Nobody in the music business polarises opinion like Mike Love. To some he’s the essential element in the Beach Boys’ success — the nasal-voiced singer of their biggest hits, “Mr Positivity”, the hardest working man in showbiz. To others, he’s the evil monster who killed Smile, the reason for the Beach Boys’ descent into artistic irrelevance, and a talentless hack who had the good luck to be born into the same family as a musical genius and has exploited him for fifty years.
For myself, I fall into the middle ground. I have very little respect for Love as an artist — he’s been involved in the creation of many great songs and records, but in the vast majority of the cases the songs he’s co-written were great despite, rather than because of, his contributions. But the hatred toward him from certain quarters is so intense, and so personal, that I often find myself defending him from those who think he’s Hitler and Jack The Ripper combined.
After the Beach Boys’ reunion tour ended last year in circumstances which are still only slowly becoming clear, Love returned to touring with his backing band, which licenses the Beach Boys’ name but which only features one other member of the Beach Boys proper, Bruce Johnston.
This has been widely condemned, and I can see why — last year’s shows were some of the best I’ve ever seen. But what isn’t fair is that much of this condemnation has involved attacks on his band members, who are all excellent musicians in their own right. Two of them, lead guitarist Scott Totten and drummer John Cowsill, were in the reunion tour band, and added a huge amount to that tour — the main reason I’m upset that the tour ended, in fact, is not because I’ll never see Brian Wilson and Mike Love onstage together again, but because I’ll never see Scott Totten and John Cowsill playing with Probyn Gregory, Nelson Bragg, Darian Sahanaja and the rest of Wilson’s great band.
The problem is that when Love started touring as “the Beach Boys” in 1998 after Carl Wilson’s death, the band he was playing with was extraordinarily poor, and even though he’s changed the personnel almost completely since that time — only keyboardist Tim Bonhomme remains of that band other than Love and Johnston — that set people’s perceptions of the band. But — thanks largely to musical director Scott Totten — Love’s band have now reached the point that while they might not be as good as Wilson’s band (mostly because Love’s smaller band is confined to a guitar/bass/keyboard/drums lineup rather than having vibraphones, hand percussion, tannerins and horns to play with) they’re an astounding live act in their own right. They no longer cut the corners that the Beach Boys did when Carl Wilson was still alive — they play the staccato section of God Only Knows properly, rather than eliding it, and they do the a capella break on Sloop John B. They’re *GOOD*.
(Love’s band are the only one I’ve ever seen where I’ve heard non-musician audience members mention the drummer — in the case of Mike Kowalski, the drummer when Love started licensing the band name, people said “Is he drunk? That’s the worst drumming I’ve ever heard!”, while in the case of Cowsill people coming out of the shows say “wasn’t that drummer incredible?!”)
Sunday’s show in London proved that this band are worth seeing. Their set was part of a festival, with a line-up that wasn’t so much eclectic as just stupid. The bill included The Gruffalo, Horrible Histories, Paul Young and The Saturdays, and JLS were headliners. Other days of the Hyde Park festival have coherent bills — next week sees Elton John, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello playing on the same day, for example, which makes sense, but this was just ludicrous, and meant that the touring Beach Boys were definitely not playing to their own audience, but to a bunch of ten-year-old kids and their parents.
They also had to fit a festival time-slot, and were only given an hour — which is still more than any of the other acts, even the headliners, had. Love’s band have essentially three sets they perform, depending on venue. They’ll do three hours or so in a theatre, with fifty-plus song sets including all sorts of obscure album tracks, thirty-five or so songs at an outdoor show where they’re the primary attraction, and a twenty-song shortened set when they’re playing festivals, sporting events, and other venues where they’re not the main attraction. It was obvious going in that it was the latter we were going to get.
This is a shame, as my love for the Beach Boys has little to do with the big hits — I never need to hear Barbara Ann ever again — but at the same time, those songs were hits for a reason, and a show that consists of only them is an exhilarating event.
While waiting for them to come on, and getting into a good position in the crowd, I watched half of Paul Young’s set (pretty poor — his voice has gone). Young got in trouble for extending his set by thirty seconds, to tell the audience that Andy Murray had won the tennis. The Saturdays followed, and were greeted rapturously by the pre-teen kids in the audience, who knew every word of their songs. They still had to drop a song to fit their twelve-song set into the timeslot.
After the Saturdays, it was interesting to listen to the conversation in the audience, which was completely negative about the Beach Boys. “Why are they even here?” “I can’t believe they’re doing an hour when JLS only get forty-five minutes!” “This is going to be awful,” and much more. The audience just wanted JLS — though it was the adults that were moaning. The little kids in the audience were politely applauding anything that came onto the stage, because they were out for a special treat and were on their best behaviour.
But then the band came out. Cowsill, Bonhomme, and bass player Randell Kirsch (who sings most of the falsetto parts for the band — he has a voice very like that of his friend and collaborator Jeff Foskett, who sings the same parts for Brian Wilson’s band) started up the intro to Do It Again, and then Totten, rhythm guitarist Christian Love (Mike Love’s son, who has a singing voice much like that of Carl Wilson, though he doesn’t have the artistry to use it to the same effect), Johnston and Love came out, and ran through three surfing hits back-to-back, going straight into Catch A Wave and Surfin’ Safari.
Surfer Girl followed, with Johnston taking lead on the middle eight, and Love dancing with his daughter Ambha. Straight after came Don’t Worry Baby, with Kirsch on lead — that one sounded just gorgeous.
Normally after Don’t Worry Baby, Love’s band would do a medley of four car songs, all played in full, but in this abbreviated set, the “hotwire the hot rods!” section consisted of just Little Deuce Coupe and I Get Around — the latter was the first one to really win the audience around, with a huge proportion of the audience singing along. While they’d been polite from the first, this got the audience fully on-side, and from here on they were happy with everything.
Isn’t It Time was next, the first real surprise of the show. They played it in more-or-less the single arrangement, with Scott singing Al Jardine and Brian Wilson’s parts, while Love and Johnston sang their own. Unfortunately, they’ve replaced the ukulele part with an acoustic guitar (a shame as Totten played the ukulele on this song on last year’s tour, so clearly knows it), but it was still fun to hear, and a nice track for the fans in the audience.
Love’s shows usually follow a more-or-less chronological progression from 1962 to 1967, with only the occasional diversion, and so now we were up to 1965 and California Girls, with Johnston doing his usual cheesy “Wish they all could be UNITED KINGDOM girls!” bit. Then I Kissed Her followed, with Christian Love sounding as bored as he always does on this one. One imagines him saying backstage “Aw, daaaaad, do I *have* to?”
And then we were into the Pet Sounds section of the show. Sloop John B started this section off, with the lead split between Totten and Love, with Johnston harmonising with Totten on the first chorus. Cowsill had been having some problems early in the set with the kit — bits of it kept slipping, though that was fixed after the first few songs — but I thought the problem had recurred here at first. After listening more though, I realised that Love’s tambourine was far too high in the mix, and he was playing terribly. That marred this and the next two songs slightly, but was the only real musical problem of the performance. Wouldn’t It Be Nice followed, with Cowsill and Kirsch singing Brian Wilson’s part in unison. Wouldn’t It Be Nice is always the most successful song in any Beach Boys-related show in the UK — EVERYONE loves that one.
During the show the band had been using the videos originally created for last year’s reunion tour, and on the Pet Sounds songs this got very odd — lots of footage of band members who weren’t on stage, and especially of Brian Wilson, in 1966, clearly the leader and in charge…
God Only Knows followed, again with the video footage (but not the audio) used during the 2012 tour. Bruce Johnston sang this, and Christian Love did a lovely job on the counterpoint at the end. The video ended with “We love you, Carl”.
Good Vibrations was next, with Christian Love singing lead (with Totten covering the very highest notes). He did probably the best job of this I’ve heard from him, and it again went down very well, though it still seemed odd to see 1966 Brian on the video screens, directing the band…
Kokomo followed, sung by both Loves, and completely killed the momentum stone dead. I know this was a big hit in the US, but no-one except the obsessive fans knows it over here, and none of them like it very much. It works OK in a long set where it can be played as part of a run of more obscure songs, but it has no place in a hits show in the UK.
Luckily, Help Me Rhonda won the audience back round, with a wonderful lead vocal from Cowsill.
Halfway through Rhonda, someone came on stage and told Totten “One more song”. After some consultation between Totten and Love, they decided to do *two* more, Barbara Ann and their traditional closer Fun Fun Fun (with Johnston singing the falsetto tag).
And so they left the stage having overrun their allotted time, on a bill that had been timed to the second…
And the crowd — the crowd that had not wanted to see them at the beginning — roared “MORE! MORE!”
The Saturdays, who a huge chunk of that crowd had been squealing about from the beginning, hadn’t got called back for an encore. But Mike Love’s Beach Boys, astonishingly, were.
I have never in my life seen an audience so thoroughly won over, from mild apathy to roaring approval. Argue all you want about how Brian Wilson’s band is better (it is) or how with only two members the current band aren’t the real Beach Boys (they’re not), or how that setlist is too oriented towards the hits at the expense of the more interesting artistic music (it is). What this band can do is almost bludgeon an audience into submission with one great hit after another, performed impeccably. It’s an absolutely astonishing experience.
And then I was dumbfounded when they started the encore with, of all songs, Goin’ To The Beach — an unreleased, unfinished song from 1979, an outtake from Keepin’ The Summer Alive. Apparently it’s been finished recently, and it’s appearing on the box set next month, but this is a song that only the most utterly hardcore fans have even *heard of*, and which no-one had heard in a completed form before then.
It’s not actually very good, mind — a basic shuffle, with the lyrics “Goin’ to the beach/Goin’ to the beach with my baby” — but it fit the set well and it was ridiculously exciting to be at the live premiere of a lost song, even if it was lost for a reason; and it’s a mark of how well the band had gone down that they were able to take a risk like that and bring the audience with them.
They finished with Surfin’ USA, and I left before JLS came on, as did a thousand or so of the other older people in the audience. As I looked at them — many of them wearing Brian Wilson Pet Sounds tour T-shirts, and clearly, like me, fans of the band’s artistic side rather than the hits — they all looked like I did, with a fixed, stupid grin on their faces, exhausted and in shock.
There is no question in my mind that I would rather see Brian Wilson’s band than this band, and no question that I would rather see the full line-up from last year. But given that those aren’t options right now (Wilson’s only announced four dates this year, all in the US), the question isn’t “is this the best possible Beach Boys show?” — of course it isn’t. But if one asks “was this worth buying a ticket and travelling down to London?” the answer is absolutely YES.