A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats
So we skip from the Beach Boys’ sixth album to their ninth. This is something that should be borne in mind when you read these essays, because from time to time I’ve been harsh on some of the songs. The fact is that in the first four years the band were together they recorded and releeased an astonishing eleven albums, and Brian Wilson had to write or co-write all the new material, do all the arrangements, produce and be one of the two lead singers.
The two albums we’ve skipped, for now, are Beach Boys Concert and The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. I will deal with both of these in due course, but both are minor works, both are paired on CD with other albums from many years later, and neither add much to the story of the band’s artistic progression.
The Beach Boys slowed down a little in 1965, ‘only’ recording three albums, including these two, two of their very best, but the pressure was beginning to show on Brian even so. He’d had his first nervous breakdown on a flight to the UK in November 1964, and had got married in December. Given the immense amount of new product he was under, the fact that he was newly-married, and the toll touring was taking on his mental health, it’s perhaps understandable that he decided to quit touring with the band.
The plan was that Brian would stay at home and write songs, and produce the backing tracks for the records using session musicians while the band were touring, and the band would come home and add vocals. Brian’s place on tour was first taken by Glen Campbell – then one of LA’s top session musicians, who would play on many of the band’s recordings over the next few years, before he became famous in his own right as a singer – before Bruce Johnston replaced him.
Johnston was an experienced producer, songwriter, singer and keyboard player, best known at the time for his work with Terry Melcher on various projects. The biggest hit they’d worked on was a Beach Boys knock-off called Hey Little Cobra. Credited to The Rip-Chords, this was a Beach Boys/Jan & Dean knock-off (the chorus very similar to that of Surf City) that reached number four in the US charts. Johnston sang many of the harmony parts (most clearly it’s him singing “Shut ’em down” in the choruses) so they knew he could handle the kind of material they were doing. While Johnston wouldn’t appear on the cover of a Beach Boys album until 1968, he started appearing on the recordings with Summer Days… And Summer Nights! and, apart from a few years in the mid-70s, has remained in the band ever since, and is still a member of the touring ‘Beach Boys’ to this day.
These two albums represent a staggering increase in the quality of the Beach Boys’ output, and can be heard on Spotify here.
The Beach Boys Today!
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine
Today! is widely considered one of the Beach Boys’ very best albums – it’s in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Of All Time, Mojo‘s 1000 Albums You Should Own and all the other lists of that type. It’s certainly the only one of the pre-Pet Sounds albums that I could almost unreservedly recommend to anyone. The run of studio albums All Summer Long, Today!, Summer Days are the peak of the early fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys albums, and of them all Today! is the most consistent.
It’s also a turning point for the band’s sound, recorded as it was right across the point where Brian quit the touring band. Thus there are tracks recorded almost as-live by just the band, tracks where the Beach Boys provide just vocals and tracks where the Beach Boys provide some instrumentation, augmented by the session musicians.
Brian Wilson used to draw from a fairly small pool of session players – the same people used by Phil Spector, for the most part – and so while there was no formal ‘band’, there were a group of musicians who would appear on many of these recordings, who were later nicknamed ‘the Wrecking Crew’. Unless I say otherwise, when I refer to session players or ‘the Wrecking Crew’ in any of the essays on 60s albums, you can assume I mean some combination of:
Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon and/or Earl Palmer (drums – Blaine also would be the contractor, in charge of hiring the rest of the musicians), Carol Kaye and/or Ray Pohlman (bass), Jay Migliori, Steve Douglas and Plas Johnson (sax), Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Billy Strange and/or Glen Campbell (guitar, ukulele, banjo etc), Lyle Ritz (ukulele and occasional bass) Julius Wechter or Frank Capp (percussion) and Don Randi and/or Leon Russel (keyboards). Of the Beach Boys, Brian and Carl were most likely to add instruments to session tracks, with Bruce occasionally contributing and the others seldom.
