Yet another trip out for myself, Lady Barton St Mary and her brother Drew, this time a return to The Birmingham Symphony Hall to see another ‘legend’ in the world of popular music, Brian Wilson.
For those of you uninitiated in the history of popular music, Brian Wilson was the leader of iconic 1960s surfer band The Beach Boys. His personal history could take up an entire blog of 20 000 words, but fret not, Wordpretzels, I not subjecting you to that. Just take it from me that Brian is one of the most innovative, inventive and creative living musicians. How he’s still living, having reached the age of 73, with his history of chemical abuse and possibly connected mental health issues, is quite amazing.
Anyway, there we were, back in the circle of the symphony hall, awaiting Brian and his band. Our previous trip had been to see Burt Bacharach (88), so Brian was a mere stripling. The audience were very similar, giving all three of us some succour to know we would be at the younger end of the audience age bracket. However, it didn’t take long to figure out that, in fact, there were more than a few members of the crowd who brought down the average age more considerably than we did. People in their 20s, wearing Beatles/Byrds/Beach Boys/Doors t-shirts, clutching their ‘Pet Sounds’ programmes, looking genuinely excited at what they were about to witness. It was rather comforting to see these generationally newer music aficionados eschew a lot of the current blandness trafficked by the commercial radio stations; the sort of Cowellesque pap that makes Eurovision songs sound like everyday acceptable listening fodder. More power to these kids.
However, perhaps rather hypocritically, I admit that I don’t listen to a lot of Beach Boys’ stuff and absolutely no Brian Wilson solo projects, so I was intrigued to see how the evening went. The first half would be a smorgasbord of tunes, starting at 8.30 with an intermission at 9.15. I don’t know if all gigs are structured this way; perhaps it’s because I’ve mostly seen acts over the age of 60 for the past 5 years. Let’s just say that The Proclaimers and The Wombats managed to do the whole set in one go.
The second half was devoted to the iconic album Pet Sounds, a record celebrating its 50th anniversary, hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as a great and considered one of the first pop albums that needed to be ‘listened’ to rather than just dance about to, and containing what was regarded by Paul McCartney as his favourite pop song, ‘God Only Knows’. This part of the show would start at 9.30, completing at 10.30pm, allowing Brian to be back at the Hotel Du Vin, tucked up in bed with a cocoa, by 11.
Bang on time, with his band safely ensconced on stage and singing the opening bars of ‘Our Prayer’, Brian appeared, seated at the grand piano. He was joined by another original Beach Boy, Al Jardine, with Al’s son Matt on vocals. In fact, Matt sang all the high register harmonies so characteristic of the Beach Boys. He was also called upon to sing the higher parts that Brian couldn’t reach, like a younger family member finishing grandad’s sentences.
It didn’t take long before the smile appeared on my face as they belted out hit after hit: ‘Heroes and Villains’, ‘California Girls’, ‘Dance Dance Dance’, ‘I Get Around’, ‘Little Honda’… one after the other. We jigged about in our seats, even the youngsters, who, influenced by the majority of the older participants, stayed seated out of courtesy for others and by the fact that it’s a bit tiring standing up these days.
It was all going swimmingly. Then Blondie Chaplin appeared. Who? I hear you ask. Precisely. Apparently, Blondie was a member of The Beach Boys. He also toured with the Rolling Stones, although this has seemed to have transmogrified into ‘being a former member of The Rolling Stones’. It reminded me of old school friends, who ‘had trials with West Ham United’, in the days when you just had to pitch up at the trial to have a go.
Blondie, to his credit, appears to use the same moisturiser as Keith Richards (Blue Circle cement) and has a head of curiously and luxuriously dark, short dreadlocks. He cavorted about the stage like an excited toddler, striking exaggerated guitar poses much like the ones I did as a teenager in my bedroom with a tennis racket, as the rest of Brian’s band played on, smiling benignly. Blondie was definitely there to show how fantastic he was. By the end of the first half, he’d more than persuaded himself that he was. By the time he’d finished, still buzzing around, Brian serenely observing his antics, like a discerning grandad who may tell him to sit down any minute soon. Drew, an accomplished musician himself, described Blondie as a character straight out of Withnail and I, due to Blondie’s raffish woollen scarf knotted around his neck.
The second half, back to Brian and the whole of Pet Sounds, from ‘Wouldn’t it be Nice’ through to ‘Caroline, No’.
Now, just to let you know. Brian’s vocals aren’t what they used to be, so when it came to ‘God Only Knows’, I expected a virtuoso performance from Matt Jardine, but no. Brian went for it. Let’s just say that this version sounded like a cross between Randy Newman and Rolf from The Muppets. I had a brief twinge of disappointment, until I reminded myself that this was Brian Wilson. Brian bloody Wilson. He wrote this song, so, if he wanted to sing it, he would. He was playing the Burt Bacharach card.
So, ‘Caroline, No’ ended and we gave tumultuous applause. But that wasn’t the end. He’d played ‘Pet Sounds’ in its entirety, but was back for more.
‘Good Vibrations’ got a lot of the crowd on their feet, dancing and clapping, jumping up and down. Like an avalanche of feel good tunes, they thundered through ‘All Summer Long’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘Fun Fun Fun’ – by this time, the younger members of the audience in their retro band t-shirts were learning how to jive, whilst the common or garden, first time around Brian Wilson fan was wishing they’d paced themselves, physically wilting with the effort.
Brian finished with ‘Love and Mercy’ before saying his final farewell; like his previous stage exits, this was a fascinating sight. Brian, having forewarned the crowd that he would be departing stage right on completing a song, would suddenly spring from a seated position and propel himself across the stage, forearms at right angles to his body, wrists limp, legs slightly ahead of his torso, like a stampeding Tyrannosaurus Rex, roadies either side of him waiting to pounce as if he were a spinning plate.The whole process was an obvious effort, which appeared to be more daunting than playing a two and a half hour set. Afterwards, I mentioned this to Drew, theorising that maybe many years of substance abuse leads to this particular form of perambulation, which I call ‘The Ozzy Osbourne’.
“Maybe,” mused Drew, “but he’s allowed to walk like that. He’s Brian Wilson.”
As we ambled out of the symphony hall, across the bridge spanning the canal, I turned to Lady BSM and Drew.
“That was brilliant,” I said. They concurred.
I thought about the acts we’d seen in the past 3 years. Burt, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Paul McCartney…
“Next time, shall we see somebody who released their first album after 1970?”
They both considered for a moment, exchanging a look.
“Nah,” they both said, in unison.