The Beach Boys On CD: Live At Knebworth

1980 saw the only European tour of the classic six-man line-up of the Beach Boys. Dennis Wilson was back in the band after his temporary suspension, Bruce had returned to the fold, and Brian was there in body, if not always in spirit.

The highlight of the tour was a performance at the Knebworth Festival on June 21. At the time, the Beach Boys were still producing big hits in the UK — Lady Lynda had been a top ten hit — and the show was filmed, for a potential twentieth anniversary video.

The show as released on DVD and CD is not quite the same one that people saw at the time, though. Several songs were cut, partly because the performances of them were poor, and a lot of overdubbing was done on the basic tracks afterwards — Mark Linnet, the engineer who mixed the CD and DVD release, has said that about seventy-five per cent of the tracks have an additional single layer of backing vocals overdubbed and some keyboard and guitar sweetening, but that no new lead vocals were recorded. Others who have heard the unsweetened original recordings say that more was altered than that.

To my ears, there has clearly been quite a bit of doctoring done — some autotune applied to some of the vocals (but applied in the way in which it was intended, to fix the odd bum note), and some double-tracking done. More importantly, things have been mixed out, like Brian deciding to play totally different songs on the piano.

The result is, however, if not a totally accurate representation of the band around 1980, a more-or-less honest one. This is, roughly, what the Beach Boys sounded like during the last time they were really a band in any meaningful sense. The bulk of the instruments, and nearly all the vocals, are provided by the band, which is something that would not be true even a year later.

For anyone who wants proof of this, incidentally, it’s instructive to compare the versions of the songs here to those on the Good Vibrations Tour DVD (a DVD of the 1976 TV special popularly known as It’s OK). In particular, compare the version of You Are So Beautiful here with the one on that DVD, and you can clearly hear what Bruce Johnston’s piano adds to the band’s sound.

And what’s interesting is how different this version of the band sounded from the records. The arrangements are chopped-down, ruthlessly streamlined versions of those on the studio recordings. Subtlety goes out the window in favour of a muscular rock sound and a hard backbeat.

This was a deliberate attempt to get a thicker sound — when Carl Wilson left the band briefly in 1981, Jeff Foskett (who has worked with the band members off and on ever since) took over some of his parts, and tried to replicate exactly the single-string guitar lines on the orginal records. When Carl saw him perform live, he said “You know, a guitar has six strings”. But at the same time it also made the songs easier to perform.

The result is something that, while certainly not a bad live album by any means, doesn’t repay repeated listening hugely. The DVD, on the other hand, is an essential purchase, and captures the excitement of a live show perfectly. It’s particularly touching to watch the other band members’ concern for Brian, who is clearly unwell at this point.

As I’ve already covered all these songs before, I’ll just deal briefly with them to note the differences from the studio versions. Some observations that apply to all of them:

Mike Love is not in especially good voice, but Carl Wilson and Al Jardine sound superb.

Brian and Dennis are largely absent from the harmonies — Brian for obvious reasons, Dennis because he was behind the drumkit for much of the show.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston

backing band

Ed Carter (guitar), Joe Chemay (bass, vocals), Bobby Figueroa (percussion, drums, vocals), Mike Meros (keyboards)

California Girls
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This is taken at a faster pace than the record, but is done pretty much exactly how you’d expect, given the instrumental limitations. Al Jardine takes the falsetto part and does a very good job.

Sloop John B
trad arr Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Carl Wilson

This is a simplified version of the arrangement from the record — no flute, obviously (the flute intro is played on keyboard), but also without the a capella section. Brian Wilson takes lead on the first verse, and this may be the earliest example of his late period voice — less husky than from 76 to 79, but harsh and shouted. Al Jardine doubles him on the first chorus, Mike Love takes his usual part, and Carl Wilson sings the last verse, as well as playing the twelve-string guitar. This is one of several songs that have annoying feedback screeches — an unfortunate artefact of the live recording.

Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This was the first track from this recording to be released, on the Endless Harmony sountrack, and with good reason. While it’s a typically dense, airless instrumental arrangement, and misses the horns, Carl Wilson turns in a stunning lead vocal performance here. His little improvised phrase at the end of the recording (“I keep dreaming ’bout Darlin’”) has, since the track was released in 1999, become a formal part of the arrangement when any of the various Beach Boys bands perform this song live.

School Days
Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

This is to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the studio recording, except with lots of space for Eddie Carter to play a twiddly guitar solo.

God Only Knows
Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

As always, with the pre-1996 Beach Boys, this is a simplified arrangement of the song — not just in that there are no flutes or french horns, but in that the staccato instrumental section is skipped altogether.

Al Jardine takes Brian Wilson’s falsetto part ( sounding like he’s double-tracked in parts), and Mike Love the lower ‘ba ba ba’ part, while Bruce replicates his part from the record, but Carl Wilson is the star here, giving a performance which, while possibly not as good as the one on Live In London, is still the highlight of this album.

When the Beach Boys reunited in 2012, they performed this song to Carl’s prerecorded lead, with Carl projected on a video screen. It was this performance they used for both the lead vocal and the video, and so the lead vocal from this performance also turns up on the 50th Anniversary Tour live double CD.

Be True To Your School
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

A fairly straight reading of this song, unlike later performances where Mike would stretch the word “when” out to ridiculous lengths. Mike Meros takes the “On Wisconsin” organ solo.

Do It Again
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love with Carl Wilson

Again, the instrumental arrangement here is rather overloaded with a surfeit of electric guitars, but it’s otherwise relatively close to what you’d expect. Carl Wilson harmonises with Mike Love on the bridge and plays the guitar solo.

Little Deuce Coupe
Brian Wilson, Roger Christian and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This is pretty much exactly what you’d expect this song to sound like.

Cottonfields/Heroes & Villains
Huddie Ledbetter/Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine with Carl Wilson

Here Dennis Wilson switches from the drums to being part of the frontline, on vocals and occasional piano, while Bobby Figueroa becomes the main drummer for the next few songs. It’s hard to tell because of the way the DVD is edited, but Brian Wilson may be absent from these songs altogether.

These two songs are performed as a medley, and Cottonfields again is simplified and shortened, with no a capella break or steel guitar. Heroes And Villains, though, is performed in the rock arrangement they’d used in the early 70s, with Jardine taking lead on the verse, Carl singing the “Bicycle rider” lyrics on the chorus, and Love singing “Heroes, a heroes, a heroes and a villains”.

Here they do attempt the a capella break, and the full a capella final verse (unlike on earlier tours) and it works wonderfully, whether thickened in the studio or not. Dennis also adds in an impromptu “we love you!” and some vocal “whoa”s on the tag. This is an absolute tour de force.

Happy Birthday Brian
Mildred And Patty Hill
Lead vocalist: Audience

Here Brian returned to the stage, Dennis seems to have left, and the audience sang “happy birthday” to Brian, as his birthday was the previous night. This doesn’t appear on the DVD, as the sync rights for the song Happy Birthday are prohibitively expensive.

Keepin’ The Summer Alive
Carl Wilson and Randy Bachman
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Largely indistinguishable from the studio recording, but with a better lead vocal from Carl, who was really on staggeringly good form for this show. On the DVD, at least, it’s clear that while this isn’t much of a song, it would at least have been very exciting live. Even Brian appears engaged.

Lady Lynda
Al Jardine and Ron Altbach
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

This is another performance with stunningly good vocals. One might question how good the vocals were live, given that at points here three Al Jardines (Als Jardine?) are audible, but they were apparently good enough for them to perform the a capella break and outro twice — Mike Love shouts “one more time!” after the song ends, and they perform that section again.

The major difference from the studio version here is the lack of strings and harpsichord. Meros plays the Jesu, Blebeit Meine Freunde intro on the piano, and Johnston plays some of the harpsichord trills on the electric piano. From the video and audio evidence neither Brian nor Dennis are on this song.

Surfer Girl
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Group and Brian Wilson

This is quite lovely, with the verse and chorus harmonies dominated by Dennis (with Al taking Brian’s high harmony part), and Brian taking the solo lead on the bridge. The tinkly keyboard part is perhaps a bit obtrusive, but otherwise this is very, very nice.

Help Me Rhonda
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

This is the same beefed-up rock arrangement that the band had performed on the In Concert album, with Brian and Dennis on keyboards and Bruce on bass. Mike Love doubles Al on the first verse, until his own harmony part comes in.

I’ve never been a fan of this arrangement, but this is a perfectly competent, enthusiastic, performance of it.

