WEST CHESTER, Pa. — And on the 46th anniversary of the release of “Pet Sounds,” the Beach Boys played QVC.
The reunited Beach Boys, that is, who are in the early stages of a 50th-anniversary reunion tour. They came to the sprawling 84-acre West Chester campus of the home shopping channel to hawk “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” their new album due to be released June 5.
This version of the aging, archetypal California harmony-singing, 1960s surf-rock group includes three original members — songwriting giant Brian Wilson, 69; vocalist Mike Love, 71, his cousin; and guitarist Al Jardine, 69, his high school classmate. All were on board in Hawthorne, Calif., when the group’s first single, “Surfin,’” was released in October 1961.
When they recorded it, the group — which then included Wilson’s brothers Dennis, who died in 1983, and Carl, who died in 1998 — was known as the Pendletones, a play on the brand of wool shirts. (“They itched,” Jardine remembered backstage at QVC.) But when they opened up a box of 45s, they saw that an ambitious promotions man had changed their name to the Beach Boys.
Last week at QVC, Wilson, Love and Jardine performed an hour-long set before 130 employees and guests while host Carolyn Gracie (who was not taken up on her hint that the band play “Pet Sounds’” “Caroline, No” in her honor) pushed “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” bundled with a 10-song best-of CD for the low, low price of $19.98.
At QVC, the three originals were joined by two tried-and-true cohorts. Singer Bruce Johnston, 69, first played in the band in 1965, replacing Glen Campbell, who had taken the place of Brian Wilson when he withdrew from touring to concentrate on creating the yearning, beautifully arranged masterwork that is “Pet Sounds.” And guitarist David Marks, 63, grew up across the street from the Wilsons in Hawthorne and was already in the band as a 13-year-old when they signed with Capitol Records on July 16, 1962.
Love and Johnston have toured together as the Beach Boys regularly. But not since 1996 have they played with Wilson, the troubled pianist, bass player and singer whose name has the word “genius” attached to it more frequently than any other in pop music. Wilson, who sat at a keyboard to the left of the stage at QVC and came alive to sing a sumptuous version of “God Only Knows,” has seen his own career revive in recent years with the aid of a loving backup band who worship at the godhead of sophisticated orchestral pop; many of its members are in the superb 10-piece ensemble on this tour.
For the reunion tour to happen, multiple hatchets had to be buried. The band had started out making carefree, quintessentially optimistic American music (“Catch a Wave,” “Little Deuce Coupe” “Fun, Fun, Fun”) and then turned dark and inward-looking as Brian experimented in the mid-’60s with the psychedelic sounds in his head, first on “Pet Sounds,” released in May 1966, and then on its unreleased follow-up, “Smile,” which Brian then called a “teenage symphony to God.”
The band was mired in many lawsuits, with the Love and Wilson camps divided over ownership of the songs as well as the use of the band’s name.
Despite that, Jardine says, he was always confident the group would get back together. “Last year I started trumpeting, playing my Gabriel horn,” he says. “Because the fans really wanted it. They were really hurting. My partners didn’t like me talking about it. Mike and Brian had to make peace with one another. All of us had to give something back.”
At QVC, the group played big hits (“Surfin’ Safari,” “California Girls”), with the thinning voices of the originals augmented, and sometimes overwhelmed, by their skilled backup harmonizers. On tour, the group has been playing 40-song sets that dig deep into its catalog, from obscurities like “All This Is That,” a song about transcendental meditation, to “Add Some Music to Your Day,” which the group sings a cappella while gathered around Wilson’s piano “like we did when we started out,” says Jardine.
“It’s mostly for the fans,” Jardine says. “I mean, there’s a lot of money involved, don’t get me wrong. Everybody’s making oodles of money. But the fans got left way behind. Nobody wants to see the guys doing their own careers when we could be together. We literally had to make it happen. It was very delicate negotiations to get it done, and we did it. I’m proud of us.”
On stage at QVC’s studio theater, where employees of the cable channel swayed and clapped along on cue, Wilson seems largely in his own world, except when blurting out answers like “It was a creative explosion!” when prompted by Gracie to talk about his early ‘60s songwriting achievements.
As the show goes on, the rest of the Beach Boys praise Wilson and make small talk as the host calls out sales figures. Meanwhile, the band plays the brilliantly constructed pop songs that Wilson wrote, though he appears largely uninvolved while fingering his keyboard parts.
“We’re like first-chair musicians in a symphony, because we’re not so shabby ourselves,” says Johnston, the only actual surfer in the core band. “But without him, what would we be?” Wilson has a way of “making difficult harmonies and chord progressions sound very seamless. It’s Brian’s way of voicing things, where we sing in the arrangements. You can’t copy the Beach Boys.”
The new single has passages of that old magic, along with awkward stretches that land with a thud. Johnston says that the album, produced by Joe Thomas, pieces together Wilson’s melodies with Love’s lyrics. “Brian had a lot of good fragments lying around. It was like putting a puzzle back together.”
Jardine calls the album “a nice little piece of work. … It’s got that ‘Pet Sounds’ vibe to it. There are a couple of happy tunes in there. But it’s pretty moody. Brian is a melancholy soul. He just hears things we don’t hear. It really just pours out of his soul.”
Back in the ‘60s, Jardine, who calls himself “the square of the group,” says that “LSD really expanded Brian’s music awareness. That’s a very quick ride, but the price you pay for it is very high. It wasn’t all fun and games. It changed Brian’s life forever.”
But Jardine says that music remains his old schoolmate’s lifeblood. “When he sits down at the keys, then he’s connected. Because he lives through music, and through the keyboard. It’s like his central nervous system. I don’t feel anything near that when I play the guitar.”
As the show winds down, Gracie says 8,500 CDs have been ordered (later, the tally will top 19,000 — impressive, but no match for the record 43,000 that Barry Manilow moved in an hour), and asks each band member to send a message to his fans. Johnston wishes everyone good health, “so you can come see the Beach Boys.” Love cutely adds, “And wouldn’t it be nice if you do?”
It’s Wilson’s turn, and he goes slightly off-topic. “I hope you like ‘Good Vibrations,’ because it’s our masterpiece,” he proclaims. True enough, but it’s not on the set list.
“We’ll do that one next time,” Love says, as the band starts “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” instead. The lovingly harmonized lyrics of impossible longing speak to Beach Boys fans who’ve hoped for this reunion for years: “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true.”
On this night at QVC, it has. And when it’s over, four Beach Boys accept handshakes and congratulations on stage, while Brian Wilson is quickly escorted out of view.