Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys In Concert

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on January 18, 2013

Ask ten different Beach Boys fans their favourite period for the band as a live act, and you’ll get ten different answers. Over the years, the band’s stage show changed radically, and each period showcased a different aspect of the band. So some may prefer the band’s shows from the late 60s and early 70s, centred around the gentle material from Wild Honey, Friends and Sunflower. Others prefer the “Brian’s back” era of the late 70s, when the now-husky genius returned to the stage to add the quirky Love You material to otherwise nostalgia-driven shows. Yet others will argue for the 1993 box set tour, with its unplugged sets, positioning the band squarely in the ‘classic rock’ field, or the 2008 UK tour, or the 2012 reunion tour, both of which managed the difficult feat of balancing the artistic and nostalgia aspects of the band.

But more than any other period, people mention the 1972-74 period as a highlight for the Beach Boys’ live shows. In some ways, this is entirely for good reasons — this was the period when they had the most adventurous live sets, and had some of the best backing musicians they would ever have.

In other respects, though, it betrays a certain insecurity among Beach Boys fans. The 1972-74 live band were wonderful, but this was also the period where the band was the most acceptable to the kind of people who talk about ‘real music’. Yes, the band had none of the tacky accoutrements that damaged their later shows — no cheerleaders, Hawaiian shirts, cheap synthesisers or attempts at rapping — but on the downside there was a certain obviousness to the arrangements, with delicacy being ignored in favour of a riffy, heavy, guitar-based sound.

This is not to say that these performances were bad, by any means — they do deserve their reputation — but they were good in a very particular way, and represent a vision of the band, as long-haired, bearded, guitar-toting rockers, that practically oozes testosterone. If that’s not the version of the band you’re interested in — if you have less interest in rock music than in pop — then adjust your expectations accordingly.

While this album is compiled from many shows, over two separate tours (an early single-album version, with only material from the winter 1972 tour, was rejected by the record label, so they recorded summer 1973 tours and turned the result into a double album), it is an authentic record of what the band sounded like live at this time, as those who have heard the many audience recordings from this period can attest.

I will have less to talk about with this album on a track-by-track basis than for other albums, as I have already spoken about most of these songs in the context of their original albums. There are some general notes which are applicable to all the songs, though.

Firstly, as stated above, this is a rock album, not a pop one. In general, the songs are sped up and more dominated by guitar than the studio versions. There are also two drummers on most tracks, and at least one of the drummers uses far more cymbal than was ever used on a record produced by Brian Wilson.

Secondly, the harmonies are very different from what one might expect. With Brian Wilson absent from the touring band and Bruce Johnston having quit, the low and middle ends of the harmony stack are far more prominent than the high end. In later years, of course, the band would hire outside falsetto singers to take those parts, as they became more concerned with reproducing the sound of the hit records than with playing their new music, but at this point their set was dominated by songs which had little or no falsetto anyway. On the other hand, Dennis Wilson’s voice is far more audible in the harmony stack than it was most of the time — at this point, he was still unable to play the drums because of his hand injury, and so he was singing a lot more (he very rarely sang while drumming).

What’s perhaps most noticeable is the repertoire. This was the Beach Boys’ third live album in ten years, and yet of its twenty songs, only six had appeared on either of the previous two (and none had appeared on both). This was a band that was still growing, still changing up its setlist regularly, and mixing hits, obscurities and new songs with more concern for putting on a good show than for fitting someone’s preconceived idea of what a Beach Boys show ‘should’ be.

With those points in mind, on to the songs themselves.

line-up

Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar
with backing band members Billy Hinsche, Ed Carter, Robert Kenyatta, Mike Kowalski, Carli Muñoz

Sail On Sailor
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy, Tandyn Almer and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

Unsurprisingly, the opening track, from the band’s then-new album, sounds very similar to the studio version. The main differences are a more prominent bassline, a slight increase in tempo, and the loss of the ‘morse code’ guitar part, but otherwise this is much like the record.

Sloop John B
Songwriter:
trad arr Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

The second in a miniature set of songs about sailing that starts the album, this is, like much of the album, a stripped-down, simplified, but relatively faithful arrangement of the hit. The orchestration is obviously not there (though the flute intro remains), but there are some nice instrumental touches, like the twelve-string guitar being doubled by an analogue synth.

The most notable differences from the record are Carl, rather than Brian, Wilson taking the lead vocal on the verses, the lack of the a capella break (in general the harmonies suffer more than the instrumental parts on this album), and the frenetic pace at which it’s taken (I actually felt my heart racing when listening to this with headphones, it goes at such a pace).

It’s not the best live version of the song (that would be the version on the Live In London album), but it’s a perfectly decent performance.

The Trader
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

Much as with Sail On Sailor, this was recorded close enough to the release of the studio version that it’s, if not indistinguishable, then still very, very similar. The most notable difference is a prominent bongo track in the left channel, and the inescapable fact that when performed live the transition between the two sections of the song is less abrupt.

