Another much delayed review – this time of the legendary Brian Wilson who was in town at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to perform The Beach Boys’ classic 1967 album Pet Sounds in full, to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.
This is an album that continues to be rated as amongst the finest long players ever released. I’ve always struggled with that rating a little as for quite some time I didn’t even consider it to be my favourite Beach Boys album, although now I’d probably place it marginally ahead of 1969’s 20/20 and the following year’s Sunflower.
However, I wouldn’t rate it anywhere near as highly as the critical consensus, though it is a truly lovely album. It might get into my Top 100 albums, but would not be anywhere near my Top 20.
I’d seen Brian twice before, at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2004 when he performed the lost classic Smile, and at the same venue in September 2007 for a more standard set.
He came on stage to a standing ovation, and was backed by a large band, some of whom will get a mention as I continue with this review.
There was a greatest hits style set before the interval, kicking off with the a capella Our Prayer first released on 20/20, but originally planned for Smile. This was followed by the glorious Heroes And Villains, another Smile track that also found a home elsewhere (1967’s Smiley Smile in this instance) and California Girls, from 1965’s ninth (!) album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!).
The set then moved into a series of surf classics, with the vocals being shared a bit around the band, as Wilson’s voice is not entirely what it once was. Long-time Beach Boy Al Jardine took the lead on Little Deuce Coupe, originally sung by the rather odious Mike Love on the original 1963 recording.
Al’s son Matt also took on many of the high vocals, with the band being led by sax player Paul Von Mertens. Other members included Darian Sanahaja and guitarist Nicky Wonder (the star man in the band in my eyes), both from the fabulous Wondermints
Girl Don’t Tell Me from 1965’s Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) was introduced by Brian as having been inspired by John Lennon, who he rather quaintly specified as being “of The Beatles”, in case we weren’t sure who he was referring to. It has been claimed that he had planned to send the song to the Fab Four, but he didn’t mention that.
After the lovely In My Room (originally from 1963’s Surfer Girl), introduced rather self-deprecatingly as a “pretty little ballad”, South African guitarist Blondie Chaplin came out on stage for the title track of that album, bringing the band up to twelve in total. As well as playing with The Rolling Stones for a decade, he featured on two Beach Boys albums, Carl & The Passions “So Tough” and Holland, in the early 1970’s. However, his rock shapes and effervescence was rather at odds with the rest of the band.
In amongst the Beach Boys classics, there came a very odd moment when Paul Von Mertens sang Monster Mash, a 1962 novelty hit for by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, not the last time the set was interrupted by something that didn’t really fit in.
Having already mentioned The Beatles, Brian dedicated Marcella (from Carl & The Passions “So Tough”) to The Rolling Stones. After the chorus (only) of Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s Proud Mary , we had a whole lot more of Blondie Chaplin, with the first set ending with Holland, with Brian walking off the stage as the song came to a close.
I did my usual when at the Phil for a gig during the interval, heading for a pint at the Philharmonic pub. When I returned to the venue, there was some easy listening Beach Boys covers playing, by The Hollyridge Strings.
It was then time for Pet Sounds, an album that only reached #10 in the US charts, but climbed as high as #2 in the UK. It opens with the first single to be released, the wonderfully naïve Wouldn’t It Be Nice (sample lyric: “Happy times together we’ve been spending, I wish that every kiss was never-ending”), sung tonight by Matt Jardine.
After You Still Believe In Me, drummer Mike D’Amico and Bob Lizik on bass were both very well highlighted on That’s Not Me, with the latter looking like a bit like a cross between Elvis Costello and Albert Steptoe.
Track four on the album was the first I ever remember hearing, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder). I still distinctly recall it coming on the radio (quite possibly on the Janice Long show on Radio 1) in the late 1980’s, and recording it onto one of many tapes I made of songs from the radio – no doubt because it was introduced as being from this mythical, legendary album.
I recall being rather underwhelmed with the song on first listen, but I have grown to love it, and it’s now possibly my favourite track on the record. It’s one of three on the album to feature Brian as the only Beach Boy on it.
I’m Waiting For The Day is followed by Let’s Go Away For Awhile, apparently Brian’s favourite of the instrumentals he has written. The two wordless songs on the album fit in fine, but certainly take a little something away from its overall quality for me, so meaning it doesn’t quite rank as high up in the classic album stakes for me as with many critics.
Al Jardine sang Sloop John B, the lead single off the album that went Top 3 in both the UK and US, and has been taken up on football terraces around the world (“In Istanbul, we won it five times”, for example).
Brian introduced God Only Knows¸the opening cut on side two, with the well-known fact that “Paul McCartney likes this”. He in fact once called it his favourite song of all time, and has also called it “one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it”.
Macca knows a great song when he hears it, opening with the simply gorgeous “I may not always love you, but long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it”.
I Know There’s An Answer dialled up the calypso touches a bit too much for my liking, and then was followed rather bizarrely by Brian leading the crowd in a ‘round’ chorus of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Very random.
Following Here Today was the rather sad I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, with Brian saying that it wasn’t his favourite song but he likes the lyrics (“Where can I turn when my fair weather friends cop out”).
The title track, another instrumental, featured great guitar from Nicky Wonder, before the album and set closed with the lovely Caroline, No, with Brian wandering off stage before the track came to a close.
Al Jardine introduced the band once they were all inevitably brought back on for an encore, with the sublime Good Vibrations kicking off a feel-good greatest hits set. The highlight was probably the mass singalong that was Help Me, Rhonda, originally from 1965’s Today! album.
After a series of surfing hits, the mood changed for the very final number, as Brian played piano and sang Love And Mercy, backed only by other voices. This was first featured on his 1988 debut solo album, and is now also the title of the biopic released in 2014 that going to this gig has just inspired me to watch for the first time. Great film by the way.
Brian is perhaps a touch frailer than I remember him from seeing him previously (now aged 74), and I don’t expect him to be returning to Liverpool any time soon, so it was great to get to see him again.
I went for my one and only surf-themed t-shirt, Welsh instrumental combo Y Niwl. There were several Brian Wilson tees in the crowd (while I decided not to partake myself at the merch stall, despite a very nice green one commemorating this tour), and I also spotted an Arctic Monkeys one.
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Here is most of the music from the evening on Spotify: