The Beach Boys have just released their first album of original material in 20 years, marking both their 50th anniversary as a band and the power of commercial forces to help individuals put aside their grievances. Certainly it isn't that long ago that the idea of Brian Wilson sharing a stage night after night with his cousin Mike Love seemed ridiculous, with the two spending more time suing each other than writing songs together.
Of course, when your 'opponent' is one of the most beloved (and fragile) musical geniuses of the 20th century, you're going to come off badly if you're painted as being opposed to him in any way, and for that reason, Mike Love remains one of of the most divisive of all frontmen amongst their own fanbase. In the pieces I've written about the Beach Boys for my website, I've certainly been accused of having an 'anti-Mike' agenda by his supporters, and I can certainly see their point.
But isn't it time we gave him a break? After all, he is the only person who has been in the Beach Boys for each of their 50 years, and that takes some doing when you consider all that they've been through. He's not the Queen though, so doesn't get grand plaudits just for endurance, and you could argue that it's just evidence that he's the only person who could stand being in a band with Mike Love for 50 years.
Certainly, there's lots of ammunition to use against him, not least the claims of his initial negative reaction to Pet Sounds and even more negative reaction to Smile, which both paint him as someone with no artistic soul, just willing to keep on churning out surf songs and count the money as it rolls in. It's hard to verify how true these stories are, particularly with rose-tinted hindsight from recent reunited interviews playing them down, with Love now a huge fan of both of those masterpieces.
In my writing about the Beach Boys' discography, I've been accused of blaming him for all of the problems with their late 70s work and beyond, when nostalgia seemed to be driving them more than restless artistic creativity. Certainly the nadir of their output, 1992's Summer In Paradise, bore all of his trademarks and was as close to a Mike Love solo album as Pet Sounds was a Brian Wilson record, and it was absolutely terrible. Whether droning on about transcendental meditation or pretending to be a surfer dude into his 40s and 50s, his contributions to their later albums tended to be eminently skippable.
But before this turns into another hatchet job, let's accentuate the positive. Love was in his element in those halcyon early 60s days, effectively lead singer of America's greatest pop group, co-writing and singing on hits like Surfin Safari, Surfin' USA, I Get Around, Fun, Fun, Fun, Little Deuce Coupe, Be True To Your School, California Girls and all those other classics. Brian might have gotten the plaudits for his co-writing and production work, but they wouldn't have captured the imagination without Mike's input and his characteristic nasally vocals, which also played an important part in the overall vocal harmonies of the group, of course..
And then there's The Warmth Of The Sun. Written by Love and Wilson on the morning after the assassination of JFK, it's a heartbreakingly beautiful song with sentiments that you would have thought had been written by Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher. Love might not come across as sensitive or creative as the Wilson brothers, but he had his moments, another of which appears on the new album, an old song of his called Daybreak Over The Ocean. And it's a really nice tune.
It's easy to sneer at Love's other main contribution to That's Why God Made The Radio, the cheesy Beaches In Mind, another example of the Beach Boys trying to sound like they're still in their 20s. But it's a better song than a lot of their similar attempts in the 70s and 80s, and the important thing to note about the new album is how much he has given Wilson free rein to end it with the stunning final set of songs that end it on a beautifully melancholy note.
Given Wilson's continued fragility, you'd imagine that if Mike Love was the overpowering boorish ogre of legend, he could have forced his hand and made the Beach Boys deliver another tired collection of nostalgia songs apeing their 60s heyday. But he didn't. Sure there's plenty of nostalgia on TWGMTR, but it's no Summer In Paradise. So maybe we should reconsider Love's role in the band, both as a positive and negative force. After all, as the saying goes, Mike Love, Not War.