The Beach Boys, Royal Albert Hall, London

The Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion has taken an unhappy turn. Mike Love, legal owner of the band’s name, has dismayed his fellow founding members Brian Wilson and Al Jardine with plans to continue touring as the Beach Boys without them next year. With extraordinarily insensitive timing the pair learnt they were fired last week, before the reunion tour was even over.

Thursday’s near-four-hour show at London’s Royal Albert Hall was the penultimate date. It was a strange and fascinating occasion, far from the schmaltz-fest I had feared. Alongside the joyful hits about sun, surf and girls lay exposed the band’s counter-history of power struggles and mind games – with Love in his traditional role as villain and Wilson in his as troubled creative genius.

The reunion tour, which follows the new album That’s Why God Made the Radio, is the first Wilson has played with the Beach Boys since his mid-1960s breakdown. He sat on one side of the stage at an electric keyboard tricked out to look like a grand piano. Across from him were arranged Love, Jardine and two long-standing 1960s affiliates, guitarist David Marks and keyboardist Bruce Johnston. Absent, other than in photos and film projections, were the two missing Beach Boys, Wilson’s dead brothers Carl and Dennis.

The bulk of the music was played by Wilson’s touring band, a nine-piece adept at conjuring the cosmic symphonies of his heyday: fidelity to the original spirit of the Beach Boys extended to the drummer adopting the same unusual open stance as Dennis Wilson. Their vocal harmonies and vibrant musicianship gave the antique surf-pop maestros a magnificent backing.

They needed it. Wilson’s keyboards were inaudible and his voice, while fairly vigorous, was a shadow of its old self. He was animated when he sang lead vocals; inert when not. Meanwhile Love – head slowly sweeping the stalls as though calculating the potential merchandise take – provided a compulsive display of showbiz insincerity. Not a verse went by without a crocodile smile, an unctuous wave or a finger pointed at some special person in the audience. Meanwhile his vocals were low in the mix, as though by some surreptitious act of sabotage.

The odd atmosphere was heightened by Love’s jibes at the backing musicians, making fun of keyboardist Darian Sahanaja’s surname and bridling when Wilson suggested he introduce a musician before a song: “You’re going to call on me to introduce your buddy?” But after the interval a remarkable transfusion of energy took place.

They returned with a succession of songs from Wilson’s songwriting peak, when despite being warned by you-know-who not to “f*** with the formula” he turned the Beach Boys into psychedelic sophisticates. “Heroes and Villains” lit the touchpaper with its pell-mell harmonies while “I Just Wasn’t Made for This Time”, well sung by Wilson, ended with a standing ovation. The audience stayed on its feet for the next hour; Wilson was clearly buoyed by the reaction.

Love took over lead vocals for infectious versions of “California Girls” and “Surfin’ USA” – but the last word went to Wilson, walking out for an unannounced encore while Love gestured in the wings that it was too late, this shouldn’t be happening. Ignoring him, Wilson sang the best song he wrote for That’s Why God Made the Radio, the twinkling lament “Summer’s Gone”. Love slunk back on stage, bent on this occasion to his cousin’s will. “We’ll see you next time,” Wilson announced brightly at the end. Mark tonight up as a Brian victory.

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