You Still Believe In Me
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine with Carl Wilson

A very creditable attempt at what is possibly the most difficult song from Pet Sounds to perform live. Obviously, there was no possibility at this point of them reproducing the complexities of the record on stage, but the solutions here (replacing the plucked piano strings and falsetto on the intro with guitar and Moog, for example) work very well at giving the same feel.

This is also the best example of the band’s vocal work on the album. While Jardine can’t reproduce the delicacy of Brian Wilson’s original falsetto vocal part, his stronger, richer tone gives the vocal a pleading note which works just as well, and the transition between his vocal and Carl Wilson on the line “I wanna cry” (which goes out of Jardine’s range) is handled extraordinarily well. The harmonies on this show that while the band were hampered at this point by having their vocal ranges concentrated in the mid range, they could still pull off some beautiful vocals when required.

California Girls
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

Pretty much exactly what you’d expect a live version of California Girls to sound like. The harmonies on this are a bit ragged, and we hear Dennis at the beginning exhorting the crowd to sing along, but you already know what this sounds like. Love’s joking “ooh, we mean it so much!” at the end seems to confirm that at this point, the band still saw their biggest hits as something of a joke and a distraction from their more artistic work, though that attitude would soon change.

Darlin’
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This kind of material is where the band at this time excelled — songs that depend on a driving rhythm and a lead vocal performance. While the horns from the original are sadly missed, the addition of Hammond organ, along with the best drum and percussion track on the album (some great cowbell work and bongos) makes this the first song on the album that it’s safe to say is a definite improvement over the original.

Marcella
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Jack Rieley and Tandyn Almer
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This track mostly differs from the studio version in that the guitar parts have been beefed up substantially — unsurprisingly given that the original’s glossy sonic sheen is pretty much unreproducible in a live setting. The vocals here again shine — this version of the band was not wonderful at the close harmonies that normally defined the band, but were as good as any vocal group ever at singing interweaving, independent solo lines in counterpoint with each other, and this track gives a great opportunity to show that off. The one flaw in this track is the percussion part in the left channel, which goes slightly out of time on occasion.

This arrangement of the song, as opposed to the studio version, is the basis for the version played live by Brian Wilson’s touring band in recent years, and is also the arrangement used on the Beach Boys’ fiftieth anniversary reunion tour.

Caroline, No
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This, again, has a simplified arrangement (no percussive intro, just straight into the first verse), but this was never a song that needed much in the way of orchestration, and the simple electric piano part (presumably Dennis Wilson) and flute embellishments work perfectly (though the solo gets a little too close to lounge jazz for my own tastes). If you have a singer as good as Carl Wilson and a song as good as this, it’s impossible for it not to sound great.

Leaving This Town
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

The upside: the organ solo on this (played by Billy Hinsche) has some real feeling and invention to it.

The downside: this is thirty seconds longer than the already-ridiculously-overlong version on Holland.

Probably sounds really good if you’re stoned.

Heroes & Villains
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

The early-70s band’s version of this track is spectacular. Al Jardine, on the verses, sounds much more comfortable than Brian Wilson does on the single. Carl Wilson sings the Bicycle Rider lyrics on the choruses (and Mike Love adds in the “heroes, a-heroes, a-heroes and a villains” chant), and again the band are given the chance to shine vocally, including on the only a capella sections on the entire album (for the scat section and the last “I’ve been in this town” section), again singing wonderful cascading, overlapping vocal lines like no other band could do. Easily the highlight of the album.

Funky Pretty
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love

The consensus among Beach Boys fans is that this is a massive improvement on the studio version, and that this is ‘how the song should always have sounded.’

Like most Beach Boys fan consensus, this is bunkum. On Holland, Funky Pretty is a mediocre song brought up to near-greatness by a spartan, Moog-dominated production that makes it sound almost like a piece of experimental electronica. Adding guitar riffs, honky tonk piano and a ‘proper’ rock drum track, and cutting out most of the Moog parts, turns it into something that sounds like a Rolling Stones album track. (It’s no surprise that the band regularly covered Jumpin’ Jack Flash in shows at this point, or that Blondie Chaplin spent most of the 1990s and 2000s as a sideman in the Stones’ touring band).

Let The Wind Blow
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Of all the more radical reworkings on this album, this is the one that works the best. While the original track, on Wild Honey, has a gorgeous delicacy to it, this turns it into a gospel ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a Ray Charles or Al Green record, with the original’s shared lead vocal turned into a solo for Carl Wilson. The wordless backing vocal lines from the original are dropped until the last verse, and other than the answering lines and some occasional touches from Jardine, the only vocals we pay attention to here are from Carl Wilson — the whole track is built around his vocal performance. Luckily, it’s an absolutely stellar performance, so while when hearing this one still misses the ethereal beauty of the studio version, this has its own strengths.

