When listening to The Beach Boys, it’s hard to imagine that a group responsible for so much joyfully uplifting music would be something completely different internally. Behind the curtain, the group’s off-stage history is complicated (to put it mildly), filled with discord, lawsuits, and many lineup changes through the years. The “endless harmony” depicted on stage and in public by everyone’s favorite group of California surfers – most of whom didn’t surf – wasn’t exactly endless. And yet the harmonies, oh man, those harmonies, were instantly memorable.
Above all, despite this inner strife, the Beach Boys were professionals when it came to live performances. So much so that manager James William Guercio eventually put Chicago (who he also managed) on the road with The Beach Boys in the mid-’70s in the hopes that the gigs would give Chicago, whose live performances had gotten a bit stagnant, a good motivational kick in the ass. The move was a smart one on Guercio’s part – the 1975 tour featured guest appearances from Chicago members during the Beach Boys set (and vice versa) and a closing “Beachago” set each night that featured the combined groups performing a half-dozen hits from both group’s catalogs. Not surprisingly, the tour was one of the top grossing rock music tours for the time, playing to 700,000 people with a gross of 7.5 million. Regarding Chicago, it’s safe to say that the tour was exactly the wake-up call that Guercio was hoping for. Meanwhile, although the tour was another successful outing for The Beach Boys, it was a whole different story in the studio, where the group struggled throughout the ’70s to capture recording magic without much success.
Catching up with The Beach Boys later during their 1979 performance at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY, the most celebrated lineup of the band, featuring Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Dennis Wilson (augmented by Brian’s replacement Bruce Johnston and additional players), is back on stage together. Touring in support of L.A. (Light Album), the tour would mark the final time that the original five would tour together. The group had moved the needle slightly with “Good Timin’,” the first single from L.A. that would become the first Beach Boys single to reach the Top 40 in nearly three years. Although the track is not included here in this recording, we do get to hear Brian Wilson’s adaptation of “Shortenin’ Bread” from the album, a track that originates as a Negro spiritual. Mike Love’s introduction of the track to the crowd is curiously executed, although not necessarily surprising – Love invites the crowd to sing along with the band – before adding, “I know everybody probably won’t.” Way to encourage audience participation there, Mr. Love. (We’ve got a standard greeting for Mike Love here at Popdose, one that I’m sure someone will share in the comments.)
Growing up, I was shocked to see the contrast between the live performance of the clean cut close shaven ’60s version of The Beach Boys and the rockier/more ragged live performance of the late ’70s/early ’80s version of the group, via live concert footage included in the documentary The Beach Boys: An American Band. The group’s 1980 performance at Knebworth, featured heavily in the documentary, was released on DVD a few years back. The performance is notable for being the official “last performance” of the original five and present an exhibit of the group’s live performance that is more than slightly unflattering, which might be one reason it sat in the vaults prior to being released by Eagle Vision. (Not to mention, the gig conditions were pretty crummy, with the group performing during a torrential downpour for most of the set.)
Captured nearly a year prior to that Knebworth gig, the Nassau show finds a much different version of The Beach Boys, in relatively good spirits before the jet lag and road weariness really took their toll. While their performance is by no means perfect, it really gave me a better picture of The Beach Boys as a performing unit during that era. Co-founder Brian Wilson contributes only a couple of lead vocals, including a pretty solid version of “Sloop John B” near the top of the setlist. Wilson had been playing sporadically with the group in recent years, but the 1979 tour found him back in the full-time touring lineup of the band for the first time.
Unsurprisingly, the hits are the best moments of this set, with the newer tracks getting lukewarm response from the crowd. Love nabs another “great moments in crowd interaction” award with his dedication of “Roller Skating Child” from The Beach Boys Love You to “roller disco and all that good stuff,” a choice moment that causes what sounds like a near-revolt by the crowd in attendance. Was it the usage of the evil d-word, or merely the crowd’s united display of venomous hatred for Love himself? The moment is a humorous listen, and amidst the many great musical performances, it’s good clean fun, listening to Love struggle to interact with the Nassau crowd.
The late great Carl Wilson, always one of my favorite parts of The Beach Boys, truly had the voice of an angel, a voice that is on fine display throughout the Nassau performance, particularly on “God Only Knows.” Wilson was taken from us way too soon, and it’s nice to have recordings like these to remind music fans both new and old, just how talented he was. It’s worth noting that the Wolfgang’s Vault recording of the Nassau show is only a portion of the setlist from the night. You can check out an additional 30 minutes from the next night at the Civic Center in Springfield, MA that adds another half hour of material from the tour, including plenty of favorites (“Heroes and Villains,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Help Me Rhonda,” etc.) and also “Angel Come Home,” another track from the L.A. album, featuring troubled drummer Dennis Wilson on vocals. Together, these two shows are an intriguing look into The Beach Boys at the close of the ’70s.