The Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion has proved to be an unexpected windfall for long time fans. The 50-date tour reuniting Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, David Marks and Bruce Johnston, which ends next week in London, has been received ecstatically, with consistently strong shows and a mind-boggling setlist with over forty titles on it, covering almost all of their best known hits along with some fan favorite obscurities. (Click here for our full review & photo gallery from the Santa Barbara show.) But the most surprising aspect of their return has to be the quality of their new album, That’s Why God Made The Radio. Eccentric and playful, it may be the most satisfying music they’ve made together since the mid-seventies. On Tuesday at the Grammy Museum, the group took the stage for an extended Q&A followed by a short acoustic performance that would have warmed the heart of any Californian, or for that matter, almost any human.
One of the most revealing moments for this reporter came during the opening remarks, as the band members were brought into the hallway, just inches away from me, to wait for their big introduction. As the host went on, Love and Wilson started joking with each other – I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but the cadence was familiar from “Cassius Love Vs. Sonny Wilson.” Just two guys goofing around, cracking wise a little too loudly in the quiet auditorium, until someone in the audience leaned over and went “SSSSHHHHHH!!!!” at them, which sent me into a fit of the giggles. For a second, it felt like I was back at Hawthorne High with those guys, the class clowns unable to keep it zipped during Assembly. For two men that have been widely portrayed as enemies, it was a very cute moment to witness.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, moderated by Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli, Wilson stated his enthusiasm to keep things happening, and make a “real rock and roll record” with the group, while most of the others stated their enthusiasm for the same. Jardine, asked about his solo recordings, shook his head dismissively and said ”THIS is the band, this is the thing.” Love mentioned he’d be into it as long as he got to co-write songs with Brian again. All systems seemed go for the love fest to continue.
I didn’t know at the time that hours earlier, Love had basically put the kibosh on an immediate return to activity for the five men on the stage. Citing concerns about “protecting the brand,” Love had stated that he was going back to the him-and-Bruce-only touring version of the Beach Boys effective immediately. Evidently, he doesn’t want the reunion band to end up like the Eagles, having to “sell tickets for five bucks” as a result of playing too much, which is a pretty weird thing for someone who routinely tours the county fair and casino circuit to say.
Wilson’s manager Jean Sievers is quoted in the LA Times as saying “Brian’s very bummed,” which is kind of the thing his fans were afraid was going to happen at some point. But it’s interesting that what’s bumming him out is the prospect of the reunion ending right on schedule. Right up to the announcement last year of the tour and new album, many doubted that Wilson would ever have any interest in re-opening the old wounds of their working relationship; now he seems to be more excited to keep it going than Love.
None of this unfolding drama was addressed to the paying customers, some of whom had paid dearly and even flown in from the east coast for a chance to walk through the band’s museum exhibit with the Boys themselves, part of a fundraising program for the Grammy Foundation’s educational outreach programs. While I didn’t have a chance to check it out, reports from patrons suggested it was pretty darn cool, with the most fascinating entry being a two-page paper written by a 17-year old Brian Wilson in high school explaining his philosophy of life, and detailing his plans to make it big in the music biz. When given the opportunity to ask anything of their heroes, some people had no question at all, just wanting to say how deeply they’d been touched by the group’s music. Asked for a favorite memory of his departed brothers, Brian noted that his favorite memory of Dennis was when he sang “Forever”, and his favorite of Carl was him singing “God Only Knows”, which is why they had been playing along to films of the two men singing those songs on their summer tour.
Whatever tension lurked behind the scenes, all five men appeared to be at home and enjoying themselves once the music started, an acoustic set with a skeleton crew backing them up, including “CEO Of Falsetto” Jeff Foskett and longtime Wilson band arranger/ keyboardist Darien Sahanaja from the Wondermints. The opening bars of “Surfer Girl” sent the audience into a trance, those ethereal doo-wop choirboy harmonies ringing out clear and pure. I’ve seen Wilson’s band about fifteen times in as many years, and it’s always an exercise in careful, note-perfect recreation, a large band playing complex arrangements as precisely as possible. The recordings I’ve heard from the Beach Boys tour this summer sound pretty similar – it’s mostly the same band and arrangements, although there’s an undeniable appeal in hearing the parts sung by the original singers, all of whom are still in great voice.
But this event brought the songs back to the campfire. Without the usual tapestry of ornate instrumentation to fall back on, the focus returned to those voices, that inimitable blend produced by a bunch of guys who all learned how to sing at the same time, on the same music, when they were very young. While it’s different now – how could it not be with the absence of Carl and Dennis – it’s close enough to produce goose bumps when they go through a particularly lovely bit. Even “Kokomo,” which of course Mike Love had to mention in the Q&A as having won the “Best Song” Grammy that had eluded “Good Vibrations,” sounded warm and inviting in these surroundings.
Closing with a raucous “I Get Around”, the evening ended with all of us wanting a lot more. Here’s hoping the brand – and of course the band – hangs in there long enough for this vintage crew to make another journey.