This album is the first one where Brian appears to have paid attention to structuring it as an album – but even so, he’s thinking in 1950s terms. Here he’s following the structure of the Christmas album the band had just done in doing a side for ‘the kids’ (the uptempo, relatively simplistic, pop songs of the first side) and one for the ‘grown-ups’ (the harmonically sophisticated ballads of side two). Side two usually gets more recognition, as it’s a pointer to the style used on Pet Sounds, but side one is also a marvel of pop music, with every song a potential or actual hit.
One final note before we move on to the track-by-track analysis – this album, more than any other, was involved in Mike Love’s mid-90s lawsuit against Brian Wilson. Before then, the only track Love was a credited co-writer on was Please Let Me Wonder – now, all the original tracks here have Love as co-writer. These claims are still controversial among Beach Boys fans, but all I’ll say is that while several songs definitely sound closer to Brian’s lyrical style than Mike’s, some of these songs have Mike Love’s fingerprints all over them – I don’t think anyone will deny, for example, that “Well since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head” might be the quintessential Mike Love line.
Do You Wanna Dance?
The album opens with a hit single, a cover of the Bobby Freeman song that in the Beach Boys’ version reached number 12 in the US. Structurally, this is actually closer to Cliff Richard’s 1962 cover version, which turned Freeman’s tag into the chorus, than to the original, and it is this structure that has been covered by everyone from Bette Midler to John Lennon to The Ramones since. Dennis takes lead.
Good To My Baby
An example of the thicker production style Brian was now using, this is clearly influenced by Phil Spector, down to the prominent tambourine – this sounds like a girl-group song in the chorus, with the band singing in unison “she’s my girl and I’m good to my baby”. We could very easily imagine this being chanted by the Crystals or the Blossoms with only very slight lyrical alteration. The a capella intro/break though is pure Beach Boys, with Mike singing the title in his lowest bass range, the band echoing him in the mid-range with Brian wailing a wordless falsetto on top, Carl or Dennis (I can’t tell which) repeating the line, overlapping with the rest of the band, and Mike then repeating his original line two tones down. That break only lasts eight seconds, but it’s eight seconds that mark this track as indeliby Beach Boys. Mike and Brian sing lead.
Don’t Hurt My Little Sister
Another one with a chanted vocal chorus, this one was actually intended for Phil Spector to record. In fact Spector recorded a backing track for the song but didn’t add vocals. A couple of years later the track was released as “Things Are Changing For The Better” as a public service record for a government equality drive, with three different sets of vocals (by The Blossoms, Diana Ross & The Supremes and Jay & The Americans) being recorded for the same backing track.
This version, however, contains the original lyrics, and while I’m trying not to go on too much about the soap operatic aspects of the band’s life, the fact remains that this was inspired by something said to him by one of the Rovell sisters. While Brian married Marilyn Rovell, he had at least a bit of romantic interest in her sister Barbara, and conducted an affair with her sister Diane through large parts of their marriage, so there’s a very disturbing personal undercurrent to this song.
That said, it sounds more like a companion piece to the previous song – almost as if the previous song (where “they think I’m bad and treat her so mean/but all they know is from what they’ve seen”) was the defence of the callous boyfriend in this one – which it quite possibly was.
When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)
Apparently featuring only the Beach Boys plus a session harmonica player, this is an astonishingly complex and beautiful track, albeit with a fairly simply-structured song underneath. The drumming, in particular, sounds far more subtle than Dennis Wilson was usually capable of. Another top-ten hit, this shows the questioning side of Brian’s songwriting coming to the fore, with questions that everyone in their late teens and early twenties (as the band all were) must ask themselves – “will I look back and say that I wish I hadn’t done what I did?” “WIll my kids be proud or think their old man’s really a square?”
