Love is, and always has been, the front man for the fabled American group, who released their first single, "Surfin'," in 1961. Love's contributions - as a musician and a songwriter - are often overlooked in Beach Boys lore, with his enigmatic, musical genius cousin Brian Wilson getting most of the attention (putting a sandbox in your living room and waiting 37 years to release an album are great ways to build a legend). Wilson crafted the revolutionary track to "Good Vibrations," but Mike found the right words (and was kind enough to tell us how).
As you'll find with lead singers, Love is more of an extrovert and natural entertainer than Wilson. The ingrained image of the band at work is Brian behind a mixing board, but Mike's distinctive voice and germane lyrics helped make the songs harmonious and timeless.
It was a great joy to speak with Love over the phone and hear how some of these radio favorites were created.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Really?
Mike: Yeah. On our first live album we did our rendition of the "Monster Mash." Boris Pickett was the hit record.
Songfacts: Yeah. There aren't that many Halloween songs, are there? Not like with a lot of the other holidays.
Mike: Yeah. That's true enough.
Songfacts: I want to talk to you about songs and songwriting, because this is for Songfacts. And the first question I wanted to ask you was that it seems from what I've read that you were sort of the lyricist by necessity in that Brian didn't write lyrics so much. Is that the case, or do you think that writing words has always come naturally to you and is something that you really enjoy doing?
Mike: Well, yeah. Ever since I can remember I've always been intrigued by poetry and literature. So that's always been something that I've immersed myself in since childhood. I'd always get really good grades in English literature and American literature and all that kind of thing. Whereas my math skills weren't exactly upgraded [laughing]. So yeah, I've always been fascinated by lyrics and poetry.
And for instance, the writing style of Chuck Berry, the way he crafted those little stories to go with the catchy hooks and his guitar licks that he came up with, not to mention the rock & roll beat was something really inspirational to me in the early days of our career. In fact, you can feel the influence of Chuck Berry in songs like "Surfin' USA" which is patterned after "Sweet Little 16," and songs like "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Be True To Your School," so many of the songs that have the lyrical impulse that Chuck Berry would put into his songwriting.
Songfacts: I want to ask you about a few songs and just get your thoughts on them. First of all, one of my favorites is "Good Vibrations." And I'm curious how the song's sound inspired the words. Did you feel inspired by how the song sounded to come up with the lyrics to that one?
But nonetheless, it was this flowery power type of thing. Scott McKenzie wrote "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair," and there were love-ins and all that kind of thing starting to go on.
So the track, the music of "Good Vibrations," was so unique and so psychedelic in itself. Just the instrumental part of it alone was such a departure from what we have done, like "Surfin' USA" and "California Girls" and "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," all of which I had a hand in writing. I wanted to do something that captured this feeling of the track and the times, but also could relate to people. Because I thought that the music was such a departure that who knows how well it would relate to Beach Boys fans at that time.
The one thing that I figured is an absolute perennial is the boy/girl relationship, the attraction between a guy and a girl. So I came up with that hook part at the chorus. It didn't exist until I came up with that thought. Which is "I'm pickin' up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations." "Excitations" may or may not be in Webster's Dictionary, however, it rhymes pretty well with "good vibrations."
Songfacts: Sure does.
Mike: And so I came up with that part and wrote all the words for the hit single, "Good Vibrations." It was basically a flowery poem. You know, "I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair." So it was kind of a flower power poem to suit the times and complement the really amazingly unique track that Cousin Brian came up with.
Songfacts: Well, I think if there's anything that's close to a perfect pop song, it's that one.
Mike: Well, Rolling Stone magazine many, many years ago, I'd say going on 15 years ago now, said it was the single of the century. I'll take it. [Laughs] That's pretty high praise, I guess.
Songfacts: Let me ask you this question. The song "Back in the U.S.S.R." by the Beatles was kind of an homage to "California Girls."
Mike: Well, you know, I was in Hrishikesh, India, at Maharishi's place along with The Beatles. Ringo departed after just about a few days there. His wife was pregnant, and they say he didn't like the food. But anyway, John, Paul, and George remained there for quite some time. I had to leave before they actually left. I had some touring set up and stuff.
And I didn't really understand the nature of what the course was. It was a teacher training course, to teach people to become teachers of TM (Transcendental Meditation). Because I was there, Paul came down to the breakfast table one morning saying, "Hey, Mike, listen to this." And he starts strumming and singing, "Back in the U.S.S.R.," the verses. And I said, "Well, Paul, what you ought to do is talk about the girls around Russia, Ukraine girls and then Georgia on my mind, and that kind of thing." Which he did.
So I think it was the fact I was there, which caused Paul to think in terms of Beach Boys, and then my suggestion for what to do on the bridge, he took that suggestion and crafted, like only Sir Paul can, a really great song. And we'll sometimes do it in concert, especially if we have a private event for a corporation, or if we want to play other than just the Beach Boys set, which is wonderful. But it's kind of fun to step out and to do a Beatles song or a Rolling Stones song or a Motown song or whatever it might be. So yeah, that definitely was my suggestion to him to put that part in it that became the bridge.
Songfacts: Well, I was going to ask you what your thoughts were when you first heard the song, but I didn't realize that you played a part in the actual composition, as well.
Mike: Well, I first heard the song with Paul McCartney playing it on his acoustic guitar at the breakfast table in Hrishikesh, India, in the spring of 1968. I heard it well before the album came out.
Songfacts: So let me ask you about the song "Help Me, Rhonda." I've been trying to find out if there's a real Rhonda. Is there, or is that just a great name for a girl in a song?
Mike: I think it's the latter [laughing]. People have asked Brian, Who is Rhonda? And I think he just says he made it up. There are a lot of people, a lot of girls named Rhonda out there who have gotten remarks related to that song all their lives.
Songfacts: Yeah. I have a friend who's named Sue, and she hates the song "Runaround Sue" because it doesn't describe her.
Mike: [Laughing] I understand.
Songfacts: The song "Fun, Fun, Fun," now that was based on a real person, right? What was it, a DJ's daughter, Shirley?
As far as I knew, there was no particular person that was the inspiration for that song. It was more generic. Because, what kid, when they get their driver's license, doesn't want to borrow the family car and they go cruisin' to the hamburger stand, or they say they need to go to the library, but who knows? [Laughing] Sometimes other thoughts become more attractive.
Songfacts: I'm at that age now where I have kids that are either driving or about to drive. So I certainly know what you're saying.
Mike: Exactly. So that was the inspiration for that song. It's a vignette, something that happens in virtually every American town and happens to every kid and every parent who owns a car. I just thought that was a fun little story.
Songfacts: Well, here's something that I found kind of curious. I think the song "Do It Again" started with the lyrics before the music; is that right? And how rare is that that songs start that way?
The NBA star Kevin Love, who led the league in rebounding in 2011, is Mike's nephew.
So I wrote the words and Brian came up with the track. I came back and we sat down at Brian's piano, and we banged that song out in maybe 15 minutes, something like that. I had the concept and the lyrics in mind, and he just got a good groove going on the piano, and our engineer at the time, his name was Steve Desper, he came up with that really interesting electronic treatment to the bass, to the beginning of the song.
But yeah, I had the concept and quite a bit of the lyric thought out before I even got involved with Brian on that one. It went to #1 in England, which is pretty darn good. And we were in the best of shape at Capitol Records at that time. So I don't think they worked on it that hard. But it was a great song. It was a big, huge success in Australia and England.
Songfacts: Are there other examples of songs where you came up with the lyrics first before music was put to them?
Mike: "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Do It Again," sometimes I would write a lyric because Brian didn't have anything there. Maybe he had a chorus idea. And that was the case in "Help Me, Rhonda." I would come up with the lyrics to help finish off and complete the song.
But there's a song called "The Warmth of the Sun." Beautiful song. Brian and I wrote that together in November of 1963. And the reason I remember it was that we woke up in the morning to the news that President Kennedy had been shot and was on his way to Parkland Memorial Hospital. We all know the result of that incident.
