Mark McDermott

Putting The Boys Back In Beach

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Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, 1960s (Capitol Records archives)

Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and Blondie Chaplin Drop Into Redondo

by Jeff Vincent/BeachLife magazine

Have you ever fantasized about whose mugs would be etched across the visage of a Mount Rockmore? It’s tempting to gaze into the fancy of your mind’s eye and picture your favorite bands residing there. Maybe you’ll see all four faces of Led Zeppelin in place of Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, and Lincoln. However, indelible marks notwithstanding, what we’re really looking for here are the utter game changers who reshaped, or rather redirected music history altogether. Elvis Presley, sure. How about Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry? Bob Dylan or any Beatles? Maybe Don Van Vilet? For many artists themselves, the monument would be incomplete without Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the leader of The Beach Boys: Brian Wilson.

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Aside from being the single greatest and farthest reaching ambassadors for surf culture worldwide, The Beach Boys have left behind a lily pad pond full of classic Pop-Rock tunes and pivotal LPs that we know, love and need, and will never let go of. Theirs is a paradoxical magic which occurs when songs achieve timeless resonance by harnessing the very essence of the place and period from whence they’re birthed. The band itself acts as a veritable time capsule, yet the articles contained within maintain perpetual relevance, waiting to be discovered by future generations forevermore. But is this remarkable feat alone, of producing art endowed with limitless staying power, enough to be carved into the stone of Rockmore? Nah.

Brian Wilson. Photo courtesy of the artist

Brian

For most of us average listeners, The Beach Boys come across on some basic level as good old-fashioned clean fun, carving out a classic slice of Americana with iconic surf tunes and ditties about an almost fabled West Coast lifestyle revolving around longboards, beach babes, hot rods, and a splash of punkish innocence. But a musician would provide a more challenging parallel narrative, especially with respect to Brian Wilson’s explosively creative period during the mid-late 1960s. Voices from the musical world hail Brian as an alarmingly exceptional writer, arranger, and composer, as well as an innovative producer in the studio. He has often been regarded as a type of modern day Igor Stravinsky.

Let’s go back and listen to “God Only Knows.” Crank it up and ponder these considerations…

There’s something like 24 to 25 different instruments that were used in the recording of that track, including the utilization of less orthodox items like sleigh bell, plastic orange juice cups, and pianos that were altered by placing objects on or between the strings, or by fixing tacks or nails to the felt-padded hammers that strike the strings. The overall composition has been cited for atypical and complex musical structure, requiring terminology like inverted and non-diatonic chords, third inversions, vocal counterpoint, disuse of authentic cadences, etc. In fact, the whole thing has been likened by musicologists and other artists to being how classical music works.

Yet, it’s less than three minutes long! Not to mention, anybody and their grandmother can access it. It’s clearly one of the most gorgeous, heart-wrenching, albeit uplifting songs ever made, and was voted 25th in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Now consider, the “kid” responsible for it was just 23-24 years old with ten previous albums already under his belt at the point of its making in 1966, and he wasn’t just experimenting with drugs and sounds and gizmos to induce novelty effects, as innumerable bands from these times would; instead, he was expressing himself musically and artistically (and personally) with deliberate precision.

Brian Wilson, 1964. (BriMel archives)

With his knack for unusual combinations of instruments, irregular structures, and an unheard of number of key changes within a tune, it has often been said of Brian Wilson, by both his peers and contemporaries during the 1960s, as well as by other artists forever after, that he was doing stuff nobody else would have dreamt of doing. Game changing stuff, which was perhaps alluded to in between the lines of 1966’s “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” (written by Brian Wilson/Tony Asher), where Theremin (an electronic instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer) is also present for what may have been the first time ever on a rock record.

“I keep looking for a place to fit/ Where I can speak my mind/ I’ve been trying hard to find people/ That I won’t leave behind/They say I got brains/But they ain’t doing me no good/I wish they could/ Each time things start to happen again/I think I got something good goin’ for myself/But what goes wrong/Sometimes I feel very sad… /(Can’t find nothin’ I can put my heart and soul into)/… I guess I just wasn’t made for these times/ Every time I get the inspiration/To go change things around/No one wants to help me look for places/Where new things might be found.”

But ultimately the world did go with him. In fact, it was soon after that the mystifying sound of the Theremin secured the signature effect of “Good Vibrations” that earned The Beach Boys an instant No. 1 hit in the US and UK. The real genius of Brian Wilson is that he’s a musician’s musical genius, but connects to the general audience with a universal accessibility which makes it feel as though the music is actually for them. In some capacity he was just proffering what he felt and heard inside while uncannily rearranging the way a complex piece of music could be translated and conveyed to the layman prescriber of Pop. He could take a cute, sentimental ditty swirling around inside himself, and expand it into a micro pop-classical masterpiece. God only knows how he did it.

Nearly 60 years later, Brian Wilson will be headlining our BeachLife Festival with a view of the Pacific Ocean back where it all began in the South Bay of Los Angeles.

“It’s where we wrote so much of our early music,” Wilson said. “I can remember the first song I ever wrote, ‘Surfer Girl,’ with those beaches in mind… And Dennis [Wilson] surfed in Redondo Beach. It’s great to be going back to the old stomping ground to play for everyone. Looking forward.”

Al Jardine and Brian Wilson, 1960s (Capitol Records archives)

Al

According to Al Jardine, the band appearing at BeachLife with Brain is a special outfit largely comprised of fanatical Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans who are almost kind of a challenge to keep up with. Perhaps; but where younger bucks might have a physical leg up on their 76-year-old gurus, there’s no exchange for the experiential wisdom of masters.

As a founding member of The Beach Boys and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Jardine, who will be taking stage with Brian Wilson at BeachLife Festival, goes back before the beginning. He was there alongside his Hawthorne High School football chum Brian even earlier than a notion of the eventual band was conceived, which in turn means that he goes back to the South Bay at least just as far.   

Adrift in the sea of reverie, Jardine shared with me the wave of memory that swept over him with the prospect of returning to the beginning.

“I caught my first wave in Redondo Beach and shared a flat in Hermosa [Beach] with my high school buddy Gary Winfrey,” Jardine said. “Our passion was folk music, especially the music of the Kingston Trio. We formed a group called the Islanders with his brother Don. I decided to rent some gear and record the group. Later, I rented the same gear to make our first Beach Boy recordings… the Islanders morphed into The Beach Boys…

“Carl [Wilson] was taking guitar lessons at the time with David Marks [later of The Beach Boys, David Marks & The Marksmen, The Moon] when Dennis Wilson suggested we write a song about surfing, the latest wave-like phenomenon sweeping the Southland, and Brian was waiting in the wings with about 400 songs yet to be written.

“Four or five years later, I returned to my folk roots to update the ‘The Wreck of the John B’ [a traditional Bahamian folk song rendered by The Kingston Trio in 1958] for The Beach Boys. I sat down with Brian at the piano and we cooked up a new arrangement for ‘Sloop John B.’ What goes around comes around! So here we go again, in the old neighborhood, on the beach where it all started.”

In addition to being known as the anchor holding down mid-range vocal harmonies and rhythm guitar with The Beach Boys, lead singing on a variety of tunes including “Help Me Rhonda,” taking on production and songwriting duties within the band, Jardine is also an all-around stringed instrumentalist with hands on anything from upright bass and banjo to guitar, stemming from his roots in Folk music. His inclination to bring “Sloop John B” (a common alternative title for “The Wreck Of The John B”) to the table, and to Brian’s piano, resulted in providing the lead single for their groundbreaking 1966 LP Pet Sounds. This beloved Beach Boys rendition reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the USA, number two in the UK, and is ranked 276 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Jardine had the foresight to modify chord changes and expand on the vocal possibilities in order to push it through, which from idea stage to the completed cut he has reported as having taken less than 24 hours from the point when it got into Brian’s hands.

“Most of us who write with Brian, basically we supply the lyrics,” he told me. “There’s not much we can do about the music because he usually has it all figured out; so that’s the genius of Brain, he already has the structure, and all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Like a builder building a house, he’s already got the plans in front of him, so it’s just a matter of putting it all together…He has the architecture and music all figured out in his head, so it’s real easy to write with Brian — it’s a pleasure, I should say, not easy [laughing]. It’s a pleasure because… his architecture is beautiful, his musical architecture — the great thing about it is that he’s not restricted to any particular one kind of plan, and he adapts very quickly to any genre… His natural inclination is to write for The Beach Boys… was his inclination anyway, and he just had a genius for writing Pop; but he can write Country, he can write Pop, he can write Pet Sounds, there’s no limitation to what he can do.”

The Beach Boys were one of the most hardcore vocal harmony bands known this side of Mars, so in continuing about Brian it’s not surprising that Jardine opines, “I think his strength is of course The Beach Boys because of our harmonic structure, which was so brilliant. It was quite refreshing and unique, and he applied his genius to almost any kind of approach that we needed to take, and that’s what genius is I think. He had no limitation… He could expand very quickly, into any particular genre, and with our voices it’d all work. You needed the instruments though, you needed the vocal instruments… He’s an exceptional songwriter, but we had exceptional voices.”

Jardine recognizes that voices change and certain parts of theirs aren’t there anymore, but his son Matt (Jardine) has been traveling with the band for years doing Brian’s falsetto vocal parts (high parts) and will also be stage present at BeachLife.

“He does that wonderful, pure tone that Brian [did],” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to have him along. Brian and he have this symbiotic kind of relationship where they support one other on stage and it really works. It really completes the story.”

Nothing like maneuvering along a wave (of sound) with pops to bring it all home.

Dennis Wilson and Blondie Chaplin. (Brother Records archives)

 

Blondie

And then there’s Blondie Chaplin, who’s a whole other side-story. But he’s also a Beach Boy.

For a lot of local bands here in the South Bay, it’s a big deal to move from the beach to the city proper. Chaplin hails from Durban, South Africa, the home from which he and his legendary band The Flames departed from in 1968 to pursue opportunity beyond the constraints of apartheid (a political policy and social system of segregation and discrimination on grounds of race). As a non-white band now based in London, they achieved just that. And who happened to be sitting in the lineup one fateful day with his eyes peeled for big sets? Al Jardine of The Beach Boys.

“I discovered them in a club over in London,” Jardine told me. “And then Carl, I told Carl [Wilson] he should come down and look at ‘em, you know, listen to them, because we had just started our label [Brother Records]… I discovered Chicago just the night after they signed with Columbia [Records], so that was kind of a drag because I really thought they were gonna be hot. And then I saw these guys, and I thought, ‘Well Carl should have a peek at these guys.’ And before I knew it he had them on a plane to Los Angeles!”

Sure enough, by 1969 The Flames from South Africa had landed in LA by way of London via The Beach Boys, and in 1970 an eponymously titled LP was released on Brother Records produced by Carl Wilson. The album was credited to The Flame, so as not to conflict with vocal group of the time The Famous Flames, who James Brown had worked with.

Chaplin recalled, telling me, “We were young world travelers that wanted to play music and had to get out of South Africa’s apartheid to see a different life and look around, that’s what got us out of there, is where we come from… Everything was new, we were young, coming to America was great, looking around, you know, it was big… Everybody wants to come to America; so here we are, we got brought in here by Al [Jardine] and Carl [Wilson], and that’s when we started to make the record. It was great man, it was different… being in America – especially at that time, ‘69, so long ago.”

The Flame record, though a solid effort in sore need of a formal reissue worth tucking into any collector’s library, didn’t reach hoped for heights, but that didn’t put out all of The Flames…

“Unfortunately it didn’t turn out for them,” Jardine told me. “And they were immensely talented… They were kind of like the ‘South African Beatles,’ and had that same kind of energy, that same sound, and they were quite successful there, and it didn’t seem to translate… The Fab Four were there, and these guys were fabulous, but they weren’t the Fab Four. But Blondie [Chaplin] and Ricky [Fataar], my gosh, what great musicians, Holy Toledo! Individually, they have such great talent, and I’m grateful that it worked out for them.”

Sure enough, by 1972, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, two members of South Africa’s The Flames, were invited to become official members of The Beach Boys; Chaplin was still just 21 years old at this point. Chaplin and Fataar appear on The Beach Boys’ 1972 Carl And The Passions – So Tough LP and 1973’s Holland and In Concert LPs. And not just as some semi-official dudes playing in the shadows. They co-wrote standout songs, Chaplin took lead guitar on some, and/or lead vocal on others, including the famous “Sail On Sailor,” and the Chaplin-Fataar penned “Here She Comes” would easily fit into any daily classic rock FM radio setlist today in 2019 – it’s the type of tune you’d swear you’ve known your whole life even if it was actually the first time you’d ever heard it.

