In Capitol Records' giant Studio A in Los Angeles this summer, the surviving Beach Boys – Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston – gathered around a microphone and, for the first time in two decades, harmonized on a track. The song was, appropriately enough, a rerecording of their stomping 1968 hit "Do It Again." "Even the veteran sound engineers were moved," says Jardine. "Not all of us are left, but there are still enough of us for that vibration to come through."
"The song title has pretty firm implications, doesn't it?" says Love. "Brian asked me, 'How does a 70-year-old sound that good?' "
After resolving decades of bitter legal battles, the band is reuniting to celebrate its 50th anniversary in a major way, with archival releases on the way, including the upcoming Smile Sessions (out November 1st). And the "Do It Again" session was filmed as a promotional video for a likely world tour next year. "We'll do maybe 50 amphitheaters here and 50 or 60 overseas," says Jardine. "It'll be whenever the buyers think is the best time for us. We're wide open for that."
Ironically, it was the recording of Smile that drove a wedge between the band members. In 1964, Wilson, the group's primary songwriter and producer, suffered a nervous breakdown on tour. He returned home, fell in with the L.A. rock counterculture, began smoking pot and taking LSD, and focused solely on writing and producing records, notably the Beach Boys' 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds.
Smile, the intended follow-up, was even more ambitious. Wilson composed the album with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, constructing musical fragments with roots in Gershwin and American folk, and directing marathon sessions with the best players in Los Angeles.
Wilson composed key songs, including "Heroes and Villains," in his den, with his grand piano in a sandbox to remind him of the beach. "It was music that was totally experimental and drug-related," Wilson says. "We were out of our minds over how creative drugs made us feel."
Wilson's confidence started to crack in November 1966, when he played the other Beach Boys some tracks after they returned home from a long tour. "Mike said, 'What is all this junk?' " says Wilson, " 'all these little snippets?' " (Love remembers it differently: "That's not true. His work there is fantastic. But some of the lyrics didn't connect with me.")
The planned release date passed. "They didn't think it was commercial enough," Wilson says. He became a recluse, battling mental illness for the next few decades, and the rest of the band became a touring nostalgia act. Countless lawsuits began, including Love suing Wilson for songwriting credits and Jardine over the use of the Beach Boys name.
Wilson finally finished Smile in 2003, rerecording songs with his touring band and releasing it as an acclaimed solo LP. And now, the original Beach Boys sessions will be released as a five-disc set. Under Wilson's supervision, engineers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd scoured dozens of hours of tape, pulling the best vocal and instrumental takes. The result is an edited, sequenced LP that reconstructs what the original Smile might have sounded like.
The box also includes entire discs from the "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" sessions, with Wilson tirelessly trying new rhythms and vocal patterns. You also hear the druggy digressions: During vocal sessions for "Our Prayer," Wilson can be heard asking, "You guys feel any acid yet?" The bizarre moments include "Underwater Chant," a hypnotic track where the group name-checks sea creatures over heavy echo.
"I think five CDs is a bit much," says Love. "But for the serious music collector, it's a great record to have."
Love is more excited to discuss the band's future; he says that he's talking to Wilson about writing songs together again. And Beach Boys session vet Eddie Bayers says he recently played drums on new Wilson tracks slated for a Beach Boys reunion record. "Brian's new creations are just unbelievable," says Bayers.
Not all the wounds have healed, though – in a recent interview, Wilson sounded ambivalent about a reunion. Asked if he's looking forward to the anniversary, he responds, "Not particularly," adding, "I don't really like working with the guys, but it all depends on how we feel and how much money's involved. Money's not the only reason I made records, but it does hold a place in our lives."
Love insists, "Everybody sounds great. Brian will sit down at the piano and come up with some chords to sing, and it's always impressive. He hasn't lost the ability to do what he does best: chord progressions, vocal arrangements and great harmonies. It could be very exciting to do that all over again."
This story is from the October 13, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
- Al Jardine