Rock And Roll Music
Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

Again, this is much like the record, but taken slightly faster and with louder guitars. A perfectly reasonable performance of an uninspiring arrangement.

I Get Around
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Bobby Figueroa

Another slightly more muscular, thicker arrangement than on the record, this time in large part because Dennis continues drumming throughout the verses. Bobby Figueroa takes the falsetto part here, mixed fairly low, and does a competent enough job, but he doesn’t have a “Beach Boy” voice, and the result sounds slightly off.

Surfin’ USA
Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

No different than you’d expect from this kind of performance.

You Are So Beautiful
Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

The first encore for this show, as so many in the late 70s and early 80s, was this Billy Preston song that had been a hit for Joe Cocker a few years earlier. Dennis Wilson, who had a similarly husky voice to Cocker’s, sings lead as Meros and Johnston accompany him on two pianos.

It’s quite lovely, although many might question why Dennis chose to perform someone else’s hit. The reason, apparently, is that Dennis co-wrote this, or at least claimed he did. According to reports from author Jon Stebbins, Billy Hinsche saw Dennis at a party when Billy Preston was noodling with this song, and Dennis was apparently with him, helping him work on it. Dennis later claimed to other people that he’d helped Preston write it.

Preston, when asked about this, later denied ever even having met Dennis Wilson.

On the one hand, this song sounds more like Dennis’ work than most of Preston’s, and Billy Hinsche has no reason to lie. On the other, there are already two credited writers to this song, and it’s frankly so simplistic that it wouldn’t even take one writer to have come up with it.

Whether it’s partly Dennis’ work or not (and I lean towards believing it is), he certainly makes it his here, and this is a highlight of the album.

Good Vibrations
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

A strong performance of this song. Good Vibrations is an odd song, as nearly-identical performances of it, trying to stick as closely to the record as possible, can emphasise very different facets of the track. In this case, the emphasis is on the heavy R&B aspects of the track.

Bruce doubles Carl on the “I hear the sound of a…” part, and the “gotta keep those lovin’ good…” section is extended into a long audience singalong that lasts almost as long as the rest of the song, at the end of which the band scat a short multi-part harmony section while the audience sing. Similarly, the repetition of the chorus for the tag is extended while Carl scats a “wop-diddy-bop-diddy” vocal line that’s not heard anywhere else.

Barbara Ann
Fred Fassert
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine

It’s a loud rock version of Barbara Ann. Al Jardine takes the falsetto part, and does a better job than Dean Torrence. Bruce plays bass.

Fun Fun Fun
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

A loud, slightly sloppy, performance with a ton of energy. Carl Wilson takes the distorted lead guitar. Al takes the falsetto during the choruses, with Bruce singing the high “away”s over the very extended tag.

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One Response to The Beach Boys On CD: Live At Knebworth

  1. Andrew Gaines says:

    I only discovered this site a few days ago and I have already ordered the books. As someone who has loved the Beach Boys since a child (my mother brought me a vinyl double of Friends and Smiley Smile when I was about 12 and have tried to persuade friends that they were not just a surf and sand band) these personal assessments of Beach Boys albums are both enjoyable and in places revelatory to me even after 40 years of listening to them.

    Whilst I don’t rate this as highly as the Live in London and In Concert albums (probably-as I see it-, that in ’68 and 72 they were still properly creating as a band and looking forward) I do find this an enjoyable listen. For this gig they still sound like a proper band and it is an energetic, if unsubtle run through of greatest hits by the people who mostly performed them originally. Bizarrely I see that one of the songs in the set-list they left off the CD/DVD was ” I Write the Songs”.. Bizarre that in was in the set-list that is not left off!

    Just a little piece of OCD about the DVD of this concert. Whilst, generally, the band are on form and behaving well, the tension between the two factions do come through occasionally. Most noticeably after Surfer Girl. As the camera pans back Mike Love appears to “say” something in the direction of Carl and Dennis, and Carl briefly moves forward quite aggressively as though to hit him. Dennis, acting the peacemaker – he must have been in a good place that evening – steps in front of Carl and the situation is diffused.

    Am I the only person to see this? I know this isn’t anything to do specifically with the music but as a demonstration of the tensions that the band generally worked to overcome to produce music I always found this interesting.

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