The Beach Boys embarked on a 50th-anniversary reunion tour this year, kicking off the media blitz with a Grammy performance featuring everybody from Maroon 5 to Foster the People. As one of the pioneering rock bands of their era, the Beach Boys made a return to the spotlight that was met with a warm welcome.
Few bands of their pop-culture caliber and value are still kicking. In 2012, the Boys and the Rolling Stones are basically the only ones left, and — knock on wood — the Stones are said to be looking into their own forthcoming golden-anniversary tour.
This Boys tour is also the first one with all surviving members of the band present and accounted for since the early '80s. The band's resident genius Brian Wilson is now back in the fold, as is longtime guitarist Al Jardine. After a U.S. leg, the band will be playing Europe and Japan, and Jardine sounds extremely excited about hitting the road again with these boys of summer.
"We seem to be getting along really well," he says from one of two tour buses that are ferrying the influential pop group around the United States. "Brian is thriving, and Mike [Love] is a great front man, as always."
Wilson has his own bus, and the rest of the old-guard Boys share another. The band has also been doing loads of press for their record company, which is trying to sell as many copies as possible of their recently released new album, That's Why God Made the Radio. That means tons of appearances, from the Grammy telecast to a recent QVC concert.
"We are just trying this out for now, and our schedule is pretty crammed full of shows," Jardine says. "This is going one day at a time, one step at a time."
If he sounds wary of making any definitive statements about the future, it's worth noting that Love sued Jardine in 2008 for using a permutation of the Beach Boys' name for touring purposes. Even so, Jardine concedes that there could be a future for this "nouveau Beach Boys," as he calls it.
"It could conceivably keep rolling along," he adds. "I wouldn't mind doing it every other year."
Jardine is worried about oversaturation, though it would be hard for a group as large and monolithic as the Beach Boys to make rock fans weary of them. With the help of Wilson's own backing band, things stay loud and youthful.
To keep things fresh on tour, the band adds and subtracts songs from the set list every few shows so that they don't fall into a touring-band rut. Even their '80s hit "Kokomo" gets some love.
Each night the Beach Boys pay tribute to the late Carl and Dennis Wilson, with the deceased Beach Boys performing with their brethren through the magic of vintage live footage, which Jardine says chokes even him up a little.
It's easy for an older group to fall into the habit of reeling out the same show each night. The fans notice. With a catalog like the Beach Boys have, their shows necessitate a nearly 45-song set list and even an intermission, which is almost unheard of with younger acts.
The Beach Boys can cram that many songs into an evening because those early singles were mostly less than two minutes long. The only other major tour offering a true intermission is Roger Waters, who provides a respite between Acts 1 and 2 of The Wall.
The Beach Boys return from each intermission with "Add Some Music to Your Day," from their 1970 post-Brian LP Sunflower. Aside from all the car songs they're known for, it's that psychedelic and woolly era of their career that Jardine enjoys the most. He's been jockeying for "Surf's Up" to make an appearance on a set list, but his version of Leadbelly's "Cotton Fields (Cotton Song)" from 1969 album 20/20 is his personal favorite.
As we discuss condensing 50 years of music into two hours, Jardine's bus has a mechanical failure, and he says the transmission has cut out. The irony of a group known for their car fetish having engine trouble is delicious. This reminds Jardine of an incident in the late '80s when the plane that the band was chartering lost an engine and they escaped a nearly fatal crash.
The bus soon regains power, and the Beach Boys tour rolls on. Talk turns to the band's legacy and the younger groups that are biting from them now, some good, some bad.
"There are a lot of pretenders," Jardine says. "But there are a lot of bands who take the best of what we do and are using it well, and it's a great compliment."
He mentions the Fleet Foxes as one of the Beach Boys' heirs doing it the right way, and sees plenty of his band in their snowy folk-rock.
"They are a little more melancholy, but they remind me of us, like a slowed-down acid trip," he says.
After all these years of excitement, adulation and strife, Jardine can't contain his pride in what he and the little garage band and their industrial-strength teen thrust from Hawthorne, California, have done for pop music and the world. "Help Me, Rhonda" still smokes audiences 47 years since it hit the radio, and the crowds Jardine sees in the seats each night come from every age and walk of life.
"These songs touched everyone in some way, in some time in their life," he says. "There won't be another band quite like this, I don't think."