummer John Cowsill.

‘The Walmart frame of mind’

With Love calling the shots, the Beach Boys no longer perform at football stadiums, rack up exorbitant liquor bills, or travel in limousines.

“All of the unnecessary amenities were either curtailed or eliminated,” Love wrote in Good Vibrations. “We don’t have anyone on payroll who is not essential, and we don’t squander money on garish stage props or fireworks or overblown production.” (Johnston summarized it to Rolling Stone as “the Walmart frame of mind.”)

Meanwhile, Brian’s 11-piece ensemble, which includes Jardine, Blondie Chaplin, and backing band the Wondermints, travels in luxury buses and stays in expensive hotel suites. He even travels with an oversize recliner that has followed him to multiple continents.

An ill-fated reunion

In 2012, the two Beach Boys bands—plus early guitarist David Marks—did the unthinkable and joined together for a 50th anniversary world tour and a new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio

Despite positive reviews, the reunion ended on a sour note.

After the tour, Love returned to his usual Beach Boys lineup sans Wilson, Jardine, and Marks, leaving the three feeling jilted. 

“I’m disappointed and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to tour with Al, David, and me,” Wilson told CNN. “After all, we are the real Beach Boys.”

“This tour was always envisioned as a limited run…Brian, Al and I signed an agreement outlining the beginning and end of the tour,” Love explained in an L.A. Times op-ed. “I did not fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I cannot fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I am not his employer.”

The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Concert Tour at the Anselmo Valencia Amphitheater on April 24, 2012, in Tucson.
Mike Moore—Getty Images

Brian responded with his own op-ed: “It Kinda Feels Like Getting Fired.” “While I appreciate the nice cool things Mike said about me in his letter…at the same time, I’m still left wondering why he doesn’t want to continue this great trip we’re on,” he wrote.

“I’m not sure if Brian, or whoever wrote the column for him, appreciated the irony of his statement,” Love shot back in Good Vibrations. “He could have accepted a Beach Boys license for himself, when it was offered, but he didn’t.”

“That tour ended in a weird way,” Brian said in I Am Brian Wilson. “He went back to the way things were before, where he was touring with the Beach Boys name.”

“And that,” he concluded, “was the end of the 50th reunion.”

Uneasy peace

Since the 2012 run, the Beach Boys have appeared together only once—as part of a SiriusXM interview to promote 2018’s The Beach Boys With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I never say never,” Love told Rolling Stone afterward when asked about a potential reunion.

“I don’t think there will be another Beach Boys reunion,” Brian told Riff Magazine in 2019. “I got my own thing going on.”

The 2020 Safari Club debacle marks the first time one Beach Boy called for a boycott of the other, and at 77 and 78, respectively, it’s anyone’s guess how long Brian and Love will have to mend fences. 

What was once a family band now resembles two warring corporations, both wheeling around the world to preach the gospel of sunshine and babes.

The Beach Boys portrait 1964
Once a family band, the Beach Boys became two separate and warring factions.
Gems/Redferns/Getty Images

“Like many bands, this one was built around people who started in close proximity and with common cause and turned out to be very different,” Ben Greenman, who cowrote I Am Brian Wilson, tells Fortune. “Most of all, in how they wanted to use the band.”

“If the tide goes out, you can find yourself stranded on separate sandbars,” he added.

But in 60 years and despite the deaths of two key members, the band has miraculously never fully disbanded. Even after years of artistic and familial conflict, as Love declared in Good Vibrations: “I’m convinced that the Beach Boys’ appeal has no demographic boundaries, no technological limits, no expiration date.”

To that end, blood may run thicker than water—even if a petition suggests otherwise.

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