Help Me, Rhonda
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

The oddest rearrangement on the album is this, with all the arrangement details blurred out into a nondescript guitar boogie with little charm and less grace, an excuse for jamming on mediocre solos. Bizarrely, the band stuck with this arrangement as late as the mid-90s (and Brian Wilson still uses it for his solo tours), though Mike Love’s touring “Beach Boys” (and the reunion tour of 2012) thankfully reverted to the original arrangement. Al Jardine does his usual spectacular job, and the audience sound enthused, but it just seems rather cruel to do this to a song that never did anything to harm the band.

Surfer Girl
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

Mike Love’s introduction to this, emphasising how old the song is, is another pointer to how mildly embarassed the band were at this time to be doing this material.

Despite this, though, they do a lovely job on this. The harmonies are huskier and more fragile than on the record — these are definitely Beach Men, not Boys — but they still sound good.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Tony Asher and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

It shows the way the band had improved as musicians over a relatively short time that while on Live In London they cut out a huge chunk of this song (the part where the tempo changes in “you know it seems…”), here they not only perform that section but it gets what sounds like the biggest cheer of the disc.

Jardine once again does a splendid job on the lead vocals, although some of the backing vocals are rather perfunctory.

We Got Love
Songwriter:
Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Ricky Fataar

The one new song of the album was this, a song which had been originally intended for Holland before it was dropped at the last minute. It’s another very pleasant, but unspectacular, track from Chaplin and Fataar, this one possibly influenced by Allen Toussaint’s song Riverboat, which had been recorded by Van Dyke Parks on his Discover America album around the same time, and which has the line “We got love” emphasised several times, and a generally similar feel. (Toussaint’s song would actually have fit well on Holland, and may have also inspired Steamboat).

The lyrics, which sound like Love’s work primarily, are a generic call to treat other people nicely along with some new age stuff equating evolution and karma.

This is the last Chaplin/Fataar collaboration to feature on a Beach Boys album — Chaplin departed from the band, acrimoniously, before the end of 1973 after disagreements with Rieley. Fataar would remain with them until the end of 1974, and leave on mildly better terms, but by the time the next Beach Boys album came out, both would be long gone.

Don’t Worry Baby
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Roger Christian
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Given that they have a bigger band to play with here than they did when recording the single, the band decide to stop pretending and just play this as Be My Baby, right down to the drum intro, and until the lead vocal comes in this bears far more resemblance to the Spector classic than to the Beach Boys’ track (prompting two waves of recognition-applause from the audience — one at the beginning when the track starts, and another when the lead vocal starts and they realise what song it actually is).

Jardine and Carl Wilson split Brian Wilson’s lead part between them the same way they did on Heroes & Villains, with Wilson taking the higher part in the choruses and Jardine taking the slightly lower verses, and both do a very good job, though neither quite has the fragility of Brian Wilson’s original. Jardine messes up some of the lyrics, but in a recoverable way (and oddly is mixed far to one side), but the harmonies are spot on, and this is as good a version of this song as one could hope for given the absence of a 22-year-old Brian Wilson.

Surfin’ USA
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Mike Love with Al Jardine

This is about what you’d expect — a little faster than the original, the guitars a little more distorted, and with Al Jardine attempting Brian Wilson’s falsetto part. A rockier, more muscular live version of the song, but basically what you’d expect to hear from a 1970s Beach Boys show.

Good Vibrations
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

This is about as accurate a rendition of an impossible-to-perform song as one could imagine (understandably, as the song is too big a hit, and too much of a masterpiece, to dare mess with). The big change made to the arrangement, and one the band kept through to the late 90s, was to extend the ‘gotta keep those lovin’ good’ section to several times its original length (and change the lyrics on that line to ‘happenin’ with you’ instead of ‘with her’), to allow for an audience sing-along section and a scatted show of vocal dexterity. Other than that, the only notable differences from the record are those made to make the song performable at all live (the ‘theremin’ part being played on a ribbon synthesiser, rather lower in the mix than on the record, no odd instruments like the jew’s harp, the triplets in the chorus being played on guitar rather than ‘cello).

Fun Fun Fun
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

And the album ends with a rather chugging, graceless, performance of this song, which trades the original’s pop energy for a 70s heaviness. Hearing this version, it becomes much clearer why this song was a natural choice for a duet between the Beach Boys and Status Quo in 1996.

Overall, this is probably the best Beach Boys live album one could hope for, and at times it matches or even surpasses the studio recordings. If it lacks the subtlety and gentleness of the best of the band’s studio work, that’s more a reflection of just how special that studio work is, rather than a negative about the band themselves. With current technology, and on current budgets, it’s possible to reproduce the textures of Brian Wilson’s production on stage, but in the early 70s this was as good as it would be reasonable to expect it to get. It will never be my favourite Beach Boys album, but it’s a good one, and one that can be useful for dispelling some of the myths about the group. But there’s a definite sense from this that you had to be there.

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