Don't fuck with the formula
"Don't fuck with the formula" is a quote attributed to the Beach Boys' lyricist and co-lead vocalist Mike Love circa 1967. Love stated, "It's the most famous thing I've ever said, even though I never said it." It originates from a 1971 Rolling Stone magazine article in which business associate David Anderle reported disagreements from within the Beach Boys' circle. Love said that, in the ensuing decades, the line was repeated in myriad books, articles, websites, and blogs. Anderle later said that his words regarding the "formula" were "taken slightly out of context".
In early 1964, Brian Wilson began his breakaway from beach-themed music. That November, Mike Love reported to Melody Maker that the group wanted to look beyond surf music and avoid living in the past or resting on the band's laurels. The next month, Wilson withdrew from touring in order to focus on songwriting and producing. Although The Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (both released in 1965) were more sophisticated and elaborate than previous albums, they were still within the realm of acceptability for the band, producing a reasonable level of record sales and chart activity. This was not the case for the next two album projects, Pet Sounds (1966) and Smile (unreleased), where Wilson's bandmates were not entirely supportive of his new creative ambitions. Wilson was also encumbered by pressure from Capitol Records and the group's fanbase.
Origin of quote
The statement "don't fuck with the formula" originates from a 1971 Rolling Stone magazine article written by freelancer Tom Nolan titled "The Beach Boys: A California Saga". Nolan's article unusually devoted minimal attention to the group's music, and instead focused on the band's internal dynamics and history, particularly around the period when the band fell out of step with the 1960s counterculture. The relevant text pertaining to the "formula" quote is as follows:
Mike Love was the tough one for [business partner] David [Anderle]. Mike really befriended David: He wanted his aid in going one direction while David was trying to take it the opposite way. Mike kept saying, "You're so good, you know so much, you're so realistic, you can do all this for us—why not do it this way," and David would say, "Because Brian wants it that way." "Gotta be this way." David really holds Mike Love responsible for the collapse. Mike wanted the bread, "and don't fuck with the formula."
Anderle later stated that the line "was taken slightly out of context" and that Love was more concerned with the "bottom line" than the "artistic" side of business.[nb 1] Earlier in a 1968 article, Anderle elaborated that the "first problems" with Brian's bandmates were when they asked "we shouldn't go this far out, why are we knocking success? Let's stay within the frame of, let's do this simple dumb thing, let's not go too far out, let's not lose what the Beach Boys are, uh let's not change our physical image, let's wear the striped shirts and the white pants." He also encouraged Wilson to leave the group, and was "sure they saw me as somebody ... who was fueling Brian's weirdness. And I stand guilty on those counts."
Love denied ever telling Wilson "don't fuck with the formula", adding that the Beach Boys "have no formula. In 1967 alone, the year I supposedly made that comment, we recorded Wild Honey, an R&B album that was entirely different from anything we'd ever done, and I cowrote ten songs and sang three leads." In a 1998 deposition related to the memoir Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story, Wilson testified that Love had never spoken the line to him. Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher did not recall hearing the remark and could not verify whether it was actually spoken. He said that, "it seems very much like Mike. And to tell the truth, I think he had a point," arguing that Pet Sounds "was not much of a success" and that its music "was [probably] not what Beach Boys fans were expecting."[nb 2]
According to Mike Love, over the ensuing years, "don't fuck with the formula" was repeated in myriad books, articles, websites, and blogs. The remark is usually invoked to signal the conflicts that arose between Wilson and Love when the former began subverting the "formula" that brought the Beach Boys their initial success: songs with lyrics that embraced girls, cars, and surfing. Following the collapse of Smile, Wilson gradually ceded production and songwriting duties to the rest of the band and self-medicated with the excessive consumption of food, alcohol, and drugs.
