STILL PICKING UP GOOD VIBRATIONS Beach Boys

Celebrating
their 50th anniversary with a reunion album and tour, the boys of
summer still aim to please.

 

BY JUD COST

To those who clearly remember the 1976 tour (and album)
billed as “15 Big Ones,” it must come as something of a shock to be
attending the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary shows. As Monty Python’s John
Cleese, in his Basil Fawlty character, once said, “Zoom! What was that?
That was your life, mate!”

But there they are, onstage at Berkeley’s Greek Theater (June 1), the surviving
members of the purveyors of “endless summer,” as originally created
by 20-year old genius composer and high tenor/falsetto vocalist Brian Wilson
and his cousin Mike Love who handled low-tenor vocals and many of the lyrics.
Also on board are veteran band members Al Jardine, David Marks and Bruce
Johnston. Jardine replaced Marks in 1963, and Johnston filled in for Brian Wilson in the
road band from 1965 on, after Brian’s “fear of flying” problems
convinced him to stay home and concentrate on the recording studio. Brian’s
brother Dennis Wilson, their shaggy-haired drummer and resident sex symbol,
died in 1983, and lead guitarist Carl Wilson, the spiritual fulcrum of the
band, died in 1998. Everybody in the Beach Boys, originally hailing from Hawthorne, Calif.,
sang. Boy, did they sing!

The vocal blend that Brian assembled in the days when his band was toying with
the idea of calling themselves the Pendletones (after the plaid, wool shirts
then popular with high-school kids), had its roots in a jazz vocal combo called
the Four Freshmen. The inspiration to label themselves the Beach Boys came from
Dennis, the only one of the Wilson brothers who actually dabbled in the current
surfing craze (and surf-music phenomenon) then sweeping Southern California.

To create “Surfin’, U.S.A.,”
all Brian had to do was cobble a laundry list of West Coast surfing locales to
the melody of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little 16,” framed by some
Berry-esque lead guitar, and you’ve got a U.S. top ten hit, in the spring of
’63.

By the time the British Invasion sent many American chart artists into early
retirement in 1964, the Beach Boys were way too big to be so easily dismissed,
blazing the pop music landscape with such perfectly rendered cherry bombs as
“Surfer Girl,” “Be True To Your School,” “Fun, Fun,
Fun,” and “I Get Around.”

After so many years of seeing Brian’s exquisite band (led by Jeffrey Foskett
and Darian Sahanaja) perfectly replicate anything they targeted from the Beach
Boys’ extensive back catalog – including complete renditions of Pet Sounds and Smile – it’s difficult at first to wrap your head around what
they’re doing tonight. With all legal and emotional differences apparently
settled, this is a celebration of the band’s 50th anniversary featuring what
the songs have evolved into. That means that Mike Love is back as master of
ceremonies, a job he handles more awkwardly than he once did. Love also can’t
quite reach the notes at the top of his vocal range on the opening salvo of
“Do It Again,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and “Catch A Wave.”
But whatever the front line can’t handle vocally is easily beefed up by someone
from a back line of a dozen or so veterans of Beach Boys-related tours.

The first of multiple highlights tonight, occurs when Brian, seated stage left
behind a white baby grand piano, absolutely nails the vocals to “Please
Let Me Wonder” (“Were you still awake like me?”) from the 1965
album Beach Boys Today. Special credit should be given to this
Spectorian gem. Undeniably great as Pet Sounds is, Today continually gets more songs played from it live (“Kiss Me Baby,”
“Will I Grow Up To Be A Man,” “Do You Wanna Dance,”
“Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Don’t Hurt
My Little Sister”) than any other Beach Boys album. And, rightfully so.

The original Beach Boy whose voice comes across best these days is that of Al
Jardine. His solid leads on the Crystals’
cover “Then She Kissed Me,” “Cottonfields,”
“California Saga” and “Help Me Rhonda” ring out loud and
clear. Forgotten man David Marks, who left the band early, plays pretty decent
surf guitar. He’s no Carl Wilson, but his Chuck Berry-influenced leads almost
always stay within expected bounds.

“The next song, written by Brian and me, is the most patriotic song the
Beach Boys ever recorded,” says Love, slyly. “It’s about people in
uniform, actually girls in uniform. Actually, it’s about cheerleaders at a high
school football game.” The exciting take on “Be True To Your
School” that follows has some of the crowd filling in the endearing (but
missing) girls’ voices: “Do it again, do it again, we like it, we like
it!” and “Push ’em back, push ’em back, way back!”

“Ballad Of Old Betsy,” seldom, if ever, performed live before, was
sung perfectly by Foskett’s co-musical director, Scott Totten. “After the
next four songs, we’re going to take a short break-and a nap,” quips Love.
“But first, we’re gonna hotwire a few more car songs for you.”
“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down” and
“I Get Around” perform the task admirably.

Part two of this almost three-hour extravaganza, ditches most of the beach and
dragstrip songs for the artier, post-Capitol Records material. The five Beach
Boys stand around Brian’s piano for a fine rundown of “Add Some
Music,” a highlight of Sun Flower, their 1971 Warner Bros. debut
album.

Digging deep into the tape vault, Love explains the background of “All
This Is That,” a lovely song inspired by his post-Sgt. Pepper dalliance with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “Now I’d like to introduce our
Grammy-winning songwriter, Bruce Johnston,” says Love. “Bruce won a
Grammy for writing Barry Manilow’s first big hit, ‘I Write The Songs.’
“Time constraints prevent us from covering that one, but we’d like to do
another great song Bruce wrote, ‘Disney Girls.'” Johnston seems to get choked up singing the
heartfelt lyrics of settling down with “a local girl in a smaller
town.” “Hi Rick and Dave, hi Pop, good morning, Mom” is a bow to
TV’s Nelson family, all gone now.

“That’s Why God Made The Radio,” the first single pulled from the new
Beach Boys album of the same name, back on Capitol, employs John Barry’s
familiar chord changes to the early James Bond incidental music before delving
into the band’s trademark harmonic blend.

“Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” is another rarely heard Beach Boys
cover, this one originally cut by Frankie Lymon, the hypnotic voice that
launched the singing career of a teenage Roni Spector. The three-hanky moment
tonight is saved for the appearance of the two fallen Beach Boys on the
ultra-sharp, big screen behind the stage. Dennis Wilson’s voice, clarion clear,
is heard accompanying the live band with one of his own haunting compositions,
“Forever.” A film clip of Carl Wilson follows, singing lead on
“God Only Knows.” It’s enough to melt the hardest of hearts. And the
technology needed to pull off this musical séance is letter-perfect.

How else to end 50 years in love with the Beach Boys but with a
take-no-prisoners loading of the big shells into the heaviest cannon. It’s an
early 4th of July fireworks display of “Barbara Ann,” “Good
Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and
“Fun, Fun, Fun.” Some joker seated in front of us insisted, before
the show began that Stevie Wonder was going to appear as a guest artist. And he
would have been a perfect fit to wail away on Brian’s soulful numbers from the Wild
Honey
album. But Stevie Wonder has enough show-biz acumen to know this
would be one tough act to follow.

 

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