The Rest of the Cruise

(Crosspost from )

Welcome again to “Andrew Hickey tells you about his holiday in far more detail than you’re interested in”. The more I think about this, the weirder it is that I’m writing these things or that anyone would want to read them, but nonetheless I’ll keep going now I’ve started. I originally started writing this post on the cruise a week ago, as just a writeup of the second day, but then my chronic-illness fatigue flared up so badly that rather than go ashore — and indeed rather than write anything — I spent several hours in the middle of the day having a nap. So I ended up putting this aside and coming back to it a couple of days after getting back.
Saturday started with a meet-and-greet session, and there I was very glad to have my companion with me. While I’m incredibly awkward meeting anyone at all, she’s capable of talking to everyone — we both treat everyone the same, whether the person serving us at Starbucks or a major celebrity. The difference is that I say “Er… um… er… sorry… er” while she’ll have everyone’s life story off them within seconds. This conversational buffer was particularly useful in meeting Jimmy Webb, who was the person there I most wanted to meet (and I’m not the only one — when I was chatting with John Cowsill later on the deck and mentioned that Webb was at the meet and greet, he immediately rushed there himself because he wanted to meet him).
After this was the compulsory photo with Mike and Bruce, which I wasn’t too bothered about (I’ve met both of them many, many, times) but went along with for my companion. These are just like an assembly line — walk behind them, photo, next person. My companion thought that Mike Love came off as grumpy here, but he was positively voluble compared to the same session last year — I think he’s just not someone who does well in this kind of situation, especially first thing in the morning. (Love is someone who is usually great with the fans, but that’s in situations when he’s able to actually talk with them, and usually in the evenings — one point that was made repeatedly in the Women of the Beach Boys panel I talk about later is that musicians tend to be night people).
Then came the first music of the day, the Surfrajettes. These are a group from Toronto who dress up in early-sixties glam, all beehive hairdos and PVC miniskirts, and play surf guitar versions of popular non-surf songs — things like “Train Kept A-Rollin'”, “Jolene” (with a section of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” interpolated), “She Loves You”, “Heart of Glass”, and their closer, Britney Spears’ “Toxic” — along with a couple of originals. It’s the kind of act that could easily be awful and gimmicky, but it’s saved by the fact that they are truly excellent musicians. They have that early-sixties Fender-reverb surf sound down pat, and know and understand the cliches of the genre well enough that their arrangements go beyond something like Postmodern Jukebox and actually sound authentic, and most importantly they are tight. They were a minor highlight last year and were again this time. I’m only sad that their other shows clashed with Jimmy Webb and the Temptations, so this turned out to be my only opportunity to see them on the cruise.
Next up was a “Women of the Beach Boys” panel. This was originally advertised as just featuring Jacquelyne Love (who is very involved in her husband’s organisation and the day to day running of the touring Beach Boys) and Tara Rickert, who is one of the tour managers, talking about how they navigate working in a male-dominated environment, but a couple of weeks ago Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian Wilson’s first wife, was added to the bill, and when John Stamos joined the cruise he was added as a moderator of the panel. The result was that it drifted somewhat from the nuts-and-bolts talk that was originally advertised (which would have been something like last year’s panel with Scott Totten and Michael Swift, which was to my mind the best part of last year) and instead to something more about how to be a supportive wife to a rock star, with Wilson-Rutherford also talking about her daughters Carnie and Wendy (of Wilson Phillips). This left Rickert rather sidelined, which felt like a shame, though it’s understandable why that happened. 
(Jacquelyn Love, incidentally, is someone who must have a fascinating story to tell, and have aspects to her character that aren’t visible in her public persona. Mike Love was married four times before meeting her, but they’ve been together more than thirty years and married for twenty-eight. That suggests a certain amount of strength of character, because he can’t be the easiest man to live with.)
Finally for Saturday there was the main musical event of the day for me, the Temptations. 
The Temptations are, more than anything else, evidence that the job of bandleader is an important one. In the pre-sixties music business, it was common for bands to be led by people whose primary talent wasn’t as a performer, songwriter, or even arranger, but as a leader — the person who would hire and fire the band members, make decisions about the repertoire, arrangement and staging, and so on. An organisational talent, rather than a musical or performing one. Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller could play instruments, but were hardly virtuosos, while Lucky Millinder had little if any actual musical talent, but all three led bands that helped define their era.
In the rock era, the person who has come closest to this has probably been James Brown. Brown wasn’t the world’s greatest singer, songwriter, or dancer, though he was perfectly competent at those things (and he was a genuinely astonishing arranger, especially given his lack of formal musical education), but he led the tightest band in the world, and put on the best show.
In the same way, Otis Williams, the leader and only surviving original member of the Temptations, was actually the weakest vocalist in the “classic five” lineup, and the only one who wouldn’t take leads, but he was the undisputed leader of the group, and he was responsible for them sounding like the Temptations. Of the five singers on “My Girl”, only Williams and bass singer Melvyn Franklin were also on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, and of the five singers on that, only Williams and Franklin were also on “Treat Her Like a Lady” a decade later, yet all three sound like Temptations records. That Temptations sound comes from Williams, and the current lineup of the group still sounds like the Temptations.
Williams doesn’t take many lead vocals in the show — just a line in “I Can’t Get Next to You” and one verse on “Is it Going to be Yes or No?”, the song Smokey Robinson wrote for the group’s sixtieth anniversary album last year — leaving that job instead to Ron Tyson (singing the Eddie Kendricks parts) who’s been with the group full-time for forty years, and who worked with them occasionally even before that, and who sounds spookily like Kendricks; Terry Weeks, singing the Paul Williams/Richard Street parts; and especially newish second tenor Tony Grant (singing the Al Bryant/David Ruffin/Dennis Edwards/Ali-Ollie Woodson parts), who joined towards the end of 2021, and by all accounts gave the group’s sound a big boost compared to their previous lead. Certainly Grant (who is much younger than everyone except fellow new member, bass singer Jawan M. Jackson) has a youthful, energetic, stage presence which is an absolute asset to the group.
Despite the membership changes, this group still sound like the Temptations, and their show is a reminder of just how good the Temptations are, and how many hits they’ve had. Like the Beach Boys, they have a prearranged set that they perform every time, sometimes adding in one or two extra songs, but keeping everything the same and in the same order — though this time they cut some of the pre-rehearsed patter out, presumably because, as they mentioned, the stage was slippy from ocean spray, and they wanted to get off quickly.  (It didn’t help that for this first show they were wearing suits with capes, which blew about badly in the wind).
You’d never know that from the energy of their performances though, with everyone giving it their all both singing and dancing — the dance routines are not quite as acrobatic as back in the sixties, but they’re still more than I could do now, and Williams is eighty-two years old and still dances his way through the whole show with the rest.
Some of the staging and instrumental arrangements are perhaps a little too slick and Vegas for my own personal tastes, with a little of the edge taken off some of the Norman Whitfield arrangements, but of course “slick and Vegas” was always an important part of the Motown sound, every bit as much as soul and funk were — and when you hear Tony Grant belting out “Great googa-mooga can’t  you hear me talkin’ to ya!” you’re left in no doubt at all that you’re watching a soul group.
But of course the real star of the show is the songs, and thanks to Smokey Robinson, Eddie Holland, Norman Whitfield, and Barrett Strong, the Temptations have arguably the single best catalogue of any Motown act. Other than “Is It Gonna Be Yes or No?” and the early 2000s R&B hit “Stay”, every single song is one where everyone in the audience knows every word — “Get Ready”, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, “Beauty is Only Skin Deep”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “My Girl”, “I Wish it Would Rain”, “Can’t Get Next to You” — these are the kind of songs where any one of them could be the basis of an entire career. 
The Temptations are very much the ship of Theseus of soul music, but they are definitely the same ship. 
Sunday started early for most people, with a game of bingo with the Surfrajettes followed by a trip to Belize, but as my illness was playing up I didn’t leave the ship, and spent much of the day in bed. When I got up, I bumped into a couple of the Beach Boys touring band members as I mooched around, and once again found myself inarticulate when talking to them — I always end up seeing these people when I’m at my absolute worst, inarticulate and unable to function, with my aphasia playing up.
I’d been picked to ask a question of Mike and Bruce at their Q&A session, but luckily given my level of functioning that day I’d submitted my question in advance. In last year’s Q&A, most of the questions had been ones that didn’t allow much in the way of interesting answers, just recital of the same tired anecdotes, so I’d tried to think of a question that wouldn’t go too into the weeds for a general audience, but which might get an interesting response — the question I asked was along the lines of “Everyone talks about Pet Sounds, and with good reason, but you’ve recorded twenty-nine solo albums; which of the more obscure albums, like Carl and the Passions, Smiley Smile, or Summer in Paradise, do you think people should listen to?”
Sadly, Love didn’t have an interesting answer to that question — he just replied along the lines of “When people ask what my favourite is, I just tell them to ask my accountant”. Johnston, on the other hand, first said “You didn’t mention Sunflower!” and then talked for quite a bit of time about how Smiley Smile is an underrated album (which it is).
At this point the oddest event of the whole cruise happened — I met someone who was on the cruise to meet me. I’m not going to name him publicly to preserve his privacy (one of the difficulties of writing this in fact is that much of what makes the event special is the interpersonal interactions, both with other passengers and with the musicians, and that often these involve people revealing things they probably wouldn’t want spreading all over the Internet) but one of the other passengers, who I think is also a Patreon backer, had actually booked on to the cruise to meet me!  He’d left a message on my room answerphone, which I only heard shortly before the Q&A, and sprinted down from the balcony to catch me after I asked my question.
I’m afraid I can’t have been much good to him — I was brainfogged and aphasic that day, having a particularly bad flare-up — but I chatted with him for about half an hour, with the position now reversed from my earlier interactions with Beach Boys band members — now it was me talking with a fan. Luckily, while I wasn’t exactly at my best, I bumped into him again a couple of days later and he told me how much he’d enjoyed the event as a whole — I’d hate for someone to have paid as much as his room cost just to meet me even on my best day, let alone one where I was barely coherent.
I had to break off speaking to him so we could get to a special event we’d been invited to — my companion and I had been chosen to be in a group of about thirty to go to a “happy hour” in the private suite on the top floor, attended by Mike Love and his wife, various family members (including Christian Love), Beach Boys keyboard player Tim Bonhomme (who spent much of the time playing with some small children who I think are Stamos’ kids), Mark McGrath, and Otis Williams. I possibly didn’t make as much of this opportunity as the other people there — I didn’t want to monopolise Love’s time given that I’ve met him on many occasions while this might be the only chance for some of the others — but did get to have a short chat with Williams, and get a photo of myself with Love and Williams.
After this, Love and Williams took the lift down to the seventh floor, from where they were going to lead the Temptations’ horn section up to the twelfth floor in a Mardi Gras parade. Neither my companion or I have the physical ability to walk up that many flights of stairs, so we just took the lift down to the twelfth floor, and waited to see the Righteous Brothers.
Bill Medley is in an awkward position when it comes to live performance. The Righteous Brothers had two massive hits that literally everyone knows — “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” is the most played song on American radio ever, and “Unchained Melody” is almost as ubiquitous — and his duet with Jennifer Warnes, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, is almost as big. That means that the Righteous Brothers have to be a headline act — enough people will go and see the show because of those three big hits that they will always have a crowd — but they don’t have the depth of hits that acts like the Beach Boys, Temptations, or Isley Brothers do. 
The Beach Boys, for example, performed twenty-six of the thirty songs on their Sounds of Summer greatest hits album in their shows, and anyone with any familiarity at all with oldies radio will know at least fifteen of those at a conservative estimate, even without ever having listened even to a best-of. By contrast, the Righteous Brothers/Medley have the three big hits, three other hits that were big enough at the time but aren’t as immediately recognisable (“Soul and Inspiration”, “Ebb Tide”, and “Just Once in My Life”) and Medley wrote “Little Latin Lupe Lu”, which wasn’t a hit for them but is definitely a song people recognidse.
Now, as it happens, the Righteous Brothers do have a catalogue with enough depth in it that Medley could put on a show I would enjoy — or anyone who was prepared to listen to unfamiliar music — but not the kind of show that would appeal to the kind of people who go to a show hoping to hear the big hits. 
The choice that Medley has made can be summed up in the fact that his duet partner, Bucky Heard, who replaces the late Bobby Hatfield as the other Righteous Brother, was someone he found while playing Branson, Missouri. (For those who don’t know, Branson used to be the place where people who could no longer quite make it as Vegas headliners would go and put on Vegas-style shows in long residencies. These days it’s tribute show hell). 
The result is something that feels like it can’t quite decide what show it is. Medley was the main creative force behind the Righteous Brothers, and still has an astonishingly good voice, and he has always thought of himself as a blues or soul singer. When he’s performing the old hits he sounds as great as ever (though they unforgivably cut out the “I can’t give you the world…” section from “Just Once in My Life”), but he really comes alive when performing “Little Latin Lupe Lu” (which he calls “ass-kicking rock and roll”, and then gets the whole audience to say “ass-kicking” so “we’re all going to Hell together” — Medley is a born-again Christian), “Hold On, I’m Comin'” (as I mentioned in the last podcast episode, Otis Redding thought that the Righteous Brothers were better soul singers than Sam and Dave), the Don and Dewey cover “KoKo Joe”, and especially the gospel song “Great Gettin’-Up Morning”. 
On all of these, you can hear the voice of someone who grew up listening to Specialty Records, to Johnny Otis, to Bobby “Blue” Bland, and the rest — someone who, while like all white blues and R&B singers he has a complicated relationship with race and cultural appropriation, is clearly devoted to the music. It’s especially notable, actually, on “Unchained Melody” — Hatfield sang lead on the record, and obviously Medley, who has a deep bass voice, can’t possibly replicate Hatfield’s soaring falsetto, but rather than give it to Heard to sing (and Heard could do it — Heard does the other Hatfield solo-vocal hit “Ebb Tide” and does a very good job of it) he performs it in something much closer to the version by Roy Hamilton, who he namechecks before the song.
And then the show will switch gears, and travel to Branson, as Bucky Heard performs the Roy Orbison song “Crying”, or sings “Nessun Dorma”, Medley’s daughter McKenna (with whom he also duets on “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, which becomes rather disturbing if you think about it) sings “California Dreamin'”, or they all sing a medley of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Lean on Me”.
This stuff all absolutely works as entertainment, and has the crowd going wild, but Medley’s heart doesn’t seem in it to quite the same extent, and one gets the impression that he would gladly ditch those segments for some more “ass-kicking rock and roll” if he just had one or two more hits of his own to act as tentpoles to stop the audience’s attention from sagging. And that’s a shame, because of all the people on the cruise, Medley is the one who has held up best as a pure singer. 
The show he puts on is a good one, but you get the impression that were his old group just a little bit smaller (so he was playing club dates in blues venues) or a little bit bigger (so he could fill a set with hits) it would be even better.
The next day was another day where nothing happened on board until the evening, as the ship was docked in Mexico — and so once again I spent a few extra hours in bed trying to stay well enough to enjoy the parts of the cruise I cared about, the music and the panels, before getting myself into the front row for the Beach Boys, nice and early.
After I talked in my last post about how the Beach Boys’ live shows always follow the same formula, it’s almost as if they decided to prove me wrong, because the show opened with, of all things, the first couple of verses of “Summer in Paradise”, the title song off their flop early-nineties album, which they hardly ever perform live — I’d only seen them play it three times in total, twice in 2017 when it reentered the set briefly, and once in 2004, and it had never been the opening song. 
The set otherwise went much the same as the previous set, with a couple of slight changes — “Do It Again” now came between “Little Honda” and “Hawaii”, they added “Sail On Sailor”, they performed a different song by Sugar Ray for McGrath to sing lead on (I am still totally unfamiliar with Sugar Ray’s oeuvre, and on the basis of these shows and McGrath’s stage presence it’s definitely not for me) and they replaced “In My Room” with “The Warmth of the Sun” — which both Mike and Bruce had been talking about in the Q&A the previous day as being their very favourite Beach Boys song. Sadly, they brought on Mike’s daughter Ambha to sing this — she’s got a very nice voice, although her vocal style is a bit too American Idol for my personal tastes, but when Scott Totten has had a chance to sing this he’s always done an extraordinary job. 
They also added in a totally new song, one called “Sum Summer” written and sung by Christian Love (and based around the same “sum, summer” vocal phrase that turns up in “Some of Your Love”, “Almost Summer”, and other songs of that era). Weirdly, I have a strong sense memory of them having performed that at the Albert Hall last year, but checking the setlists of the show I appear to be mistaken, and indeed this seems to have been the first time they ever performed the song live. It seemed a little slight, but that may just be because the arrangement hasn’t yet been fully worked out, if it is as new as it seems.
The other difference though was that on the two previous occasions I’ve seen Stamos play with the Beach Boys (the first night of the cruise and the Albert Hall last year) I thought that those who disliked his contributions were probably mostly doing so out of snobbery — to hear how he’s talked about by every woman between forty and sixty on the cruise, you’d think his name wasn’t John Stamos but “Ohmygosh Blackie from General Hospital! Me and my girlfriends had such a crush on him!”, and there’s a certain type of Beach Boys fan who resents it when the group appeals to what they see as less-refined (read: female and/or suburban) tastes. He added little to those shows that appealed to me, but I could see that there were people he did appeal to, and he didn’t detract from the performances all that much. 
For my tastes, indeed, he’d probably been a neutral element overall on those shows —  he wasn’t a great drummer on the songs he drummed on, but his presence also meant that they did “Forever”, a song I like very much and which they don’t often play. So swings and roundabouts, and if there’s a demographic he appeals to which isn’t mine, all the better.
But this time, his drumming on the songs he played on wasn’t merely not good, it was actively terrible, rising almost to the level of sabotage. Still not as bad as Mike Kowalski, the group’s touring drummer for the eighties, nineties, and early 00s, but easily the second-worst live drumming I’ve seen at a professional performance after Kowalski. If this is his normal standard of drumming, and the not-terrible playing the first two times I saw him was some sort of aberration, it’s easy to see how he became so loathed among certain subsections of Beach Boys fandom. Luckily, the rest of the band were so good that they managed to save what could otherwise have been total trainwrecks of performances, and Stamos only played drums on a handful of songs, with John Cowsill (who I cannot say enough positive things about) playing on the rest while Stamos strummed at an unplugged electric guitar. (He sometimes came close enough to me that I could hear the unamplified strings — he wasn’t even attempting the right chords a lot of the time).
I have no objection to Stamos as a person, and he’s clearly popular with the crowds, but they really shouldn’t let him behind the drum kit. Let him sing “Forever”, pose with his guitar, and hit the unmiced congas on “Kokomo”, but don’t let him play drums — they’re too important to the sound to have him do that. Luckily, that wasn’t enough to spoil what was otherwise an excellent show.
(One other thing I didn’t mention when reporting on the previous Beach Boys show — while Christian Love now sings lead on “God Only Knows”, they fly in Carl Wilson singing the phrase “Everyone, everyone” from the 1980 Knebworth show in the tag, which is an interesting touch.)
After that, most of the audience decamped to see Rain, the Beatles tribute band, who were the hit of the cruise for much of the audience, and who were certainly the most-discussed act. I didn’t, however. I don’t have any great objection to tribute bands, though they’re also not especially interesting to me, but I specifically find American Beatles tribute bands fall into an uncanny valley which I can’t cope with. Even the ones who to American ears sound absolutely authentic (and Rain sound so much so that a couple of other passengers I discussed them with insisted that they were definitely British) sound just off to my ears — my family are all Scousers, and I grew up hearing the real accents all around me — my uncle used to play the Cavern, while my grandfather was at the Liverpool Institute a couple of years ahead of Paul and George — and no American I’ve ever heard can get Lennon or Harrison’s voice right (weirdly, they all seem to manage McCartney perfectly). 
This is very much a me thing, but it is a thing, and one I can’t escape, so no Beatles tribute band for me.
Instead, I just got some food then returned to the front row of the Pool Deck for the Temptations, who did exactly the same show as they had a couple of days earlier, but this time a little more sure-footed as the boat was in much calmer waters, and wearing different suits.
The last day was in many ways the one I was looking forward to the most, as my schedule for it was made up almost entirely of panels and Q&A sessions, and last year I’d been surprised at getting more out of those than out of the actual performances. It started with a Temptations Q&A, and again I’d been picked to ask a question, but sadly Otis Williams didn’t have much to say in response to my question about being a bandleader and how he ensured that the Temptations always sounded like the Temptations — he just talked about how he’d been lucky in the vocalists he worked with and said that God had been good to him. 
Much of the rest of what Williams had to say will be familiar to those who’ve read his autobiography, but what I found fascinating was the way that the other current members of the Temptations chipped in with jokes and anecdotes — these are clearly people who actually enjoy each other’s company, and who despite the age differences have quite similar life experiences.
Next up was a Q&A with Bill Medley, in the smaller atrium space rather than the large outdoor space used for the Beach Boys and Temptations Q&A sessions. This was also a freeform, “give a mic to a random audience member”, experience rather than one like the earlier Q&As where the questions had been presubmitted — and it immediately became apparent just why the questions in the other events were vetted, as roughly half of the “questions” were along the lines of “Hi! I just want to say that I’m such a fan, and have been since you used to be on Shindig! I don’t know if you remember a show you did in Pittsburgh in 1972, but that was my first date with my wife, and you sounded so great at that show, and I’ve seen you at least thirty times since!”
After about three or four of these “questions” I could see exactly why they made a very big deal about having a no-weapons policy before boarding, but a few people did ask actual questions as well, and got some interesting answers from Medley. I was particularly gratified that he made a point of emphasising how much the early Righteous Brothers owed to Don and Dewey (though I winced slightly when he said “We basically became Don and Dewey, until colour TV came along” — there’s an essay to be written on the complexities of Medley’s relationship with race, though I’m not the one to do it, but he does tend to come close to the “I can say it because I have so many Black friends” side of things at times). He also talked about his friendship with Elvis, saying that the two bonded over their mutual love of Roy Hamilton (something I was gratified to be able to point out to Justin from TCBCast, who has long made a point of emphasising how much of an influence Hamilton was on Elvis’ singing).
One audience question which was an actual question did get an interesting answer though — someone asked what songs Medley regretted not having recorded, and he replied “I’ve given away about nine careers!” and listed a huge number of songs he’d turned down which became huge hits for other people — two I remember were “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and “In the Ghetto”. 
I then popped up to the pool deck to watch most of a set by the artist billed for legal reasons as “Katrina from Katrina and the Waves”, though everyone when talking about her just used her old band’s name. She’s in a similar position to Medley, in that everyone knows her old band’s big hit “Walking on Sunshine” (and everyone in Britain also knows their 1997 Eurovision winner “Love Shine a Light”) but nobody really knows anything else they did. So she goes for a similar solution to that used by Medley, on a smaller scale (because “Walking On Sunshine” was nowhere near as big as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”). Her set consists of a few new originals, cover versions of popular songs (things like “River Deep, Mountain High”) and songs she’s vaguely associated with that people might know, like “Going Down to Liverpool”, an album track by her old band that was later covered by the Bangles, and which she dedicated in this performance to John Cowsill (who is married to Vicki Peterson of the Bangles).
She does a good, though not spectacular, show, and both my companion and I noted how good her drummer was in particular, which was lucky because later that night he came up to us and started a conversation just because he’s from Leeds (about forty miles away from Manchester) and wanted to “speak to some people who talk normal” after spending so much time around Americans, and he turned out to have a mutual friend with my companion and to be a listener to the podcast.
I had to leave the show before the end, though, because I wanted to be at the Songwriters in the Round discussion panel. This was probably the most interesting part of the whole event for me — a panel, moderated by Mark McGrath (who did a remarkably decent job and didn’t become overbearing at all) with Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and Jimmy Webb talking about songwriting. Also on the panel were two of the younger acts on the cruise, neither of whom I’m at all familiar with — Kris Allen (who apparently is a former American Idol winner or something) and Maggie Rose (who has had some minor country hits) — but they understandably had rather less to say than the others.
There was a certain amount of repetition of the same old stories again, with Mike Love once again talking about writing the lyrics to “Good Vibrations” in the car on the way to the studio, and about writing “The Warmth of the Sun”, but there was also a pleasure just in hearing these people talk about their craft in a way they rarely  do, and a few odd things I’d never come across before. Like I don’t think I’d ever heard Love state specifically that the “Aruba, Jamaica” part of “Kokomo” was specifically inspired by “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” by the Robins, for example. 
(Although possibly the most interesting revelation was not one that speaks well of Love’s instincts as a writer at all — he said that he’d never understood why Tony Asher’s lyric for “God Only Knows” had started “I may not always love you”, and that if he had been involved in writing that song, it would instead have been “I know I’ll always love you”. Love is sometimes capable of truly great lyrics, but there’s an almost wilful Philistinism in that comment which I find hard to believe, and which sounds more like something the worst caricatures of Love created by his detractors would say).
Jimmy Webb was particularly good value, as one would expect — his book on songwriting, Tunesmith, is one of the great books on craft, and one I can’t recommend highly enough. He wasn’t able to get into quite the same nuts-and-bolts discussion in this setting, but was notably more focused on practicality than any of the other panelists, and was able effectively to “yes and” them. For example, there was a lot of discussion of how the best songs seem to come from some force beyond the writer, and you feel like you’re transcribing them. Webb didn’t contradict any of this, but when asked a question about writer’s block he was able to point out that writer’s block is something that only happens to successful writers, rarely to people who haven’t already made their name, and that the solution to it is generally to, as I think he put it, “meet the muse half-way”, and how it’s much easier to have those bolts of inspiration if you’re already sat at a piano with a tape recorder running and a pen and paper handy. He specifically used the example of Randy Newman as someone who dealt with writer’s block by renting himself an office and forcing himself to go there eight hours a day, five days a week, and found that he became far more productive as a result.
The end of the session was thrown open to audience questions, and because it was sparsely attended (as these events seem to be on these cruises, though they’re by far my favourite part of the experience) most of these were actual questions, with only the final one (from someone who seemed annoyed that they hadn’t mentioned that arrangements are also important in making a hit record) being “more of a comment than a question”. That was a slightly irritating note on which to end what had otherwise been the highlight of the event.
Next up came my second and final chance of the cruise to see Jimmy Webb perform, and he was once again spellbinding. The depth of his catalogue is such that for this show he actually dropped “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, two of the greatest songs ever written, which he’d performed on the previous show I’d seen, and swapped in a couple of other songs. I don’t remember exactly which songs were played on which nights, but I do remember that one he only did on the last show was “The Worst that Could Happen”, into which he interjected a brief self-mocking aside about the line “You know that’s not my scene”.
One thing that I found interesting during the whole event, actually, is the way that the acts responded to bits of feedback they’d had over the course of the cruise as they mingled with the audiences. This often showed up in very small ways — for example, as I mentioned in my review of the first night’s shows, Webb has a bit of schtick he does at the start of “MacArthur Park” where he quotes bits of psychedelic lyrics and then says “But I leave one cake out in the rain…” 
This time round though, among the psychedelic lyrics he mentioned was the lyric to “Surf’s Up”, and he did a brief aside about how his performance of that at a Brian Wilson tribute show in 2001 with David Crosby and Vince Gill had been one of the highlights of his career. Now I’m certain that was brought to mind by one of the other passengers who I’d been talking to before the Beach Boys show the night before. He’d said that he’d met Webb at the meet and greet and brought that performance up, being otherwise unfamiliar with Webb’s work.
Similarly, at the Bill Medley Q&A that morning, someone had requested that he add “My Babe” (the early Righteous Brothers song of that name, not the more famous song Willie Dixon wrote for Little Walter) and “Justine” to the set, and Medley had seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would be asking him about their pre-Spector records. He’d said that he didn’t think Heard knew “Justine”, but maybe they could do “My Babe”, and so for the final show of the cruise (which was otherwise identical to the show a couple of days earlier, right down to a bit of “spontaneous” banter with a clearly pre-scripted heckle from the audience), the Righteous Brothers added in “My Babe”, with Medley prefacing it by talking about how they didn’t have the charts for the song with them and so the band would have to busk it — but they pulled the song, which is a fairly simple one, off without a hitch, and as with the other R&B songs in the set it seemed to give a lift to Medley’s energy levels.
And that was the end of the cruise (though apparently a few of the Beach Boys band members turned up to the late-night karaoke and turned it into an after-hours jam session, which I was disappointed to discover I’d missed). 
With the exception of Webb, none of the artists I saw were entirely “authentic”, and all of them have some schlocky elements to the staging and arrangements which could easily be offputting to someone who is determined to see these things through a cynical, intellectual, lens — the lens through which I am most inclined to view things by my own nature.  There’s a certain cheesiness, a certain lack of cool, to some of this.
But… if you can get past that, if you’re willing to put that on hold, there is tremendous value to all of these performers. And by that I don’t mean putting one’s critical faculties on hold, not in the slightest — I think being critical and analytical can only deepen one’s appreciation for any performance worth appreciating — but taking the performances on their own terms, for what they’re trying to do, rather than judging them by the standards of your inner insecure sixteen-year-old, the voice in your head that’s terrified of liking something that’s uncool or unsophisticated, of being judged by one’s peers as not too sophisticated enough.
The fact is that the Beach Boys have one of the greatest catalogues of hit singles of any band of their generation, and that Mike Love was the lead singer and co-writer of many of those songs, and is a genuinely talented, engaging, frontman. Ronald Isley may not sing as well as he did when he was thirty, but he still sings wonderfully by any other standards, and Ernie Isley plays better than ever. The Temptations’ catalogue of hits almost matches that of the Beach Boys, and Otis Williams, the one constant throughout their career, has kept together a group of some truly exceptional singers. And Bill Medley, the most distinctive voice of the Righteous Brothers, who wrote “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and who produced “Soul and Inspiration” and “Unchained Melody”, still has exactly the same voice he did in 1965. 
These are all very old men now — Ronald Isley and Otis Williams are 81, Mike Love turns 82 in a couple of days, Medley is 82, and Bruce Johnston is 80. As Jimmy Webb said of the muse, they require meeting half-way, at least if like myself you’ve grown up with a huge number of preconceptions as to what a rock, soul, or R&B performance “should” be, and what “authenticity” is. 
But if you are willing to take that tiny step towards them, to judge them for what they are rather than for what the Lester Bangs in your head tells you they should be, the current lineups of the Beach Boys, the Temptations, the Isley Brothers, and the Righteous Brothers are as good at the things they do as anyone could possibly be. (And Jimmy Webb doesn’t even require that tiny step — he’s only a few years younger than those others, but came up in a post-Beatles era rather than pre-Beatles, with all the different understanding of coolness and what’s required of a rock or pop musician that that implies).
One thing that doing my podcast has made even more clear to me is that the lifespans of musicians are very, very, finite. There will not be that many more chances to see any of these performers live, and they’d be worth seeing purely for that, just to tick a box and say you’ve seen them, and I’ve approached some shows like that in the past. But all of these are also worth seeing for who they are now.
If this event happens again next year, I’ll be there, and I would urge any of you with any taste at all for these performers to see them any chance you get, while you still can.
My journey home was a long one — a combination of French air traffic control strikes, bad weather in Manchester, and bad luck meant it took over forty hours between leaving the cabin and arriving home, and at one point I was unsure I would ever arrive home at all (pro tip, don’t write about Otis Redding shortly before flying, because if you’re on a plane that’s about to land, actually coming into the runway, and then it suddenly pulls back up into the air and starts shaking wildly while alarms go off and the cabin crew announce “we have an unexpected problem which the captain will explain as soon as possible”, you start having some very bad thoughts), and I’m still not recovered from the trip, but I’ll be recording the next episode, on the Velvet Underground, over the next couple of days. Look for that soon.

