There’s a certain car crash factor that draws people to Brian Wilson. The man that created a musical legacy with ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘God Only Knows’ has also been a mentally ill recluse and drug casualty. When the damaged genius returned to live public life in the 80s, the ‘Brian’s back’ campaign heralded hope in a revival of his obvious talents. Instead, the reward was sappy Americana and a distinct feeling that something had been forever lost.
Tonight, at the premiere of Wilson’s new work ‘That Lucky Old Sun (a Narrative)’, there was fresh hope. Lately the signs have been good. In recent years, performances of Pet Sounds, and the successful reconstruction of the long-lost Smile tapes, have both captured something of the good old Brian.
Performed in the second half of the show, TLOS marks Wilson’s first serious effort since 1973’s Holland album to write a concept piece. Based on Frankie Laine’s much covered 1947 hit of the same name, Wilson unfortunately located this ‘concept’ in 1950s Californ-i-a, underlined by heavy handed projections of surfers, happy hobos and nostalgic black and white photos of the Wilson brothers. The music overall was a schmaltzy and unmemorable pastiche of previously successful Wilson formulas. Take the Wrecking Crew’s percussive rhythms and some Beach Boys chromatic close harmony, add some boogie-woogie piano thumping, a smattering of flute and strings, and you’ve got it. Cars, girls and surfing seem like sad themes for him to be dwelling on in his 6th decade.
The first half was a different story, consisting almost entirely of 60s Beach Boys gems. ‘Girl don’t tell me’, ‘Dance Dance Dance’ and ‘Catch a Wave’ shook out the first night nerves, at first hindered by a sound system set to ‘cavernous’. With a frankly beautiful version of Spector’s ‘Then I kissed her’, the band relaxed and things started to gel. There was a stirring ‘In my room’ – with seven wonderful voices behind it – ‘She knows me too well’ and ‘Please let me wonder’. All great tunes that rarely get a live outing. They even threw in an oddity from 1967 album Wild Honey: ‘I’d love just once to see you’ (in the nude). The highlight was an admirably restrained ‘God only knows’, with that perfect coda that you never want to end. Spine-tingling stuff.
With TLOS out of the way, Wilson and band returned for a long encore of Beach Boys dross. The 50-something crowd seemed to like it, and tried to remember how to do the twist through ‘I get around’, ‘Help me Rhonda’, ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Surfing USA’ and ‘Fun fun fun’ – sandwiched between Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’ and the Beatles’ 40 year old ‘She’s leaving home’.
There were empty seats tonight. The car crash factor has evaporated. Brian isn’t just back – he’s here to stay. But on tonight’s evidence it would be better if Brian went.
Brian Wilson, Royal Festival Hall, London 10 September 2007
Original published music criticism by skinnywhiteboy/ warofnature