Beach Boys getting ready for orchestral dates in Hong Kong

It’s 50 years since the release of Pet Sounds, and these concerts will feature Brian Wilson’s orchestrations of tracks from that seminal album plus many other beloved songs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 March, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 12:15pm

The Beach Boys still get around. Singers Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, who appear at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium next week, are both in their mid seventies, but last year performed no fewer than 175 shows.

“I talked to Tony Bennett’s manager the other night,” says Johnston over the phone from a hotel room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the band are on tour. “Tony is going to be 90 soon, and I asked how many shows he has scheduled. He said about 115 for 2016.

“Some people are just go, go, go, and I guess that’s what we do.”

SEE ALSO: Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album became one of the greatest of all time

Longstanding members Johnston and Love, who have toured under the Beach Boys name since 1998, were last in Hong Kong in August 2012. They played one night at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on a 50th anniversary reunion tour that featured all the surviving members of the band from the 1960s.

Love was a founder member of the group. Johnston was not, but replaced touring member Glen Campbell in 1965 and was later drafted in full time. Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson from the original band died in 1983 and 1998 respectively, but Johnston and Love were joined for the 2012 tour by Brian Wilson, the composer responsible for much of the band’s most acclaimed music, and the other founder members, Al Jardine and David Marks.

The anniversary concerts and an album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, were well received, but at the end of the tour Love announced that he and Johnston would be resuming their previous performing arrangements without the others. There are currently no plans for another full reunion.

“It was really exciting to do, and to hear everybody and see everybody, but it hasn’t come up again. Maybe for the 100th anniversary,” quips Johnston.

Perhaps we’ll just have to settle for marking another 50th anniversary. This year marks that of the release of Pet Sounds, arguably the greatest of the Beach Boys albums, and certainly the most influential.

Before it was released Johnston visited London and took an acetate with him. There The Who’s drummer Keith Moon introduced him to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, to whom he played it. McCartney has said that the album influenced The Beatles’ Revolver, and that a desire to top it provided the impetus for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Pet Sounds includes three big hit singles, so Love and Johnston’s Beach Boys perform much of the album in concert anyway, but they will be dipping further into it for these Hong Kong shows, presented in partnership with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

“When we play with symphony orchestras we add You Still Believe in Me and Here Today to [the hit singles] Sloop John B, God Only Knows and Wouldn’t it Be Nice. Not because it’s the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, but because Brian had these beautiful orchestrations that he wrote. We’ve wound up doing almost half the album, though not every song in a row,” Johnston says.

Working with orchestras is a particular passion for Johnston – a singer, composer, vocal arranger and multi-instrumentalist, who produced the 1998 album Symphonic Sounds: Music of The Beach Boys by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bob Alcivar.

“We’ve been doing concerts with symphony orchestras for about the last 25 years,” says Johnston.

“When we do, it’s not about us, and it’s not about the symphony orchestra. It’s about the combination, and Brian Wilson’s beautiful, perfectly constructed songs.”

This collaboration, for which the orchestra will be conducted by Gerard Salonga, was instigated by the Beach Boys’ management. Johnston says he had checked out the Phil, and been impressed by what he heard.

“I did a little homework with my ears on the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and we’re the luckiest guys in the world to get to play with them. We’re really excited,” he says.

Good Vibrations and Surfin’ USA are not exactly the sort of repertoire normally associated with the Phil, but the troupe’s chief executive Michael MacLeod is keen to stress that his band is well within its comfort zone.

“The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra makes a point of doing all kinds of repertoire,” he says. “We’re not just classical big symphonic stuff. We do a wide range of events and concerts to suit all tastes.

“Early in this season we had the Canto-pop singer Ivana Wong performing with the orchestra. As part of the Arts Festival, Rufus Wainwright, the composer, singer and songwriter from Canada and America, was performing with the full orchestra many of the songs he normally does just with piano. Next month we’re working with a classically trained garage band called Time for Three.”

Although acoustically the Queen Elizabeth Stadium is a very different proposition from the Cultural Centre Concert Hall – and has a capacity of 3,500 rather than 2,019 – MacLeod says the orchestra will take that and working with a rock band in their stride.

“One of the reasons why we’ve chosen the Queen Elizabeth Stadium is precisely because it’s a question of getting a venue that is big enough for the sound and also one that is used to bringing in sound systems and balancing people so that they can be well heard all over the hall,” he says.

Each half of the concert opens with an orchestral prelude from the Phil before the Beach Boys and their band join in.

“There is an overture, which is just a very concise four and a half minute piece and it’s lovely. With Brian’s beautiful melodies, how can you go wrong? And the orchestra has the most incredible Bob Alcivar-arranged version of In My Room. It’ll make you cry, it’s so good,” says Johnston.

Rock bands and symphony orchestras do not always make a happy combination, but, according to Johnston, for the Beach Boys the process is entirely relaxed and natural.

“When you hear the orchestra playing God Only Knows, the audience really gets what Brian was trying to do,” says the singer songwriter.

“It’s not in your face. It’s not bombastic. It’s just kind of cool. With the voicings for the orchestra, you hear what was in Brian’s mind as he made the recordings with keyboards and whatever he put on it. It’s almost like colourising a movie. If you think of the movie the Wizard of Oz, it’s in sepia, and that’s beautiful and perfect, but when they get to Oz and it bursts into colour, it’s beyond perfect.

“For us that’s the pay-off – to hear the whole orchestra perform their magic with our magic. It’s a total miracle to me. Don’t Worry Baby with the full orchestra is going to sound so great. I can’t wait.”

Another highlight will be a new orchestration. “We have a new arrangement for Caroline, No [the last track on Pet Sounds], which we’ve never sung with an orchestra before, and we’ll be doing it with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. I think that’s really cool,” says Johnston.

“Really cool” is not quite a Michael MacLeod expression, but he too is looking forward to the shows.

“Hearing this amazing music with these iconic performers with the Hong Kong Phil, I think the sound is going to be fantastic,” he says.

“It’s going to be fun. Fun, fun, fun.”

The Beach Boys and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Mar 18 and 19, 8pm. HK$380, HK$680, HK$980 and HK$1,580 from Urbtix,, ticketing enquiries 3761 6661, programme enquiries 2721 2332.