If there was a soundtrack of the 60s, the Beach Boys were a significant part of it. People (including myself) who were born decades after the band reached the peak of their popularity know their songs, such as Good Vibrations, California Girls, Surfin’ Safari, and more. They reached an impressive number two when Rolling Stone ranked the 500 greatest albums of all time. It’s not easy to describe the influence that the Beach Boys had on music.
Their songs managed to capture the fun, carefree spirit of the surf scene in California. I mean, they had a song called Fun, Fun, Fun. The band definitely capitalized on the popular surfing craze. However, things weren’t as they seemed behind the scenes. Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson were the three brothers who started the band with their cousin Mike Love and close friend Al Jardin. Let’s just say the boys didn’t have the easiest life.
This is the story of the Wilson brothers and some fun facts you didn’t know about this legendary band.
Daddy Don’t Hurt Me
Brian, Dennis, and Carl were the Beach Boy brothers, and their father, Murry Wilson, was a horrible person. Brian wrote about their abusive childhood in I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir (via Vanity Fair). He wrote, “My dad was violent. He was cruel.”
How cruel was he? Well, when Brian was just three years old, he was deaf in one ear after his father hit him with a lead pipe! It wasn’t just him, though. Brian said that growing up, all the siblings suffered abuse. Brian once got a beating with a 2-by-4, but it was only his brother Dennis who ever fought back. He once stood his ground over a fight about some kittens.
A Mean Father
Psychological abuse was also apparent. When they were young children, their dad would take out his glass eye and make the boys stare into the wide-open hole. Gross!
As their manager, Murry followed them and continuously berated them, calling them losers, worthless, and failures. In 2010, The Guardian reported on a letter found that was addressed to Brian and handwritten by Murry.
The letter dates back to May 8th, 1965, when the Beach Boys song, “Help Me, Rhonda,” was a chart-topping success. The letter said (in part), “It has become very apparent to me that the family cannot exist under the worrisome and trying conditions… No matter how many hit songs you write or how many hundreds of dollars, you may earn… you are going to suffer remorse.”
Antisocial Song Writer
It’s no surprise that Brian Wilson became more and more withdrawn throughout his life, even while he was still writing songs for the band. His favorite place to write was sitting at the grand piano in his Los Angeles home, according to The Independent. Apparently, he had a homemade sandbox so he can feel his feet in the sand without leaving the house.
He did everything there except writing the actual lyrics. However, he composed and arranged the band’s music from the comfort of his own home, for nine consecutive gold albums. He was also taking amphetamines, morphine, LSD, and to top it all off, alcohol.
Brian became consumed with the idea that he was being bugged. He only agreed to meet with people who he considered as safe. When a string of forest fires happened while he was writing the song “Fire,” it led him to believe that his music was influencing events in the real-world. However, when he started hearing voices, there was a real problem at hand.
Some voices told him that they loved him, while others promised to kill him. That’s when he became even more introverted to the point where he largely dropped out of the public eye by age 25. Unsurprisingly, there was a deeper issue, and Brian was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Sadly, it took a long time before he got the help he needed.
The Infamous Babysitter
One of the lead singers of the Beach Boys, Mike Love, went to his bandmate and cousin, Dennis Wilson’s house for dinner to meet one of his friends. Dennis was intimately involved with an aspiring musician who lacked talent but could help Dennis with one of his other big passions: girls. If this sounds strange, that’s because it is. It was way too bizarre for Love, who felt uncomfortable and left. Something was off about Dennis’s new friend, Charles Manson.
Yes, I’m talking about the sociopath Charles Manson. Later that year, Mike Love and his wife split up after she admitted to having an affair with Dennis. When they would sneak off to do the nasty, somebody had to watch their children. On at least one occasion, Susan Atkins, one of the Manson girls (and later, a convicted murderer), would babysit.
