In the last fortnight, the people of Great Britain (or at least the little bit of it around London, because of course nowhere else matters to international touring bands) have been visited by two different bands, both featuring half the surviving members of the classic Beach Boys line-up. The band currently touring as “the Beach Boys”, featuring Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, played Hampton Court Palace on the 24th and 25th of June (and Goodwood Park on the 28th, but I didn’t get to that show), while Brian Wilson and Al Jardine (billed as just Brian Wilson on promotional material, but introduced as “Al Jardine AND BRIAN WILSON” in that order — Jardine was only confirmed for the show a couple of weeks ago) played Hop Farm Festival on Saturday.
Two bands playing essentially the same set, but which is best? There’s only one way to find out… FIGHT!
Or, at least, that’s the view of many of the people who frequent Beach Boys message boards, where the mere existence of the Love/Johnston Beach Boys is taken as a personal attack on the sainted Brian Wilson to whom all blessings must flow. When Jeff Foskett, in May, announced that after fifteen years he was no longer touring with Brian’s band but instead moving over to play with Mike’s band (Foskett was originally discovered by Love, and toured with the Beach Boys from 1981 to 1990), there was a huge uproar, with people calling him a traitor and screaming about his betrayal.
Brian Wilson’s own response (according to his best friend) was “Well goddamn! That’s great! I’m really happy for Jeff, he’s always loved the Beach Boys!”
This, of course, did not stop people fulminating about Foskett’s “treachery”.
My own view is a little more nuanced. I am a Beach Boys fan because of Brian Wilson, and I agree with the criticisms of Love’s band that say it shouldn’t be called “the Beach Boys” with only two band members in it, but I don’t understand the rabid, near-psychotic, hatred for Love from certain quarters.
Love’s band has a bad reputation, but it’s one that’s almost entirely undeserved. When Love first got the license to call his band “the Beach Boys”, it’s true that it was, well… very poor. The band that Love had for the first few years of the license had Mike Kowalski, the very worst drummer I’ve ever heard in my life, and Adrian Baker, an equally bad singer, and would blast through off-key run-throughs of the hits, with any difficult bits dropped, and with covers of songs like Sherry or Duke of Earl filling up the set.
But then, that band was largely the same as the band that had toured as the Beach Boys before 1998, too — watching videos of the band from the mid-1990s shows just how bad their live shows were then, with Carl Wilson and Al Jardine contributing little other than one or two lead vocals each, and the backing band doing all the heavy lifting.
Love’s touring band has improved drastically though, and largely thanks to the efforts of musical director Scott Totten they now sound better than any version of the Beach Boys (other than the reunion tour from 2012, which merged the best of both current bands) since at least 1977. John Cowsill, the drummer, in particular deserves all the praise he could possibly get and then more.
The two Hampton Court shows were a perfect example of the current lineup’s strengths. While the shows were short, they managed to pack thirty-six songs into the sets, and while they did all the hits one would expect, they also included a fair number of songs which only the hardest of hardcore fans would know.
Love’s stage patter is still predictable — it’s possible for someone who’s seen the band a few times to mouth along as he says “Do It Again y’all”, “how about a big hand for our drummer, X songs without stopping, John Cowsill!”, “Now let’s hotwire the hotrods one more time!”, “thank you my people the car people!”, “Now it’s time for us to have an intermission [beat, beat] followed by a nap” and all the rest — these are at least as well-rehearsed as Shut Down or Little Deuce Coupe.
But this stuff works — audiences love it. And while some of the patter might be old (when they introduce Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring they still say a capella means nude, a joke they were using as far back as 1968) Love’s act has become significantly less arrogant and more pleasant over the years. Love is also a truly engaged performer — he pays a lot of attention to the audience.
And with Love’s band being relatively small — seven people, six of whom sing, might seem a lot, but many of the records had six-part harmonies on them, so it’s the minimum number necessary just to sing the vocal parts — everyone on stage has to pull their weight. I’ve already praised Cowsill and Scott Totten, and they deserve all the praise they can get. but Jeff Foskett is a wonderful addition to the band. While Christian Love, who he replaced, often seemed bored, Foskett is thoroughly professional, and knows how to save a situation when it goes wrong.
This was displayed especially on the first night, when Johnston’s mic went wrong on Please Let Me Wonder, one of his few leads. Foskett caught this on the first line, stepped in, and took over the lead vocal without missing a beat. I suspect the majority of the audience wouldn’t even have known anything was wrong had Johnston not turned it into a joke, going over to Foskett’s mic for the choruses and jumping up to sing his lines (Foskett is a good six inches taller than Johnston).