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Won’t You Let Me Take You On A Sea Cruise?

Crossposted from

So welcome to the report from day one of the Beach Boys Cruise. This is being written at 7:30 in the morning, which makes no sense to me as I’m normally only vaguely aware that there *is* such a time. I normally wake up about 10:30 in the morning and don’t really start properly waking until the early afternoon, and creative work such as writing is usually a night-time pursuit. But we’re currently six timezones ahead of the UK, on Belize time, and so I found myself waking up at 6AM. So I might as well do a report on yesterday’s events now (though this will be written in bits over the course of the day as I snatch time to do it).

The cruise started rather auspiciously. I’m not going to talk about my companion much, because I don’t like to share too much about my personal life, but she wasn’t with me last year, and hasn’t seen the Beach Boys with me before. We were stood outside the cruise terminal while she had a pre-boarding smoke, and the tour bus pulled up right where we were stood and the backing band members and crew all got out. I gave a little wave/nod to a couple of the band members I’ve met multiple times before, and they had brief chats (or in one case just said “Hi Andrew” while manoeuvring his bag). This meant that my companion was now convinced that I am an Important Figure With Connections because they know me by name. I suspect that they know me by name as an annoying tit they try to avoid (I used to know one of them relatively well online, but for some reason whenever we met in person I was at my worst and most non-verbal, and must have come off incredibly unimpressively), but don’t tell her that, OK? It’s our secret.

(That may come off as an attempt to namedrop, especially given what I’m about to say, but I doubt anyone reading this would actually be particularly impressed by the fact that I’ve had an occasional chat with some musicians).

After the customary customs faff (and here’s a Top Travel Tip I only learned after becoming physically disabled — international travel is *much* easier if you use a mobility aid, because they just shoo you to the front of the queues) we were on the ship, and then the shoe was on the other foot when after having been a fan meeting artists he likes, for the first time ever a couple came up and talked to me because they recognised me from my podcast. They didn’t give their names, but the husband said he was “a subscriber” in a way which made me think that possibly he was talking about my Patreon. If so, please do let me know who you are.

I won’t talk too much about the rest of the “cruise experience” as opposed to the music today, because there are days (today, for example) where there are more panels and talks and so on than musical performances, so those will be a good chance to talk about that stuff. 

First up, there was a pre-sail show by the Isley Brothers, which I’d been looking forward to immensely since it was announced. I’d bought a ticket in 2019 to see the Isleys’ 2020 UK tour, and when that was cancelled, given Ronald Isley’s age and the relative infrequency of their UK visits, I’d assumed I’d missed my only chance to see them.

I’ve obviously covered the Isleys on the podcast before, and they’re going to get covered again, but what i haven’t been able to show yet is just *how much* they’ve done. This is a group that started performing before Elvis, who were covered by the Beatles, who had Jimi Hendrix as their touring guitarist, who were sampled by Public Enemy, but who *are still making relevant music today*, seventy years on. Their most recent R&B top five hit, a remake of their old hit “Make Me Say it Again Girl” done as a duet with Beyonce, was less than six months ago. 

There’s only one member left, lead singer Ronald Isley, from the lineup that recorded their first big hit, “Shout”, back in 1959 — O’Kelly died in 1986, and Rudolph quit music following his death to become a Christian minister — but his younger brother Ernest, who joined the band in 1969 on guitar and played on their run of classic hits in the seventies, many of which he co-wrote, still tours with him, and their show is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

The Isley Brothers started in the days of the chitlin’ circuit, and their show somehow manages to encapsulate every aspect of Black American entertainment and showmanship from the last sixty-plus years. It’s flashy and tacky and ridiculous, but in ways that nonetheless somehow exemplify utter cool. Ronald Isley has a golden microphone stand (which doubles as a walking stick for him to hold on to — he’s clearly not too steady on his pins and spends much of the show sat down) and came out wearing a white suit, with a waistcoat open to show his chest and a medallion, and with *sparkling, glass-studded shoes*. This should remind me of nothing more than Lenny Henry’s comedy character Theophilus P. Wildebeest, but it *works*,  as do the sexy dancers who somehow achieved a costume change for every song, and all the other bits of flash. It’s a show where the performers come out determined that the audience are going to be entertained, by sheer force of willpower if necessary, and it *absolutely* works in person (in a way I suspect it wouldn’t, for me at least, in video).

Isley’s voice was mixed rather too low (possibly just a problem with the venue — an outdoor performance with no opportunity to soundcheck is never going to be the greatest acoustic environment, something I’ll undoubtedly come back to many times over the course of the cruise). I was at the front, and at times could hear more of his voice coming from him than from the speakers (which at least helps dispel a criticism I’ve seen of some recent shows, people claiming that at points in the show he’s miming — the vocals were absolutely coming from him). This was particularly annoying as his voice is *extremely* thin in his top end now (understandably so as he’s eighty-one). He’s still got the notes, he just hasn’t got the power in them that he used to have, though he’s still as good in his chest voice as he ever was. What you hear at the top of his range is the ghost of a great voice, but it audibly *is* the ghost of a great voice. He uses a lot of the same tricks to cover this that Al Green did when I saw him twenty-five years ago — having the backing vocalists augment him, pointing the mic to the crowd, and the rest — but it would still have been better had his voice been higher in the mix. And on the songs where he was in chest voice, things like “Fight the Power” and “It’s Your Thing”, he still sounded exactly like he did in his thirties.

And of course Ernest Isley can still *play* like he did when he was in his twenties. He’s one of the great guitarists of the immediate post-Hendrix generation, and often gets compared to Hendrix — unsurprisingly since Jimi was his elder brothers’ guitarist at a time when Ernie was an impressionable teenager watching from the wings — and he uses a lot of the same stage tricks that Hendrix used, such as playing with his teeth, playing with his guitar upside down behind his neck, and so forth. But of course these are tricks that Hendrix picked up from his time playing on the chitlin’ circuit, where many other guitarists used them (a lot of what made Hendrix so revolutionary was that he was using the standard techniques that Black artists used for Black audiences and bringing them to a white audience in a different subgenre). 

I’m not usually a fan of flashy guitar heroics, which generally seem more masturbatory than anything else, but in Isley’s case the flash and technique are combined with songcraft and a fine compositional mind. On record, the guitar pyrotechnics are done in service of the song, and that’s not quite true in the same way on stage, but they’re done in service of the *show*. It’s not flashy feedback and lightning-fast triplets for the sake of the guitarist, but to overawe the audience. It’s showmanship at its finest.

As the Isleys have such a long run of hits, they can pick and choose the songs they perform based on the audience they’re playing to. The setlist this time was slightly heavier on their sixties hits than normal, incorporating songs like “This Old Heart of Mine” and “Twist and Shout” which they only rarely play when they’re playing for an audience more familiar with their collaborations with Beyonce, Snoop Dogg, and R. Kelly, but which are perfectly suited for an audience that was overwhelmingly made up of white people between the ages of roughly fifty and seventy. They also included a brief medley of songs from Ronald Isley’s contemporaries — a couple of Sam Cooke songs going into “Proud Mary” (which he spoke of as an Ike and Tina Turner song rather than a Creedence one). And of course the crowd was all familiar with their classic hits like “It’s Your Thing”, “Fight the Power”, “Summer Breeze”, and “That Lady”. But they still also acknowledged their connections with more recent music, doing “Make Me Say It Again Girl” in the same arrangement as the recent Beyonce collaboration, and starting “Between the Sheets” with Ronald Isley rapping “I love it when you call me big poppa”, imitating the song where Notorious B.I.G. sampled the Isleys.

I have rarely seen a better performance, and I’ve seen a lot of live music.

The next show couldn’t have been more different, but was equally worthwhile. Jimmy Webb is one of the great songwriters of his generation, but even though I have several albums by him and have seen him live before, I still somehow underrate him as a performer of his own material. I suspect it’s because his biggest curse is also his biggest blessing — he’s had material recorded by artists like the Four Tops, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and Glen Campbell, some of the greatest voices ever to sing in their respective genres. 

But Webb is himself an excellent singer. Not Glen Campbell good or Sinatra good, but who is? But he has a fine, strong, voice, and more to the point he’s an excellent showman, seamlessly slipping between anecdotes about the greats he’s worked with, told apparently off the cuff but with the kind of attention to word choice that marks out his lyrics (and almost certainly carefully crafted, though I remember none of them from the previous time I saw him), and his catalogue of classic songs. And what a catalogue it is — “Galveston”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Didn’t We”, “Up, Up, and Away”, “All I Know”, “MacArthur Park” (introduced by talking about the trend to psychedelic lyrics in the mid-sixties, quoting bits of Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, and more, and ending with “but I put *one* cake out in the rain…”), “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

He performed at the piano, with his only other accompaniment being a guitarist who mostly added a tiny bit of colour with some swelling volume-pedal single notes, but held the entire theatre spellbound for an hour and a quarter, and didn’t even include half his classics (no “Honey Come Back”, “Where’s the Playground Suzie?”, or “Do What You Gotta Do” for example), though he said he’ll be switching the setlist round for his other shows.

And finally (for me at least, there were some shows in the theatre venues later) the Beach Boys (Mike Love and Bruce Johnston), back on the main stage. 

Love’s touring Beach Boys has a bad reputation in some quarters, and much of that is just down to personal dislike of Love, who may be the most-hated man in rock music. That’s an opinion I’ve never actually been able to understand. Certainly he has dislikable aspects and plenty of them, from his conservative political views to his apparent over-willingness to sue colleagues and family members, to his apparent arrogance. But I think the worst that can be said about him with any substance behind it is that he can be a bit of a dick at times, and about which of us can that *not* be said? Certainly in a business that has historically been full of actual monsters who get treated as legends, the personal vitriol aimed at Love seems *vastly* disproportionate, even if one takes every single negative story as the absolute truth.

There’s rather more justification, though, for those who had musical issues with Love’s band based on how they sounded in the first few years after Carl Wilson’s death and Alan Jardine’s sacking. Even before Wilson’s death, the band in the nineties had often been, frankly, an embarrassment, with corners cut on arrangements, shoddy harmonies, and everything swamped in a wash of cheap Casio-sounding keyboards and tinkling cymbals.

In the late nineties and early 2000s, without the balancing presence of Wilson and Jardine, those problems were magnified tenfold. The band at that time was, simply, *bad*. If you went to see a Beach Boys show around the turn of the millennium, you’d get performances of  non-Beach Boys material like”Sherry”, sung by a British Frankie Valli impersonator who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket even if equipped with state-of-the-art bucket-carrying equipment and assisted by several professional bucket carriers, while drums were played by Mike Kowalski, a man who may be the single worst professional musician I’ve ever seen live on any instrument, who could not keep a steady beat to save his life and who didn’t seem to realise his kit had snares and toms, choosing instead to use the cowbell and hi-hat.

But then, once Brian Wilson started touring regularly with a band which contains some of the best musicians in the business, playing the music accurately, Love responded to the competition by improving his show dramatically. He started including more obscure songs in the set, and a series of lineup changes improved the band dramatically. By 2008, the musical director was Scott Totten, a Juilliard graduate with a knowledge of and love for the music that’s second to none, who insists on getting every detail right — to the extent that, for example, in “Sloop John B”, he makes sure one of the vocalists sings “break up” rather than “broke up” at the end of the second verse, replicating a mistake that Alan Jardine made on the record. And the drummer was John Cowsill, who on his worst day is infinitely better than Kowalski at his best, and at his best is the best live drummer I’ve ever seen,

There have been more lineup changes since then, but the core band of Love, Johnston, Totten, Cowsill, and keyboard player Tim Bonhomme (who isn’t given the same opportunity to be impressive as Totten or Cowsill, given that he’s mostly playing relatively straightforward pads, string lines and organ parts and so on, and doesn’t sing lead or get many solos, so I always rather ignore him in reviews and feel bad about it) has been consistent in their roles for fifteen years, and have put on consistently excellent shows. (The rest of the band at the moment is Brian Eichenberger, formerly briefly of Brian Wilson’s band and before that a touring member of the Four Freshmen, on falsetto vocals and rhythm guitar; Christian Love, Mike Love’s son, on “Carl Wilson” vocals and additional guitar; Randy Leago on saxophone and flute, and Keith Hubacher on bass). 

They have had, for the last fifteen years, a setlist that consistently falls into the same shape, and which can be lengthened or shortened to fit the venue they’re playing (and which those who attended the Beach Boys reunion shows in 2012 will recognise). They always start with “Do It Again” (or *very* occasionally “Surfin'”), followed by a quick run-through of several surf songs from 1962 and 63, also throwing in “Little Honda”. That ends with a mini peak of “Surfin’ USA”, which is followed by bringing the tempo down for “Surfer Girl”.  There’s then the first expandable/contractable/deletable section, which is where they perform minor hits, mid-sixties album tracks, and the odd obscurity, songs that not everyone in the audience will know but usually fun-sounding ones and usually from about 1965 (this is where, for example, they will play “Please Let Me Wonder”, “Kiss Me Baby”, “When I Grow Up To Be a Man”, or “Good to My Baby” when they play those, as well as songs like “Darlin'”, “Be True to Your School” or “Getcha Back” which were hits but not their biggest hits) . That section always ends when they start “Don’t Worry Baby”, at which point Mike Love says “let’s hotwire the hot-rods one more time!” and they perform all the car hits — “Little Deuce Coupe”, “409”, “Shut Down”, and “I Get Around”, always in that order. 

If they’re playing a theatre, “I Get Around” is the end of the first half, and there’s an intermission, leaving the audience on a high. If there’s been an intermission, the second half starts with “California Dreamin'”, to give the audience time to get back to their seats — a song they’ll recognise, but which people won’t be worried about having missed as the Beach Boys didn’t have the hit with it. If there’s not been an intermission, it’s “California Girls”, which also comes after “California Dreamin'” in theatre sets. After that, there’s a section of the artier material, which again can grow or shrink depending on how receptive the venue is to the arty side of the group. It’s here that the Pet Sounds material always goes (they always do the three singles, but they’ll also do more in a theatre show, like “Here Today” or “You Still Believe in Me”), along with seventies songs like “Forever” or “Sail on Sailor” if they do those, and introspective stuff like “In My Room”. 

Coming out of that section, they have the hit covers — “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Rock and Roll Music” — followed by a run of three number ones — “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Kokomo”, and “Good Vibrations” to end the show, with “Barbara Ann” and “Fun Fun Fun” as the two encores.

