The reunited group’s undeniably impressive peaks, blighted by band politics and Auto-Tune…
These are interesting times to be a Beach Boys fan. Last year, after much speculation, Brian Wilson officially rejoined the lineup – which also included David Marks from their 1962-’63 days – for an album and a 70-city world tour to mark their 50th anniversary. The tour was something of a triumph, a carnival of togetherness that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The album (That’s Why God Made The Radio) trundled along in a mood of easygoing nostalgia, but ended wistfully, it was noticed, as if the group sensed that autumn was foreclosing on their endless summer.
Then, after the tour’s London finale in September, some bad feeling resurfaced. Mike Love announced that he would assert his legal rights to The Beach Boys’ name for forthcoming appearances with Bruce Johnston, leaving Wilson, Marks and Alan Jardine stranded and disappointed. Currently it’s hard to know what’s happening. The Love-Johnston Beach Boys are touring America, playing casinos, fairgrounds and wineries, but despite this bleak development, a new studio album featuring all five of them, with Wilson as the dominant songwriter, is apparently not out of the question.
The mystery deepens with Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour, recorded last summer at various unspecified locations believed to include Colorado, Texas and Japan. The 41-track setlist, divided across two CDs, goes back as far as their second single (“Surfin’ Safari”), tackles all the obligatory hits (“I Get Around”, “Good Vibrations”, “Barbara Ann”, “Help Me Rhonda”), touches briefly on the late ’60s (“Do It Again”), pays a surprise visit to Holland in the ’70s (“Sail On, Sailor”, “California Saga”) and mostly avoids the ’80s (“Kokomo”). The Beach Boys are backed by a nine-piece band, many of them strong singers in their own right, resulting in a potential 14-man spread of voices. Particularly delicious are the harmonies in “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man”), “Add Some Music To Your Day” (from the 1970 album Sunflower) and “In My Room”, a delicate ballad that they handle like a child holding a butterfly.
The first disc, heavily slanted towards the early years, is a cavalcade of surfboards, hot rods, high schools and Hawaiian girls. It wasn’t a terribly serious vision of the world back then and it certainly isn’t one now (at least until “The Little Girl I Once Knew” brings a higher degree of musical complexity), but the 57 minutes roll by with ease and good humour. The second disc, beginning with the instrumental title track of Pet Sounds, takes a less travelled road – while still containing nine of the most famous songs in American history – with a long and satisfying sequence that includes “In My Room”, “All This Is That” (from the 1972 LP Carl And The Passions – “So Tough”) and two selections, “Forever” and “God Only Knows”, in which the present-day Beach Boys harmonise behind isolated vocal tracks recorded years ago by the late Dennis and Carl Wilson, respectively. You may feel it’s cheesy, or even ghoulish, but it’s more emotional than it sounds.
Produced by Brian Wilson and longtime studio partner Joe Thomas, Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour does, however, have a major problem that will ruin the album for some listeners. Several songs are saturated in Auto-Tune, seemingly added at the post-production stage at Wilson’s behest. The weakest voices in the band are those of Wilson himself and Mike Love, whose lead vocals – and between them they sing a lot of lead vocals – are treated by pitch-correction software to iron out what were presumably bum notes. This means, alas, that horribly metallic noises emerge from their mouths instead. It’s so unfortunate. The pardonable human flaws of a ‘naked’ Beach Boys concert would have been far better than sitting, teeth clenched, through “Surfin’ USA” or “Sail On, Sailor”, which aren’t so much Mike and Brian as Ralf and Florian. Bottom line: listen to samples before deciding whether this album is for you.
In the final analysis, fabulous music will prevail over robotic voices, as it does (just about) here. Even the usual corny monologues (Johnston is introduced to the crowd as a “Grammy Award-winning songwriter” – like they’d care) have an ironic charm. Everyone now sits tight for the six-disc, career-spanning Beach Boys boxset due in August. And hopes they get it right.
How did the 50th anniversary tour compare to previous Beach Boys tours?
Well, it couldn’t even come close, because there’s no Carl and no Dennis. I can tell you my favourite night was the Albert Hall (September 27), which would have made a great live album. We did all of two shows in England. I don’t know what was in our brains. We should have done more, but you had the Olympics and it was a pretty big year for Queen Elizabeth.
Was it the longest you’d ever toured with Brian?
God, I’ve toured with Brian many times. But that was when he had his handlers and he was overweight and disconnected. This tour was really cool. We were on a bus going to an airport somewhere, and I went up to about four inches from his face and said, “I know you’re in there.” He laughed so hard! There’s still a lot of pressure on him. When I joined the band [in 1965], I used to watch his behaviour. He was like Rachmaninoff as an army general. He was sharing his art and protecting it with his leadership skills. He was so red-hot, so hip. So young.
Where do you stand on the issue of Auto-Tune?
We don’t use it onstage. You’re telling me they used Auto-Tune on the album, after the fact? You know more than I do. I had nothing to do with the production of this album. Well, I’m sorry to hear it. We seem to be living in pitch-corrected times. Perhaps they should start a Grammy category for Best Pitch-Corrected Recording. But take it from the horse’s mouth: we don’t use it onstage. I generally think I have decent pitch. Of course, I still see a 30-year-old when I look in the mirror.
INTERVIEW: DAVID CAVANAGH