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The Beach Boys review, Royal Albert Hall: timeless songs triumph – even without the presence of Brian Wilson

James Hall
Mike Love of The Beach Boys at Royal Albert Hall - Justin Ng/Retna/Avalon.red

The video montage that opened this concert by The Beach Boys at London’s Royal Albert Hall tilted firmly towards one man’s version of events: Mike Love’s. Love, you see, is the group’s co-founder and the man with the legal right to use The Beach Boys’ name. After years of disputes, his iteration of the band is one of two in existence. 

So the archive footage encompassed Love’s seeming obsession with The Beach Boys being more popular than The Beatles, as well as The Beach Boys’ 1988 comeback with the Love-penned movie theme Kokomo. And while the montage featured the band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the late Eighties, it – unsurprisingly – failed to show Love’s rival-bashing acceptance speech, widely seen as among the most graceless in music industry history. Love’s cousin Brian Wilson, the musical genius with whom Love hasn’t toured for seven years, got a look in. But you could hardly call it equal billing. This was clearly the Mike Love Show.

Consequently, this gig could have been viewed in two ways: as a lopsided take on The Beach Boys narrative, or as a celebration of one of America’s greatest bands by a reasonably close approximation of its original form. The latter view won the day.

Love and early member Bruce Johnston, both now in their 70s, were backed by a 13-piece band who replicated those famous Beach Boys harmonies faultlessly. The band played an astonishing 48 songs over almost three hours. And with Love and Johnston in the sunset of their careers, you got the impression that – along with the other heritage groups touring this summer, such as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and The Who – there may be precious few chances to see them again. This view was given weight by the sad news earlier this month that Brian Wilson’s own touring version of the band had cancelled a tour due to Wilson’s on-going mental health issues (he has vowed to return). The show felt pertinent.

Playing in front of five uplit palm trees, the band opened with Do It Again and gave us a run of hits including Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA. Love deployed both registers of his voice – a high upper register for lead vocals and the famous bass ‘baw-baw-baw’ for the harmonies – with dexterity. Sonically, we were transported back to the group’s Sixties heyday, when their songs about surfing, cars and girls dominated charts and hearts across the world. Visually, though, it was more like a knees-up in a retirement home.

Love and keyboardist Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys Credit: Justin Ng/Retna/Avalon.red

The long evening had peaks and troughs. You Still Believe In Me from 1966’s Pet Sounds was swooningly brilliant, as was an a capella cover of The Four Freshmen’s Their Hearts Were Full of Spring (which brought to mind the rustic folk of Fleet Foxes). Meanwhile a song called Pisces Brothers, which was Love’s tribute to George Harrison, who he got to know during his time in India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967, was touching.

Less memorable was a curious bossa nova cover of George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun. 

The one problem was that the concert was too long. They could have lopped off 18 songs, ditched the interval and played 30 all-out bangers instead (that’s still five more songs than The Eagles currently play live, and 10 more than The Rolling Stones). 

During Barbara Ann, Love and Johnston – with a combined age of 154 – did a little surf dance in unison at the front of the stage. Luckily they survived for Good Vibrations, still one of the greatest songs of all time. And they ended with a raucous cover of punk band The Ramones’ Rockaway Beach. It may not have been The Beach Boys line-up that we’d all like to see. But with timeless songs like these, it was more than enough.

Until June 25. The Beach Boys also play the Cornbury Festival on July 7. Tickets: thebeachboys.com