Brian Wilson and Mike Love: More bad vibrations

There's always been rivalry between the Beach Boy cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love, but now it looks like war. Andy Buncombe investigates
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They're famous for some of the most memorable pop harmonies ever recorded, but these days, the atmosphere between the surviving members of The Beach Boys is, at best, a little off-key.

The acrimony between the band's composer, Brian Wilson, and his cousin, the lead singer Mike Love, is legendary. But in recent weeks, things have seemingly taken a turn for the worse. Two weeks ago, Love filed a lawsuit against Wilson, accusing him of promoting his 2004 album Smile in a manner that "shamelessly misappropriated Mike Love's songs, likeness and The Beach Boys trademark, as well as the Smile album itself".

The specifics of the row relate to a promotion for Smile in The Mail on Sunday, in which 2.6 million copies of a Beach Boys compilation CD were given away. The lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles federal court claims that the promotion undermined sales of the band's back catalogue, demands "millions of dollars in illicit profits", and seeks at least $1m for international advertising "to correct the effects of ... unfair competition and infringing uses".

In a statement, Love claimed that his lawsuit was not directed at Wilson. "Once again, the people around Brian, my cousin and collaborator on many hits, whom I love and care about, have used him for their own financial gain without regard to his rights, or my rights," he said. "Unfortunately, history repeats itself. Because of Brian's mental issues, he has always been vulnerable to manipulation. I simply want to stop the infringers and stop the deception."

Exactly what is motivating Love is unclear. Some fans speculate that the singer is irked by the huge success of Wilson's Smile, released last year after a hiatus of almost 40 years since its conception. Back in 1967, Love had been opposed to the release of Smile - a highly experimental album containing lyrics by Van Dyke Parks that broke with the band's simpler, sunnier sound. For three-and-a-half decades, his magnum opus had existed as little more than a whispered legend, the album on which the boy wonder of American pop was to match and ultimately outstrip The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In fact, the strain of realising his vision proved too much for an increasingly acid-addled Wilson, who abandoned it when he took it into his head that a spate of fires in Los Angeles might have been "caused" by the Fire section of the album's "Elements" suite, otherwise known as "Mrs O'Leary's Cow".

Love was quoted as describing Smile as a "whole album of Brian's madness". In reality, whether the other members of the band had supported Wilson's project or not, it is questionable whether he was mentally well enough to have completed his "teenage symphony to God". Having developed a heavy dependency on drugs, he had then suffered from a nervous breakdown that was to incapacitate him for the better part of two decades. Wilson was only to emerge, still in a somewhat fragile state, in the late 1990s.

In an interview for CNN last year, Wilson spoke of his struggle with mental illness, and of meeting his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter. "I'm doing good," he told the interviewer Larry King. "I had a slight nervous breakdown in the 1960s. I got through that. And I got through the 1970s. And I was in a doctor's programme during the 1980s, and then I met Melinda and we've been together ever since. I've got a happy life."

Love's lawyer, Phil Stillman, has insisted that his client and Wilson remain friends. "Mike has a lot of affection for Brian, and they have a good relationship and cordial relations. There's obviously some problem with the way Brian's [associates] have promoted the album," he told the Associated Press. "[But] they remain family and the co-founders of a very important band in rock'n'roll history."

But the oddly intense rivalry that still remains among the greying, surviving members of the band - all old enough to know better - certainly appears to have a role in Love's lawsuit. That dispute even goes to the very issue of what the remaining members of the band can call themselves. Under an agreement apparently approved by the band members' record company, Brother Records, Inc, Love and Bruce Johnston are allowed to tour using the name The Beach Boys. (Wilson's brother Carl was a member of this outfit until he died of cancer in 1998.) Meanwhile, the other surviving member of the band, the guitarist Alan Jardine, tours as part of a group called "Endless Summer featuring Al Jardine".

The 63-year-old's Smile album, re-recorded in its entirety with the Wondermints band, was heralded as both a musical and a personal triumph. Upon its release, the NME said that Smile matched "any of the great music of the 20th century", and at last year's live performances of the work, grown men openly wept. Wilson's latest release is a Christmas album entitled, aptly enough, What I Really Want for Christmas.

In another interview, Wilson said that, after a long period of darkness, he was once again enjoying life. His return to music, he said, was at the centre of that recovery. "I get up in the morning, and go to breakfast at a delicatessen near my house at about 7am. I have fish and salad. I tried to give up that red meat for a while. You feel a little bit better when you do that.

He added: "Then, at 8am, I start writing songs, try to write melodies. Until 9.30 or 10 in the morning. Then I exercise, then see the kids when they come home from school. I hang out, have dinner and go to bed."

The musician recently helped to raise more than $200,000 for victims of Hurricane Katrina, by making around 500 personal phone-calls to people who pledged money to the cause.Meanwhile, Love and Johnstone and Jardine are more likely to be found playing at casinos and state fairs - Love and Johnstone are this weekend due to play a gig at a casino in Milwaukee.

The byzantine plotting that fills the band's various websites and message boards - there are "official" sites for Wilson, Love and Johnstone, Jardine and, indeed, The Beach Boys, which includes all three separate units - suggests that there may be even more behind the lawsuit. Under the current arrangement, agreed by Brother Records, Inc, the original band members - Wilson, Love, Jardine, as well as the estate of Carl Wilson - each have a vote to decide who gets to use the Beach Boys name for touring purposes. (Johnstone does not get a vote because he only joined the band in 1965, four years after it was originally formed, and, for some reason, the estate of Dennis Wilson - the only original member of the "surf sound" group who could actually surf, but who then drowned in 1983 - also gets no say in the matter.)

Though it is unknown when this agreement runs out, there has been speculation that Love's lawsuit is an attempt to pressure Wilson into agreeing to let Love continue to use the profitable Beach Boys name for his and Johnstone's touring efforts. (Mike Love's lawyer, when contacted on the matter, failed to return calls.)

Brother Records, Inc, the headquarters of which are listed at an address on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, but which strangely has no listed telephone number, is also maintaining silence. In an e-mail message, a lawyer for the company, Ed McPherson, said: "Because the matter is now in litigation, Brother Records does not want to comment on the underlying facts at this time."

Who knows? While Mike Love has previously sued Brian Wilson for compensation over songs that he says he contributed to, this latest lawsuit may be little more than a publicity stunt to drum up some sales. Let's hope so. As things stand right now, things look decidedly unfriendly down on the beach.