He Wrote the Song: Talking with Bruce Johnston
By Michael deMartin
Bruce Johnston is a guy I've wanted to talk with for awhile and I had the opportunity to do so recently. Bruce is a big fan of Brian's - and a humble guy considering he's written a lot of good songs over the years. He won a Grammy of "Song of the Year" I think in 1976 that Barry Manilow turned into a #1 smash hit, so that's saying something. Bruce also wrote a Beach Boys' favorite, "Disney Girls," a paeon to youth that's about as sublime as songs get. In any case, he told me right away "I'm really only a first violin - it's really Brian."
We talked about contemporary music, and while Bruce is current with things, he said while this generation has grooves and beats, "there's not much too sing." He mentioned "Killing Me Softly" by the Fugees as being a cool song, but of course that was written over 30 years ago.
He talked about "the world of Brian Wilson's melodies" and how Brian evolved so quickly before he got to Pet Sounds. Throughout our interview, Bruce was very carefully to include Mike Love when he talked about the Beach Boys songs. In part I guess because he feels Mike has been overlooked as a lyricist to some of the Beach Boys biggest hits, but also (I'm sure) because he performs every night with Mike as "The Beach Boys."
Bruce said Brian's songs still sound great because of primarily the songwriting, but also the arrangements, production and singing. When I asked Bruce what he thought were the greatest albums of all-time, he said "Pet Sounds IS the greatest album of all-time and it has nothing to do with Rock 'n Roll. It's just Brian being Debussy or Rachmaninoff in the mid-sixties. It's just a classic album that doesn't fit into the rock 'n roll genre to me - it's just so far above it."
Bruce said composers in the future will be inspired by Brian's melodies and arrangements and listen to how he put it all together separately from the songs. Bruce said he took Pet Sounds to England before its release and played it for Lennon and McCartney twice one night and they were both blown away. As the story goes, the Beatles knew that they had been topped and it inspired them to new heights with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, released in 1967.
We started talking about the Pet Sounds tracks and Bruce said "You Still Believe in Me" was "heartwrenching" for him to listen to Brian sing it - most of us would have to agree. "That's Not Me" didn't knock him out; "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)" had an "amazing string arrangement" and recalled it having six strings on it. Bruce said "Let's Go Away For Awhile" "did nothing for me" which surprised me quite a bit. In my opinion, it may be Brian's very best instrumental ever.
Bruce loved "Sloop John B." but said flatly it didn't belong on the album "Wrong move by EMI. Right move by EMI to drive the album, but it does not fit on it." Interesting, because Brian made it very clear that he did want it on the album. I suppose after 40 years, memories fade a little bit.
Bruce said "Brian Wilson would be more of a God than he already is" if he had put "Good Vibrations" on the album and left out "Sloop John B." Interesting: could a perfect album be even more perfect? Bruce talked about "God Only Knows" and how Brian originally had a big chorus at the end including Terry Melcher (this alternate track can be heard on the Pet Sounds box set). After Carl sang the lead, he was tired and went home. So the beautiful, circular trio of voices you hear at the end are Brian singing two of the voices and Bruce one. Bruce then declared it "the most remarkable song on the album."
He called "I Know There's An Answer" pleasant at best, and talked about Mike not wanting to sing the original set of lyrics called "Hand On To Your Ego" because of it's drug implications. The story goes that when people were dropping acid in the sixties they had to "hang on to their egos." In the end - in my opinion - they did the right thing. Pet Sounds is a classic for the ages and having a song called "Hang On To Your Ego" sounds very dated to say the least.
With "Here Today" Bruce said that Brian is "redefining the word brilliant." He talked about the "unusual" break in the middle which he called perfection. This is the break that Brian told me was influenced by Bach - and if you've heard any Bach at all, you'll know what he's talking about. Bruce said he "wouldn't be surprised if every great musical talent of all-time is spinning around in Brian Wilson's great blender."
"I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" had a great lyric and track. This seems to be the one track Brian, Mike, Al and Bruce really love most and not the more obvious choices. Surprisingly he called the instrumental "Pet Sounds" cute, and that was it. Interestingly, both Mike and Bruce's least favorites on the album were the instrumentals. Perhaps because they on didn't sing them.
Bruce called "Caroline, No" "unbelievably hearbreaking ... brilliant" but he wished that it could have been left at its original speed. He explained that Brian's dad, Murray, had the song speed up a key so that Brian would song younger, and thus is would appeal to a young audience. Again a good move commercially, I suppose, but not a great artistic one. Interestingly, Bruce said Murray did it on others (not on Pet Sounds) and I wonder which ones?
Bruce said he did not like the new "Good Vibrations" CD single just released with its alternative versions, but the one "Brian Wilson signed off on."
Bruce couldn't answer some things about the recording of Pet Sounds because he said, bluntly, that he was out surfing and chasing girls. He said it was only after he did attend a tracking session for "God Only Knows" that he realized something special was going on. He said he just assumed that Mike wrote the lyrics and then found out afterwards that Tony Asher wrote them. After Pet Sounds, Bruce said he could've gotten out of the music business because nothing could be better than Pet Sounds. Bruce called himself "Oscar Levant to Brian's George Gershwin."s
After Pet Sounds, Bruce talked about some general things and said that "Disney Girls" was the only "cool" song he had written in his life, but he's just being humble. He's a cool guy and it was great finally getting to talk with him.