But it was such a haunting, melancholy, sad musical composition, the music was. And the only thing I could relate to in terms of lyrics was the loss of someone you love. In that lyrical treatment, it was about somebody who you were in love with, but they don't feel the same way anymore. So they fell out of love with you. And that's a loss of love, but not quite as dramatic as being shot and killed.
We didn't change the lyrics to conform to the event, but because of that event, when we recorded that song just a day or two later, it was charged with emotion. There's no doubt about that. And I think you can feel it in the lyric and the music combined.
But that was a case where I had written a poem about that experience of being enamored of somebody and they no longer felt that way. So that was The Warmth of the Sun. Leaves you of the feeling of having felt love, having felt the feeling of being in love at one time.
Songfacts: Right. What a great metaphor, too, the warmth of the sun.
Mike: That's the word I was trying to look for, metaphor. Thank you. [Laughs] Thank you for mentioning that metaphor word.
The writing credits on "Kokomo" read: Mike Love/Scott McKenzie/Terry Melcher/John Phillips.
Mike: Here's what happened with "Kokomo." The verses and the verse lyric was written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. He wrote "Off the Florida keys, there's a place called Kokomo, that's where we used to go to get away from it all." I said, "Hold on. We used to go sounds like an old guy lamenting his misspent youth." So I just changed the tense there. "That's where you want to go to get away from it all." So that was the verse. And it was very lovely. But it didn't have such a groove, I didn't feel.
So I came up with the chorus part: "Aruba, Jamaica, ooo, I want to take you to Bermuda, Bahama, come on, pretty mama. Key Largo, Montego..." That's me, the chorus and the words to the chorus was Mike Love. The verse was John Phillips. The bridge, where it goes, "Ooo, I want to take you down to Kokomo, we'll get there fast and we can take it slow. That's where you want to go, down to Kokomo," that's Terry Melcher. Terry Melcher produced the Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders, very successful producer. But he actually produced that song and he wrote that bridge part, which Carl Wilson sang beautifully. And I sang the rest of it. I sang the chorus and the verses on that particular song.
I don't know what Scott McKenzie's involvement was, I honestly don't, because all I know is John Phillips, Terry Melcher, and myself put that song together, all those different elements.
Songfacts: But was it at one sitting, or was it in different places and different times?
Mike: Terry was in the studio doing a track with a demo, because we were asked to do the song for the soundtrack of the movie Cocktail, featuring Tom Cruise. So we were asked by the director to come up with a song for this part of the movie where Tom Cruise goes from a bartender in New York to Jamaica. So that's where I came up with the "Aruba, Jamaica" idea, that part.
So Terry was in the studio doing the track and they didn't have the chorus yet. They just had a certain amount of bars, but there was nothing going on there. I said, "Well, here's what I want to do." And I remember I had told them about the part before. But he said, "Uh huh. How does it go again?" So I literally, over the phone - he was in the studio and I was on the phone - sang [deadpan slow recitation]: "Aruba, Jamaica, ooo, I want to take you." So he's writing that down, and I'm singing it in the scene, the notes, and the timing of it in tempo to the track.
So in other words, no, we didn't sit down at one time together. It came together in sections. But Terry did a great job of putting it together. It went to #1. That song was #1 for like 8 or 10 weeks in Australia.
Songfacts: Oh, it was massive.
Mike: Massive hit, yeah.
Mike: Well, I appreciate it. The problem is, my uncle Murry administrated the publishing, and he didn't give me credit for songs that I wrote and sang every word to. Like, for instance, I wrote every word of "California Girls." But I had to go to court to establish my authorship and prove that, in fact, I did write those songs. And that wasn't the only one. "I Get Around" - I came up with "Round, round, get around, I get around," that hook. And wrote the preponderance of the lyrics. But I wasn't credited. So it gave people a disproportionate view of who was responsible for what. So that was the major reason for not getting, as you say, credit for what I actually contributed to.
January 10, 2013. Get more at mikelove.com.
More Songwriter Interviews