Joining the Clan
Charles Manson, his “family,” and their murders were a bizarre saga. The oddest part is that at one point, Manson’s story crossed over with the Beach Boys. Washington Post reported that in the summer of 1968, Dennis Wilson joined the Manson clan and spent months there sinking in a drug-fueled stupor.
It all started when Dennis was picking up a few hitchhikers who were part of the Manson family. It continued because of Manson’s musical aspirations. As soon as he started showing Dennis how to play guitar, they hit it off. They even lived together (on Dennis’ dime), but suddenly things took a bad turn.
Roomies with Manson
Dennis gave Manson a chance to hit the recording studio; however, when producers wanted to make some changes, Manson did the only rational thing he could think of – he pulled out a knife! They went their separate ways, and the notorious tragic bloodshed happened afterward. Imagine how shocking and traumatizing that was for Dennis. I mean, Manson was his roommate!
The Manson killings left a haunting spirit in Hollywood and the world. Although Dennis promised never to speak about it, Mike Love brings it up. In his memoir, Good Vibrations, Love mentioned, “The guilt was devastating. Dennis [was] shaken to the core. [He] carried that guilt with him for the last 14 years of his life.”
HELP ME, RHONDA
Rolling Stone asked Brian Wilson what he wanted people to learn from his life story. His answer was, “I want people to realize that drugs can be very detrimental and dangerous. I talk a lot about my bad experiences on drugs… for that reason.” Sadly, he wasn’t even the worst. Also, According to Rolling Stone, Dennis wanted to check into the hospital’s detox unit. However, the doctor turned him away because “he’s just too much trouble.”
The big question is, how did these guys manage to get themselves together long enough to record music? Well, the truth is, they didn’t always make it to the studio. They called in reinforcements such as Carol Kaye, the only female member of a musician group nicknamed The Wrecking Crew.
Too Drunk to Play
LA Weekly reported that in the 1960s, Carol Kaye was one of the most in-demand session bassists. You may have never heard her name, but you definitely heard her work. She played the entirety of the iconic album, Pet Sounds. With about 10,000 songs under her belt, Kaye has seen a lot. The irony of covering artists who were too drunk to play their own songs wasn’t new to her.
“It’s a sad thing to see that decades later, people’s drug use [was] influenced by musicians whose records they idolized, and the real musicians playing on them were totally straight… we weren’t on drugs, were a mixed group, black and white, and as old as their parents.”
Trouble at the Zoo
Pet Sounds was an iconic album, and so was the cover. It was shot at the San Diego Zoo, according to the San Diego Tribune. It was rumored to be a direct message to the Animals, who were the Beach Boys’ rivals. Either way, it didn’t go well. Ultimately, they were banned from the zoo, thanks to all their bizarre shenanigans.
Basically, one of them thought it would be a good idea to bounce a carrot off of a tiger’s head, and another one attempted to manhandle an antelope. Somehow, the guys got their hands on baby chicks and a few puppies and left them in random places around the zoo. I, for one, am not surprised that they aren’t allowed back. They made it seem like they were victims. They said that the goats (the ones that made it on the album cover) were particularly awful. Um, I think those baby chicks and puppies might think otherwise.
It’s Over Now
When the doctors turned Dennis away from detox, it was Christmas Day 1983. Sadly, he passed away just three days later. The Beach Boy died in the Marina Del Rey waters. He was there with some friends, drinking and diving off a boat called Emerald. When he made his final dive, his blood alcohol content was 0.26; he never came back up. Dennis was 39 years old when he passed away.
Unfortunately, the years leading up to his death were rough, and he had already gone off the deep end. Back in 1963, another studio drummer started filling his spot on the drums, but he was eventually kicked out of the band completely by 1979. They didn’t want to kick Dennis out of the band, but some terrifying events led to the final decision.
The Last Straw
For starters, Dennis started using heroin. He also was in a relationship with Karen Lamm, who he would continuously abuse; he nearly killed her when he shot a bullet into the car she was standing next to. Oh, but that’s not all. He torched a Ferrari, checked himself in and out of hospitals, and during a drug-fueled rage, he destroyed Christine McVie’s house.
