Brian Wilson wasn’t made for these times, but The Beach Boys were

The Beach Boys 50 World Tour review
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, 31 August 2012

They may look old, but these pensioners can still perfect a five-part harmony. (Image: http://www.thebeachboys.com)

When I grow up to be a man, one thing is for certain; I will still be able to harmonise.

That was the pleasantly surprising take-home message from The Beach Boy’s 50th reunion concert at Rod Laver Arena last night; it was inspirational to see the likes of Mike Love (71), Bruce Johnston (70), Al Jardine (69), and David Marks (64) still able to hold a tune. Brian Wilson (70) was there too, but I’ll get to him later.

Not only could The Beach Boys – with the help of a team of instrumentalists-backup singers – hold a tune, but they delivered their songs with the same vibrancy evident in their 1960’s recordings. If you weren’t looking at their wrinkly faces, you wouldn’t have suspected that these rockers were yesterday’s news.

The key indicator of their age was their lack of stage presence. After the “OMG! That’s Brian Wilson!” novelty wore off, it was hard to get excited by the visual spectacle of the band members alone. Much like one high-school rock band I was once part of, the five living members rarely moved around the stage. Only towards the end of the night – when I imagine their stagnancy was beginning to give them cramps – did the band mates loosen up and embrace the space made available to them.

The upside of this was that The Beach Boys were preserving their energy in order to pump out as many songs as possible. Their three-hour set (broken up with a 15-minute intermission) included an unprecedented 53 songs. That’s right; fifty three. For those of you who aren’t mathematicians, that’s the equivalent of about five studio albums. Dayum!

The band refrained from performing my personal favourite – an obscure 1967 hit called “Wild Honey” – but they nevertheless did their best to appease as much of the crowd as possible. Instead of waiting for the audience to applaud each of their three-minute ditties, the band proactively transitioned from one tune to another, medley-style.  Such a technique guaranteed that the audience received good value for money. It also meant that my mate – who arrived one hour late and subsequently missed the first 18 songs – still heard 35, enough to justify the $100 price tag.

I’d hate to keep reflecting on the age of the band members, but it was hard to ignore this fact during songs like “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man”, “Be True To Your School” and “California Girls”. When the band was in their twenties, I presume songs about young girls were acceptable. When you’re seventy years old, however, lyrics such as “will I look for the same things in a woman that I dig in a girl?/fourteen/fifteen” are a tad creepy.

“I’m on a horse”

Mind you, my friend and I were probably the only people in the venue to have found this particularly off-putting. After all, we were possibly the youngest fans in a room filled with sixty-year olds. During the intermission, one lady asked us whether we had arrived at the wrong venue. The well-behaved older demographic ensured the show remained civil at all times – there was no crowd-surfing or stage invaders – and were a stark contrast to the Eminem crowd I witnessed ten months earlier.

The downside of the evening was that the legendary Wilson couldn’t quite keep up with the pace. At times, the group’s chief songwriter looked like part of the furniture, hidden away behind a cumbersome grand piano. Even from the cheap seats you could tell Wilson wasn’t very healthy; the occasional appearance of him on the big screen, yawning or wiping his nose with his hands, didn’t help.

Wilson reminded me of a stereotypical old Chinese grandfather, whose wisdom exceeds his fragile appearance. You couldn’t have had a Beach Boys reunion without Wilson, but his contributions to the musical conversation were often weak and overshadowed.

Thankfully, there were a few exceptions to this trend. While Wilson looked disinterested throughout much of the concert, he shone when it was necessary. His solo during “Good Vibrations” brought back the Wilson of old, while his rendition of “Heroes and Villains” sounded almost identical to the original recording.

Wilson’s highlight – and perhaps the show’s most memorable moment – was during “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, from Pet Sounds. There was more than a touch of sincerity to Wilson’s lament, in which he repeatedly bemoaned “sometimes I feel very sad”. (See below for his 2002 rendition)

Given the length of their set list, there was unsurprisingly a multitude of highlights. Jardine’s “Help Me, Rhonda” rendition got the whole crowd dancing, as did “Surfin’ USA”, “I Get Around”, and the ever-enjoyable “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. Meanwhile, “Forever” and “God Only Knows”, sung over the loud-speaker by the now-deceased Wilson brothers, were hauntingly stunning. Finally, the “Fun, Fun, Fun” encore was a fitting way to end the show; singing along to the song’s falsetto bridge with a few thousand others is a memory that will remain with me for some time.

Having released 30 studio albums, 82 singles, and been honoured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s safe to say The Beach Boys have left an indelible mark on music history. That they have come together for a 50th reunion tour and album, however, is arguably their greatest achievement. It’s one thing to be good in your prime; it’s another to still have that talent and spark decades late.

The Beach Boys 50 world tour continues next week at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre and Perth’s Burswood Dome.

Click here for a 21-year old’s reflections on an ancient band.

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Brian Wilson (circa 2002) – I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times

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