The Beach Boys- The Beach Boys Today! (1965)
The Beach Boys Today! (Capitol Records)
Recorded June 22, 1964- January 19, 1965
Released March 8, 1965
With The Beach Boys Today! the group announced to their audience that they were not the Beach Boys of the past, as the widely successful group continued their shift away from songs about fun in the sun, surfing, and cars. It continued to show a new sign of musical and lyrical maturation- which resulted from the talents and desire of the group's unofficial musical director and most celebrated visionary, Brian Wilson, who was a master of arrangement and orchestration. What makes the album most unique is the heavy usage of instruments typically more connected to orchestral music and less with rock and roll. It took over 25 studio musicians to make the record. Additionally, much of Brian Wilson’s lyrics on the record are semi-autobiographical.
Brian Wilson put tremendous pressure on himself and had a nervous breakdown, and stopped touring with the group while making the album. Part of this pressure came from his efforts to compete with the innovations and skills of the Beatles and producer Phil Spector. He later explained, "I used to be Mr. Everything ... I was run down mentally and emotionally because I was running around, jumping on jets from one city to another on one-night stands, also producing, writing, arranging, singing, planning, teaching – to the point where I had no peace of mind and no chance actually to sit down and think or even rest. During this time, Brian Wilson, who was 22, married a 16-year-old singer named Marilyn Rovell, and he was drinking and smoking a lot of marijuana.
Side one of the album includes all uptempo numbers and side two offers more ballads. The Beach Boys, Today! followed the success of the 1964 releases All Summer Long and Four by the Beach Boys, Beach Boys Concert, and The Beach Boys Christmas Album. The album did well, reached number four on the American Billboard charts, and continued to chart for 50 weeks. Still, Columbia was unhappy with sales and pressured the band to return to their earlier sound and the frivolous themes that made the band an incredible success. Wilson and the band appeased the label with U.S. release Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Charts and included hits like “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “California Girls.” After this, Wilson and the Beach Boys returned to their direction of further experimentation with the 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds.
(+ means "recommended track" and * means released as a single)
Track 1- “Do You Want To Dance?” comes from R&B singer Bobby Freeman who scored a hit with the tune in 1958. While the lyrics and the core of the piece are simplistic, the genius comes from the lushness of Brian Wilson’s arrangement. The music is incredibly thick during the chorus and even includes a timpani. The track, like many on this record, blends more traditional rock instruments with orchestral instruments. You can liken the Beach Boys' music to eating a gourmet burger during this period. At its core, the song is accessible and easily enjoyed, like a burger. Still, then you realize that the chef added some of the finest ingredients, and your tastebuds pick up on the many specific care, spices, and components that went into the dish. In a sense, Brian Wilson is a master chef of accessible musical dishes.
Drummer Dennis Wilson singles lead on the song, making it the first time he has done so on a Beach Boys record. The Beach Boys version charted at #12. Some notable session musicians who were brought in include Leon Russell on the organ, Plas Johnson on tenor saxophone, Tommy Tedesco on baritone guitar, and Marilyn Wilson, Brian's first wife, adding some vocals. (+*)
Track 2- “Good To My Baby.” Apparently, the narrator is good to his baby, so let's sing about it. Honestly, what does he want, a cookie? You're supposed to be nice to your girlfriend, but I suppose most guys aren't. The song offers back-and-forth vocals between Brian Wilson and Mike Love, the primary songwriters. It is almost as if they are singing to each other. There are many guest musicians on this one, including the great Carole Kaye playing bass. With the album, it's as if you have to listen to the song at least twice to evaluate. For me, the initial listen is often like hearing frivolous pop bullshit but then you listen again for all the underlying layering, and you realize there is a lot of pretty cool stuff going on.
Track 3- “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister,” was inspired by Brian Wilson’s love for his stepsisters. I guess they are beach girls by marriage. The song was supposedly initially written for the Ronettes with the production of Ronnie Spector in mind. According to Brian Wilson's book, I Am Brian Wilson, it was written "About Me and the Rovells. I wrote it from the perspective of one of them telling me not to treat another one of them badly.” Some music critics, including Alice Bolin, were not so convinced Wilson’s writing about his wife's teenage sisters was so pure and called the song “creepy.” Musically the writing is pretty advanced for a 60s pop song and offers some unique harmonic elements.
Track 4- “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” was a single that charted at #9. It's one of the album's signature pieces and was mainly recorded without added studio musicians. It’s a remarkable song musically and employs multiple key changes and advanced jazz harmonies and orchestration. Lyrically, the song tackles a young man's many questions while coming of age, like “Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid? Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn't done what I did? Will I settle down fast, or will I first wanna travel the world? Will my kids be proud or think their old man is really a square? Will I love my wife for the rest of my life?” It took thirty-seven takes to get this one right, but they certainly did. Take notice of the electric harpsichord played by Brian Wilson. The song is a coming of age for the Beach Boys. (+*)
Track 5- “Help Me, Rhonda” is the only track on the record to feature Al Jardine on lead vocal, which was only the second time he did so since the band began recording. It was also the group's second #1 single, but it was not the version that is heard on the record to chart but a reworked version featured on their next album, Summer Days (And Summer Nights.!!). The music comes from Brian Wilson with some lyrical help from Mike Love. According to Wilson, it is not about a real person and was inspired by Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife” (I don’t hear it). An alternative story is that one of the Beach Boys had a break up from a serious relationship before their January 1964 Australian tour and met a girl in Sydney who became the “Rhonda” in the song the following year. Her real name did not fit the lyrics, but 'Rhonda' did. During the vocal overdubbing of the session, Brian Wilson and his father Murray, who a few months earlier was released from his role as manager, got into a physical altercation. Murray and Brian Wilson fought consistently over the group's more exploratory direction. A pirated tape of the incident exists. The song's recording featured some notable names, including Glen Campbell on 12-string guitar, Leon Russell on grand piano, and Billy Strange on ukulele and guitar. At the song's end, there is a period of fading in and out, creating a false ending. Have you ever met Rhonda? I have not. (+*)
Track 6- “Dance, Dance, Dance” was issued as a single and reached #8 on the charts. It was the first time Carl Wilson got writing credits on a single. Brian Wilson and Mike Love also contributed. The orchestration includes sleigh bells, triangle, tambourine, castanets, tenor sax, baritone sax accordion, and 6-string bass guitar. For me, it is almost like a game to try and hear all of these instruments, some of which are buried in the mix. Sometimes you just feel the need to “dance, dance, dance.”(+)
Track 1- “Please Let Me Wonder” is said to be the first track Wilson ever wrote while high. The lyrics fantasize about a relationship. Wilson produced the song as a tribute to Phil Spector. He was truly in awe of Spector’s wall of sound production, which is evident throughout this album. Brian handles the lead vocals on this one. One notable guest musician is legendary guitarist Barney Kessel playing classical guitar. It's one of my favorites on the record and perfectly sets up side two, which features slower tempo numbers. The track is definitely a little trippy. (+)
Track 2- “I’m So Young” was first recorded by a group called the Students in 1958. It's the second and final cover tune on the record. The song shows off the group's vocal prowess in a doo-wop context. The lyrics speak about a couple who wants to get married but are too young. The average age to marry is 27 for women and 29 for men.
Track 3- “Kiss Me, Baby” is about a fight between lovers. Brian Wilson wrote it after wandering around the red light district in Copenhagen and composed it in the city after recently proposing to Marilyn Rovell. Many instruments are included in the orchestration, including an English Horn and a French Horn buried within the mix. The song has an underlying doo-wop feel and serves as a perfect vehicle to showcase Brian Wilson’s direction to include more themes about real issues and present them with the multi-layering effect that made him so brilliant. (+)
Track 4- “She Knows Me Too Well” speaks of a man’s jealousy and relationship insecurity, and while he tries to hide it, his love knows him too well and can see through his bullshit. According to Brian Wilson, the song was intended to be a tribute to the songwriting of Burt Bacharach, and the chord changes are very similar to the Beach Boys' early song “Don’t Worry Baby.” Carl Wilson offers some fine guitar work on this track. The song was a B-Side to the single “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man). The legendary rock band Stone Temple Pilots recorded a version of the song in 1994. The track shows the group and Brian Wilson’s development, foreshadowing the album Pet Sounds.
Track 5- “In The Back Of My Mind” continues the ballad fest. Dennis Wilson handles most of the lead vocals. The song features no vocal harmonies, which is like taking away the group's superpower, but because of the incredible songwriting and orchestral layering, the vocal harmonies are not missed. The track is slow, jazzy, showcasing Brian Wilson's knowledge of chord structures and Tin Pan Alley songwriting. Lyrically, the song is about a man who is blessed with everything but is fearful that everything will change, and while he tries to control his thoughts and focus on his great life, he just can’t suppress his negative thoughts. “In The Back of My Mind” removes all the Beach Boys' earlier sweetness and showcases Brian Wilson’s visionary efforts. It's a shame more people are not aware of the tune.(+)
Track 6- “Bull Session with the “Big Daddy.” This is a nonmusical track of the boys being interviewed. It showcases the group being goofy with the interviewer. Al Jardine is the only member not present. Brian Wilson’s wife, Marilyn, was present, and her voice could be heard.
In conclusion- The Beach Boys, Today! is a critical album leading up to the masterpiece Pet Sounds. The album showcases a more experimental direction for the band which would alienate some of their early fans and further fracture Brian Wilson’s relationship with his father, ex-manager, Murray Wilson. While side one offers more recognized material, side two presents slower numbers with more passion and feel. Except for the album Pet Sounds, I never understood how some could compare Brian Wilson to Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Dyan, etc. I just found much of their music too poppy and vanilla. That is until I listened to their music for this broadcast and watched films and documentaries about the group and Brian Wilson. Now I understand some of the comparisons. To get Wilson, you must listen to the music behind the song's main skeleton and lyrics, especially during this period. I feel a lot of the misunderstanding and image confusion comes from the group's name and past materials. However, the group did mature, particularly during this period, and the Beach Boys sounded more like Beach Men.