Love’s show is more entertainment than art, and more-or-less ignores the music that made me love the Beach Boys — the wonderful string of albums from 1967 through 1977 — in favour of pre-1965 material. But that’s just playing to the strengths of the guitar/bass/drums/keyboards lineup. A lineup like that can’t accurately reproduce the textures of the more orchestral later material — when they play God Only Knows, for example, backing a video of Carl Wilson singing the lead, the reliance on synths for the French horn part detracts slightly — but on songs like Kiss Me Baby they absolutely shine, Warmth Of The Sun sounds lovely, Disney Girls is as moving as ever, and entertainment is not a bad aim for a band to have.
Wilson’s band, on the other hand, are not playing to their strengths when they do hits shows, but still pulled off an equally great show at Hop Farm on Saturday.
Wilson’s larger band (there were eleven people on stage) are possibly the best live band working today, a group of multi-instrumentalists who can between them play pretty much any instrument you might need. This is a band that do have the French horn part in God Only Knows, and the flute in Sloop John B, and can add trumpet, vibraphone, banjo, or theremin as required. To have them all just playing four chords on guitars for Shut Down and Little Deuce Coupe seems a bit like using a Rolls Royce to nip to the shops for a pint of milk. It says something about their professionalism, though, that they still play those songs wonderfully, and give every appearance of enjoying doing so.
Brian Wilson himself seems a little bored with those songs, though. The first half of the show on Saturday was not one of his better nights — quite a few times during the early part of the show, he seemed to be concentrating on his piano playing to the point where he forgot to sing.
Luckily, Al Jardine was there, and took far more lead vocals than he did on the reunion tour a couple of years back, taking maybe a quarter of the leads. Jardine has by far the best singing voice of any of the surviving Beach Boys, and sounds if anything better than he did in his twenties and thirties, and having him onstage meant that he got the vocal spotlights he deserved, taking leads like Hawaii and Little Deuce Coupe as well as the songs he sang on record, while Brian Wilson didn’t have to carry the show by himself. Jardine’s role in the show was absolutely vital, and ignoring any intra-band political stuff and from a purely artistic perspective, he should really become an integral part of any future Brian Wilson shows. Having a co-frontman and co-lead-singer as good as Jardine saved the early part of the show from disaster and turned it into a minor triumph.
The second half of the show was a dramatic improvement, though, as the band got to play some of the more interesting material, and Wilson rose to the occasion. Heroes and Villains was almost certainly the best live performance of that song I’ve ever heard (and I’ve seen Wilson perform it live nine times solo and three times with the reunited Beach Boys, seen Love’s band do it once, and heard Van Dyke Parks, its lyricist, play it three times, so that’s not faint praise). The cascading barbershop vocals were utterly spellbinding — hearing all those fabulous voices singing interweaving lines is really what music is all about — and it was also fun to watch the confusion on the faces of the audience, most of whom clearly recognised the single version of the song but got completely lost during the cantina section.
God Only Knows was also lovely, with Brian singing it as well as I’ve ever heard, and the band playing beautifully. Wilson’s tone on this one was much older and frailer than he sounded even a couple of years ago, but the slightly thinner, reedier, tone suited it marvellously.
And the other vocalists in the band got moments to shine, too. Matt Jardine, Al Jardine’s son, has replaced Foskett in Brian’s band, and I’m almost tempted to make a variant on the old joke about a political defector raising the average intelligence of both parties. That would be cruel, though, because both Foskett and Matt Jardine are exceptionally good singers — it’s merely that Foskett’s voice fits better in Love’s smaller group, while Jardine’s fits better in Wilson’s lusher, thicker, vocal sound. Matt Jardine took lead on a few songs, including a lovely Don’t Worry Baby and an enthralling Wild Honey.
(Wild Honey was actually a highlight of both bands’ shows. Both play it in something close to the 70s live arrangement, with a hard, throbbing feel and lots of emphasis on the theremin and percussion parts. Cowsill and Matt Jardine both sing it fantastically, and it showcases Cowsill and (Wilson percussionist) Nelson Bragg’s percussion skills.)
Darian Sahanaja and Scott Bennett also got vocal spotlights, on Darlin’ and Sail On Sailor respectively, and both did extremely good jobs on them. I’ve been saying for twelve years that Bennett should get the lead on Sail On Sailor, ever since I heard him on a very Sail On Sailor-ish version of America The Beautiful on an album of “patriotic” songs Foskett and Gary Griffin put together after the September 11 2001 attacks.
It’s fascinating, though, to compare these two very different bands playing substantially the same material, because you can see how even though both bands are remaining “faithful to the record” you can end up with very different performances.
Small choices can affect the whole structure of the show — for example how to deal with endings on songs where the record fades. Love’s band tend to either play those songs as medleys or come to a dead stop at around the point where the record fades out. Wilson’s band, on the other hand, tend to vamp on the fades a bit before coming to a more satisfying ending. This means that each individual song tends to work better, but also that the band get through fewer songs — both bands had ninety minutes per show, but Love’s band played thirty-six songs, while Wilson’s did twenty-eight.
The most interesting variation comes with Good Vibrations. If you heard either band’s performance of this on its own you’d think “that sounds just like the record” and leave it at that — both bands are remarkably faithful to the sound of the record, despite it being incredibly difficult to reproduce live.
But comparing the two bands’ performances, they’re actually emphasising radically different things about it. In Love’s band’s hands (with Foskett and Love taking lead vocals) it’s all garage-psych eeriness, throbbing bass and screeching theremin, a genuinely strange sound. Wilson’s band, on the other hand, emphasise the song’s gentle, delicate beauty, with Wilson giving one of his best vocal performances of the night. For Love’s band, the point of the song is the juddering, eerie, chorus, and the crescendoing “Aaaaah” before the fade, while for Wilson’s it’s the meditative, hymnal “I don’t know where but she sends me there” and “gotta keep those lovin’ good” sections. Neither capture everything about the song, but both are utterly valid interpretations of it, and it says a lot about the song that it can lend itself to two such different readings.
Both of these approaches are entirely valid ones. Everyone at both band’s shows went away happy, despite none of the audiences being made up primarily of big fans. Love’s show was more consistent, never rising to the highs of Brian’s performance of Heroes & Villains, but also never reaching the lows of his version of Shut Down, so if one had to make a choice between these two bands’ hits shows, that’d be the way to choose — do you want moments of transcendent beauty along with moments where the lead singer forgets he’s meant to be singing, or do you want a smile on your face throughout without ever quite hitting the moments of ecstasy that the very best music can cause? (Choosing between their longer, artier, 50-plus song, theatre shows would be a different matter, of course, but neither band has done those in the UK this year).
But we don’t have to choose. We have two truly great sets of musicians, both giving very different interpretations of some of the best pop music ever written, and we can go and see either. It’s not “betrayal” to prefer the hit-after-hit adrenaline rush of Love’s show, any more than it’s snobbishness to prefer the delicate complexity of Wilson’s band.
Love’s band is returning to the UK later this month and in November. I can’t go to the shows myself — they’re all on weekdays and in different cities (including one in York, the first time any Beach Boys related band has played in Great Britain outside the London area since 2010), and I’ve used all my holiday time for the year, but I would urge anyone, even those sceptical about his shows, to go and see them. And if Wilson’s band return to the UK (especially if Jardine comes along), though they’ve said that this would be his only British show this year, then grab tickets as soon as you can.
Mike & Bruce, June 24:
Do It Again
Goin’ to the Beach
Catch a Wave
Don’t Worry Baby
Little Deuce Coupe
I Get Around
The Warmth Of The Sun
Please Let Me Wonder
Kiss Me, Baby
Then I Kissed Her
Why Do Fools Fall In Love?
When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)
God Only Knows
Sloop John B
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Dance Dance Dance
Help Me, Rhonda
Rock and Roll Music
Do You Wanna Dance?
Fun, Fun, Fun
on June 25 they dropped Hawaii, The Warmth Of The Sun, Why Do Fools Fall In Love?, and When I Grow Up, and added Ballad Of Ole Betsy, Good To My Baby, Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, and California Dreamin’
Brian & Al: July 5
Dance, Dance, Dance
Catch a Wave
Hawaii (Al lead)
Little Deuce Coupe (Al lead)
Cotton Fields (Al lead)
In My Room
Please Let Me Wonder
Then I Kissed Her (Al lead)
Heroes and Villains
Darlin’ (Darian lead)
Do You Wanna Dance? (Matt lead)
Don’t Worry Baby (Matt lead)
Do It Again (Brian and Al shared lead, doubling each other)
Wild Honey (Matt lead)
Sail On, Sailor (Scott Bennett lead)
Wouldn’t It Be Nice (Matt lead)
Sloop John B (Brian and Al shared lead)
God Only Knows
Help Me, Rhonda (Al lead)
I Get Around
Barbara Ann (Matt lead)
Fun, Fun, Fun (Al doubled Brian’s lead on the last verse)