In 1960, The Beach Boys released "Surfin' USA ," a song that captured the joyful exuberance of girls, cars, surfing and everything Southern California had to offer. Los Angeles, at the time, was a surf rock mecca that had a beautiful and unpretentious side reflected in the music. But the promise of the early 60s turned tragic by the end of the decade. As a colorful cast of characters—including Charles Manson, Jan and Dean, Joni Mitchell, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra Jr., the Mamas and the Papas, Elvis Presley, and Ike and Tina Turner—emerged, the Wilson brothers found themselves pulled into a terror-filled existence that spiraled from free love orgies and surf music to kidnappings and ransoms. Frank Sinatra Jr. was kidnapped. Texas singer Bobby Fuller turned up dead in suspicious circumstances that were nonetheless ruled a suicide. Most notably, Dennis Wilson became closely involved with Manson in the late 60s, as Manson attempted to break into the music industry. The terror culminated in the infamous Manson murders, in which Manson and his followers brutally killed nine people.
In Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles, released April 1 on Chicago Review press, rock author and Boston University professor William McKeen, whose diagnosis with cancer spurned him to complete the book he'd long contemplated writing, explores the dark and twisted story of the era. How did sun-tanned all-American boys known for their carefree teen anthems wind up roommates with a failed rock star turned one of the most vicious criminals of the century? How was music entangled with some of the other kidnappings and murders of the era? I talked to McKeen to find out.
Noisey: What circumstances combined to jumpstart the beginning of a golden age in rock history in 1960s Los Angeles?
William McKeen: The Los Angeles music world had been building since the 1940s, when Capitol Records was founded, and through the late 1950s, with a burgeoning number of important independent labels, such as Specialty and Aladdin. The major labels, such as Columbia and RCA Victor, were back East, so there was a greater tradition of independence in LA. Rock 'n' roll was advanced by the lunatic pioneers on independent labels: Sam Phillips at Sun in Memphis, Leonard Chess at Chess in Chicago, and Art Rupe at Specialty in LA. This was the atmosphere at the dawn of the 1960s: a tradition of independence.
Then came musical savant Brian Wilson, who operated outside the traditions of popular music. He broke away from the studios. He produced his own tracks and eschewed assigned record producers. He was, in fact, Mr. Everything—writer, producer, arranger, musician. Chuck Berry, and, to a lesser extent, artists such as Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Fats Domino, had already established the singer-songwriter model that was changing the traditions of pop music.
Brian Wilson went even further, taking control of the whole package. There was no Svengali for his group. The group's Svengali was within the group. Brian Wilson gets credit—deserved, of course—for many things. But he is not often recognized for his role in freeing artists from the clutches of music-business vermin. He created an independent working environment for musicians, and he did it when he was 19.
Can you explain how big The Beach Boys were in the 1960s? Didn't they hold near Beatle status?
Rock 'n' roll was pretty much dead in America at the beginning of the 1960s. Chuck Berry was in jail, Little Richard was in the ministry, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were dead, and, after service in the Army, Elvis's brains had obviously been sucked from his head by space aliens. He was here physically, but the King was gone.
The only really good American music then came from California—the three-minute teenage operas produced by Phil Spector and the records by the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys were it for American rock 'n' roll. Meanwhile, British rock bands were rediscovering American rock 'n' roll. Soon, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and so many others were reintroducing American music to the fickle American teenage audience.
Ironically, The Beach Boys may have had their greatest popularity in Great Britain. During the mid-1960s, when The Beatles were producing masterworks, they were generally ranked behind The Beach Boys in fan popularity. Pet Sounds, the 1966 album now regarded as the group's greatest achievement—and the greatest rock album of all time by some critics—was a great success in England, yet a relative failure in the United States. The last few years of the 1960s saw The Beach Boys' popularity decline in their homeland, yet they remained hugely popular in Europe. With hindsight, of course, no other band could match The Beatles on all fronts. But The Beach Boys came close.
"When The Beach Boys sang their songs about surfing and cars, they were really singing about independence."
How did the dynamics of the Wilson brothers relationship form the sound of The Beach Boys?
It was a strange family, in part because of the cycle of child abuse handed down from Brian, Dennis, and Carl's grandfather. Their father, Murry, was a monster. Fairly early on, the brothers learned that the only way they could stop their father from beating them was to sing. He melted at the sound of music. So they learned that he loved vocal harmony. They developed that ability and married it with the rock 'n' roll music of their generation—Chuck Berry, in particular. So that was the blend that came out of the hell house of the Wilsons' childhood: choirboy harmonies and rock 'n' roll.
