The Beach Boys
Graduation Day 1966: Live At The University of Michigan
For the past few years, thanks to copyright laws, The Beach Boys have released a few digital-only releases featuring rarities, unreleased material, and other recordings that have not otherwise been officially released, all of which are fifty years old in that particular year. These copyright releases have often been revelatory in their own way, offering rare insight into the complex nature of Brian Wilson’s muse. Unfortunately for fans, one can’t expect too much greatness in terms of lost material this year; the band’s sessions for Pet Sounds and Smile have been almost completely cleared. Thus, this year’s offering, Graduation Day 1966: Live At The University of Michigan feels a bit skimpy, the performance here mostly perfunctory. It’s not even a Graduation Day performance, either; this set was recorded in October, at a series of Homecoming shows.
But this live performance has a greater historical significance. This show in 1966 finds the band in a weird sort of transition. With Brian out of the picture, the live show had become something completely detached from the records they were releasing. The set reflects that; it’s a blend of more recent material, with the surfing and beach songs mostly ignored; though there’s a great medley of surfing hits, the setlist is drawn largely from releases over the previous year. It’s understandable that the band—which was nothing if not prolific—would want to keep things contemporary, but that poses a problem: the new material was becoming so musically complex that reproducing them on stage in their current iteration was a difficult, often disappointing task. Thus, the older material sounds taut and undeniably strong, while the newer material feels somewhat weak and tentative in comparison.
Yet that newer material is fantastic. The set features three numbers from Pet Sounds; “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” and “God Only Knows,” and though Carl Wilson’s singing is always gorgeous, the band clearly struggles to replicate the songs with just a standard guitar/bass/drum lineup. What makes this particular collection of performances so historically important, though, is that it’s the first airing of the band’s newest single, “Good Vibrations.” It’s tentative as hell; the band struggles with it, and Mike Love’s joking reveals both a love of the song and a frustration with the complexities of performing it live. The “woo-woo-woo” machine, the Theremin, isn’t prominent, and without it, the song sounds a helluva lot like a blatant rip-off of “The Boy From New York City.”
Yet there’s a surprise waiting in the wings, and that’s what makes this set fun: Brian Wilson. Brian had flown to Michigan to work with the band, to help them get “Good Vibrations” right, yet he doesn’t bother to appear until the final song, a rather hot cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Though it seems like a rip-off that Brian doesn’t appear earlier, it’s clear that when you listen to when he does come on stage that he’s having a fun time performing. Their take is fun, funny, and it’s obvious he’s having a good time. While Brian’s stage fright is understandable, it’s also frustrating to comprehend that some of his reticence was simply artistic posturing. Wilson’s complex; he’s always declared both his reticence of live performance with proclamations that he loves playing live.
Graduation Day 1966: Live At The University of Michigan isn’t that exciting of a performance, but it does offer some historical context of a band at a creative crossroads. At this point in their careers, they were seemingly on their way to becoming has-beens, relics of an American culture no longer relevant to the socially aware hippie consciousness and psychedelic rock mindset that was on the rise. There’s a hint of that here—Love mentions how the band had faced picketers at the gig the previous night, protestors holding signs that say, “The Beach Boys undermine the cultural advancement of America.” It garners a big laugh, but the writing was on the wall: “America’s Band” was becoming a portrait of all that was wrong with America, and would soon become culturally irrelevant…which makes their lasting and enduring musical legacy all the sweeter.