Heaven-sent innovation from the legendary Beach Boy, plus supporting cast
THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON
Thursday February 26, 2004
In June 1967, the beatles released Sgt Pepper, just a few weeks after Brian Wilson scrapped the music he and Van Dyke Parks had recorded for Smile. And so began one of the great “what ifs?” in rock history.
It’s incredible. Throughout 1966 and early ’67, the world, including The Beatles, anxiously waited to see how Wilson was going to top Pet Sounds. Thirty-seven years later, the world?including Paul McCartney, looking about as excited tonight as he must have been when, carrot in hand, he joined Wilson and Parks for their fabled journey across America from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head?is still waiting. That’s either an indictment of today’s scene and its lack of mythic trailblazers, or testament to Wilson’s enduring ability to generate feverish conjecture.
We can only guess what impact Smile would have had, although bootlegs of rock’s most famous unreleased LP comprise tantalising fragments of those doomed yet thrillingly ambitious sessions. But we now know what it would sound like played live because that’s what Wilson and his supporting cast, including The Wondermints, a substitute Carl Wilson called Jeffrey Foskett, and the Stockholm Strings And Horns, offer at the RFH:a full version of the album that never was, with arrangements courtesy of Parks, whose dense, elliptical lyrics and epic visions helped shape the concept in the first place.
The Smile ensemble might not be gracing the next edition of Guy Peellaert’s Rock Dreams, but they do have uncannily lovely voices, and their ability to keep pace with the dramatic shifts in Wilson’s intricate melodies is phenomenal. “Heroes And Villains” is astonishingly faithful to the adaptation of the song that appeared on Smile surrogate Smiley Smile and is easily the most complex piece of music your reporter has ever heard performed on a stage in the name of rock’n’roll.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The concert opens when the curtain is raised to reveal Wilson, the confused yet charismatic focus, perched on a stool, cosseted by his singers, all of them shooting the breeze like it’s a Beach Boys Iuau. Now, some reviewers found this a bit cute. They changed their minds when they launched into breathtaking a cappella versions of “Surfer Girl”, “In My Room”, “Please Let Me Wonder”, “All Summer Long”, even “Good Timin'”, a late Wilson classic from 1979.
Our damaged hero, the hippest of the first-generation rock legends because he went furthest out there in pursuit of his dreams, is in better voice than anyone dared hope. He hides behind a keyboard for full-band renditions of “Time To Get Alone,” “God Only Knows”, “Darlin'”, “Sloop John B”, “California Girls” and “Marcella”. After the interval comes Smile, the music that precipitated Wilson’s mental decline.
Has his teenage symphony to God survived three decades of speculation and psychodrama? Yes. It’s magnificent. Futuristic collage pop. Mosaic for a new society. The order was always going to invite controversy, but there’s no arguing with a sequence that starts with “Our Prayer” and continues with “Heroes And Villains”, “Do You Like Worms”, “Barnyard”, “The Old Master Painter”/”You Are My Sunshine”,”Cabinessence”, “Wonderful”, “Child Is Father Of The Man”, “Surf’s Up”,”Vegetables”/”I’m In Great Shape”, “Wind Chimes” and “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow”, the track that killed Smile, for which everyone dons firemen’s helmets. It ends with “Good Vibrations”, the Wilson-Parks version, not the smash hit with Mike Love’s words. And that’s it. Forty minutes of startling invention and standing ovations.
Finally, a medley including “Barbara Ann” and “Surfin’ USA”that emphasises how much ground Wilson covered between those comic anthems and the Cosmic Americana of Smile. Uncut’s Roy Carr, another living legend, is so moved he puts tonight in the all-time superleague alongside peak-era gigs by the Stones, The Who and Springsteen. Throw in Kraftwerk and Joy Division and he might be right.