(Crosspost from https://www.patreon.com/posts/79986347 )
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.