Review: Rock nostalgia (which rhymes with MAGA) at a drive-in Beach Boys concert

The Beach Boys Mike Love, right, and Bruce Johnston at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Oct. 23, 2020 in Ventura, CA.
The Beach Boys’ Mike Love, right, and Bruce Johnston perform Friday night at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Wearing a branded Beach Boys ball cap to go with his branded Beach Boys face mask, Mike Love offered a word of warning to the audience gathered to see his legendary pop group — well, a version of it — at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Friday night.

“We’ve all been a little rusty,” the 79-year-old singer said between renditions of “I Get Around” and “Be True to Your School.” “We haven’t been able to do much, being in an old pandemic and everything.”

Not much, no. But enough to get people talking.

This month, Love’s band — which includes another Beach Boys veteran, Bruce Johnston, though not the group’s acknowledged mastermind, Brian Wilson — made headlines when it performed Oct. 18 at a high-dollar fundraiser for President Trump near Newport Beach in Orange County.


Evidently unaware of the booking until they read about it in the news, Wilson and a fourth Beach Boy, Al Jardine, quickly issued a statement making clear they had “absolutely nothing” to do with the Trump event.

“Zero,” they added for emphasis.

This cleaving wasn’t a new development for the surviving Beach Boys, who’ve fought for years over money and creative credit and who last played together in 2012 behind a not-great reunion record called “That’s Why God Made the Radio.”

Since then, Wilson has toured under his own name — including a lengthy stint celebrating the 50th anniversary of the highly influential “Pet Sounds” album — while Love, who is Wilson’s cousin, has brandished his legal rights to the band’s name in a road show that usually logs more than 100 dates a year. (Like every other touring act in music, Love’s Beach Boys were forced to call off most of their 2020 concerts due to COVID-19; Friday’s show was an open-air drive-in affair, the first of several scheduled over the weekend in California and Arizona.)

The Beach Boys concert
A couple in a convertible Mustang watch the Beach Boys perform.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Yet the election-year involvement of Trump — a more polarizing figure than the conservative politicians Love has embraced in the past — feels like it reframes the rift between Wilson and Love as something more ideological: a battle over the meaning and the purpose of the nostalgia baked into the music of this most proudly American of bands.

Which isn’t to say that buying a ticket to see one or the other of them has suddenly become an intentional political act.


In Ventura, where maybe a thousand vehicles were arranged in concentric circles around a stage, I saw a few pickup trucks festooned with American flags not unlike the ones we’ve seen in the so-called Trump trains that have rolled through cities such as Portland, Ore., and Miami.

But fans in the cars near mine told me they didn’t know Love’s band had played the president’s fundraiser in Orange County. And some were surprised to learn that there are essentially two competing sets of Beach Boys.

Asked whether he cared that the group’s founders clearly don’t agree on politics, one middle-aged man who gave his name as Marcus said, “Doesn’t matter to me at all.”

Still, watching Love lead his outfit through oldie after sunny oldie, many of them accompanied by black-and-I-do-mean-white video footage from the Beach Boys’ early days, you understood that MAGA’s promise relies on the assumption that things were uniformly better the way they used to be.

God only knows there’s nothing forward-looking about Wilson’s throwback act these days. But the Beach Boys’ resident tinkerer does seem motivated to ask new questions of the old work; at the very least, he’s open to the idea that somebody’s happy memories might be a sham. (Here’s a guy whose songs about being a sad teenager sound only sadder now that he’s nearing his 80s.)

Love, in contrast, came on like a salesman for a narrowly defined fantasy in a set that began with — what else? — “Do It Again,” then moved efficiently through the likes of “Surfin’ Safari,” “Little Deuce Coupe” and “California Girls.” All are wonderful songs; all evoke a time and a place plenty real to some. Yet Friday they felt cheapened by having been used to peddle Trump’s revisionist scheme.

The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys’ Mike Love, left, with actor John Stamos.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

And not only by that: Love made other choices that bolstered a decidedly out-of-touch vibe, including his inviting John Stamos and Mark McGrath to put in guest appearances.

Stamos, the “Full House” star, introduced by Love as “America’s favorite uncle,” played guitar in “Catch a Wave” and hit the congas during “Kokomo” just like he did in the video for that late-’80s comeback hit. The Sugar Ray frontman McGrath, in a Hawaiian shirt with his hair slicked back, sang his mid-’90s “Fly” for what seemed like eight or nine minutes.

“Ventura, do you believe in miracles?” McGrath asked at one point, before instructing a crowd of people mostly sitting in their cars to jump as high as they could. The canned banter lent a cruel irony to a show filled with Beach Boys tunes about the freedom to be had on a set of wheels.

Then again, it was hard not to notice that Love kept that promotional face mask dangling beneath his chin for much of the show — a visual reminder of the pandemic I wouldn’t have expected from someone who recently told a reporter that he’s looking forward to when people can “maybe go to church without getting arrested.”

Near the end of the show, he even did a new song called “This Too Shall Pass,” in which he urged listeners in his pinched but still boyish voice to “do the social distancing” as though it were the twist or the Watusi.


And though that dinky surf-rock jam was painfully corny, Love’s Beach Boys — eight or nine hired guns including Johnston and Love’s adult son Christian — did hit a kind of stride as the night wore on that allowed you to get lost in the glory of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Good Vibrations.”

Then you remembered that getting lost is a privilege — as well as a risk.