That show is the one they always play, hitting the same peaks every time, but they can cut it to a skeletal twenty-song set by *just* playing the peaks — the surf songs, the car songs, “California Girls”, the three “Pet Sounds” singles, the run of number ones and the encores — when playing festival slots or similar, or expand it to as many as sixty songs when playing UK indoor venues (Scott Totten once apologised to me after a UK theatre show because they’d “only” done fifty-seven songs that night because there was a curfew). In the latter case they’ll do things like “All This is That”, “Til I Die”, most of Pet Sounds, “Heroes and Villains” (with a section of “Our Prayer” at the end), “Disney Girls”, “Surf’s Up” and so on (and usually do those extraordinarily well),

They basically have four different versions of that show — a twenty-song festival one, a thirtyish song outdoor headlining show version, a forty-song US theatre one, and a fifty-plus-song UK theatre one. 

The version they play on the Beach Boys Cruise is the thirtyish-song, no-interval version, with one slight variant — Mark McGrath, the former lead singer of Sugar Ray, who is a friend of Love’s, joins the group for a couple of songs, and so they do one of Sugar Ray’s hits, “Fly”, which obviously the group don’t normally do. 

The Beach Boys do two shows on the cruise, and last year they did their standard thirty-ish song set the first time, and a longer set with the addition of a few songs they don’t normally do for the second show. I don’t know if that’s the plan this time, but I assume it is, and so I’ll give a more detailed review of the performance when they do the second show. 

But I’ve seen the Beach Boys some twenty-five times in twenty-two years by this point, and because I know the show so well (I can talk along with Mike Love’s stage patter) what I tend to notice more than anything else are the points where the show deviates even slightly from my expectations. This tends to mean that if I try to review the shows, I end up coming up with something like “Tim Bonhomme was having trouble with his in-ear monitor and had to leave the stage a couple of times to try and get it sorted” (which is what happened on the first show of last year’s cruise) or “Christian Love is clearly having problems with his throat, they’ve given a couple of his usual leads to Cowsill and are only having him do the crucial stuff” (last year’s Albert Hall gig), that sort of thing.

I’ll try not to do that in the review proper of the second show, but in order to alleviate my autistic scrupulosity, I will point out the things like that that I noticed about last night’s show:

Keith Hulbacher’s bass kept feeding back. I suspect this was a problem with how the PA responded to particular frequencies rather than anything else, because I noticed a similar but lesser problem with a few notes of Mike’s bass vocal and the baritone sax.

When they played “Getcha Back”, which they do now with the new lyrics Mike did on his remake on his solo album, Mike completely blanked on the lyrics to the new third verse,

John Stamos also guested (for those outside the US, Stamos is an actor who appeared in a very popular American soap opera and later in an equally popular sitcom, he’s an amateur drummer and guitarist, and sometimes guests with the Beach Boys, though only rarely outside the US. I’d only seen him once before, at last year’s Albert Hall gig, where his presence clearly bemused an audience who had about as much idea who he was as an American audience would have about, say, Yootha Joyce), and he threw into relief just *how good* Cowsill is on the drums. Stamos is a perfectly competent amateur drummer — I’ve played with worse, though I’ve played with better — but he fumbled a couple of changes, most notably on “I Get Around”. Not in a way anyone in the audience who hadn’t seen the group live dozens of times would notice, and recoverably, but it happened. Cowsill, by contrast, was playing even better than normal, doing some incredible tom work on “Hawaii” in particular. 

Mike’s bass vocal was too high in the mix on “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room”, and sounded slightly off. Weirdly, exactly the same happened on last year’s cruise, though never at any other shows I’ve seen.

Anyway, there is your nitpickers’ guide to last night’s Beach Boys show. A non-nitpicker might instead have said something along the lines of how the entire audience loved every second, and how they played thirty songs back to back where everyone in the audience knew every word, with spot-on harmonies and musicianship throughout, with Love charming the audience with well-worn jokes and connecting with individual members of the audience, Johnston acting as a goofy sidekick, Scott Totten playing blistering lead guitar, and the music played with respect for the recorded versions but without losing the edge and excitement that one gets from a great live performance.

But that, of course, could be a review of any Beach Boys show.

Tomorrow: Meet and greets, the Surfrajettes, and the Temptations…

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(Crossposted from )

For those who don’t know, I’m currently on holiday, and specifically tomorrow I’m going to be going on the Beach Boys Cruise, a five-day cruise from Miami to Belize and Mexico, on which the Beach Boys. the Temptations, the Righteous Brothers, Jimmy Webb and the Isley Brothers are all performing.

When I asked on my Patreon if people wanted to hear about the cruise, since after all my backers are paying for my holiday, and all those performers have been featured in my podcast (either on the main podcast or in Webb’s case in three bonus episodes) almost everyone who replied said yes, but also a couple of people said they thought it might be interesting to find out about how I decided to go on a cruise like this, because I don’t seem like, and indeed am not, a cruise person. Indeed when I worked a day job I used to use almost all my holiday time to stay at home, explaining that if I’d rather be somewhere else I’d live there instead. So for the next few days I’m going to do a daily blog post talking about the performances on the cruise, but I thought I’d explain today why I’m doing this.

The simple answer is I went last year and enjoyed it.

The longer answer is that 2021 was by far the worst year of my life. I can’t and won’t go into details because they all involve other people and private information about myself, but a truly astonishing number of things had gone wrong in my life. The one thing that hadn’t was my income — 2021 was the first year when I made enough money purely from my creative work that I could live comfortably without having to take on any outside work.

One thing I’d wished was that I’d been able to go to see the Monkees on what was billed as their last tour — I’d seen Michael Nesmith as a solo artist in 2012, and had seen the other Monkees perform as a group (and Tork and Dolenz as a duo twice, and Dolenz solo once) but had never had the chance to see Nesmith performing with the Monkees. Nesmith and Dolenz (Tork by this time had died) toured towards the end of 2021, but only in America, and the situation with both covid and my finances had been too unpredictable for me to justify that kind of expense, no matter how much I wished I could.

But then in late autumn of 2021 one extra date was announced for March 2022 — on a three-day cruise with the Beach Boys, who I’m a massive fan of, and the Temptations, my personal favourite of the sixties Motown acts. But it was so expensive…

But then I realised — I was going through a divorce at the time, and every previous year (other than 2020 for obvious reasons), no matter how little I’d earned, my ex and I had gone to visit my in-laws in Minnesota for Christmas. Travelling at Christmas is ridiculously expensive, and I realised that if I was to book onto the cruise in a shared room, and booked the flight far enough in advance, it would cost about as much for me to go onto the cruise as it would have every other year for me and my ex to visit my in-laws. And when I thought of it that way — would I enjoy three days in the Caribbean with the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and the Temptations, more or less than I had a week in rural Minnesota with my in-laws — then that was no contest. (And that’s not meant to slight either my ex-in-laws, who are lovely people, or rural Minnesota, an area with many charms of its own.)

So I booked onto the cruise, taking a 0% interest cash advance on a credit card, and paid it off in instalments over the course of a year.

Then of course, Michael Nesmith sadly died, and the Monkees performance was reworked into a Micky Dolenz solo show, but by that point I was already committed, and so I went along, and I turned out to have a great time.

I’ll talk about my observations a lot more over the next few days, but last year’s Beach Boys Cruise was simultaneously the least me thing ever, and the *most* me thing ever. Much of the stuff on that kind of holiday doesn’t suit me at all — I hate the heat, don’t go swimming, and I am very much not a “fun” person, being far, far, too much in my own head to let myself go in any real way — but because the main performers on the cruise were precisely my kind of thing,

There were multiple moments on that cruise that will stay with me forever — Scott Totten, the Beach Boys’ musical director, doing a wonderful talk about what a musical director’s job actually involves; Andrew Sandoval interviewing Micky Dolenz about his career and managing to get more than just the pat lines out of him (though being Micky Dolenz, he did still say “I’m told I had a good time” three times in a one-hour interview); watching Dolenz soundcheck and seeing him put his all into soundcheck performances with almost nobody watching (and when the woman next to me, a die-hard Monkees fan, burst into tears when Dolenz and his sister Coco started singing “Me and Magdalena” in the soundcheck, and just quietly said “no Mike…”, I connected with that song for the first time ever); conversations I had with various of the backing musicians — and on top of that there was something that’s very hard to explain, but had a very strange emotional effect on me.

The Muzak throughout the ship — in the corridors, lifts, and so on — was a playlist of songs by the acts performing, mostly the Beach Boys, Monkees, and Temptations. This is obviously very much to my personal taste anyway, but the thing was, they were not just playing the hits, they were playing basically *everything*. So walking down the corridors of the ship, you’d not just get the hits playing, but you’d hear “St. Matthew” or “Hold On Dear Brother”, “Pillow Time” or “Never Learn Not To Love” — songs which I have otherwise *literally never heard except in my own house*.

The only way I can describe it is that it was like walking through my own brain, my own internal soundtrack made audible for everyone to hear. It was… a strange feeling.

So last autumn, when they announced they were doing a second Beach Boys Cruise, a longer one, I booked on straight away. This year they sadly don’t have Dolenz, which is a disappointment, but on the other hand they do have Jimmy Webb (a favourite songwriter of mine, and someone who’s a great live performer), the Righteous Brothers (who I’ve never seen live, but whose work I enjoy), and the Isley Brothers (who I’d had a ticket to see in 2020 before covid shut live music down, so it almost feels like restitution of one little thing I’d been looking forward to and lost out on).

So from Friday through Tuesday, I’ll be doing little “What I Did on My Holiday” recaps, reviewing the shows, the talks, and whatever other aspects of the cruise I feel like talking about. Those of you who were worried about the idea of me working on my holiday — this is how I process experiences. I don’t really feel like I’ve done something until I’ve processed it as words, so this is not extra work on my part.

There’s a couple of things I should point out in advance. First, I am very aware that the bands on the tour have only one original member each (though both the Beach Boys and the Isley Brothers have two “classic” line-up members). I’ll be talking about what that means for the authenticity of the performances along with everything else, but I don’t really need people telling me “that’s not the real Beach Boys, it’s just Mike Love” or anything similar.

The other thing I feel I should mention is that one of the things that will come up in these posts is the difference between the white Middle American culture of pretty much everyone on these cruises and my own culture. I am not entirely comfortable in white Middle American surroundings, for reasons of both nature and nurture. The circles in which I move generally are drenched in irony, cynicism, and self-awareness. Everything is in quotes or postmodern, and there’s a comparative restraint, and a sense of embarrassment at direct emotional expression, it’s a culture of the head. I’m far from a hipster, but I can understand the hipster mentality. By contrast, mainstream white Middle America is a culture of face values, of surfaces, of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, of cheering when the sitcom character makes an entrance, rather than nodding knowingly.

For anyone who has read Neal Stephenson’s classic essay on operating system design, In the Beginning… was the Command Line (which you can find at ) it’s the same cultural thing Stephenson talks about there in his observations of “interface culture” and Disney World compared to the written word. (And I am a writer and Linux user, so those who have read that essay will understand where my own instincts take me, though I don’t draw Stephenson’s small-c conservative political conclusions).

I find myself uncomfortable in that environment (though obviously not uncomfortable enough to want to avoid being on a ship that’s full of that culture for several days straight) and that discomfort *will* come through, but it is *not* a value judgement, or me being a snob. Both ways of being have their good and bad points, both are necessary, and I don’t believe my way of being is superior.

(Which is not to say that there’s *nothing* to criticise. Last year, there were fewer passengers of colour on the ship than there were Black people *on stage* during the Temptations’ set, while the ship serving staff were pretty much all people of colour, and the racial politics of that made me deeply uncomfortable — but that is not a uniquely American phenomenon. The audiences for Beach Boys gigs in the UK are also so white you could get sunburn from the faces.)

The reason I mention this is that whenever I say anything on my podcast about mainstream American culture that sounds even slightly critical or negative — especially of that culture’s attitudes towards race, but in general — I get a flurry of outraged messages from white Americans, many of whom claim to be fans of my work (and some of whom *are* financial backers of it), using every insult in their vocabulary to convey their disgust at what they believe to be me claiming that Britain is better than America, and usually telling me that I think I’m so great but I live in a country that still has a monarchy, and so on. If there was anything that *was* going to make me truly think badly of America, it would be the stream of vile abuse I get from people whose patriotism, rather than love of their own country, is hatred of everyone else’s.

But to be clear, I don’t think Britain is better than America, and when I say things that are critical of America or American culture, there is no implied “unlike Britain, which is great”. My own country is a mess in a myriad ways, some of which are the same ways that America is messed up, and some of which are all its own. And America has many, many good points which Britain doesn’t have. I wouldn’t travel to America, to see American musicians, including a band which bills itself as “America’s band”, performing songs including “Surfin’ USA”, “California Girls”, “Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman”, and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, if I weren’t at least somewhat positively disposed to the USA. I just also see its flaws, just as I see the flaws in my own country.

And more importantly, I see things in that culture that discomfort me *without that discomfort in any way reflecting a moral judgement on those things*. When I say “this thing makes me uncomfortable”, that is a sentence containing two nouns — the thing, and me. There are many things that make me uncomfortable but which are not morally objectionable or are even objectively positive. I don’t find jeans comfortable, and wear cotton slacks, but that doesn’t mean I think jeans are inferior in some way, they’re just not right for me.

This may seem like I’m protesting too much, and overexplaining myself, but I *guarantee* that there will nonetheless be a portion of the readership for these posts that takes some innocuous observation from one of them and decides that it’s evidence that I’m a snob who hates America because I’m too elitist and British and snobby and a British elitist snob. But I hope that this will at least make one or two of them second-guess themselves a little.

Anyway, I’m writing this from my hotel in Miami, and tomorrow I head off to the cruise. Expect a report tomorrow night US time about the Isley Brothers, Jimmy Webb, the Beach Boys, and whatever else comes along.

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Review: “Arseholes on Cocaine” by The Couple in Seats A1 and A2, Manchester Apollo, Nov 2 2022. Also some bloke called Dylan

Crossposted from

Last night I was privileged enough to be only one row away from greatness, as I witnessed one of the most profoundly inventive pieces of performance art I’ve ever encountered, a portrayal of entitled narcissism unrivaled by anything I’ve seen in any medium — a piece called “Arseholes on Cocaine” by The Couple In Seats A1 And A2.
Normally, row GG in the circle of the Manchester Apollo is not the best place to sit, being as it is quite far away from the stage, but this performance took place from the seats themselves, just one row behind us, as this extraordinary work of experimental drama unfolded. The theatrical troupe managed to evoke every possible negative emotion, with pinpoint accuracy — anger, annoyance, irritation, revulsion, boredom — sometimes bringing them all up at once. 
The technique was simple. They waited until an accomplice (one Bob Dylan) got on the stage and started singing, at which point they started talking, loudly, about whatever inane thought came into their head. Their reactions to the subtleties of what was going on on stage were extraordinary — the way that every time the music got even slightly quieter, they would raise their voices even louder, is the kind of thing that must have taken decades of practice, yet they performed so naturalistically that it might have been improvised, had one not known better. 
But no, nobody could improvise such a nuanced character study of antisocial narcissistic entitlement. Some of the elements might perhaps have been a little too on the nose — like asking “Why?!” when politely shushed by my date after twenty minutes or so — and the ridiculous bumfluff facial hair worn by the male actor (whose name I sadly didn’t catch) which made him look just that little too much like a bad stereotype of the worst human being you could ever hope to encounter. But other things were spot-on, like the way they ramped up the tension by leaving for a fifteen-minute interval, during which the musical performance continued, before coming back even louder than before just when the audience thought it could relax.
Their show ended with an audience-interaction piece, in which having performed the whole night as disruptive entitled audience members, they turned the tables and yelled at my date for obstructing their view as she got up to go to the toilet, physically shoving her for daring to mildly disrupt their own evening. Shortly thereafter they were escorted out by a team of security people, and the last fifteen minutes or so of the show was just their accomplice on stage, singing with a band.
Luckily, that singer turned out to be quite good.
Bob Dylan has a reputation for giving very varied live performances over the years, led more by his own eccentricities than by anything the audience might want — Paul McCartney, when talking about his own shows, always talks about how he’s guided by trying to be different from Dylan, giving “When I go and see Dylan performing, I want to hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone'” as his reason for always doing “Hey Jude”, “Yesterday”, and so on.
Which is a reasonable choice, and certainly the three times I’ve seen McCartney live I came away delighted, having got exactly what I wanted from the experience. And if I’m lucky enough to see him again, I’m sure I’ll have the same reaction.
And yet, as pleased as I was with those shows, and as the audiences were, I don’t think I have ever been in an audience that was as enthusiastic as the Dylan audience were yesterday. Not on Brian Wilson’s first Smile tour, not watching Pulp’s career-making headlining slot at Glastonbury in 1995, not seeing Leonard Cohen’s comeback tour in 2008, not at any of those McCartney gigs. This was an audience that was genuinely ecstatic — and for a show where Dylan didn’t do “Like a Rolling Stone”. Nor did he do “Blowin’ in the Wind”, or “Just Like a Woman” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “It Ain’t Me Babe” or “All Along the Watchtower” or “Positively 4th Street” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” or “Idiot Wind” or any of the other songs on which his reputation was built.
Nor did he speak to the audience, other than saying “Thank you very much” in a rather surprised tone about half-way through the set (I think after performing “To be Alone With You”)  and introducing the band members before the last song. He did, twice, come out from behind the piano and move towards a mic at the centre of the stage, but both times he didn’t speak, just stood there for a second so the audience could get a good look at him, before moving back behind the upright piano at which he was performing all night.
That’s not to say his back catalogue was ignored, of course. He played exactly the same set he’s played, with no variations (other than for example doing a Jerry Lee Lewis cover at one show last week after Lewis’ death), at every show so far this year. Seventeen songs, lit from below (with disco-floor lighting which blacked out after every song, so every new song started in darkness). 
Those songs included the bulk of his most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is one of those albums by an aged artist that gets called a return to form, though in fact Dylan has had a streak of those over the last quarter-century, most of them actually as good as his work from his youth, unlike similar “returns to form” from his contemporaries. But they also included seven songs from his earlier work — none of them the massive hits, but all songs that people at all familiar with his catalogue past the major hits will know, things like “Watching the River Flow”, “To be Alone With You”, and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”.
Those second-tier hits were, though, rearranged to the point of unrecognisability, as is Dylan’s wont. At one point, my companion asked me quietly why the audience was suddenly applauding so loudly — it was because he’d sung the line “You Gotta Serve Somebody” and they’d realised en masse that for the last minute they’d been listening to a song they knew, rather than one they didn’t recognise.
Those rearrangements, though, would only be a problem if you were going along purely to recognise songs and congratulate yourself on the recognition. As music, they were generally excellent, though there was one point at which Dylan’s eccentric phrasing and piano playing seemed even to throw the exceptionally tight band backing him (whose names I sadly didn’t catch) — on the second song, “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”, they seemed to get a little lost and came to a rather confused ending, and I worried that we would be in for one of the legendarily bad gigs that Dylan has occasionally performed in the past.
But instead, the rest of the set struck the perfect balance between fluid improvisation and tight control, with an extraordinarily good band who were clearly steeped in Western Swing and the borderlines between country, blues, and jazz. At brief points when the pedal-steel guitarist/multi-instrumentalist (he also played some small fretted instrument, with his back to the audience so I couldn’t tell what it was, and which was curiously amplified with effects applied — my best guess is that it was an electric ukulele but it could have been a mandolin or something else of similar size) switched to violin the sound was very reminiscent of Grapelli and Reinhardt. 
For the most part, the songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways were played virtually identically to the record, with no variations in phrasing or arrangement, while the older songs were completely unrecognisable, but they all worked as a sustained show, keeping a consistent mood throughout, and also bringing up parallels between the old and new material. For example, I’d, like most people who’ve thought about it, thought of “Crossing the Rubicon” in terms of the classical allusions in the lyric, the way it’s about looking back on his life, the blues influences, and when it comes to its live performances also as an oblique comment on the war in Ukraine.
But hearing it as part of the same set as “Watching the River Flow”, what struck me is that the two songs have the same lyrical structure — an eight-line verse ending in a repeat of the title — both are blueses, though “Crossing the Rubicon” is a standard twelve-bar while “Watching the River Flow” varies the structure a little, and both have references to a river in the title, though the early song is passive while the later is active. I have no idea what this means, if it means anything at all, but it suggests to me that the two songs are connected in Dylan’s mind.
The other thing that struck me about Dylan’s performance — something that nobody else has commented on — is that even the stance that Dylan takes at the piano is resonant with the newish album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is a record that’s about many things, but one of the many things it’s about is Dylan looking back at his pre-fame youth, and he does this in part with constant references in the lyrics to the popular music of his youth. “A red Cadillac and a black moustache”, “Pink pedal-pushers”, “Hello Mary Lou/Hello Miss Pearl”, “You can bring it to Jerome”, “you’re a travelling man”, “I go where only the lonely can go”. Sun Records and Ricky Nelson and the rest have risen to the same place in his vocabulary as Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the classical writers he’s increasingly referenced in recent years.
And of course the single biggest influence on Dylan of all those performers was Little Richard — he famously said in his High School yearbook that he intended to join Little Richard’s band, and the cover of his just-released book, The Philosophy of Modern Song (which I’ve bought but not yet read) is a photo from Little Richard’s famous 1957 Australian tour showing Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Alis Lesley “the female Elvis Presley”.
And where piano-based performers of Dylan’s approximate generation — people like Elton John, Brian Wilson, Billy Joel, or Leon Russell (who also gets namechecked in a Rough and Rowdy Ways lyric) will tend to sit at a grand piano, Dylan instead is performing stood upright for almost the entire show, behind an upright piano, in a stance that reminded me very, very, very much of Little Richard.
Supposedly the reason Dylan is using a piano more on stage rather than playing a guitar is because he has back problems and can’t stand up for long periods, and as someone with similar problems I can sympathise if that’s the case, and it’s not impossible that he was sat on an extremely high stool — the piano was facing front so nobody could see his legs at all — but I didn’t notice any change in his height between most of the parts where he was at the piano and the parts where he came out front briefly, and everything else about his posture — the slight hunched position, but with arms extended straight down rather than bent at the shoulder or elbow — suggested someone playing standing up a la Little Richard, just in terms of how one would move one’s arms. There were occasional moments, too, where his head went much lower, and so I would assume he was sitting down for those, but standing up otherwise.
I could be wrong — I was in the circle, towards the back, though the Apollo is a relatively small theatre and so I still had a decent view — but I’m fairly firmly of the opinion that what I saw was Dylan consciously emulating the stance of a musician who has clearly been on his mind.
Dylan is in fine voice these days — he has a rasp in his voice now that’s very reminiscent of Willie Nelson, or late-period Leonard Cohen, but that just adds to the atmosphere — and the reviews of this tour have been remarkably consistent. You get the same show, performed in the same way, with the same setlist every night.
Even though in the penultimate song of every show, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, he sings:
You won’t amount to much, the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes, throw ’em in the crowd
He clearly is, in his own way, giving the audience what they want. The most notoriously mercurial, inconsistent, artist of his generation, a man who for much of his career was known for deliberately antagonising audiences with his unpredictability, is now doing a show which is utterly predictable, a show full of songs that everyone in the audience will know (assuming they’ve bought Rough and Rowdy Ways, and it went to number one on the charts and made every “best albums of 2020” list, so one can assume they have) performed in the same order every night, but with the appearance of being a set that misses the obvious songs, so people like me can stroke our beards in satisfaction at being pleased by non-crowd-pleasers.
But the thing is, as McCartney knows full well, if you give the audience what they want, they go away happy. Dylan didn’t let off fireworks or have us all singing “na na na na na na na”, just as he didn’t strip topless and jump into the audience like Little Richard or set his piano on fire like Jerry Lee, but he did give a performance that left everyone moved, and thoughtful, and applauding uproariously in an ovation that lasted several minutes, begging for an encore that of course never came.
Just a shame that for so much of the show he was overshadowed, at least in the seats close to mine, by that other performance

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Elvis Film Review

Again, the devil took him to a very high Ferris wheel and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will wear a tuxedo and sing to a Basset hound. These are the only things that help – these tablets”

There is a tendency in pretty much every film with a male protagonist that the filmmakers want us to see as heroic, to try to create parallels with the life of Jesus. That’s certainly been the case with most of the previous dramatisations of Elvis Presley’s life — he’s portrayed as a Messianic figure, come to save a fallen world with the power of rock and roll, at least when he isn’t portrayed as a dumb hick who happens to have been blessed with a talent he didn’t understand, and which he squandered while destroying his own life.

