Brief Notes On Last Night’s Beach Boys Reunion Performance

The most notable thing, first of all, is that this sounds like the Brian Wilson band. Each of the various Beach Boys touring bands has their own sound, and even though to the average listener they’d all sound ‘like the record’ there are clear differences. On Good Vibrations, Al’s band (none of whom other than Al and Dave are present) have a 70s rock feel, almost like a jam band. Mike and Bruce’s band, on the other hand, have a garage-psych feel that very much emphasises the strangeness of the track, all thudding bass, clanging guitars and screeching theremin. Brian’s band emphasise the beauty of the song, and play very precisely, and it’s this latter version that we have here.

This was probably going to be the case anyway, because there are seven of Brian’s backing band there to two of Mike and Bruce’s, but it does show that this tour will sound more like a Brian Wilson tour than any of the recent Beach Boys tours.

However, John Cowsill is, as I suspected, a wonderful addition to the band. His rapport here with Nelson Bragg is quite stunning – Cowsill does some lovely cymbal work, and of all the drummer-plus-percussionist combinations Brian has worked with (at various times his drummers have been Todd Sucherman, Jim Hines and Mike D’Amico, with D’Amico, Bragg and Andy Paley on percussion) this is the best. Cowsill gave the band an energy they’ve sometimes lacked.

Brian was obviously down in the mix to the point of being mixed out altogether, with Foskett singing the lead. Sadly, this makes sense. Brian can sound good when he’s comfortable – in front of his own audience, with time to warm up. However, whenever he’s done a big TV performance he’s sounded, frankly, appaling. A Brian in the same state that he was in at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 2002 would have made the reunion a target of every bad comedian ever. You can guarantee that he’ll be perfectly audible on the actual tour. He sounded fine in the harmony sections, where he was more audible.

Bruce is completely inaudible in the mix, but Dave Marks works well on the ‘ba ba ba’ sections – he really does add something to the band. But it’s Al’s voice that was most prominent in the harmony blend, unsurprisingly – he’s the only one of them who possibly sounds even better now than he did in the sixties.

So yes, this is tacky and showbiz, but that’s to be expected for the Grammys. Given the context, it’s about as good as we were going to get, and does give us some hope.

Incidentally, this is the first time *ever* that these five Beach Boys have ever performed together – even though they are all proper Beach Boys. David Marks left the band in late 1963, but Bruce Johnston didn’t join until 1965, and while Dave has performed with the band at various points since, especially in the late 90s, he’s never done so with Brian.

We’ve also learned a little more about the upcoming album, and we have another song title – That’s Why God Made The Radio – to go with the one Brian mentioned a while back, The Private Life Of Bill And Sue. This gives me a surprising amount of hope for the new album – those both sound like Brian Wilson song titles, as opposed to what I was fearing, which was a bunch of songs called things like Still Surfin’ In Kokomo, USA. I doubt the album will be a great one, but it sounds at least as if they’re *trying* to do something creative, which will make it better than any Beach Boys album released since 1979.

For those who don’t know, the five Beach Boys on stage are, from left to right as we look at them, Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Brian Wilson (piano, vocals), Mike Love (vocals) and David Marks (lead guitar, vocals).

The backing band for this show is the same one announced for the tour, with the addition (hopefully permanent) of Nelson Bragg:
Jeff Foskett – rhythm guitar, falsetto vocals
Probyn Gregory – guitar, tannerin, vocals (he’ll play a lot more instruments on the tour)
Paul Mertens – woodwinds, harmonica
Brett Simons – bass
Darian Sahanaja – keyboards, vocals
Scott Bennett – keyboards, vocals
Nelson Bragg – percussion, vocals
John Cowsill – drums, vocals
Scott Totten – lead guitar, vocals

That is pretty much exactly the band I would have picked for this tour.

The younger people with microphones pratting about at the front of the stage are apparently members of Foster The People and Maroon Five, who are apparently young person’s skiffle musicians of the day.

For those who don’t know, tour dates will be announced on Wednesday.

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10 Responses to Brief Notes On Last Night’s Beach Boys Reunion Performance

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Doesn’t it seem a bit absurd for a band of five men to have nine further backing musicians?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Not really – they’re a vocal group, they were never really instrumentalists, and the best instrumentalist of the band, Carl Wilson, the lead guitarist, is dead, as is their drummer. Most of the band’s best music had a *lot* of dense instrumentation on it – Good Vibrations, the song they’re performing here, had six Beach Boys on vocals (multitracked to make eighteen voices total), three of whom (the Wilson brothers) also provided instrumental performances, and on top of that it featured a further twelve session players.

      The original had two basses, guitar, five keyboards, drums, percussion, guitar, cello, jew’s harp and harmonica. You can’t duplicate that live with a small band, and when in the early years they *did* try performing as a self-contained unit without additional musicians, it sounded weak and thin, and only the screams of the audience covered up the thinness of the sound.

      If the Beatles were all still alive, one wouldn’t expect them to be able to perform Strawberry Fields or I Am The Walrus or A Day In The Life without significant augmentation on stage, and the productions on the albums from 1965 through about 1971 are at least at that level of complexity.

      Even on seemingly less-complex tracks, most of the band are needed. Obviously they need a drummer – their drummer is dead – and a bass player (Brian Wilson hasn’t played bass for over forty-five years, having switched to keyboard on stage on those occasions when he has performed, and the bass parts are hard). Several songs have prominent wind parts (horns on Darlin’, flute on Sloop John B, french horn on God Only Knows) so since none of the band are wind players (and they’d need their mouths for singing anyway) Probyn and Paul are necessary. You also need someone to cover the falsetto parts that Brian can no longer sing, so Foskett needs to be there, and you need at least one additional keyboard player, because the songs will often have a prominent keyboard part and some sort of organ pad as well.

      So at a minimum, you’d still need at least six of the nine additional musicians, and that would be if you were willing to accept a very stripped-down, inaccurate rendition with important arrangement elements missing.

      Fundamentally, this is music that was designed for records, and it was never intended for it to be possible to perform live accurately. It’s a miracle it sounds as close as it does, even *with* the extra musicians, frankly.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Interesting analogy with Strawberry Fields and A Day in the Life. In retrospect, the best thing the Beatles did was abandon live performance — it’s what took them from being merely a brilliant pop group to the complete game-changers they ended up being. I guess you’re right that if they’d wanted to reproduce those songs live in something like the original arrangements they would have needed a hefty consignment of extras. (That said, I do rather a nice Strawberry Fields armed only with an acoustic guitar — but which it’s very much the same song as the original, I need hardly say that the sound is dramatically different.)

        Still I think I’d feel cheated if I went to see The Beatles (were they still alive) and saw 13 of them on stage.

        It’s an intriguing thought experiment to consider how this reunion would look if it was Beatles rather than Beach Boys (assuming that at least one of John and George was still with us). I’m not at all convinced that it’s something I’d want to happen at this stage.

        How big a band did McCartney have when you saw him?

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          McCartney only had his usual four backing musicians – but the show was a lot worse because of it. They were great on the guitar/bass/drums/keyboards songs, but when you get to a song like Eleanor Rigby, for example, it didn’t sound like a string quartet but like the kind of sound you get out of a cheap Casio keyboard.
          By contrast, when I saw Arthur Lee from Love a few times before he died, he had twelve backing musicians – the rock band Baby Lemonade, plus The Stockholm Strings And Horns, an octet of orchestral musicians.
          When Brian does his solo tours he has between ten and eighteen musicians backing him (sometimes he tours with the Stockholm Strings And Horns too).
          The Monkees, when they toured last year, had an eight-piece backing band.

          What it comes down to is that the Beach Boys were never a ‘rock band’ as we now think of the term – the concept didn’t exist when they formed. Rather they were a ‘vocal group’ a la Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, Dion And The Belmonts, The Four Freshmen, The Four Seasons, Jan & Dean and so on (or like boy bands like Take That or the Backstreet Boys or whoever). The difference is that because they started performing before they had a major record label backing them, they didn’t have a backing band, and so had to provide their own, very basic, instrumental accompaniment. But they were never instrumentalists, and haven’t performed as a self-contained unit without extra musicians since 1967.

          (For that matter, when I saw Page & Plant, who were obviously most famous as part of a self-contained rock band, perform live, they had a second guitarist, bass player, drummer, hurdy gurdy player, a small orchestra from Morocco and the string section from the London Symphony Orchestra with them).

          I suspect any Beatles reunion would have been something like the Paul/Ringo reunion at A Concert For George – as well as Paul & Ringo there were two other drummers, a percussionist, three backing vocalists, two sax players, two bass players, three keyboard players and five guitarists on stage with them. But the Beatles, of course, would have done a set with just the four of them, as well. That’s simply not possible for the Beach Boys to do.

  2. plok says:

    I’ve got to admit being a bit disappointed that this post didn’t feature Andrew’s reactions to all the crap he had to sit through to get to the Beach Boys…something about a Barbie doll dipped in wood-stain…?

  3. Pingback: 50 Years of The Beach Boys : The Grammy Awards 2012 « Arkhonia

  4. TAD says:

    Good point about Brian having a history of sounding bad on live TV gigs. He definitely sounds a lot better (and is a lot more comfortable) at a normal concerts. And you’re right, if Brian had been really bad, it would have made the band a laughingstock afterward.

    I hope they let Al do a good chunk of the lead vocals, come tour-time. He’s not going to embarass anybody, and in fact he’ll be very good.

    Not sure why Bruce would have been inaudible for the Grammy gig. He’s still a good singer, from what I’ve heard.

    • Bruce is still pretty good, although his voice is a lot hoarser than it was. But he’s only got quite a thin voice, and with so many vocal parts going on he was just buried by those with stronger voices. The main voices in the blend, as far as I could tell, were Mike, Al, Jeff and Darian. Brian and David could be heard in bits of it, and everyone else (Bruce, Scott T, Scott B, Probyn, John, Nelson) was just ‘blend’ rather than individually audible.

      Bruce’ll be more prominent vocally on the tour. He’s never been a huge part of the Good Vibrations sound, but on songs like Sloop John B (on stage, not on record), Kokomo, Cal, Girls or God Only Knows he’s very prominent.

      • TAD says:

        I used to think Bruce didn’t sound like a Beach Boy, but he’s grown on me over the years. I like hearing him in the vocal mix now. He has a really good voice for backing vocals (which might sound like a put-down, but I mean it as a compliment).

  5. TAD says:

    I don’t know about you, but I actually prefer Mike and Bruce’s live versions of “Good Vibrations.” They were…..trippier, I guess. You could hear a bit of insanity in the sound (in a good way).

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