In his defense, Love stated that the "formula" quote was part of a larger narrative perpetuated by Wilson's former drug suppliers. He explained that he was held responsible for the collapse of Smile only when the accounts of "Anderle and the other hipsters" were used as sources in writings about the Beach Boys. Love said that their role as Wilson's drug suppliers was understated so that they would avoid accountability for Wilson's subsequent mental decline and struggles with substance addiction, thus shifting the blame onto himself. In the revised 1985 edition of The Beach Boys and the California Myth, Leaf wrote that he "no longer indict[s] the world of 'being bad to Brian,' when it’s apparent that Brian has been hardest on himself."
In 2017, Rolling Stone included the cousins' discord as one of "Music's 30 Fiercest Feuds and Beefs". Contributor Jordan Runtagh wrote that when Wilson "sought to move the band beyond their fun-in-the-sun persona. Love found the new musical daring pretentious, and feared alienating the fans originally won over by their carefree surfing image." In 2014, fans reacted negatively to the announcement that Wilson would be recording a duets album, comparing it to a "cash-in". A Facebook post attributed to Wilson responded to the feedback: "In my life in music, I’ve been told too many times not to fuck with the formula, but as an artist it’s my job to do that."
- Whenever Wilson composed for the Beach Boys, he typically relied on others to provide lyrics to his music. At this stage, he usually worked with Love, whose assertive persona provided the youthful swagger that contrasted against Wilson's explorations in romanticism and sensitivity. Occasionally, Wilson would work with lyricists outside of his band's circle. Love recalls that he "was not happy" when this would occur—except in the case of Roger Christian, whose special knowledge of motor jargon he says benefited the group's car songs.
- Peter Ames Carlin writes in his 2006 biography that Asher still remembered "hearing Brian complain about Mike instructing him, in no uncertain terms: 'Don't fuck with the formula.'"
- Love 2016, p. 164.
- Priore 2005, p. 28.
- Welch, C (November 14, 1964). "Beach Boys Brought their own vegetables – so audiences beware!". Melody Maker. p. 18.
- Matijas-Mecca 2017, p. xxi.
- Matijas-Mecca 2017, p. 24.
- Hepworth 2016, p. 223.
- Nolan, Tom (October 28, 1971). "The Beach Boys: A California Saga". Rolling Stone (94).
- Love 2016, p. 164; Matijas-Mecca 2017, pp. xx–xxi, "bottom line"
- Carlin 2006, p. 73.
- Schinder 2007, p. 108.
- "Good Vibrations? The Beach Boys' Mike Love gets his turn". Goldmine. September 18, 1992.
- Priore 1995, p. 224.
- Gaines 1986, p. 174.
- Love 2016, pp. 164–165.
- Love 2016, pp. 163–164.
- Dontsurf, Charlie, ed. (March 2007). "Pet Sounds: Words by Tony Asher" (PDF). In My Room. p. 1.
- Carlin 2006, p. 84.
- Matijas-Mecca 2017, pp. xx–xxi.
- Matijas-Mecca 2017, pp. xxii, 113.
- Sanchez 2014, p. 25.
- Runtagh, Jordan (September 15, 2017). "Music's 30 Fiercest Feuds and Beefs: Brian Wilson vs. Mike Love". Rolling Stone.
- Michaels, Sean (June 12, 2014). "Brian Wilson fans furious at Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey collaborations". The Guardian.
- Carlin, Peter Ames (2006). Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Rodale. ISBN 978-1-59486-320-2.
- Gaines, Steven (1986). Heroes and Villains: The True Story of The Beach Boys. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0306806476.
- Hepworth, David (2016). Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-1-62779-400-8.
- Love, Mike (2016). Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy. Penguin Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-698-40886-9.
- Matijas-Mecca, Christian (2017). The Words and Music of Brian Wilson. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-4408-3899-6.
- Priore, Domenic (1995). Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile!. Last Gap. ISBN 978-0-86719-417-3.
- Priore, Domenic (2005). Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece. London: Sanctuary. ISBN 978-1860746277.
- Sanchez, Luis (2014). The Beach Boys' Smile. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-62356-956-3.
- Schinder, Scott (2007). "The Beach Boys". In Schinder, Scott; Schwartz, Andy (eds.). Icons of Rock: An Encyclopedia of the Legends Who Changed Music Forever. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0313338458.