Often those two portrayals have been simultaneous ones in the same film — portraying Presley as an idiot savant who could do precisely one thing, which was being a hip-swinging rock and roll rebel, but who was otherwise not really a fully-rounded human being, not a human being at all. He was God or Devil, but what he definitely wasn’t was a human being.

Baz Luhrmann’s new film, paradoxically because it is so stylised, so obsessed with myth and story rather than with accurate portrayal of reality, comes closer than any other fictionalised portrayal I’ve seen of Elvis’ life to actually portraying the real human being, as I understand him to have been from the books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve seen. It doesn’t avoid Messianic portrayals altogether, but Elvis-as-Jesus is only the third layer of the character. The second, higher, layer, is something close to the real person as he seems to have existed. And the top layer, of course, is Captain Marvel Jr. — Luhrmann has taken Elvis’ real-life love of and identification with the character, and has used it to cast Elvis as the lead of a superhero film, which in these times of Marvel-dominance of the cinema was probably a good commercial idea as well as showing far more understanding of Elvis as a person than any of the many previous portrayals seem to.

But while Luhrmann’s Elvis is both a superhero and a nuanced human being, his Colonel Tom Parker, through whose eyes we see the whole film, is much less nuanced. He is, put simply, the literal Devil. Put slightly less simply, he is the Devil as he might have been portrayed by Orson Welles.

This is one of the few things about this film that surprised me, something that wasn’t signposted in the trailers, which otherwise gave a perfect idea of what the film was going to be like — the film is heavily intertextual, and most of the intertexts for it are given away in the trailer, but the trailer doesn’t say just how much this film is very specifically riffing on the work of Orson Welles. The Colonel’s death scene, at the very beginning of the film, evokes Citizen Kane, as do some of the shots of Graceland, but there’s also a scene in a hall of mirrors that’s clearly meant to make viewers think of The Lady of Shanghai, while there’s a Ferris wheel scene that will of course bring back memories of The Third Man (while both the Ferris wheel and the hall of mirrors are clearly appropriate for the Colonel’s carnie background). Stretching a point a bit, Tom Hanks’ fatsuit and makeup as Colonel Parker do make him look very like the real man, but they also reminded me at least of Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

Now, this is appropriate in a lot of ways — Elvis’ life is in some ways very, very, similar to the basic story of Citizen Kane, and it’s even closer to the life of Orson Welles — a preternaturally talented young man revolutionises an entertainment medium with his early masterpieces, but gets trapped in bad contracts and grows ever fatter and more depressed, while creating occasional further masterpieces mixed with embarrassing hackwork that no artist of his stature should have to create.

So, the basic narrative of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis film can boil down to the following:

The Devil, in the form of Charles Foster Kane, comes to Freddie Freeman and offers him a proposition — he can have all the powers of Captain Marvel, and he will also be rich; he will never have to be poor or hungry again. But what he doesn’t tell Freeman is that in this Faustian pact, Freeman will have to live the life that Kane would have lived. For as long as Freddie Freeman is alive, he will be rich and powerful and beloved, but he will also suffer for Kane’s sins, becoming like the picture in Kane’s attic, and only when Freeman dies will Kane feel once again start to receive consequences for his own

This is, as one might imagine, a rather richer set of driving metaphors for the story than most Elvis biopics have used, and the result is a far better piece of filmmaking. 

Which is, to be honest, something that is not normally a consideration when it comes to biopics of musicians. I have seen many of these, and I can think of precisely two music biopics that work as films — this and Love and Mercy. In every other case, you could just replace the film with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and nobody would be able to tell the difference — they’re all forcing the narrative into precisely the same structure, and mix characters reciting huge chunks of expository dialogue lifted almost word-for-word from their source material with contrived drama that bears no relation to the musician’s real life.

Now, the script for Luhrmann’s film does definitely do some of the expository dialogue stuff — so much so that I can tell exactly which books Luhrmann and his co-writers were referring to when writing the script (they seem to have read Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis, his biography of Elvis up to 1960, but not bothered with his sequel Careless Love for the post-Army years, switching instead to Alanna Nash’s The Colonel, with possibly a little of Priscilla Presley’s Elvis and Me thrown in). But where most biopics are going for realism, and so characters spouting their biographies at each other makes them seem unrealistic, Luhrmann is going for a heightened reality, both extra-diegetically in that this is an extremely stylised, cartoonish, film, and diegetically in that the entire film is the Colonel’s vision while on a morphine drip in his final hours of life. No attempt is made to pretend that if you had a film camera in Tupelo in 1940 or Memphis in 1955 or LA in 1968 or Las Vegas in 1973, what that camera would have captured is anything like what you see on screen, and so you’re not annoyed when people burst into “as you know, your father the King…” style dialogue.

So it’s successful as a film in ways that are unexpected given the genre, in that it actually is a watchable film. There are still problems which come along with the genre — a friend described it as “the longest trailer in history”, because when you’re condensing a forty-two-year life into two and three quarter hours, you’re essentially going to have to have a highlights reel rather than a narrative, and at the same time it also sags in the middle if you’re not super-invested in Elvis’ life because two and three quarter hours isn’t a long time when compared to someone’s life but it is a long time to sit still in a cinema — but it is a film that works as a piece of cinema in a way that almost all biopics just don’t.

 But is it successful as a film about Elvis?

That is, of course, something that everyone will have to judge for themselves, and in order to give my own perspective, it’s best if people know where I’m coming from, because levels of Elvis fandom vary dramatically. In my case, I’m a serious Elvis fan, but Elvis isn’t one of the central fandoms in my life, and nor am I someone who makes Elvis fandom a defining factor of my identity, in the way some people are. (I was one of those people from the ages of about seven through ten, but I haven’t been for thirty-something years).

To give an idea of where I am in relation to Elvis fandom, there are roughly four lines of Elvis CDs put out by Sony, the company that now owns the rights to all Elvis’ recordings. There’s the stuff that gets heavy promotional pushes and that you find in supermarkets promoted as Christmas gifts or whatever — the latest iteration of the greatest hits compilation, those albums where they get the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to overdub new backing tracks on his old records, the various versions of his Christmas album. 

Then there’s the basic back catalogue stuff that’s sold to what you might call casual fans — major albums like Elvis is Back! and the Aloha From Hawaii live album, the Sun Sessions compilations, the compilation that was done for the documentary The Searcher, that kind of thing. Stuff where if you buy it you’re definitely an Elvis fan by most standards, but you aren’t digging very deep. 

Then there’s the Legacy Editions of his albums — two-to-four disc sets containing albums plus selected outtakes and studio sessions, often paired with contemporary live recordings. A typical example of these is the Legacy Edition of Elvis Today, his last wholly-studio-recorded album, which has the original release of the ten-song album, plus rough mixes of every song before the overdub sessions for the strings and horns and so on, plus a twenty-two-song bonus live album made up of the best recordings from his May/June 1975 tour. These are aimed at serious music listeners, people who are interested in hearing the creative process, but don’t necessarily want to hear every fart and burp from the sessions, just the interesting bits. 

And then there’s Follow That Dream, a collectors’ label devoted only to Elvis recordings, which puts out things like a Girl Happy Sessions CD, for people who think “Do The Clam” or “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” are such masterpieces that they need to hear a comprehensive audio document of the sessions for that film soundtrack, or a Fun in Acapulco Sessions 3-CD set, for anyone who desperately wants nineteen takes of “The Bullfighter Was a Lady” (sadly that set only contains one take of “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car”). 

I’m solidly a Legacy Editions-level fan. I find Elvis’ working process fascinating, and love hearing his interplay with musicians (and for most of his career he was working with some of the best musicians in the US, whether the Nashville A-Team, the Wrecking Crew, the American Sound studio group or his own TCB Band), but only when he’s engaged with the material, and I don’t really want to hear the “Yoga is as Yoga Does” sessions any time soon. I own about twenty Elvis films on DVD, but only ever really watch about five of them, and would generally rather stick on Elvis on Tour or That’s The Way it Is than any of the narrative films.

So this means I have, I believe, a good grounding in Elvis’ career, enough to appreciate what Luhrmann is doing, but enough distance that I’m not going to be mortally offended by choices that are made to tell the story better. I’m the kind of fan who knows that when Elvis talks to “Glen” in the rehearsals for his 1969 shows that that’s inaccurate because Glen Hardin didn’t join the TCB Band until the second set of Vegas shows, but who can’t remember off the top of his head who the 1969 piano player was, and who appreciates Hardin getting a shout-out anyway, rather than being annoyed that Larry Muhoberac (I looked him up) doesn’t get namechecked. 

From this perspective, the first thing that needs to be talked about is Austin Butler’s performance. Now, straight away, there are things that are immediately noticeable — Butler simply does not look like Elvis. This is not Butler’s fault — Elvis was a preternaturally attractive human being, so much so that even I, someone who both has no visual aesthetic sense at all and who is extremely straight, a combination which usually means that I literally cannot tell what it is that people find attractive in men, at least see that about Elvis even if I don’t find him attractive myself. Elvis also had a natural charm and magnetism that Butler simply does not have, but which again almost no performers have. 

I’ve seen several people joke on Twitter, “wow, he really does look exactly like Shakin’ Stevens” and… frankly, yeah, he looks quite a lot like Shakin’ Stevens, a man who first rose to prominence playing Elvis in a stage musical, and who copied a great deal of his style from Elvis, but who was fundamentally a more ordinary-looking person. That’s about the best you can hope for in a situation like this, though.

Vocally, though, he has Elvis’ speaking voice down eerily close. He gets the nuances, not just of Elvis’ voice, but of how it changed from one period of his life to another. He manages to do as good an impersonation of Elvis’ speaking voice as I’ve heard, and to give a decent acting performance in that voice, not just do the impersonation.

His singing voice is not quite that close — they use Butler’s voice for scenes set in the 1950s where Elvis is singing, because there were no multitracks for those sessions from which his voice could be isolated. For sixties and seventies scenes, they use the real performances. Now, Butler doesn’t sound exactly like Elvis vocally, but he does sound like a fairly decent Elvis impersonator, like Ronnie McDowell (the man who did the Elvis vocals for most film biopics and TV series about Elvis in the seventies, eighties, and nineties) or Jimmy “Orion” Elvis (who was the source for most of the “Elvis is alive” conspiracy theories, as he performed in an Elvis-esque costume, with a mask covering his face, and publicity that strongly hinted he was the real Elvis who had faked his own death). No-one who’s hugely familiar with the records will mistake him for Elvis, but very casual listeners easily could.