The last straw was when he hooked up with his second cousin, who was also Mike Love’s 16-year-old daughter. That went over just how you would expect it to. There was a restraining order between the bandmates, and Dennis continued to use drugs and alcohol. When Dennis died, the band confirmed that they are not disbanding, they just needed a short break to mourn.
In 1975, Brian’s bandmates, family, and wife Marilyn attempted once again to bring him out of his dangerous downward spiral of substance abuse and untreated mental illness. The New York Times reported that Eugene Landy put Brian under around-the-clock care, and it wasn’t the kindest. Because his weight was so out-of-control, there was a lock on his fridge.
Since the depression made it hard for Brian to get out of bed, Landy forced him to get up by pouring cold water on him. He was hard on him, but that’s called tough love. In 1976, Landy was dismissed but, in 1983, he was rehired in the midst of mounting issues.
Landy, the Therapist
Brian was under 24-hour monitoring by Landy, but it didn’t take long for things to take a dark turn. Not only did Landy charge his only client $35,000 a month, but he started putting his name on albums and songs as executive producer. The therapist even made it into Brian’s will. In 1989 Eugene lost his license to practice.
The reason for the charges? Well, where should I even begin? There was unlawful prescribing of drugs (he got a colleague to actually write Brian’s prescriptions), negligence, cocaine use, and sexual misconduct with a patient. Landy was calculated and had a plan to exploit the people seeking his help. Landy ultimately died in 2006.
Going to Court
Mike Love was a band member and cousins with the Wilson brothers. He is known for singing songs like I Get Around, and California Girls. In 2016, he spoke with Rock Cellar and was asked what would be the most accurate description of him: “The switchblade and the butterfly.” Love said that he knows his sense of humor can come off as a bit insensitive, but most of what he’s done has been in good fun.
Considering the amount of the times he took Brian to court, you can understand why people misjudged him. When he spoke to Rock Cellar, he said that the main lawsuit came from one single place. Love claimed that he wrote some of the Beach Boys songs including, Help me Rhonda, and Surfin’ USA, but he never received songwriting credit.
Love didn’t want to take away from Brian’s incredible work, but he wanted credit where it’s due. He said, “I’m not taking credit for Brian’s brilliant arrangements or production or anything like that, and I’m not saying I could have done it on my own. I’m saying that there was not an accurate picture of who did what when it came to the creation of these songs.”
That lawsuit in 1992 was one of many, which could be the reason he’s been labeled as the Beach Boys villain. According to Rolling Stone, he feels like he didn’t deserve that title; most of the time, he can laugh off the hate, but at other times, it completely breaks him.
In 1988, the Beach Boys song Kokomo reached the top of the charts. It was exactly 24 years and four months after their very first chart-topper, I Get Around. That’s about the only thing those two songs have in common, and there is a good reason for that. Kokomo was written for the movie Cocktail, starring Tom cruise. And it wasn’t written by the genius behind most of the Beach Boys songs.
Basically, there are many people involved in the creation of the song. According to EWM, the people responsible for Kokomo were Mike Love, Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher (also one of Charles Manson’s targets), John Philips from the Mamas and the Papas, and hippie songwriter Scott McKenzie.
There is no Place like Kokomo
During that time, Brian was under Landy’s constant supervision. His therapist forbade Brian’s involvement in the song, although he was allowed to make an appearance for the music video. It sounds like Landy wanted Brian out of that environment to help his drug-addicted patient. However, knowing what Landy was really up to, I’m not so sure I trust him.
It’s worth noting that there is no actual Kokomo. Well, sort of. There are various places called Kokomo, like in Indiana, Arkansas, and Hawaii, but the one on the song is based on a fictional place. However, after the song was performed live at Mar-a-Lago, the island briefly changed its name to Kokomo. But that was after the success of the song.