How did peace, free love, drugs, and instant fame in LA create a dark undertone to the feel-good pop of surfer bands like The Beach Boys?
It was a natural progression. When The Beach Boys sang their songs about surfing and cars, they were really singing about independence. The teenager was invented in the last half of the 20th century. Until postwar America, kids were commodities and often used to help with family support. There was no leisure time and certainly no coddled kids.
After the greatest generation survived the Depression and the Second World War, it began to raise its children, the Baby Boomers. And in compensation, this new generation of children had a childhood and became known as "teenagers," a word invented in the 20th Century. The teenagers had freedom, cars, and disposable income. Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys provided the soundtrack, and once this new lifestyle began to emerge, there was no return to the old ways.
The freedom grew exponentially, and despite the gifts bestowed on the young folks by the earlier generation, one thing that seemed to bind young people was the desire to be unlike their parents. So they chose to embrace an openness they did not see in their parents and also to gravitate toward things that differed wildly from the status quo. The openness morphed into naiveté. Young people were welcoming to people and things who were new and different, which also made them easy prey for a con man such as Charles Manson.
How close do you think Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson were back then? And how did a scene that developed and embraced The Beach Boys move in the same circles with the likes of Manson?
People referred to Manson as being almost an appendage of Dennis Wilson. They were roommates, of course, but they spent nearly all of their time together. Dennis was Manson's patron, trying to get him a record deal, talking him up to everybody. Manson was Dennis's dealer—of women and drugs—and so he sought to pay him back somehow. Dennis was an extraordinarily generous man who shared money and possessions because he didn't like to see anyone be unhappy.
The other Beach Boys were not quite as welcoming. Brian and Carl wanted to be supportive of their brother, whose songwriting was becoming one of the most exciting things about the group in its late 1960s skid. But Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and Alan Jardine were wary of Manson from the start, and Brian and Carl soon became so. They had a private investigator look into Manson's background. When the group learned of his many stretches in the pokey, they sought to distance themselves from him. Dennis, however, liked the idea of flirting with danger.
How did a surf music superstar subsidize the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.?
Dean Torrance of the surf duo Jan and Dean was loyal to his friends. When one of his high school buddies showed up to ask if he could borrow money to kidnap a celebrity, Dean thought, "Why not?" He thought his friend obviously needed money, and now that Dean was a rock star, he thought he could lend him some money. He didn't think his friend would actually go through with it—until he heard the news reports on the radio.
"Manson sounded the death knell of the hippie. I think Charles Manson saw the hippies as a bunch of chumps, easily exploited."
Who killed transplanted Texas singer Bobby Fuller, and why was the mob suspected?
The murder of Bobby Fuller has never been solved. The coroner's report—changed after the fact—indicated that it was suicide, but how could a man who was already dead drive his car to his friend's house and expire there? There were mob ties to record labels, and one theory is that Bobby Fuller had answered to some of the music industry's silent partners.
Since Manson couldn't make it in music, he decided to go on a murder spree. Why?
Manson had been associating with rock stars such as Dennis Wilson and Neil Young and felt that he deserved that lifestyle. Dennis Wilson was unable to get Manson a recording contract. Neil Young recommended Manson to Mo Ostin, the head of Warner-Reprise Records, but Ostin passed. Dennis's friend Terry Melcher—producer of the Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders, son of Doris Day—recorded Manson on a couple of occasions but also passed.
Infuriated, Manson sought to send a message to the LA music intelligentsia. He sent his killers to the house where Terry Melcher had lived with his girlfriend, actress Candace Bergen. Manson had been to the house many times and had been there since Melcher had moved. But he chose that house in order to frighten those who had spurned him. Manson had all of his dreams tied up in being a rock 'n' roll star. When he didn't get that, he lost his shit.
How did Manson change America's perspective of the hippie generation and what impact did the whole Manson affair have on the Beach Boys and other surf stars from the 1960s?
Hippies had been portrayed as comic relief in popular culture until Manson came along. Suddenly, these benign and hirsute young folk were viewed with fear. Manson sounded the death knell of the hippie. I think Charles Manson saw the hippies as a bunch of chumps, easily exploited. He got out of prison, saw what the world was like in Haight-Ashbury, and set out to take advantage of the naiveté that was in the DNA of the peace, love, and flowers crowd. He looked like just another hippie, but he was not of that species. I don't think Manson had a terrible effect on the Beach Boys in terms of public relations. They were at a low point then. I think today, many people are unaware of Manson's ties to the Beach Boys, Neil Young, the Mamas and the Papas, and others.
Lead photo: Detail of cover for Everybody Had an Ocean, courtesy of Chicago Review Press
Seth Ferranti is a writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter.