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Michael Stuart faces some tough home truths at a Beach Boys concert

To be honest with you – rather like the Peter Cook character E.L. Wisty, whose ambition was to be a judge was foiled by the fact “I didn’t have the Latin” and who, on in response to the first requirement of the exam paper (putting his name at the top) “got 75% on that” – I was always too impressionable a fan to ever qualify as a proper music critic.

I always loved the songs of the Beach Boys – the originals being three Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love and a school pal Al Jardine – but today’s report on last night’s concert at Hampton Court, part of its annual festival, must begin with the confession that I am a long-time worshipper at the shrine of Brian Wilson, composer of the vast majority of the band’s music.

I can pinpoint the origin of my obsession exactly. In 1971 or 1972, my memory is a bit hazy on the exact date(!), Rolling Stone magazine ran a massive article detailing Wilson’s descent into oblivion. It told the tale of the shy kid – deaf in one ear as a result of a beating from his father – who was too fat to surf himself, but who nevertheless single-handedly wrote the theme music to the hedonistic California myth of sun, girls, ‘catching waves’ and hot-rod cars.

He wrote all the Beach Boys early hits (23 albums’ worth between 1962 and 1964) before having a nervous breakdown over the touring and then opting to leave the performing group, stay at home and just write the music which, every so often, the rest of the boys came home, learned and took out on tour again.

Brian-WilsonSome of Brian Wilson’s greatest music – the Pet Sounds album, the abortive Smile sessions, Good Vibrations, Heroes and Villains – all came from this period, but at a price.

Gradually, damaged by the pressure from all sides (not least Mike Love, who was suspicious of Brian’s new ‘complicated’ songs and wanted to stick to the surf music formula) it all got to him. Another breakdown followed and, by taking industrial quantities of drugs, the troubled Brian effectively blew his own brains out.

Nevertheless, I can state that a single quote in that 1970s Rolling Stone article triggered my lifelong devotion.

Nick Venet, a producer with Capitol, the Beach Boys’ label, dismissed one of the main criticisms occasionally laid at Brian’s door with the wonderful reposte “… They say he cannot write words. Well, nobody ever asked Chopin what the fucking words were!”

Since the 1970s, the Beach Boys have split into two camps – the first being the ‘official’ band, run by Mike Love who remains terminally jealous of Brian Wilson’s legendary status as the Beach Boys’ composer.

The second is built around the damaged Brian Wilson who, after nearly three decades in a wilderness, returned to live performing at the turn of the century with the encouragement of his wife and the support of a brilliant band who love him and his music. Since he has played concerts billed in the style ‘Brian Wilson plays the Beach Boys music’.

Most music critics and Beach Boys fans regard Brian Wilson as, to all intents and purposes, the Beach Boys.

Mike Love will have none of this. Admittedly, he did write lyrics for many of Brian’s hits (and received a co-credit for his contribution), but he feels greatly under-appreciated in the Beach Boys saga and, like a dog with a bone, will not let go. As far as I can tell, he erroneously feels he deserves equal top billing in the Beach Boys story.

And so to last night and Hampton Court.

The whole event had a depressing air of Glyndebourne about it. Luxury cars littering the meadow that was masquerading as a car park. The Palace’s gardens were awash with field-sport folding tables and chairs full of upmarket picnic food, champagne, Pimm’s and prosperous merchant banker-types and their spouses.

All this, of course, about a million miles away from the true spirit of rock and roll as I still live it – and as it once was.

The worst aspect of this revelation – re-emphasised later tenfold by the sight of ancient audience members of both genders in the auditorium wriggling about in apparent unbounded ecstasy – was realising that I personally was as much a part of the problem as anyone else … being old, fat, bald and past it, ridiculously seeking to somehow re-connect with my youth via this very-expensive luxury trip to the past. The concert even started on time, at 9.00pm to the second – what on earth is ‘rock and roll’ about that?

Mike Love’s version of the Beach Boys no doubt makes a healthy pension contribution to all concerned. It concentrates upon the surf music period and in one sense breaks new ground, being little more than a tribute band faithfully reproducing the hits, but with the added twist that a couple of the original band members are actually in it. Somehow I found it difficult to get past the incongruity of seeing 70 year-olds extolling the joys of young girls in bikinis and being surfer dudes without a care in the world now that they’ve stolen their Dad’s motor for the evening.

Nevertheless, when they cranked up the energy with perfect reproductions of classics such as God Only Knows, Wouldn’t It Be Nice?, Good Vibrations, Sloop John B, Darlin’, Wild Honey, Surfin’ USA and Fun, Fun, Fun, you couldn’t help but be taken along for the ride.

About Michael Stuart

After university, Michael spent twelve years working for MELODY MAKER before going freelance. He claims to keep doing it because it is all he knows. More Posts