Original publish date: February 20, 2015
This week marks the 50th anniversary of a song that is considered by many to be a rock ‘n roll classic, by others as an an ear-worm impossible to forget and to me an anthem to my lovely wife. On February 24, 1965, the Beach Boys recorded “Help Me, Rhonda”. The song, written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, peaked at number one on May 29, 1965, knocking the Beatles “Ticket to Ride” from the top spot before being displaced by the Supremes “Back in my arms again” two weeks later. It was the band’s second # 1 single after “I Get Around” in 1964. The song became part of the “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” album in June 1965.
It tells the story of how a boy fell for a girl who dropped him for another guy and the boy begs his friend Rhonda to help him forget about her. Got it? Brian Wilson has always stated that Rhonda was not based on anyone in real life. Simple, right? Not so much. There is a long and twisted back story to the song, the recording session and the Wilson family dynamic that goes a long way towards explaining why Brian Wilson eventually became such a tortured soul. Oh, by the way, the song features Glen Campbell on guitar and Leon Russell on piano. And you thought “Help me Rhonda” was just a cute and catchy little tune, didn’t you?
The first version was recorded in two sessions at United Western Recorders Studio in Hollywood on January 8 and 19, 1965. The song was originally titled “Help me Ronda” and it was the first single to feature Al Jardine (the band’s only non-Wilson) on lead vocals. Curiously enough, it begins with a brief ukelele intro. This first version became legendary for what happened in the studio rather than what happened on the track itself.
Well into that first session, a drunken Murry Wilson (Brian, Carl and Dennis’ Dad and Mike Love’s Uncle) arrives and proceeds to take over the session with an odd, but very caustic mix of psychodrama, scat singing and abusive melodrama. Murry’s drunken rants and criticisms drove the normally placid Brian to the breaking point. The recording reel continued to run, capturing the legendary confrontation in its entirety. Today the alcohol fueled spat circulates among fans as a classic bootleg recording.
In the studio, Brian screamed expletives, removed his headphones, and confronted his father. On the tape, Murry wanted to stop the recording but Brian insisted on keeping the tape rolling. For Beach Boys fans, it’s a good thing that Brian won out, because this audio verifies many of the Murry Wilson horror stories and portrays Brian in a very sympathetic light. Perhaps contrary to the image attached to Brian over the past 25 years, in these 1965 tapes, 22-year-old Brian Wilson sounds mature, patient and sane compared to his alcoholic, abusive stage father.
The entire 39-minute tape can be found on many sites on the net. It is well worth googling for both historical and entertainment value. I say entertainment because Murry Wilson, father of three of the most talented musician brothers this country has ever produced, comes across as a caricature. The first several minutes of this session are spent trying to get the correct vocal balance on the microphones. Brian is in control of the crowded studio, including a gaggle of onlookers and hangers-on, mostly friends of the band, but it must be remembered that Charles Manson and his family were once included among this entourage.
The banter among the bandmates and “Wrecking Crew” studio musicians is typical witty chatter with hints of the Era in which the recording was made scattered thourhgout. Mike Love saying “I got Vietnam-itus in here.” Al Jardine replying with a giggle: “I was just thinking of that, you know that?” Mike: “What?” Al: “Vietnam…for some reason, I don’t know why…” and Brian yelling from the booth: “Get in the front of the mic, Carl!”
Mike and Al shift their conversation from Vietnam to the Cold War, namely Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles…Mike: “their ICBMs…all aimed at the Capitol (Records)Tower…” Carl (reading the manufacturer’s emblem on the Telefunken microphone): “Made in Western Germany…” Al: “Oh, my God!” Dennis (to his brother Carl): “You got the biggest butt in the world….” Carl: “Well, it’s big, but…” Brian says “Here we go!” Shortly, afterwards, Murry stumbles into the studio and attempts to take control of the song.
Murry chastises Brian repeatedly for not singing from the heart and repeatedly tells “the boys” to “sync-o-pate, sync-op-ate, sync-o-pate.” Brian bristles at the instructions and asks his father several times to leave. On the tape, Brian briefly berates Murry by reminding him that he is deaf in one ear as a result of one of Murry’s blows to his head (allegedly with a 2×4). When Murry continues to berate the young men for letting fame go to their heads while drunkenly professing his love for all of them, Brian begins to respond by repeating the phrase, “Times are changing.” Towards the end of the argument, Murry utters the line that summed up his entire relationship with the band when he slurred at his son, “Brian, I’m a Genius, Too” at the 30:55 mark of the recording.
At this point, Murry departs with the boy’s mother Audree in tow and the Beach Boys continued on with the session. Emotionally devastated by the evening’s drama, the Boys called it a night, returning the next day to redo the vocals. Brian would have the last laugh in this battle by sneaking the song “I’m Bugged At My Ol’ Man” onto the album at the last minute. It would be another three years before Murry again attended a Beach Boys recording session. Legend claims that from that point on, the band purchased a fake audio console for their sessions, so Murry could twiddle knobs on the fake mixing board to his heart’s delight without destroying anything.
Murry so destroyed this recording session that The Beach Boys re-recorded the entire song at Universal and Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood on February 24, 1965. They also changed the song’s name from Ronda to Rhonda, perhaps to erase all connection to that nightmare session six weeks previous. It is this second version that became the hit single we are all so familiar with. After reaching # 1 in the U.S., the song became a staple of the band’s live set. In what must have been a surreal footnote in American music history, The Beach Boys performed the song with the Grateful Dead on April 27, 1971 at the Fillmore East in New York City. The Beach Boys sang vocals while Jerry Garcia backed them. It was a one-time collaboration and the Fillmore East closed exactly two months later. The song has been covered by Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, Jan & Dean and Ricky Martin.
In 1964, Murry Wilson’s wife Audree left him and they separated. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966. In a letter written on May 8, 1965, just a few months before Brian recorded what is arguably the band’s masterpiece, “Pet Sounds”, Murry gives a glimpse into the complicated, psychologically messed up relationship with his son.
“It has become very apparent to me that our family can no longer exist under the worrisome and trying conditions that have been going on for the last five or six years, and I think the time has come for us all to face facts…I guess the major factor which caused a loss of feeling in the family from sons to their father was that my wife could only remember how kind her mother was…Audree was trying to raise you boys almost like girls…although from time to time she took a coat hanger to you boys or bawled you out when you did something she felt was wrong, none of her correction really meant a lot or was too effective because you could only compare the more strict punishment I could render as a stronger human being, such as spanks on the bottom and, on occasion, more violent punishment and severe tongue lashings…I could no longer reach you, and your natural resentment against me which had been building up…you acted like you hated me on many occasions. I cannot believe that such a beautiful young boy, who was kind, loving, received good grades in school and had so many versatile talents, could become so obsessed to prove that he was better than his father.
I am over the big hurt of losing my three sons as a manager for their benefit and good fortune, but I am not over the fact that I have lost my three sons’ love, and I mean real love, because you are all in a distorted world of screams, cheers and financial success. The money will not mean a damn thing to any of my sons if they are not happy when the job is done and it is a sad thing for three young beautiful sons to place their life’s success on the success of a record album or a 45 RPM disc or to how successful they are in the eyes of the music world from how many seats they sell in a live concert. I hope to God that you and your brothers review your thinking now before it is too late, because only more damage can arise from this temporary, fleeting image of success known as The Beach Boys.
Brian, your mother and I are growing further apart and a beautiful thing is becoming destroyed…she is weak in her way because she loves you all so much and cannot bring herself, after all these years of siding with her babies, to do the right thing and really lay down the law to you fellows on the honesty and character bit. I want you all to know that I loved you as my sons and still do, but I am absolutely crushed to think that it would all turn out the way it did and I do not say that it is all your fault – I know I failed my sons many, many times and couldn’t spend time with them in their earlier stages of life when I wanted to…Please try to understand that all I tried to do was make you all honest men, and instead of hating me for it, I ask that you all try to search your own hearts once in a while and try to be better.”
Although a marginally successful songwriter and musician, the self-aggrandizing and ostensibly talented Murry Wilson’s primary claim to fame was as the patriarch of the Beach Boys. Once the Beach Boys established themselves, Murry managed to finagle a solo album deal for himself in 1967; “The Many Moods of Murry Wilson.” It was not commercially successful. Murry Wilson died on June 4, 1973 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 55.
Brian Wilson spent the bulk of the two years after his father’s death hiding in the chauffeur’s quarters of his home; sleeping, abusing alcohol, taking drugs (including heroin), overeating, and exhibiting self-destructive behavior. He attempted to drive his vehicle off a cliff, and at another time, demanded that he be pushed and buried into a grave he had dug in his backyard. Although reclusive during the day, Wilson spent his nights fraternizing with Hollywood colleagues known as the “Vampires” including Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon. The Monkees Micky Dolenz recalls dropping LSD with Wilson, Lennon, and Nilsson, while Wilson “played just one note on a piano over and over again.” During this period, his voice deteriorated significantly as a result of his mass consumption of cocaine and incessant chain smoking.
Today, Wilson suffers from auditory hallucinations, and has been formally diagnosed as “mildly manic-depressive with schizoaffective disorder that presents itself in the form of disembodied voices.” According to Brian, he only began having hallucinations in 1965 shortly after experimenting with psychedelic drugs.
On December 28, 1983, three weeks after his 39th birthday, Dennis Wilson drowned at Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles. After drinking all day, he dove into the Marina searching for items he had thrown overboard from his yacht three years before. He never resurfaced. Carl Wilson died of cancer in Los Angeles on February 6, 1998, just two months after the death of his mother, Audree.
In a 2004 newspaper interview, Brian Wilson said this about his father: “He was the one who got us going. He didn’t make us better artists or musicians, but he gave us ambition. I’m pleased he pushed us, because it was such a relief to know there was someone as strong as my dad to keep things going. He used to spank us, and it hurt too, but I loved him because he was a great musician.”
“Help Me, Rhonda” came at a time of amazing creativity and overwhelming psychological turmoil for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Wilson was trying to come up with enough material to fill three albums and four singles per year, material good enough to compete with the Beatles, all while undertaking grueling tours with the band. In December 1964, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped touring with the Beach Boys, but the relentless schedule of record releases did not let up. Just two months later, the “Help Me Rhonda” sessions took place. Who knew such turmoil and drama could surround such a catchy little tune?