Beach Gents

Great Beach Boys songs -- and there are actually dozens of them -- are magical. Forget for a moment the harmonic complexity of Brian Wilson's compositions, the sophistication of his arrangements and the grandeur of his and legendary producer Phil Spector's productions. Technical analysis of the Beach Boys repertoire doesn't explain why the band's music still jumps out of the radio decades after it was first recorded. But that the Beach Boys represented art and fun more than teenage rebellion just might. Try to find a pop group today that could toss out a song with the innocence of "God Only Knows" or the over-the-top wildness of "Good Vibrations" or the simple fun of "Surfin' Safari." It can't be done. Rock and roll doesn't have artists like that anymore.

Underrated by the general public, who considers it little more than a surf band, the Beach Boys has earned the appreciation of musicians such as Paul McCartney, David Crosby, Tom Petty and Thurston Moore, who have all cited the Beach Boys as a major innovative force in rock and roll. Formed in the Wilson family living room during Labor Day weekend 1961, the Beach Boys took only two years to become the most popular rock and roll band in America. By the time of the Today album sessions in late '64/early '65, Brian Wilson was doing things with pop music that had never been done before, writing songs with unparalleled lyricism, grace and harmonic counterpoint and producing his own version of the engineering techniques pioneered by Spector.

But that was then. The group known as the Beach Boys has undergone numerous lineup shifts over the years, and today's band has splintered into two separate acts, both capitalizing on the Beach Boys name. Neither of them involves Brian Wilson, who is undertaking a solo tour under his own name. While the band has yet to become a bunch of traveling impostors à la the touring groups that call themselves the Supremes or the Coasters, each B.B. group includes only one original Beach Boy. Al Jardine's touring band is called the Beach Boys Family and Friends, with a lineup of Jardine, an original Beach Boy who left the group for dental school in '62 but returned in '63, and his sons, Matt (who started touring with the Beach Boys in '88) and Adam, and Brian Wilson's daughters Carnie (forget the talk show, she can sing) and Wendy (yes, she's a knockout, and she can sing, too). Reports of the group's performances have been positive, particularly in the area of harmony, but some fans have left dissatisfied. They expected the Beach Boys and only saw a Beach Boy (and his family and friends).

Calling themselves the Beach Boys, the group coming to Houston Friday is fronted by Mike Love, David Marks and Bruce Johnston, with a backing band that includes longtime touring band members. The lead singer on a number of the group's biggest hits, such as "I Get Around" and "Surfin' U.S.A.," Love is an original Beach Boy; in fact, he's the only one never to have left the group. "I'm totally one of the millions of No. 1 fans of Brian Wilson," Beach Boy Johnston says. "But I'm also the same fan for Mike Love. People don't realize how important Mike's lyrics were in the scheme of things."

In terms of official status, Jardine remains a Beach Boy, according to Brown & Dutch, the Beach Boys' public relations firm. He, like Brian Wilson, Mike Love and the estate of Carl Wilson, belongs to Brother Entertainment, the longtime Beach Boys management company. So no matter which Beach Boy performs which song on whichever day, the people at Brother are getting paid, even though Jardine's tour is not sponsored by the company, and Johnston once told the British rock magazine Mojo, "You will never see [Jardine] on stage with Mike [Love] and me again." (Johnston has since "disavowed the story of a rift with Jardine," and when discussing the Beach Boys' future plans, he did not rule out working with Jardine.)

Johnston, whose history includes writing the Grammy-winning "I Write the Songs" and arranging and performing background vocals for Pink Floyd's rock movie The Wall, joined the Beach Boys in '65 and, save for a six-year period between '72 and '78, has been a Beach Boy ever since. "I'm like a guy who was lucky enough to climb on the Concorde after it had already been tested," Johnston says of his tenure with the Beach Boys. "I'm just a lucky guy who can deliver the goods if needed."

Guitarist David Marks was also a Beach Boy from '62 to '63, when he replaced Jardine on rhythm guitar. He played on a number of early hits, but he never sang, per Brian Wilson's demand. Though Marks did some sessions on Brian Wilson's thankfully unreleased album Sweet Insanity, he remained outside the Beach Boys fold until '97, when he was asked to sub for Carl Wilson, who was missing tour dates to undergo cancer treatments. "I asked why his guitar solos sound like the original records', because Carl played them, not David," says Johnston. "He said, 'Carl taught me all of them.' I said, 'Yeah, but they really sound like them.' He said, 'Well the difference is you guys have so much money you polluted the sound with all your outboard gear. All I have is this guitar and this amp, and that's why it sounds like the record.' "

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Paul J. MacArthur