In 1967, the Beach Boys took 10 suites at the Hilton. Now they're taking a coach to Croydon. Where did it all go wrong?

THIS is a story of what happens to rock icons who do not die before they grow old. It begins, dismally, on a bleak winter's evening at the Brixton Academy, where Status Quo and the Beach Boys are appearing together for one night only: joining forces as if there might be strength in numbers.

It is a strange sight to behold: 10 men in late middle-age (grey-haired, balding, some veering towards the corpulent), performing a Sixties pop song called "Fun, Fun, Fun" about teenage jinks in California. And yet the event is also curiously intriguing: not least because the man who wrote the song - Brian Wilson, the one-time leader of the Beach Boys, and one of the most mysterious and reclusive figures in pop history - is on stage, against all expectations. Wilson, formerly revered as "the genius of pop", later renowned for his vast ingestion of drugs and junk food - and a tendency to spend years at a time in bed - has finally surfaced (no mean feat, given that his weight, in his lost years, peaked at 25 stone). It is almost as if an undead Elvis emerged from Graceland to sing backing vocals at a one-off gig in one of London's less salubrious venues.

True, Brian only appears for three or four minutes; but even the massed ranks of the Status Quo fan club (the select audience for this remarkable occasion) give a bigger cheer for Brian than for their own rock heroes. He emerges from the wings, blinking; less fat than before, though well- draped in black Armani. His younger brother, Carl, stands beside him (his other brother, Dennis, is dead - drowned whilst drunk in the sea he once surfed). You can hardly believe your eyes.

But here they are: possibly the most famous American pop group of all time, reduced to doing backing vocals for Status Quo (south-London lads who have spent 30 years churning out their chugga-chugga no-nonsense rock standards). The Beach Boys bring with them the heady whiff of scandal and intrigue (madness, drugs, and a former connection with Charles Manson); Status Quo contribute a milder, English version of rock'n'roll badness (drink-driving convictions; a tendency to over-indulge in beer; growing old ungracefully). Together, they are hoping for a new hit single (Fun! Fun! Fun!) to reinvigorate their more or less stagnant careers. In the audience, the fans nudge each other and point at Brian.

Brian appears to do all that is expected of him (he sings to the chorus; he sways, albeit slowly, in time to the music; and he waves, when told to by his brother, upon departure). He is, in short, a living legend, made manifest before us.

UNFORTUNATELY, the experience is so exhausting for Brian that he has to go home to Beverly Hills the next day - which means that there is no Brian to promote the Quo/Boys single in their subsequent publicity campaign. (This includes a slew of television appearances where they are to be interviewed, though not simultaneously, by Michael Barrymore, Des O'Connor and Cilla Black, the Holy Trinity of popular culture.) But the others press on regardless: from one sad chat show to another, until they arrive at GMTV as dawn breaks on a Thursday morning, looking embarrassed and yet also, poignantly, eager to please.

Despite the lack of Brian, they mime to "Fun, Fun, Fun" with enormous energy; afterwards, the two GMTV presenters applaud with equal enthusiasm. "It's great to have such seasoned performers on the show," says one of them. The rock stars laugh, a little uncomfortably, and shuffle off the set.

Carl Wilson (short, bearded, portly) stays behind to answer questions. "So what keeps you going?" asks the GMTV interviewer.

"We've had a lot of fun," says Carl, looking serious, but backstage the rest of his answer is drowned out by the Beach Boys' lead singer, Mike Love.

"The IRS," says Love, sourly. "That's what keeps us going. We gotta pay our taxes.

MIKE LOVE is Carl and Brian's cousin. He is 54 years old, and wears the following: a Beach Boys baseball hat; a curious leather jacket embossed with a map of the world; shiny black tassled loafers; and a silk shirt covered in amusing slogans ("golden goose has been known to lay broken egg", for example). He glints all over: diamond rings on his fingers, a jewel- encrusted bracelet on one wrist, an enormous gold watch on the other. His eyes are hidden behind blue sunglasses. He looks like a Las Vegas high-roller, or an Atlantic City businessman; there is no trace of the golden-haired surfer he used to be, before time and money intervened.

"Yesterday I was in Maidstone, Kent," Mike tells me, apropos of nothing. "I was visiting a lady friend, whom I met at the Maharishi's place 28 years ago. We studied transcendental meditation together. Now she lives in a historical monument. After lunch, I came back to London. We're staying in a hotel next door to Le Gavroche. Do you know that restaurant? They charge pounds 9 for a bowl of soup! I call it Le Go Broke." He laughs a lot at his joke, and then continues. "Did I ever tell you about the time I came to London with Marlon Brando? It was in 1967, and we flew across from Paris together. When we got to London, there were six Daimlers waiting for the Beach Boys, so I offered Marlon a lift. He came up to our hotel with us. We had 10 suites at the Hilton, overlooking Hyde Park. Marlon took a look round and said, 'Man, you cats really know how to travel!' I haven't seen him since."

Today, Mike is travelling by coach to the Hilton, Croydon, where he is appearing with Status Quo and the Beach Boys on Cilla Black's Surprise, Surprise!. On his way from the GMTV studio to the coach, he tells his "Le Gavroche/Le Go Broke" story several more times: to an attractive blonde TV presenter; and again, to assorted members of the Quo/Boys entourage. They are escorting him along the corridor, but he keeps dawdling. "Write this down," he says to me. "Mike Love is into evolution, revolution, and meditation. I'm a Pisces, with Gemini rising. I'm into the cosmos. I'm going to India on Sunday. I go for the special services there, which the priest conducts on behalf of the supplicant." In his slow drawl, the word "supplicant" begins to sound faintly lewd.

Mike tells me that you can learn how to live forever in India. "Immortality is in the DNA," he says. "Just like Methuselah in the Bible."

"Will you live forever?" I ask.

"The idea is to structure your environment so that everything is pure," he says. "Pure, spiritual, life-supporting. That's my hobby - the pursuit of spiritual knowledge."

But it's hard to be spiritual all the time, when you've spent 35 years in a pop group with a penchant for litigation. On the bus to Croydon, Love gives a brief outline of the various legal disputes that have beset the Beach Boys over the years. It boils down to this: they all sued each other, and then some of them sued their lawyers, too. Mike, for instance, sued Brian for calling him a "sex-crazed maniac" in his 1991 autobiography. Mike also sued Brian for a share of the $10m that Brian was awarded after a different lawsuit in 1992 (over the fraudulent sale of their songs by Brian's abusive but now dead father). Most of that particular $10m has disappeared in legal fees; but Mike and Brian will no doubt generate some more income, now that they are working together again: just like the old days when they wrote "Fun, Fun, Fun", and the whole of America fell in love with their sweet smiles and even sweeter melodies.

FRANCIS ROSSI, the 46-year-old lead singer of Status Quo, first heard the Beach Boys when he was 12 years old, the son of an Italian ice-cream man in Forest Hill, south London. He loved them straight away. He liked "the positive attitude" he heard in their songs. He feels that Status Quo share the same positive attitude, and that's what has brought them together, more than three decades later. "There's no bitching in the band," he says, sitting on the coach to Croydon, his greying hair - or what's left of it - tied back in a neat ponytail, his jeans pressed and his dark jacket uncrumpled.

Rossi looks like a cheerful sort of chap, with a winning grin on his face despite having risen before six this morning (no doubt one of the reasons that his fans love him). He tells me about his seven children, and the eighth that is on the way. "Don't sit too close," he says proudly. "They call me super-sperm!"

He wasn't always so happy, though. "I started doing cocaine in 1980," he says, "which was extremely silly. It was the worst, unhappiest time of my life. I lost my nose. I can put a cotton bud up one nostril and pull it down through the other." He gave it all up in 1987, and appears to lead a relatively quiet life with his second wife, Eileen, in Purley, one of the drabber outposts of metropolitan London. "Hopefully, one gets older and more sensible," he says.

Mike Love comes and sits next to Francis. He tells Francis his Marlon Brando story. He tells him his Le Gavroche joke. He tells him about his beautiful home in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. None of the Beach Boys live in LA anymore, he says, apart from Brian (who never went surfing in the first place). "LA doesn't resemble the place we grew up," says Mike. "Now you get murdered there for having a good car. It used to be the promised land. Now there's nothing but earthquakes, fire, and drive-by shootings."

"I think I'll stay in Purley," says Francis.

WE arrive in Croydon, just as Mike is telling me about his sixth wife and his seven children ("my son is uncle to my grandson"). Cilla Black's assistant greets the Quo/Boys coach party, and explains their role in today's Surprise, Surprise!. Francis and his co-star, Rick Parfitt, are to hide in a hotel room and then leap out and surprise a Status Quo fan; Mike is to similarly surprise a Beach Boys fan. Then the two bands are to walk across the road to a nearby leisure centre, where they will perform "Fun, Fun, Fun" beside the swimming pool. "You'll feel like you're in Hawaii in there," she says, cheerily.

"This is the big time," says Francis, with slightly less cheer than usual.

We go upstairs to the hotel room. "Shall I send up some teas and coffees?" asks the assistant.

"Yes, and drugs and girls," says Mike. He reclines on the hotel bed, and beckons to me. "Would the Independent on Sunday like to do some undercover investigations?" I decline, and he appears to fall asleep (though perhaps he is meditating).

Rick Parfitt, meanwhile, combs his hair carefully. Rick was once the quintessential Seventies guitar hero - lusted after by millions of teenage girls; idolised by trillions of teenage boys, who copied his Quo riffs on air guitars in suburban bedrooms. These days, the Status Quo audience ranges from nine to 59; and though they can still fill Wembley Arena, Rossi and Parfitt - tagged the Mel Smith and Riff Grease-Jones of rock by an unkind critic - have become a sort of good-natured show band: Cliff Richard with knobs on.

Parfitt, however, has not yet settled down into a peaceful middle age. Last year, he crashed his Porsche on the M3, and was subsequently fined for drink-driving and possession of cocaine. But he's cleaning up, he says. "I haven't had a drink this year yet, and I've spent 12 days in a detox clinic." He went into the clinic to give up sleeping tablets, which he has been taking since the mid-Eighties. The crash, he explains, gave him a bit of a fright. "I'd had a good few to drink, and then I took my sleeping tablets - and that was the last thing I remember till I woke up in a po- lice station. I don't know where I got my car keys from, or anything."

If he took this as a warning, then his recent encounter with Brian Wilson proved equally instructive. "I looked at Brian and thought, 'Christ, where's he been, how did he get into this state?' It makes me thank my lucky stars. You see some people in this business, and they're shaking and their faces have dropped. I know my looks have gone - but not as badly as some people, mentioning no names."

AFTER some time, Mike Love is woken up ("I wasn't asleep, I was dreaming of that gorgeous television presenter"), and the assembled stars proceed to the oddly named Spectra Suite, where - surprise, surprise! - they meet Cilla Black and two startled fans. Afterwards, Rick Parfitt returns to the hotel room, punches the air, and - in a more restrained version of Seventies hotel-trashing - tears down a poster from the wall. "Yes!" he cries, with genuine excitement. "We did it!"

Then the stars are herded towards the swimming pool. Carl Wilson sprays hairspray onto his big, fluffy hair. Mike Love winks and waves at some girls in bikinis ("are they cute, or what?"). Plastic pink flamingoes flap above them. There is a wave machine, making very small waves. A group of pale, fat teenage boys splash in the water, looking more like whales than surf gods. They watch the Beach Boys and Status Quo mime to "Fun, Fun, Fun". They look slightly mystified, as does the Beach Boys' manager. "What's this Cilla Black show about?" he asks me, his eyes obscured behind steamed-up glasses. I try to explain. "Hmm," he says, impassively. "How sweet."

One of the Beach Boys, Bruce Johnston, wanders past. His grey hair is hidden under a baseball cap, and a small paunch is tucked into his jeans. "Hey!" he says to me. "Don't forget to put this down in your notebook. We're having a great time here - a great time!"

Bruce is an enthusiast. Bruce does not get depressed, even when everyone else begins to look gloomy in the coach on the way back to Lon- don. "Look!" he says, pointing to the rows of grimy terraced houses that slide past the coach windows, "maybe someone is out there, sitting alone in their bedroom, and then they hear "Fun, Fun, Fun" on the radio - and it lifts them up, and they feel good again."

Carl Wilson takes no notice. "Where I live," he says, "it's silent. You can hear the wind blow and the trees rustle."

Bruce carries on regardless. "I think Queen Elizabeth is a really amazing woman," he says. "She's been carrying the banner for years, and she has all these family problems - but she still goes out there and performs. That's what we do. That, to me, is really cool. Don't you think so?"

! 'Fun, Fun, Fun' is available now (Polygram, single).

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