Words: Dominic Valvona
Brian Wilson presents Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Celebrations
Friday 27th May 2016 at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
In a soft power, musical arms race with The Beatles, Brian Wilson more or less now mastering the known limits of the studio, was nudged towards ever more ambitious levels of creativity. As the old adage, music history folklore if you like, goes it was The Beatles Rubber Soul that finally did it for Brian. The retort to this foil would not only be The Beach Boys first masterpiece, but one of pop and rock music’s most enduring triumphs, Pet Sounds. No longer happy with the California high school, deuce coupe cruising, beach party spirit that had so far made the group world famous, cast even further adrift, introspective and all but retired from playing live with the his brothers and comrades, Brian was moving on from the fancy-free and footloose sound of the 45s that had always guaranteed a top ten place in the Billboard charts for something more…well, grown up. Voicing a growing anxiety – or the growing pains – of youth, Brian would compose the sound of young adulthood. As the world came to terms with the idea of the ‘teenager’, Brian began encompassing and articulating a new uneasy transition.
As much about the times as about the heartache and pains of being pure of heart, Pet Sounds marked a growing resentment towards the previous generation. At the beginning of a revolutionary change in attitudes, but a year before the ‘free love’ hippie idealism that brought in the psychedelic epoch, these former golden tanned beachcombers were breaking from their parent’s traditions and rules to set their own course: a life mapped out, from education to career and marriage. But at the very heart of all Brian’s work, even today, was a sense of innocence. An innocence lost as the lovesick but married Brian now in his mid twenties, was coming to terms with the anxieties of that adulthood, and his growing mental anguish. Undiagnosed for years, left at the mercy of countless well-wishers and confidence tricksters, quacks and pseudo-therapists, Brian’s meticulous obsessive production of Pet Sounds and its subsequent, but not satisfactorily finished until 40 years later, magnum opus SMiLE, tipped him over the edge.
Pet Sounds would also mark a shift in lyricism, with Brian collaborating with his friend the lyricist and copywriter Tony Asher. A task of reification, Asher would take the often abstract and difficult expressions that roamed around inside the troubled mind and put them into song. Not exactly the most unified of atmospheres, cousin Mike Love a constant daddy-o stuck-in-the-mud character, ready to pour a cold bucket of egotistic sick over anything that he felt would compromise or trouble the calm waters of The Beach Boys, so far, winning formula. To be fair, Love would be right to question this new shift towards melancholic, almost philosophical anguish. Asher at that time was but a burgeoning talent with little to back up his credibility as a top pop songwriter. Replacing previous writers and solid contributors with an unproven lyricist would however prove to be genius decision. But the success of the album was slow. Its renaissance and rebirth as one of the greatest albums of the twentieth century was down to the audiences overseas. The change in direction had unsettled the market, as America baulked at this sadder, more cerebral tone. Yet, the UK loved it, buying it in droves and sending it to the number 2 spot in the charts – compare that with its 106 placing in the Billboard. Pet Sounds could have been a disaster, but it was saved, becoming a cult, an iconic masterpiece. And though it would take a while to pick up the desirable sales, its legacy grew and grew years after its original release.
Arriving almost in tandem The Beatles Revolver was released just a couple of months later. Brian’s answer: SMiLE. If Pet Sounds had not only threatened but also sent Brian into a funk, then this grand American musical tour through the ages, from Plymouth Rock to the shores of the Spanish Peninsula, would all but consume and nearly destroy him. So ambitious was the vision that despite the near godlike genius of his assiduous sessions ensemble The Wrecking Crew, the social, political and historically woven rich tapestry lyrics of new songwriting partner Van Dyke Parks, and his own production prowess, the project stalled. Numerous mixes, snippets, vignettes and even completed songs made it onto various albums and compilations over the decades, including the enervated and rushed out – to appease and bring in some much needed revenue – Smiley Smile. It would take decades for SMiLE to be eventually completed, albeit (sadly and for obvious reasons) without his brothers Dennis and Carl’s near ethereal soulful compassionate voices, and missing any input from Mike Love – now more or less carving the Beach Boys brand up, sporting it like a trophy as he has carte blanche and ownership of the name when touring with his own cabaret version of the group’s back catalogue. Brian did however manage, after spending the longest amount of time and money in recording history on a single, to release the perfectly epic pop rhapsody ‘Good Vibrations’.
Recently documented, quite favorably and sympathetically, by the Love & Mercy movie, Brian’s wilderness years lasted throughout the 80s and into the 90s, before the most accomplished of L.A. bands and Beach Boy fans The Wondermints helped lure Brian back on the road, performing a Pet Sounds extravaganza in 2000. Just four years later the band would join Brian in the studio to finish that nigh mystical, greatest album there never was, SMiLE, before taking it out on the road. Following in 2011 the eventual hidden away, locked in some fabled vaults, SMiLE Sessions of original material was finally released to the public.