But what really got me is how well he managed to get Elvis’ microexpressions and body language down. Large chunks of this film are recreations of live performances I know very well — there are a lot of shot-for-shot recreations of bits of the 68 Comeback Special, That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour. I’m extremely familiar with those (especially That’s The Way It Is, which is a concert documentary up there with The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense) and Butler nails every single gesture, every micro-expression, every bit of body language — and does so without it looking like he’s recreating something. It’s so close and natural, it makes me think of, of all things, Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which a writer sets out to write the whole of Don Quixote, word for word, identical to the book Cervantes wrote, but as an original piece from his own imagination. (The whole film has a Borgesian quality to it, in fact, in ways it’s hard for me to pin down in a relatively short review).

I’ve mentioned Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic, before, and that’s a film which has a number of similarities to this one, but one of them is that both have central performances that capture the person being imitated spookily well, but so spookily that anyone who is not a big fan of the central character won’t realise how good it is, because it just looks like naturalistic acting. John Cusack is Brian Wilson in the eighties sections of Love and Mercy, and in the same way Austin Butler is Elvis at points. I’ve seen several people talking about this as an Oscar-worthy performance, and it is, but I don’t think it will get the recognition it deserves. Because if you see Butler as Elvis in a jumpsuit goofing around on stage doing karate moves, or dancing to the drummer, you just think “that’s someone doing Elvisy stuff” — it’s what you expect from a performance by someone playing Elvis. It’s only if you’re intimately familiar with the footage being imitated that you think “ah, yes, and now he’s going to gesture with his little finger” and then see him gesture with his little finger, or whatever. 

I think what Butler does at points is comparable in his use of facial microexpressions and details of body language to what Tatiana Maslany does in Orphan Black. There’s no higher praise possible.

But I do have some critiques of the film, and one of them connects to the other major performer in the film, so let’s talk about Tom Hanks for a bit. Now, I’ve seen Hanks’ performance come in for some criticism, and I think for the most part that’s rather undeserved. Hanks isn’t playing the real Colonel Tom Parker, but he is absolutely doing a good job of playing a real-life embodiment of absolute evil, someone very, very, different from the kind of character with which he has made his name in the past. The accent is unrealistic at points, but it’s meant to be how the Colonel remembered events while on morphine, and it’s entirely plausible that he would remember himself as speaking with a stronger accent than he really did.

My problem, rather, is with the fat-suit he wears. Quite simply, we should not be making thin people look like fat people, rather than just casting fat people in those roles. It makes sense that they do this with Butler at the very end of the film — Elvis’ weight changed dramatically over the decades he was in the public eye, and you can’t have the same actor play him at every weight without some form of prosthetics. But it’s disrespectful to actual fat people to cast thin people in roles where they have to be made up as fat throughout. 

I have to admit that I couldn’t think of anyone of the appropriate size who could have played the part and who was well-known enough to be cast in the role — which is a problem in itself — but then I was talking on the phone with my ex, who mentioned John Goodman, and Goodman would actually have been perfect casting for the role. Not only is he the right body type already, but he is very, very, capable of playing Satanic characters who can go from being utterly charming sales people with the gift of gab to being utter monsters — his performances in Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are very much the kind of performance Hanks is giving.

I suspect that the studio insisted on a star of Hanks’ calibre before approving the film, and he does do a fine job, but it’s a shame. It didn’t spoil the film for me though.

But it adds to a general air of… awkwardness… around size and body type in the film, which I felt most keenly when watching the actor cast as Big Mama Thornton. Willie Mae Thornton was very fat, and that was a defining part of her presence, and also a big reason why she was never as successful as she deserved to be, and the actor cast in that role simply doesn’t look anything like her. Oddly, the actor cast as Sister Rosetta Tharpe does look quite like Thornton, and the problem could have been solved by swapping the casting around — Tharpe was also fat for most of her life, but not in the same defining way as Thornton was, and she was relatively slender during the 1940s.

And that leads into the other major issue I have with the film, race — and here I think there were absolutely no good options for how to deal with this, and Luhrmann chooses the least bad option. 

Any honest film about Elvis has to deal with the perception that he stole Black people’s music. Now, that perception is simply false — there is an argument to be made that he was culturally appropriative, but even that’s more nuanced than one might expect, but the common Twitter take is that Elvis just stole a bunch of Black people’s songs, which is flat-out untrue.

But what is true is that a lot of Black musicians influenced him a great deal — musicians portrayed in the film, like Mahalia Jackson, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B.B. King, Little Richard, Arthur Crudup, Rufus Thomas, and Fats Domino, and musicians who are not portrayed in the film like the Ink Spots, Roy Hamilton, and Chuck Berry. (A tiny bit of silent footage of Berry is seen in the film, but he’s not named and I don’t think we hear any of his music, though I could be misremembering). 

Now, the film makes what I think is the correct choice to portray that influence, and indeed to overemphasise it to an extent — watching the film you would think that the only music Elvis liked was Black blues and gospel, when in fact he was a voracious listener to all kinds of music, and loved what is euphemistically called Southern Gospel (by which is meant gospel made by white people), country music (especially Red Foley and the Louvin Brothers), mainstream pop singers like Dean Martin and Kay Starr, and the light opera of Mario Lanza. None of that is mentioned in the film except in the most roundabout of ways, but I think that’s a reasonable position.

The problem is, it’s still a film centred around a white man, and he’s the protagonist of the story, so all the Black characters are relegated to the fringes of the story. On top of that, Luhrmann is a very stylised, hyper-real, filmmaker, and so his portrayals of Black culture tend to caricature and possibly almost to minstrelsy, in the same way as, say, the Black characters in The Blues Brothers (another film I love which has a well-meaning but problematic attitude to Black culture and music, and to which this also bears some resemblance).

Most of the Black characters aren’t characters at all — they’re just there as musical influences, which is fair enough as I think there are in total ten characters who count as characters in any real way at all — Elvis, the Colonel, Elvis’ parents, Priscilla, Steve Binder (the producer of the 68 Comeback Special), Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers Snow, Senator Jim Eastland and B.B. King. And there’s a huge gap between Elvis, the Colonel, and Elvis’ parents and the other five characters. By being given big musical sequences, the Black characters are still given more screen time and more characterisation than anyone other than the Colonel who didn’t have the surname Presley.

But still, this does mean that these figures are marginalised in the story of a white man. And the problem becomes worse with B.B. King, the only Black character to get a significant speaking role. The nature of a film like this means that every character becomes either an antagonist (like the white supremacist Senator Eastland, or Hank Snow, who is rather unfairly portrayed here) or a source of emotional support for the protagonist, and in the case of King, who knew Elvis in his early years when he was just starting out, that means his role is to give him a couple of pep talks, which basically turns him into what Spike Lee refers to as a “Magical Negro”, the Black character who is better and wiser than the white person he advises and solves the white character’s important problems. 

Now, again, I see no better possibility for dealing with this while still doing a film about Elvis. You have the choice of either not acknowledging Black musicians at all, or of marginalising them and thus reproducing in part the injustices that led to them being marginalised in pop culture in the first place. As I know all too well from doing my own podcast, it is literally impossible to do even the most well-intentioned look at the major pop-cultural figures of rock music history, and comment on the factors that led to the rise of white stars well above the Black musicians who influenced them, without reproducing that historical injustice at least somewhat. All one can do is be aware of that, and I think the film does, at least as much as any mainstream Hollywood film can.

The final issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t engage, at all, with the fact that Priscilla Presley was only fourteen when Elvis, who was twenty-four, started dating her. Now, I can completely understand the desire not to touch that with a bargepole, because whatever excuses one makes, the fact is that this is what we would now call grooming, and it’s the single most distasteful and reprehensible thing about Elvis’ life (and something I’m going to have to try to deal with myself in an upcoming podcast episode). People aren’t defined by their worst actions any more than they are by their best, and I can see how it would both completely unbalance the film to deal with it and it would cause more than a little discomfort to Priscilla (who is still alive and was by all accounts very involved in the film, and who doesn’t from her public statements consider herself to have been abused, which makes the issue all the thornier), but given that part of the point of the film seems to have been to rehabilitate Elvis’ reputation in the social media age, and the two big problems with that reputation are “he stole Black people’s music” and “he was a paedophile”, I think it would have been much better to face the issue head on. 

This is another thing that has to be dealt with when dealing with most of the major male stars of the middle of the last century, and is sadly another way that any film positioning one of them as the protagonist is bound to reproduce social injustices. Real people are complicated and messy and do awful, even unforgivable, things which are accepted in their society, in a way that isn’t — that can’t be — true of protagonists of this kind of narrative.

All of which sounds like I think the film was bad. I very much don’t. I think it’s a film that appeals more to actual Elvis fans than it will to non-fans, but I think non-fans will get some enjoyment out of it. I went to see the film twice, the second time with someone who’s not a fan but who was interested. She enjoyed it but got a little restless around the two hour mark, and some of the criticisms I’ve made affected her more than they do me, but she was still glad she saw it. 

For me, the thing that the film gets very, very, very right, which almost overwhelms all my other criticisms of it, is the way it — for the first and only time in one of these fictionalised versions of Elvis’ life — portrays Elvis as a creative artist, not merely as some sort of passive vessel through which the spirit of rock and roll moved or something, and in particular the way it portrays the Las Vegas shows not as some sort of descent into terrible music, but as a culmination of Elvis’ creative life. The scenes of him pulling together the arrangements, directing the musicians, are astonishing. Some of them are repurposed from documentary footage — a lot of the Vegas years film is shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour, sometimes occasionally with a sneaky bit of real footage thrown in for a couple of frames — while other bits aren’t things I recognise, but absolutely have the ring of real behaviour. 

What you get from this film is the same reading of the Vegas years that I have — that even while everything in Elvis’ personal life was deteriorating, even while he was being forced to play far more shows than he wanted to play, and was losing interest in the performance side of things, he was absolutely in control of the band, and of his music, and was making music he loved. Watching Butler as Elvis interacting with the actor playing Ronnie Tutt, the film perfectly replicating the way that Tutt took direction from Elvis’ movements, is an absolute joy to behold.

And then there’s the ending, and this sums up what I think the film got very, very right. There’s a piece of footage of Elvis on his last tour, singing “Unchained Melody”, which I have spoken about a lot in the past. It’s a bit of footage most Elvis fans know, but few outside the fandom are aware of. I’ve written about it before on here, but I linked to it on my podcast’s Twitter account in a thread in February. I won’t reproduce the whole thread here, but it’s about how Elvis was clearly physically broken but still giving his all in the performance and showing the utter triumph of overcoming his weakened body to make great music. I ended the thread with “I honestly think that if the Elvis estate want to make Elvis seem relevant to anyone under about sixty, that is the footage they should be using. Like I say, it’s like Johnny Cash doing “Hurt”. And I get chills every time I see it.”

A couple of months after I tweeted that, the trailer for Luhrmann’s film dropped, and it used that performance in the soundtrack. And then in the film itself, to end the film they reproduce the first half of that performance with Butler, then cut away to some archive footage of the real Elvis, then cut back to the end of that performance, footage of the real man the film has been about. It works astonishingly in the film, and it’s exactly the choice I would have made.

And that, ultimately, is why I’ve focused so much on the things I wouldn’t have done here. Because a lot of the choices this film makes are exactly the ones I would have made if I were a big-budget filmmaker. The film is so laser-focused on my personal interests that I can’t be objective about it — Orson Welles! Seventies Elvis! Old superhero comics! Sister Rosetta Tharpe!

It’s the best possible film I can imagine being made about its subject. It’s a flawed film about a flawed man living in a flawed society, and its flaws are those that come from making a film about that topic at all. I’ve certainly been guilty of similar flaws in my own podcasts and writing on Elvis (not the same flaws, because they’re different media, and there’s no such thing as a story outside of the medium in which it’s told, which shapes everything, but comparable ones).

As for Elvis himself… He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?

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