Beach Boys, Animals return to Washington older, but no worse for wear

NOSTALGIA FOR THE 1960s isn’t what it used to be. This summer’s concert schedule has only a smattering of golden era bands who try hard, but can’t compete with the records or old TV shows where they are younger and prettier. Some of them are still hanging in there, with upcoming performances by the latest iteration of the Animals, July 17, and by the Beach Boys, August 6. Both shows are in the Snoqualmie Casino’s amphitheatre, since casinos have long been the venue of choice for these shows.

Despite all the changes, the latest editions of these bands still sound great, performing with energy and passion. Authenticity is another matter, since each band has just one original member still in the fold. In both cases it is the lead singer, who can still hit the notes with a recognizable voice: Mike Love from the Beach Boys and Animal Eric Burdon. If you have just one original member, it’s much better to stick with the lead singer than the drummer or the bassist.

Back in the ’60s, when a new Beatles album came out people either thought that it was brilliant or they kept their mouth shut. Instead they expressed themselves through their second favourite band, which said more about a person’s personality than their astrological sign. Someone who favoured the Beach Boys liked smooth harmonies and simple anthems of joy. They liked to drive and to swim and most times listened to their parents or at least pretended to. Animals fans were louder and more ornery, likely to wear deliberately mismatched socks or talk in class.

But people and tastes change, and today the music of both bands has been lumped into the “nostalgia” pile. To some ears, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’ come from the same source. Still, look closely and the differences are still clear: Beach Boys fans seek an experience that exactly matches what they remember and catapults them into a happier time. These cheerful sounds allow them to forget the intervening years, as they take the opportunity to revel in food, family and sunshine. If the weather cooperates.

Animals fans also seek to recapture the past, but not for some forsaken optimism. They want to recall the times where they snuck a cigarette in the school’s john and poked fun at Beach Boys fans who were unfortunate enough to interrupt them. They still like to mix things up, and don’t necessarily want to hear the songs the same old way. The Animals’ music originated in the blues, where the worst thing that could possibly happen usually does. This was one thing when you were a kid, but takes on a completely different meaning after you turn 60. Though there are no solid statistics, where Animals fans are scraping by, and have been fired a few times for a bad attitude, modern Beach Boys fans seem to have more grandchildren, regularly serve on volunteer committees and retired from jobs they held for 20 years or more.

These days, the task of keeping popular rock bands aliveis common. In most older bands, if the founders are still alive and speaking to each other, chances are good that they can’t play anymore — if they ever could. So they place their remaining original member front and centre to be surrounded by a cadre of capable “ringers”, and the band plays the songs in ways that are close to the original, but different enough to keep the audience and/or the musicians from dying of boredom.

Coincidentally, both the Beach Boys and the Animals pioneered the ringer concept. In 1964 Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson decided he hated touring and recruited a sound-alike/ look-alike of himself so that the audience didn’t know the difference. Since then only party poopers have noticed that Wilson isn’t on stage, even as the original members disappeared one at a time and were replaced by ringers.

A few years later Burdon chucked his whole band and recruited a new menagerie of players who weren’t at all like the first group. He has added and subtracted band members ever since, but has stayed front and centre. A few years ago he regained control of the Animals’ name, which gets people in the door.

Improved monitor technology that lets the bands better hear what they are playing and, in the Beach Boys’ case, a near doubling of the number of original musicians [means that] both shows are likely to be more polished and professional than their predecessors. Aside from improvements in both technology and musicianship, the absence of screaming hordes makes it easier for band members to hear themselves.

Today’s Beach Boys augment their original two guitar-bass-drums-lead singer format with two keyboards, and nearly everyone sings. They slam out 30 songs in 90 minutes in what senior ringer Bruce Johnston once described as “an amusement park on the road”. The Animals are a different species. There are songs you will always hear — ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ — but the arrangements aren’t always faithful. The latter song, usually the set closer, begins with a drum solo before the musicians chime in one at a time. This contrasts with the Beach Boys’ tendency to stick to the original arrangements, the only variation being their performance of a surf song they never did in the first place.

Burdon has preserved the guitar-bass-drums-keyboard format from the Animals’ first go-around, and he has more or less stuck to it, other than occasions in recent years when original guitarist Hilton Valentine has augmented the band. This wasn’t entirely successful. Current bassist Terry Wilson recalled the guitarist “had this great ‘Hilton Valentine’ sound,” but didn’t speak the same language as the ringers. “We’d tell him to go up a fifth and he didn’t know what we were talking about.” Wilson has his own curious ringer pedigree, a close friend from his Texas youth is John “Rabbit” Bundrick, onstage keyboard player for the Who. He says that the band often trots out odd numbers like ‘Sky Pilo’ or ‘Monterey’, even if both are a bit dated.

Burdon, credited as a recording artist without the Animals tag, is about to release his third album since 2005. The Beach Boys’ last new album of original material was released in 1985, although a reconfigured greatest hits collection comes out every few years. These vary slightly, but the core selection, like the Beach Boys’ stage show, stays the same.

Eventually, the Beach Boys may reach the day when the last original member retires and the band continues without him. This isn’t unprecedented: the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are basically franchises that keep the music alive. The Animals on the other hand, will dissolve when Burdon steps down. Still, the idea of a completely franchised Beach Boys that celebrates the band’s 100th anniversary certainly fits with what we’ve seen so far.

Attendees shouldn’t expect an authentic experience, but if we stayed away from shows because the original guys aren’t onstage, we’d never get off the couch. Both of these bands are worth leaving the house to see, even after you realize that the original magic had as much to do with what you were doing at the time as the music itself.

© Charles BermantCrosscut, 15 July 2011

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