A near renaissance, a scarred and troubled but blooming Brian Wilson is back once again on the road. This time he celebrates the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, arriving in my new hometown of Glasgow on a nationwide tour. Billed as an ‘anniversary celebration’ – the final performance of the iconic album in its entirety – tonight’s performance is a generous one. Split into two performances of greatest hits and Pet Sounds, with an encore of good time classics, Brian was backed by members of the Wondermints and flanked by special guests, Al Jardine and honoree Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin: a set up that has been repeated on many occasions.
As a steady presence for the vulnerable Brian, Al was on hand to soften the odd tremors of quivered uncertainty. But who was on hand to back up Al? Well as it happens his son Matt Jardine, proving himself the most apt of Beach Boy scions, was there to to aid his old man and Brian with the most adroit and sweetest of falsetto voices. A counterpoint to the now – and for good reason – limited vocal range of Brian, Matt took on the high notes with aplomb and even performed lead on one of the evenings early highlights, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’. He would play the role of a younger Brian during the entirety of the Pet Sounds album suite, almost seamlessly, taking on each alternating verse. However, and it seems almost too disingenuous to point out, there were a few wobbles and miscues throughout that just couldn’t be patched-over. Yet we all willed Brian on, and when he took lead on the most diaphanous of love declarations, ‘God Only Knows’, the entire audience stood to their feet in adulated applause – the first of many rapturous ovations that night.
Directed and conducted by Paul ‘Von’ Mertens the entire ensemble began the evening with the heavenly choral warm-up ‘Our Prayer’; featured on 20/20 but originally the lead-in to the album version of SMiLE’s grand trans-American tour ‘Heroes And Villains’, which followed. We were then treated to a litany of favorites from the bobby sox high school daze back catalogue of hits, including a swinging, swayed medley of ‘California Girls’, ‘I Get Around’ and ‘Little Deuce Coupe’. Handing over the spotlight, Al performed centre stage with renditions of ‘Wake The World’, ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’ and ‘Cotton Fields’ – all songs plucked from the Brian breakdown period, when the rest of the Band were prompted to take over the creative reins. As lithe and energetic as ever, former Flame and Beach Boy band member (on tour and in the studio during the early 70s) Blondie Chaplin sprouted onto the stage to add some light-hearted theatrics and rock’n’roll vigor. The much-accomplished Durban guitar maestro, looking more and more like a cross between Jagger and Richards (all that time he spent touring with the Stones in the late 90s has worn off on him), launched into a strutting version of ‘Wild Honey’. Expanded from its soulful howled original setting, Chaplin went into bohemian guitar solo overdrive; showboating across the front of the stage and playing to the audience, who lapped it up. From The Beach Boys’ troubled but most brilliant 1973 album Holland, Chaplin picked up the ocean current waltz ‘Sail On Sailor’. The original vocalist on that recording, he returns to it with carefree élan, adding a wild guitar solo to the end, which sends Brian off into the wings in playful mock exasperation.
Back out for act two, the band minus Chaplin for now, begin the reverent Pet Sounds album. Largely enduring because it encapsulated a particular age and time in Brian’s genius, but mostly for capturing the love tribulations and torments of young adulthood in the most perfect pop songs, the album still chimes deeply with audiences fifty years later. Intricate and multi-layered but never ever laboured or strained – witness the Bond-esque Tropicana lounge instrumental suite title track -, each purposely-poised ballad, paean and tryst says all it needs to in less than two minutes. The rousing ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, shared vocally by the Jardines and Brian, opens proceedings of course, followed by a gentler, more serene ‘You Still Believe In Me’. Highlights from the album set included an Al led version of the sea shanty in the manner of a doo wop Ivy League bruiser, with a reference to a particular paranoia plunged bad acid trip thrown in, ‘Sloop John B’, and flipping over the B-side, a poignant and encouraged Brian led ‘Caroline, No’.
The encore promised a “fun, fun, fun” package of hits. But first the band introductions, each band member receiving a musical signature tune as they came back out onto the stage after the interval. It was then straight into a full cast version of ‘Good Vibrations’, including the gesticulating tambourine wielding Chaplin who turned his percussive role into an art form. Rewinding back through the songbook, we were treated to the sing-along classics ‘Help Me Rhonda’, ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Surfin USA’ and ‘Fun Fun Fun’. By now the audience were up and out of their seats, dancing where they could in the face of the po-faced security and attendants. From our balcony seats looking down on the main auditorium we witnessed hundreds swaying and weaving in almost perfect timing: the atmosphere couldn’t have been better. On a poignant, perhaps paused note Brian finished the evening with a version of the song that spawned the title of the recent movie, Love & Mercy. Written in more recent times, a reminder of the anxieties and anguish that once crippled Brian, the song’s central tenet is a perfect theme to finish on: a great sentiment for the audience to carry with them as they head home into the night. A joy to witness, the Pet Sounds legacy is in safe hands, especially here in Glasgow; a city twinned with Big Sur for one night only. Simply magical.