A Sticky Situation
In 1973, Murry Wilson died, but his horrible legacy continued to affect the people he scarred decades later. Brian headed to court in 1989 over the fate of the catalog of their songs. Okay, let’s backtrack. Back in 1962, Murry and Brian came to an agreement. They decided the two of them would split up the profits from the songs published by their Sea of Tunes Company.
Unfortunately, the contract was oral, and Brian was underage at the time. Then in 1969, Murry sold the rights to all the songs for $700,000. That’s a lot of money, and Brian saw none of it. That wasn’t all. In court, he alleged that he was owed $50 on royalties and another $50 million in punitive damages.
Day in Court
The $50 million in damages was partly because Brian wasn’t in the best state of mind. According to the LA Times, part of his defense was that he was showing symptoms of a mental break down and paranoid psychosis, which made him completely incompetent to make a decision.
He claimed conflict of interest, breach of contract, malpractice, and that his signature was forged on several documents. LA Times also reported that it was settled before it went to court. Brian walked away with just $10 million for his involvement in a string of songs that are worth approximately $40 million.
The Good Seed
Only a few months after going on the 36th annual summer tour with the band, Carl Wilson died in 1998. According to the New York Times, the official cause of death was due to lung cancer complications. Plus, he was also diagnosed with brain cancer. Carl was just 51 years old when he passed away.
Fans, historians, and audiences remembered him at the heart of the group; as the one who managed to stay grounded in the midst of the chaos. The Beach Boys publicist Sandy Freedman told the LA Times, “Carl was the rock for the group. He was the steady one. He was the tiller.” Stan, Mike Love’s brother, added, “He never wanted credit for their success, but he was the glue that held the band together.”
Mike Love agreed with his brother. He even told Rock Cellar about all the difficult times the band had been through together. After all the drugs, alcohol, and mental disorders, the toughest part for the group was saying goodbye to Carl Wilson.
Love stated, “After his last concert with us in Atlantic City the year before he passed away, seeing Carl Wilson take a look at all of us and saying goodbye for the last time to everybody, which is basically what it was; that was really hard to think about again.” With Dennis Wilson notorious for his drug and alcohol issues (and subsequent death), and Brian Wilson’s struggles with mental disorders, Carl was the most level headed of the brothers.
No Fun in the Sun
Although the Beach Boys are a legendary band, they didn’t have an easy journey. Even though their music portrayed some happy guys having fun in the sun, their reality was far from all fun. Mike Love and Brian Wilson look back at that time with a different perspective that comes with survival. Unfortunately, there is a lot of respect and regret tangled up in their successful career.
In 2016, Mike Love told Rock Cellar that Brian has the gift of “a super-charged packet of genealogy that gave rise to his brilliance in music.” Despite recognizing his rocky relationship with Dennis Wilson, he also made sure to give credit where it’s due, “He… was a very powerful drummer, and he had that competitive spirit.”
In 2016, Brian talked to Rolling Stone and told them there were a lot of things that he missed, including “hanging with Dennis.” He also missed his brother, Carl, saying, “I miss hearing him talk, the things he has to say.” Of course, he misses his brothers, but what did Brian have to say about his former band-mate Mike Love?
Brian said he really hopes that their broken relationship could one day be repaired. He even wants to produce some records and give Mike another good song to sing. Brian continued, “My favorite part of music is harmony. That’s the part of the music I like the most. I like the full harmony.”
One of the Beach Boy’s most iconic hit was Surfin’ USA. In 1963, the fun, happy-infusing song made it to number three on the music charts and propelled the band into stardom. Surfin’ USA is arguably the most recognized Beach Boys song, but there is one little problem. The song is basically Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit, Sweet Little Sixteen.
The only real difference is the surfing lyrics. Apparently, the group was huge fans of Chuck, and Surfin’ USA was a little tribute to him during his brief stint in prison. Chuck threatened to sue over musical plagiarism, but Murry Wilson worked everything out, giving Berry most of the profits from the song. He also ultimately got writing credits for the song.