The Beach Boys circa 1972, featuring (L-R) Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Ricky Fataar, Dennis Wilson, Blondie Chaplin, Mike Love. (Brother Records archives)

“That was a good time,” Chaplin said. “Because everybody in the studio was alive and kicking, and exploding, so it was a lot of fun. I just remember it being very quick and fast, and good understanding; God, to say that [Brian’s] got the good understanding of the harmony is an understatement, so I was quite happy to be a part of that… It was a gas working with him, because he’s very quick… and passionate with the parts of arranging, it was fascinating to see… I loved that part of working with him, and working with Carl [Wilson], Dennis [Wilson] too, I mean everybody.”

After The Beach Boys, Chaplin went on to release solo albums (with another due out later this year) and record/tour with famous artists including Paul Butterfield (Butterfield Blues Band), Rick Danko (The Band), and Brian Wilson. He also toured with The Rolling Stones for 10 years and appears on their Bridges To Babylon LP as well as some live releases. Somehow, he also managed to live this beach life for a minor lifetime as well.

“I lived in Manhattan Beach, South Bay for 15 years” he told me. “I’ve always stayed close to the beach.. So to me it’s like hey, the beach is the place to go, fucking great to go and play there… I’m just going back to where I used to live to do a gig, and quite happy to do it. I know exactly where they’re putting the show – I’ve walked and jogged everywhere around there… I’ve been in California all these years, shit, a long fucking time, almost 50 years… So I guess I’m a California boy now. It’s fine with me.”

That last sentiment came across with the mix of a humorous air yielding a touch of wistful yearning for his childhood beach life in Durban, South Africa with that of an assimilated  gratitude for the blessed SoCal journey he’s been on since 1969. Chaplin was just 15 years old when he joined The Flames in South Africa, he’s now 67, and the fire’s still alive.

“We’ve been doing this for awhile and we haven’t lost our spark,” he said. “We still like to play, and I’ll tell people to come on down and have a great time and I’ll be happy to play some guitar for them. I’m glad to be playing this [festival]. God, we got Willie Nelson one night… tons of LA bands that are playing as well… I’m hoping at least after rehearsal to go to the gig every night. I’ve never seen Willie Nelson, I’d love to. And Bob Weir I’ve never seen, so I’d love to do that. I’m looking forward to it.”

Beach Life

While LA living may include beach going, LA life is not beach life. In addition to an endless stream of entertainment and a dizzying international cuisine to dive into, in LA,  going for the adventurous might encompass native poppy fields, prehistoric tar pits, mountainous backdrops with black bears, rugged canyons concealing cougars, waterfall hikes and swimming holes, epic panoramic views from snowy peaks to the Pacific; but only the beach can fill your nostrils with the promise of surf. Or air thickened by the decadence of seafood rapt in heavenly matrimony with greasy corn dogs luring you to Redondo Pier, daring you to top it off with an horchata before one last dance upon the Tilt-A-Whirl at the Fun Factory. Where else do Bob Marley and beachfront barbecues herald the return of summer? With mermaids and mermen bathing 10 hours in the sun between dips, bike tires puffing up their chests against 20 miles of Strand stretching out before them, dolphins always guaranteeing a show. Where else do bikini babes and shirtless dudes roam free more months of the year, in search of the world to be their mirror? Where the magical brew of sunscreen, burnt skin, and a hint of B.O. invokes a transcendent spell for sunshine dwellers the same way fireplaces fill an evening sky to let us know the season’s fallen away. But it’s flip flops and tank tops year-round for some. Ties to work, trunks to enjoy. Frenzy to remain, relaxed to stay. Where rainbows fly off the backs of waves, fireworks reflect from harbor pools, with 2,700 odd miles of neighbors behind, but none ahead. Where sunsets explode upon the plain of ultimate and uninterrupted freedom to the edge of Earth. The ocean. The breeze. The beach life.

Brian Wilson with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin play BeachLife Festival May 4.

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