Rubber Soul had been a shock to Brian Wilson’s sense of the music industry. When he heard the Beatles’ most recent album in late 1965, he realised for the first time that it was possible to do a whole album with a cohesive feel and no filler [FOOTNOTEIn fact the album he heard, the American release, was not the album the Beatles had put together -- four tracks were removed from the British release and two added from Help!, giving it arguably a more coherent style than the original album.]. He’d already started work on the Beach Boys’ latest album, having recorded a version of an old folk song, Sloop John B, and a new track he called In My Childhood, but hearing the latest work from his rivals pushed him on to decide that the new album would contain none of the joke tracks, doo-wop covers, or generic surf instrumentals that had been featured on the band’s previous records. This would be an entire album with only good tracks on it.
With the Beach Boys touring for much of the time without him, Wilson had to turn to different methods of making records. While up until early 1965 the band themselves had played on nearly every backing track, now the majority of the sessions were to feature the Wrecking Crew, and with Mike Love not around Wilson had to look for a different songwriting partner.
He found the lyricist he wanted in Tony Asher, an advertising copy-writer who had little previous experience of songwriting. What Asher did have, however, was the ability to understand and empathise with Wilson on an emotional level, and translate Wilson’s feelings into words he felt comfortable singing. In a period of a few weeks, the two had written Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me (based on the earlier In My Childhood), Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), Caroline No, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Here Today, That’s Not Me and God Only Knows — the core of what would become the Pet Sounds album.
Of all of them, probably the most meaningful for Wilson was God Only Knows, one of several songs where, inspired by a suggestion of Asher’s, the two tried to craft a song that would stand up alongside standards such as Stella By Starlight and Stardust.
Taking initial inspiration from the melody of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice, Wilson turned the initial melodic idea into possibly the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. There’s only twelve bars of actual musical material, other than the key change for the instrumental bridge, but those twelve bars have a wonderful harmonic ambiguity to them, full of minor sixths, diminished chords, and dissonant bass notes, with the song only resolving straightforwardly at the end of the verse, yet the whole thing feels beautiful, effortless, and inevitable.
Asher’s lyrics had a similar sense of simplicity, but were in their own way at least as experimental. Starting the song “I may not always love you…” and having the word “God” in the title of a secular song were both bones of contention between him and Wilson, but Asher prevailed, and his lyrics, which on the surface are a simple love song but in fact communicate as much about depression and insecurity as any of the songs on the album that are more explicitly about those subjects, remained intact.
The song took time to get right in the studio, too. Wilson’s original idea for the instrumental break — a lounge sax solo — was so bad it could almost have sunk the record, but thankfully he took on pianist Don Randi’s suggestion to play through the chord sequence staccato, and one of the most effective instrumental parts of any Beach Boys track was created. And while it was obvious from the start that Carl Wilson should sing lead on the track, as the youngest Wilson brother had recently blossomed into an astonishing vocal talent, what the rest of the vocal arrangement should be was less obvious. At one point during the sessions, all six Beach Boys, plus Brian Wilson’s wife and sister-in-law, plus Terry Melcher, were all singing “bop bop” backing vocals as block chords.
Thankfully, Wilson stripped this down, and the end result features just three voices. Carl Wilson sings lead, with Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston adding backing vocals in the middle section, while at the end there’s a simple call-and-response vocal round, with Brian Wilson taking the high and low parts while Johnston answers him in the middle.
The result is one of the most beautiful recordings in the history of popular music, perfect in every note from the French horn and flute on the intro through to Brian Wilson’s falsetto “What would I be without you?” on the fade. The song is one of the best ever written, and Carl Wilson’s double-tracked lead vocal is so astonishingly good that from this point on, for the next few years, he would be the band’s de facto lead vocalist, even though he’d only taken two solo leads before.
The only question now was how Brian Wilson could top an album many were already calling the greatest ever…
God Only Knows
Composer: Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Line-up: Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Hal Blaine (drums), Jesse Erlich (cello), Carl Fortina and Frank Marocco (accordion), Jim Gordon (percussion), Bill Green and Jim Horn (flute), Leonard Hartman (clarinet, bass clarinet), Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman and Lyle Ritz (bass) Leonard Malarsky and Sid Sharp (violins), Jay Migliori (saxophone), Don Randi (piano), Alan Robinson (French horn), Darrel Terwilliger (viola)
Original release: Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys, Capitol T 2458
Currently available on: Pet Sounds Capitol CD, plus innumerable compilations.
It might have seemed in 1964 that Brian Wilson was on top of the world. Not only had the Beach Boys managed to withstand Beatlemania, despite the British band being on the same record label as them, but unlike almost every other American group they’d actually become more successful, having their first number one hit with I Get Around. Brian’s songs were still becoming hits for Jan and Dean, as well, and being covered by bands like the Hondells. He was a massive pop star at the point when pop music seemed like the most important thing in the world, and he was engaged to be married.
But there was an increasing pressure on Wilson, who had by the end of 1964 been responsible for writing, producing, and performing on eight Beach Boys albums, as well as working on other people’s records. He was trying to become a more mature artist at the same time, writing instrumental arrangements of increasing sophistication, which required him to augment his band in the studio with more and more members of the Wrecking Crew. Meanwhile his original strategy to take the pressure off — retiring from touring — had had to end after David Marks had quit, so he was back on the road as well.
And the signs of the stress were showing — while there had always been a melancholy edge to the Beach Boys’ ballads, their uptempo songs had generally been cocky and full of confidence, but now there was a restlessness, an anxiousness, an insecurity to the songs. “I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip”, “you’ve got to be a little nuts, but show them you’ve got guts, don’t back down from that wave”.
Nowhere was that insecurity more obvious than in Guess I’m Dumb, one of two songs Wilson wrote with Screen Gems staff writer Russ Titelman in mid-1964. Here the bragadoccio is totally gone, and for the first time we see the themes of male insecurity that would haunt Wilson’s music from here on, without even the fig leaf of a car race to mask it. The song opens with “The way I act don’t seem like me/I’m not on top like I used to be”, and while it ends with a statement of hope that “this time girl it’s gonna be for ever more”, the protagonist isn’t fooling anyone — the constant tug to the minor fifth in the chord sequence is telling us this is a dark, depressing, mood, not a hopeful one.
The backing track was recorded in October, and then set aside for vocals to be recorded after Brian returned from touring — the Beach Boys spent the next two months on the road.
But on the 23rd of December, 1964, just three years to the day after the Beach Boys’ first gig, Brian Wilson had a breakdown on a flight to Houston. He’d had mental health problems before, but this breakdown was much, much more serious. He managed to get through that night’s show, but simply couldn’t continue with the tour.
The Beach Boys needed someone to cover for Brian quickly, someone who could join the band the next day and take over Brian’s parts. And there was only one man who fit the bill.
Glen Campbell was a member of the Wrecking Crew. While he couldn’t read music, he was one of the most in-demand session musicians in LA, thanks to his proficiency on guitar and banjo and his ability to play anything from bluegrass to loud rock and roll. The band knew him — he’d played on several sessions for their upcoming album — and he knew the songs, having played on enough Jan and Dean or Gary Usher sessions making remakes and knockoffs of them. Campbell also had a parallel career as an unsuccessful country singer, but his lack of success wasn’t down to a lack of talent — he had a strong tenor voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison (a favourite of the Beach Boys’) and could easily sing the parts.
Campbell flew out, quickly rehearsed, and fit into the band straight away, staying with them for almost five months. But while he was apparently offered the chance to become a full-time Beach Boy, it didn’t appeal to him — Campbell wanted to keep making his own records, and so towards the end of his time in the band, Brian Wilson gave him Guess I’m Dumb to release as a single as a thank-you.
And by God does it work. Head and shoulders over everything else Brian Wilson had done to this point, the track seems equally influenced by Bacharach, Phil Spector, Orbison, and mariachi music, a big, swelling, intense, orchestral pop song, with the Honeys (a vocal group consisting of Wilson’s wife, her sister, and their cousin) adding girl-group backing, Brian and Carl Wilson providing wordless backing vocals that can only be described as a mumbled moan of despair, and Hal Blaine providing a broken drum part that eerily prefigures much of the Beatles’ more interesting drum parts of the next year.
And over this, Campbell delivers an absolutely breathtaking performance, singing at the top of his chest range, with occasional smooth, seamless, moves into falsetto. Hearing him on this material it’s immediately obvious why he was chosen to replace Brian Wilson on the road — both men could move between chest and head voice on the same word without a break, a far rarer gift among vocalists than many would expect, and something that’s absolutely essential to get the right effect on Wilson’s melodies.
One could argue perhaps that there’s less vulnerability or fragility in Campbell’s tone than in Wilson’s, which in general terms is probably a good thing but on this particular track may be a weakness, but that’s just nitpicking — at the end of the track you can faintly hear Brian Wilson telling Campbell “that was outta sight!”, and it is. This is a truly remarkable record.
Unfortunately, the listening public didn’t think so, and the track didn’t even make the top 100. It would be interesting to imagine what would have happened had Campbell stayed with the Beach Boys, rather than gone back, at least for a time, to being a session player. But by the time this track was released, Campbell had already been replaced. Bruce Johnston, who we’ve heard from previously in the Gamblers and the Rip Chords, was now a Beach Boy…
Guess I’m Dumb
Composer: Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman
Line-up: Glen Campbell (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (backing vocals, piano), Carl Wilson (backing vocals, guitar), Marilyn Wilson, Diane Rovell, and Ginger Blake (backing vocals), Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Larry Knechtel (bass), Hal Blaine (drums, percussion), Roy Caton and Ollie Mitchell (trumpets), Lou Blackburn and Harry Betts (trombones), Steve Douglas and Jay Migliori (saxophones), Sid Sharp , Leonard Malarsky, Arnold Belnick, and James Getzoff (violins), Alexander Neiman and Darrel Terwilliger (violas), Jesse Ehrlich and Anne Goodman (cellos)
Original release: Guess I’m Dumb/That’s All Right Glen Campbell single, Capitol 5441
Currently available on: Rhinestone Cowboy: The Best of Glen Campbell EMI CD
I still, two years after the end of the Beach Boys’ reunion tour, get people coming to my blog looking for an answer to this question. I thought it probably worth laying out the facts for those people.
The simple answer: he didn’t. For the longer answer, read on.
At the end of the Beach Boys’ reunion tour in 2012, there were a lot of news reports claiming that Mike Love “fired” Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, and that he owned the Beach Boys’ name. This is wholly untrue, but to see why, we have to look at a bit of history.
Mike Love does not own the Beach Boys’ name. The name is owned by Brother Records Incorporated (BRI), who are in turn owned equally by Love, Wilson, Alan Jardine (another former member of the Beach Boys) and the estate of the late Carl Wilson (another former member of the band). BRI in turn license MELECO, a company owned by Love, to put on shows as “the Beach Boys”. That license has various conditions attached — Love must pay a (hefty) fee to BRI, must use only male vocalists, must do shows that feature a lot of fun and sun songs, and so on — in order to make sure that Love’s band don’t damage the value of the Beach Boys brand name, so Love definitely doesn’t own the name.
That license is non-exclusive, but between 1999 and 2012 Love was the only person to have been granted a license. However, in 2012, a second license was issued by BRI, to a company called 50 Big Ones. This company had three owners — Love, Wilson, and an outside producer, Joe Thomas.
Thomas was an integral part of the reunion. He had control of a number of tapes of songs he’d co-written with Wilson which were needed for the reunion album, he had experience putting on live shows for TV specials (which was part of the package), and he’d worked with all the Beach Boys without too much of a problem in the past. But while he was someone who was (at least at the start) acceptable to both Love and Wilson, he was definitely “Brian’s man”, and this meant that Wilson had de facto control over the reunion, although both men had to compromise enormously.
(The other Beach Boys didn’t really get any say over the reunion. David Marks and Bruce Johnston aren’t corporate members, and Al Jardine, while a full corporate member, isn’t part of the family. More to the point, Love is the frontman and Wilson was the one who would make the reunion a big event that would get news coverage and record company interest).
We know that there were things Love didn’t like about the reunion tour — in particular, he complained about the large band (mostly Wilson’s musicians, although two crucial members were from Love’s band), disliked the album (into which he had comparatively little creative input — it was mostly Wilson and Thomas’ work), and didn’t like the experience of working with Brian’s “people”.
On the other hand, he did like the setlists (which were one area where he was in charge), working with Jeff Foskett (Wilson’s right-hand man, who he’s since hired for his own band), the intro music (which he’s kept for his own shows) and the video screens used during the show. He’s also kept some of the changes that were made to arrangements during that tour.
So Love didn’t think it was a wholly positive thing, but nor did he think it was a wholly negative thing. So why did the tour end?
The reason was only recently made public, in a Facebook comment by Love’s daughter, but it’s been obvious to those who have been paying attention since it happened.
The reunion tour was originally meant to last fifty shows only, almost all in North America. But a short while after the tour started, an agreement was made to extend the tour by twenty-something shows and visit Australia, Japan, and the UK.
And when that agreement was reached, an email was sent to Love, by someone in Brian Wilson’s organisation with the power to make statements like this, saying that “these will be absolutely the last shows for Wilson”. This was an open secret among Beach Boys fans a while ago, and was made public in that FB comment. I have spoken to people who’ve seen the email in question, and I know those people to be trustworthy.
Having been told a fixed end date, after which the reunion tour was over, Love booked shows after that date with his MELECO license, for the band he’d been touring with for years.
However, in the last week of the tour, long after contracts had been signed and tickets sold for Love’s band’s shows, it became clear that Brian Wilson and Al Jardine were both quite keen (at least at that moment) to continue with the reunion tour, and Wilson said in a statement “it feels a bit like being fired”. This, and similar statements from Jardine, along with a hell of a lot of jumping to conclusions from reporters, led to reports that Love had sacked Wilson, Jardine, and Marks.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Wilson was not informed of the ultimatum sent out by the person in his organisation. It’s also possible that he forgot it or changed his mind between then and the end of the tour. We can’t say for sure whether Brian Wilson brought the tour to an end and later regretted it, or whether someone in his organisation overstepped themselves and messed things up as a result. But what we can say is that Mike Love didn’t fire him.
It may well, of course, be Love’s choice that there hasn’t been any further reunion activity — I don’t think he was especially unhappy for the reunion to end — but he didn’t set the end date on it. Someone else did.
(An extra note for the hard of thinking — I am NOT saying that Mike Love didn’t do whatever other bad thing you’re about to accuse him of, nor am I calling Brian Wilson a liar, nor am I “taking Love’s side over Brian”. Brian Wilson is responsible for at least 85% of what I like about the Beach Boys, and a vastly more talented artist than Love. If I had to pick a side, I would pick Brian over Mike every time, but I simply don’t think there is any value whatsoever in choosing goodies and baddies and fighting for one side in interpersonal problems between people I don’t know.
Nor am I saying “Brian is being manipulated by people in his organisation”. He might be. Or he might be manipulating the situation. Or there could have been a genuine error. Or any of half a dozen other things.
If you don’t know why I add these caveats, just count yourself lucky — you’ve clearly never been involved in the less salubrious parts of Beach Boys fandom).
By late 1963 Gary Usher’s writing partnership with Brian Wilson was more or less at an end. He had been manoeuvred aside by Murry Wilson, who always wanted to keep as much of the Beach Boys’ success in the family as possible. Brian Wilson had briefly collaborated with Roger Christian, but that writing partnership, too, had largely come to an end within a few months, and Wilson was writing either on his own or with Mike Love, at least for the Beach Boys.
Wilson, Usher, and Christian all remained friends and collaborators outside the Beach Boys, though, although the increasing pressure on Wilson meant that those extra-curricular activities also tapered off. But in the early part of 1964 the three of them worked together on songs for the film Muscle Beach Party, and Wilson co-wrote a country single, Sacramento, released as a Gary Usher solo track.
So it’s unsurprising that Usher would pay attention to the Beach Boys’ ongoing career, especially since their hit album All Summer Long, which included the number one single I Get Around, contained one last Wilson/Usher collaboration left over from the year before, We’ll Run Away.
One song stood out to Usher, who had developed a lucrative sideline in creating one-off records by studio bands, often car songs, under band names such as The Super Stocks and Mr. Gasser & The Weirdos. Little Honda was clearly, obviously, a hit, even though it was only an album track. It made no sense for the Beach Boys not to have released it as a single themselves, except that they seeemed to be moving away from the surf and car sound of their early hits – I Get Around was their last car single, and All Summer Long contained one final song about surfing, a subject they’d otherwise dropped two albums earlier. Little Honda‘s four-chord rock, while undeniably catchy, was nowhere near as sophisticated as some of the other work Brian Wilson was producing, and would have been seen by the band as little more than filler.
Usher, though, saw the potential in it, and quickly booked sessions to record an album entitled Go Little Honda, made up almost entirely of new songs by Christian and himself, with titles such as Hon-Da Beach Party, Hot Rod High, and Two-Wheel Show Stopper, and with as its lead-off track a soundalike recording of the Beach Boys’ song. The album was ‘produced’ by Nik Venet, but as with so many of Venet’s production credits, this meant that Venet was the liaison between the people making the records and the record company — Usher was de facto producer, as well as arranger and backing vocalist.
For the backing, Usher of course used the standard Wrecking Crew session musicians who had become the go-to musicians for everyone in the LA pop business (even the Beach Boys, who were a self-contained band, were starting to incorporate the Crew to fill out their sound). And for the lead vocals, he turned to Chuck Girard.
Girard was a member of the Castells, a close-harmony group who had had a couple of minor hits in 1961 with Sacred and So This Is Love. The Castells had fallen out of popularity, and in January Usher had produced for them (with Wilson’s assistance) a Wilson/Christian collaboration, I Do, which had been unsuccessful but which showed that Girard could handle Beach Boys style material.
Girard sang under many names in Usher’s “bands”, performing at one time or another as a vocalist for about half a dozen studio concoctions, but for this album the band name that was settled on was The Hondells, to tie in with the subject matter of the single. The single peaked at number 9 in the Billboard charts, and prompted Capitol Records to release the Beach Boys’ own version as the lead track of an EP, Four By The Beach Boys, the only EP the band ever released in the US, in order to cash in on the song’s success.
The Hondells name went on to be used for several more records, usually produced by Usher and with Girard on vocals, but none replicated the success of Little Honda. Summer 1964 was the last gasp of surf and hot-rod music as a pop genre in the US, and while many of the people who had made that music would go on to even greater success, it would be with records that had little of the guitar-driven harmony innocence that had characterised the LA pop scene thus far. A more emotionally complex, intense, style of music, influenced by folk music and R&B, was starting to become popular, and Little Honda was the last big hit of the old style.
Composers: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Line-up: Chuck Girard (vocals), Glenn Campbell (guitar), Richard Podolor (guitar), Hal Blaine (drums), Joe Kelly (vocals) and others.
Original release: Little Honda/Hot Rod High The Hondells, Mercury 72324
Currently available on: Go Little Honda/The Hondells T-Bird CD, plus innumerable budget surf and car compilations.
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)