Spreading the Wealth
As soon as the surfing craze started, the Beach Boys wanted their music to sensationalize it. Brian Wilson took his brother’s advice and wrote their first hit, inspired by the blossoming popularity of the sport. While Brian was working on the song, he got a visit from Jan and Dean, an already established California duo. They were also interested in recording a surfing song.
Brian was incredibly busy cranking out songs for his group, so he helped Jan and Dean out by giving them a half-written song called Surf City. The duo took him up on his offer and released it the same year as Surfin’ USA. Surf City was on the top charts in July 1963, making it Jan and Dean’s only number one hit.
Needless to say, Brian’s manager and record company were not happy that he gave a hit song to a competing record label. However, that wasn’t the only time the Beach Boys collaborated with Jan and Dean. The Beach Boys record label knew that the surfing craze wasn’t going to last forever. In an attempt to strike while the iron was still hot, Capital Records pushed the band for more albums.
The innovative Beach Boys Party! album was a result of the pressure the boys felt to release more material. They thought it would be fun to bring a bunch of rarely used instruments such as bongo drums into the studio and record themselves goofing off and making music. It was like a Beach Boys Party, which is how the album got its name.
It was recorded at Western Studios in 1963 for a few days, where artists from other labels were also recording. At one point, Dean Torrence from Jan and Dean wandered onto the beach boys set, as he was taking a break from his recording sessions. Since they were all friends, Dean was asked what he wants to sing.
His response was, “the stupidest and easiest” songs he knew. Well, he sounds like an overachiever. Anyway, for about 10 minutes, he sang the falsetto lead on the song. The song was Barbra Ann and eventually became the only hit song on the album and one of the group’s most popular songs. It looks like what goes around comes around.
Sha Na Na
Henry Gross was best known as a founding member of Sha Na Na, and the youngest person to perform at the Woodstock Festival (when he was 18 years old). However, in 1976, he came out with a chart-topping hit called Shannon. As he started his journey as a solo artist in the early 70s, he often crossed paths with the Beach Boys.
Don’t worry. This is nothing like the Beach Boys encounter with Charles Manson. Gross became friends with the lead guitarist, Carl Wilson, and was invited to his house to talk music. Carl prepared a beautiful lunch, but before they could eat, Wilson’s two huskies devoured all of the food!
Naturally, their conversation turned to dogs, and Henry mentioned his Irish Setter named Shannon. He told Carl that his dog often acted the same way. Sadly, Shannon was hit by a car and passed away a few months prior. After he got home, Gross penned the song Shannon, as an ode to Carl Wilson’s dog.
Gross sang the same song in the falsetto as a tribute to Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy, who often sang falsetto. In 1976, the song became an international hit. The single went gold, and it reached number five on the Cash Box Top 100 and number six on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Brian Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown back in 1964 when the band was kicking off a tour in Houston. It was so bad that the Beach Boys has to return to California and quit their tour. The group attempted to find a replacement that could sing Brian’s hallmark falsetto and play bass. They ultimately settled on a respected studio musician that was already featured on a number of their recordings.
After one quick phone call, Glen Campbell was on a jet, on his way to Dallas, to meet the band. He filled in up until March 1965, when Bruce Johnson officially joined the Beach Boys. As a thank you for picking up the slack, Brian wrote a song specifically for Glen. The song was called, Guess I’m Dumb. It wasn’t a huge hit, but the critical acclaim it received made it one of Glen’s all-time top recordings.
Passed Down Talents
When the beach boys weren’t cranking out surf tunes, they lived fairly normal lives. That meant that in addition to being rock stars, they had families. Brian Wilson married Marilyn Rovell from the Honeys, a female surf music trio. The couple had two beautiful daughters named Wendy and Carnie Wilson.
In 1989, the girls partnered up with Chynna Phillips to form Wilson Phillips, one of the great musical groups of the early 1990s. Chynna was actually the daughter of John and Michelle Philips from the Mamas and the Papas. The trio gained gold record success before disbanding in 1993.
