The Beach Boys at Wembley

That was either the best or the second best gig I’ve ever been to (the other contender was Brian Wilson at the Manchester Apollo in 2002).

The show on Friday seems likely to have been the last ever proper Beach Boys show (although despite press reports, Mike Love has not ‘fired’ the other members — the reunion tour was a specifically bounded thing that always had an end date), but there was no funereal atmosphere. Rather it was, as all the tour so far has been, a celebration of the band’s whole career.

The night before at the Albert Hall, they’d performed sixty-one songs, and when I spoke with Nelson Bragg, the band’s percussionist, before the show, he said that was the plan for this show as well. Unfortunately, there was a curfew at Wembley, which meant they ‘only’ did fifty-six songs — Scott Totten, the co-musical director, was actually apologetic about this.

Truth be told, for most of the audience that was probably slightly too much. In the last half hour of the show there was a steady stream of people leaving as it got too late for them — many had clearly waited to hear their favourite song before leaving. The band are in their 70s now, and their audience aren’t much younger.

Everyone was on top form. I’d been a bit worried about Mike Love’s voice after some fairly poor radio and TV performances at the start of the week, but he’d clearly just been a bit rusty after a couple of weeks off — this show he was in great voice. Al Jardine is *always* in great voice — the only difference between his vocals now and in 1965 is that now his voice sounds stronger and richer. And Brian Wilson was the happiest I’ve ever seen him, clearly loving playing this music with these people. The only one who wasn’t singing perfectly was Bruce, who was even huskier than normal, but as he only had two leads that was OK.

The backing band, as always, were spectacular, from Probyn Gregory (who as well as being a wonderful musician is also a lovely man, and who got me a backstage pass for the show, which let me embarass myself by being a gushing fanboy towards several band members) playing every instrument under the sun to John Cowsill still being the best drummer I’ve ever seen — the interplay between Cowsill’s power on the drum kit and Nelson Bragg’s skill on percussion is a joy to watch and listen to. I’d go and see this band without the Beach Boys — they’re good enough to carry the show by themselves.

It’s hard to overstate how good this show was. Even the cornier aspects of Mike Love’s stage presence were toned down, because the sheer number of songs performed meant he had to cut out some of his more rehearsed bits. But the whole reunion has been far better than we could expect — while I don’t care all that much for That’s Why God Made The Radio, it’s still the band’s best album since at least LA (Light Album), and the tour has, with a couple of hitches, been carried off with great dignity. And who’d have thought *that* would be a word that could be applied to this band any more? It’s certainly not been applicable since before I was born.

If you’d told me five years ago that I’d see a Beach Boys tour with all five surviving members, where they actually appeared to get on with each other, and where they did a set that included three songs from Sunflower, two from Holland, five from Pet Sounds, and three from a new album that was their biggest hit since 1965, I’d have said you were utterly mad. But that’s what we’ve seen on this tour.

I’ll post a tracklisting and thoughts on individual songs below, but someone very kindly filmed the whole show from the audience and uploaded it to YouTube, so I’ll embed that here and you can listen along:

The band:

Brian Wilson — vocals, keyboard, bass
Mike Love — vocals
Al Jardine — vocals, guitar
Bruce Johnston — vocals, keyboard
David Marks — vocals, guitar

Jeff Foskett — vocals, guitar, mandolin
Scott Totten — vocals, guitar, ukulele, musical direction
Probyn Gregory — vocals, guitar, bass, tannerin, French horn, trumpet
Mike D’Amico — vocals, bass, percussion, drums
Nelson Bragg — vocals, percussion
John Cowsill — vocals, drums, percussion
Scott Bennett — vocals, keyboards, percussion
Darian Sahanaja — vocals, keyboards, percussion
Paul Mertens — sax, flute, harmonica, musical director

The show started with the usual set of surf songs with Mike Love on lead, the same songs in the same order that Mike always uses in his own shows:

Do it again
Little Honda
Catch a wave
Don’t back down
Surfin safari

Surfer girl — Brian took the middle eight, and the entire audience went wild. He sounded glorious.
Please let me wonder
This whole world
— I could have gone home happy after hearing those two songs sung by Brian back to back. Two of the best songs they’ve ever done.

Wendy — Bruce on lead, a little weak
Getcha back — David Marks’ only lead vocal — and only audible vocal — of the show
Then I kissed her — Al sang the second line twice rather than sing the first line (he did the same in Milan), but then made up for it by singing the first line a capella at the end of the song.
You’re so good to me — The crowd *loved* this, obviously all knowing the song from hits collections even though it was never a hit.
Kiss me baby — this was just astonishing. I had to let out a gasp at this. Brian took the lead, even though Mike sang it on the record.
Isn’t it time — it’s a silly piece of nothing, but it’s an enjoyable piece of nothing, and works better now they’ve got rid of Foskett’s part in the middle eight (it was just out of his range) and replaced it with a descending part from Mike. Catchy and fun.

Come go with me
Why do fools fall in love
When I grow up to be a man
Dance dance dance
— all as you’d expect

Darlin — Darian on lead. Wonderful.
Disney girls — Jeff played the mandolin part on the intro. When the massed backing vocals came in on the word “love” it was one of the best moments of the show.
It’s ok — Brian really loved singing the “find a ride” parts here.

Cotton fields — Al pointed at Mike on the line “a nice old man, he had a hat on”.
Be true to your school
Ballad Of Ol’ Betsy Scott Totten sang lead on this, very well
Don’t worry baby — Foskett on lead, just gorgeous.

And the first half finished with the normal car song medley:

Little deuce coupe
Shut down
I get around

After the intermission, there was a brief snatch of the James Bond theme, going into
Pet sounds — Dave Marks’ big solo spot
Add some music — all the Beach Boys clustered round the piano, passing hand-held mics around. Funny to hear when Bruce passed the mic to Al, and the vocals went from whispery to dominating the whole stadium.
Sail on sailor — Brian really got into this, growling “DAMN the thunder!”
Heroes and villains — as good as music gets
I just wasn’t made for these times — spectacular. Al took the answering phrase on the chorus, and sang “HE just wasn’t made…” at the end.

California dreamin It shows how much Brian was getting into the show that he decided to sing the answering phrases on the first verse, even though the Beach Boys’ arrangement doesn’t normally have them. And he was great on his lead on the second verse.
In my room
All this is that
— Jeff Foskett sounded eerily like Carl on this one at the end. Lovely.
That’s why god made the radio — never been a huge fan of this one, but it definitely gets the crowd going.
Summer’s gone — only the second time they ever played this live. Works far better live than on record, though it’ll never be a favourite of mine.

God only knows
— these two used videos of Dennis and Carl Wilson, with their recorded lead vocals, while the band backed them.

Sloop john b
Wouldn’t it be nice
Good vibrations
California girls
All summer long
Help me Rhonda
Rock and roll music
Do you wanna dance
Surfin USA
— all as you’d expect. Some great performances, especially Wouldn’t It Be Nice, but no surprises. Scott Bennett surfed on Brian’s grand piano during Surfin’ USA.


Kokomo — the only real misstep of the show, this saps all the energy when played at this point of the show in the UK, because no-one here knows it except the big fans, and they don’t generally like it. It worked better on the Mike/Bruce/David 2008 tour, when they played it coming out of the obscure tracks and into the last run of hits.
Barbara Ann
Fun fun fun

And with Bruce Johnston’s falsetto “away”s, the Beach Boys’ career as a touring entity may have ended. Mike & Bruce’s band (Love, Johnston, Totten, Cowsill and Tim Bonhomme, Randell Kirsch and Christian Love) are already back on the road — they played a charity show in Mexico last night, and apparenly raised a million dollars for a children’s hospital — but it’s unknown whether the five surviving Beach Boys will ever perform together again.

If they don’t, I can’t really imagine a better way to end their career. The band have suffered a lot of self-inflicted wounds over the years, but other than Johnston’s unwise comments about ‘socialist assholes’, and the storm-in-a-teacup whipped up by the media about the end of the tour, they haven’t put a foot wrong this year. I feel privileged to have been at that show, and to have met up with a few of the band members before and after it, and I look forward to whatever the people on that stage do next, together or separately.

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5 Responses to The Beach Boys at Wembley

  1. S. Barrios says:

    thank you so.much for an amazing *detailed* review. wish i could’ve seen those guys in the States – i mean, last chance, right? – but money has been beyond tight.

  2. TAD says:

    I agree about John Cowsill. He has a bit of Dennis Wilson in him too, doesn’t he? He’s a bit of a clubber (in a good way), but he has way more chops than Dennis had. He doesn’t overplay, but he has a strong presence.

    Bruce Johnstone has sounded weak on the clips I’ve seen on YouTube. I like his backing vocals on the new album, but when he sings live his voice sounds shot.

  3. Greg says:

    Brilliant. Thanks for a great evening. Been listening to this clip on my iPad in a hotel by the sea on an otherwise dreary business trip. What a cheer up. Brilliant concert. If it is the last beach boys concert what a way to go! brian looked well happy. they all looked happy! Thanks Andrew for uploading this. Made my day. Good vibes all around. Cheers

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m glad you like it, but I didn’t actually upload it, just created the playlist from someone else’s upload. Don’t want to take credit where it’s not due. And yes, it was a grest show.

  4. Pingback: The Beach Boys 50: Live In Concert DVD « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

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