It's 1976, and Brian Wilson, after years spent battling various addictions, has returned to the Beach Boys. He produces 15 Big Ones, an ad-hoc collection of band originals and rock'n'roll covers that's packaged like a knock-off Golden Greats.
Sales will not be stratospheric, and reviews will not be kind. Rolling Stone, while clearly fascinated by the workings of Wilson's mind, describe the band's compulsion to repeatedly mine the past as being akin to "a man condemned to life imprisonment on a Ferris wheel".
But make no mistake: the return of Wilson is a Very Big Deal Indeed. It's the first album he's produced for the band since the extraordinary Pet Sounds a full decade earlier, and big deals need even bigger publicity campaigns. The big sell? Brian Is Back.
So the band rope in Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, to put together a TV special. The Beach Boys: It's O.K. is broadcast on NBC on August 5, 1976, and features a mixture of comedy sketches and live performances taken from a Beach Boys show at the Anaheim Stadium in California the previous month.
Highlights of the show include Dennis Wilson appearing as a judge at the Miss California beauty contest, and footage shot at Brian's 34th birthday party, where Paul and Linda McCartney present him with a cake. But it's one particular sketch that's become a classic: the one where Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, dressed as California Highway Patrolmen, arrive at Wilson's Bel Air mansion and demand he go surfing.
“Brian, we have a citation here for you sir under Section 936A of the California Catch a Wave Statute," says a stern-looking Aykroyd, as a bathrobed Wilson looks on in a state of apparent befuddlement. "Brian, you’re in violation of Paragraph 12: failing to surf, neglecting to use a state beach for surfing purposes, and otherwise avoiding surfboards, surfing and surf.”
"Surfing? I don't wanna go surfing," says Wilson. "Look guys, I'm not going to get my hair wet. You get sand in your shoes. I'm not going."
Aykroyd and Belushi then drive Wilson to the beach, where – after complaining that his board isn't waxed – he proceeds to frolic uncomfortably in the surf. Famously, brother Dennis is the only Beach Boy who could actually surf, and there's a reason for Wilson's discomfort: he's apparently fearful of the ocean, and it's the first time he's been on as surfboard.
“He was not happy about it,” Lorne Michaels told Rolling Stone in 2006. “It was almost a baptism.”
The film then cuts to the Anaheim show, with Mike Love fronting the band's performance of Surfing USA as if dressed for a Village People fan convention, or as a Mick Jagger wannabe on a celebrity edition of Stars In Their Eyes.
Back on the beach, superstar photographer Annie Leibovitz was on hand to capture a shot of Brian and surfboard that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone later in the year. Brian really was back.
Except that he wasn't. Wilson admitted that he was still having problems with his mental health, and the following year's The Beach Boys Love You album was an unsettlingly frank, frequently child-like collection of songs. It was greeted warmly by the press but failed to sell, and the intended follow-up, Adult/Child, was completed but never officially released.