By Tim Footman
When Brian Wilson first played Pet Sounds live in London over 10 years ago, there came a particularly heartfelt roar of approval when he deviated from the script; at side two, track two, where casual fans might expect to hear ‘I Know There’s An Answer’, he sang the original lyrics, ‘Hang On To Your Ego’. It was a (very) belated retort to his cousin and on/off bandmate, Mike Love, who had vetoed the original words because of their perceived drug references; his response to the Smile album was even more dismissive and it only saw an official release in 2011, 44 years after the sessions were abandoned. In Love’s eyes, The Beach Boys were about cars and girls and surfing and the bottom line, giving the fans the radio-friendly stuff they wanted and not these weird time signatures and French horns with which Wilson wanted to adulterate the formula. And who’s to say Love wasn’t right? His own composition, the inane travelogue ‘Kokomo’ (1988) is still one of the band’s biggest hits, aided by its association with an especially egregious Tom Cruise flick.
For decades, this tension has influenced how people see The Beach Boys: Brian the tortured genius, drugged and bloated and vulnerable, caring only for his music and frequently losing touch even with that; Mike the cynical businessman, his extra-curricular enthusiasms including transcendental meditation, the Republican Party and Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (the ones with the stickers). The sunny optimism of the band’s early work became tainted with drugs, madness, hatred and litigation, a soap opera that made the likes of Oasis or The Libertines look well adjusted. So the news late last year that Wilson, Love and three other surviving Beach Boys were marking the band’s 50th anniversary with a world tour was startling to say the least.
That said, the received wisdom that The Beach Boys was basically Lennon and McCartney and George Martin and Burt Bacharach in one podgy body, plus a bunch of interchangeable Pete Bests, is a little unfair. The survivors all fulfil their allotted roles well enough: Love is an amiable MC, joshing with the audience and getting in plenty of cheesy, Vegas-style pointing, much of it at himself; little Al Jardine is in strong voice, taking the lead for a couple of doo-wop numbers and a rousing ‘Cotton Fields’; and David Marks, whose serious involvement with the band ended as far back as 1963, before his 16th birthday, twists some tasty, twangy solos from his red Fender Mustang, including the haunting ‘Pet Sounds’ instrumental, the theme to a David Lynch movie that never was.
And for the first half at least, Brian is little more than a totemic presence. As Bruce Johnston begins a rather lovely version of ‘Disney Girls’ (from 1971’s Surf’s Up), most of the other singers leave the stage. Only Wilson remains, sitting silently and staring into nowhere, probably wondering whether 1971 ever really happened. He always comes in on cue when required, even if his voice is pretty ragged, but he’s utterly detached from the blokey banter in which the others indulge. During the interval, a roadie places lit joss sticks around his piano, as if to create a protective zone for him. At the end he’s handed a bass, his original instrument, and led to the centre of the stage, facing front so we can bawl along to a couple more surf-and-cars oldies. He pulls nervously at his baggy, crumpled trousers, looks miserable, lost, even scared.
But let’s be honest, it’s his fear and fragility that ultimately makes The Beach Boys worthwhile. Brian isn’t just in the tradition of the psychically damaged rock genius, of Syd Barrett and Peter Green and Roky Erickson. He’s also the prototype indie kid, the gentle, sensitive boy in touch with his feminine side, the one the girls just want to be friends with, lighting a torch for Morrissey and Cobain and Jarvis Cocker to carry forward. Without him, the other Beach Boys would be playing supper clubs, or more likely would have given up and gone into real estate. Provided you own more books than golf clubs, Brian Wilson wrote your record collection, your life.
And yet, ultimately, the golfers, the real estate guys, still run the show. They don’t play ‘Hang On To Your Ego’ or even ‘I Know There’s An Answer’. But they do encore with ‘Kokomo’.