A Revolving Door
When you think of the Beach Boys, the original core members probably come to mind: brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and a close friend Al Jardine. But the truth is, the Beach Boys had a revolving door of musicians joining and leaving the band for most of their careers.
Al Jardine decided to go to dental school right after their first single Surfin’, was released. He was quickly replaced by David Marks, who joined the group in 1963. A few years later, Al decided to come back to the group. Marks had a falling out with Murry Wilson, their manager and (the brother’s father), and quit.
Uncle Jesse was a Beach Boy
Not long after, Brian had a breakdown and also needed to be replaced. As we mentioned earlier, it was Glen Campbell that took his place. Campbell finished up the Beach Boys tour for Brian and then left to focus on his solo career. Bruce Johnson filled Glen’s spot, but in the 1970’s he took a little break before rejoining the Beach Boys.
There were many other musicians in and out of the band throughout the years, including actor/drummer John Stamos. If you remember, the Beach Boys made a few guest appearances on Full House, where Stamos played Uncle Jesse. Here we see him with the only consistent Beach Boy, Mike Love. He was the frontman since the group’s inception.
They Were Bigger than the Beatles
It’s difficult to imagine that any group was more popular than the legendary band, The Beatles. As soon as the Beatles hit the United States, they took over the charts. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were musical rivalries, but they were also friends. As it turns out, they were working for the same record label.
The peak of the beach music genre was in 1963-1964, afterward the Beach Boys still made some hits but were moving in a new musical direction. In 1965, the group’s star power started to fade, and in 1966, the Beatles completely eclipsed the Beach Boys in popularity… in the United States, at least.
Best Vocal Group Ever
At the time, hit songs that barely made it to the Top 40 in America turned into a huge success in Europe. Across the pond, the Beach Boys were gaining a resurgence. In 1996, the authority on music in the UK, New Music Express, had its yearly poll for top performers and groups.
In previous years, the Beatles riled the polls, which doesn’t come as a surprise. But in 1966, the Beach Boys were carefully chosen as the best vocal group in the world. There was a period in the late ’60s, where the Beach Boys were indeed bigger than the Beatles in Europe. Who would have thought?
One of the Largest Concerts Ever
If you look up the lists of the biggest concerts in the United States, you will definitely find some pretty impressive numbers. Simon and Garfunkel’s concert drew 500,000 fans in Central Park and usually make a list. Other concerts with a crowd of 500,000 people are mentioned, but the Beach Boys are suspiciously missing from this list.
It seems that the people who make these lists either don’t think that the Beach Boys are cool enough, or just didn’t do their research. But it should be noted that the Beach Boys headlined one of the largest concerts ever in the United States. The Beach Boys played a free concert on the National Mall in Washington D.C. on July 4th for several years in a row.
White House Invitation
Apparently, the Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration considered their act hard rock instead of family-friendly. Despite bringing in about 500,000 people each July, in 1983, they were replaced by Wayne Newton. Sadly, for Secretary James Watt, President Reagan and his wife Nancy were huge Beach Boys fans.
President Reagan subsequently invited them to play at the White House. After Secretary Watt said that Beach Boy concert-goers were in the “wrong element,” they drew over 750,000 spectators in 1984. It was truly one of the biggest concerts that ever took place in the history of the United States. However, similarly to the best sports teams of all time, various opinions can outweigh the data.
Dennis was related to his Sixth Wife
Did you know that Dennis Wilson was related to his sixth wife? Yea. Gross, I know. Well, remember when Dennis was kicked out of the band after hooking up with his second cousin, who was also Mike Love’s 16-year-old daughter? That’s the one. At the time of his death, he was married to (but separated from) Shawn Marie Love.
When he was 39 and his estranged wife was 19, one of her male friends had no problem beating up the Beach Boy. Shawn Marie Love was actually born Shawn Marie Harris. She claims that she is the daughter of Dennis’s first cousin Mike Love. However, it’s important to note that Mike has always denied being her father.