While Brian was listening to Bach at this time, I suspect the prominent use of a harpsichord on this track has a slightly more prosaic inspiration – Brian’s friends Jan & Dean had recently released as a single the deeply strange track The Anaheim, Asuza And Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review And Timing Association, which used the instrument in a very similar way.
But the real joy of this track is in the melancholy fade. With the band chanting ever increasing numbers, Mike sings “Won’t last forever” and Brian answers “It’s kinda sad” with a gorgeous minor sixth chord under him. It’s one of the first examples of Brian introducing totally new musical material in the fade, something that would show up later in the vocal rounds ending tracks like God Only Knows or ‘Til I Die. That something as poignant as this could still be a hit single shows just how far Brian was able to go at this point without alienating the general public.
Mike & Brian sing lead.
Help Me, Ronda
A different recording from the differently-spelled Rhonda that became a hit (which is on the next album), this one shows its roots in Buster Brown’s Fannie Mae more clearly, with a harmonica part in the chorus that makes the connnection explicit. This is very similar to the single version, but slightly less thought-out, with a weird false fade that doesn’t really work.
This was Al Jardine’s second lead vocal for the band (after Christmas Day on the previous album) and it shows just how important his vocal contributions were. The only non-family member, he nonetheless had (and still has) a voice that is spookily like the rest of the band, especially Brian in the high range and Mike in the low, and he was not only probably the strongest singer in the band, but also had the widest range. While never as gorgeous a singer as Brian or Carl at their best, Al is in a real sense the voice of the Beach Boys in a way that none of the others are.
That ‘Fannie Mae’ riff, incidentally, is one of the major themes that Brian returns to time and again over the next few years – you can hear it modified in such different tracks as Salt Lake City and With Me Tonight, and it becomes part of his musical toolkit in the same way as the intro to Be My Baby or the Shortenin’ Bread riff.
But what’s fascinating about this song in context is that despite it being on the surface a fairly jolly sort of song, it is, after all, a cry for help, repeated over and over again. When John Lennon did this sort of thing a year later people thought it was deep, but here it’s just a Beach Boys pop song. At this point Brian was barely capable of writing anything that didn’t have a dark undercurrent – a tendency that would become all the more prevalent over the next couple of years.
Dance Dance Dance
And having said that, of course, we get to the one utterly positive original song on the album. With a driving guitar riff apparently composed by Carl Wilson (who gets co-writing credit with Brian and, since the lawsuit, Mike), this is relatively simple musically (apart from the clever mid-verse semitone key change in the last verse (on the line “I play it cool when it’s slow and jump it up when it’s fast”)) but succeeds by pure joie de vivre. Another top ten US hit, Mike and Brian sing lead.
Please Let Me Wonder
Starting side two, we get an immediate change of pace. Immediately we go into one of Brian and Mike’s most beautiful ballads, full of uncertainty and doubt – “Please let me wonder/if I’ve been the one you love/if I’m who you’re dreaming of” – we’re seeing here again the recurring figure in Brian’s songs of the man who knows he’s not good enough for the wonderful woman he’s with, and assumes she must realise this at some point but hopes not to be disillusioned just yet.
While clearly inspired by Be My Baby, though a much mellower, gentler song, this has a much lusher set of chord changes, which manage to cover quite a lot of harmonic ground while feeling like they’re staying still, by moving one or two notes at a time, giving us wonderful chords like D#m(maj7)/D and F#maj9.
Brian would later cover very similar musical ground with his 1977 song Airplane, but interestingly the song I know that’s closest to this is actually Something by the Beatles. The chord sequence for Please Let Me Wonder goes:
Something, on the other hand, goes
Now, this isn’t to say that Harrison was ripping off Wilson – though he was aware of the song – both sequences, while interesting, are not hugely innovative, and I can easily see how a guitarist could come up with the Something sequence almost instinctively (it’s a very naural set of movements for the fingers). And the pace is very different – Wilson covers this harmonic material in four bars while Harrison stretches it out to twelve. But it’s still interesting how the Beach Boys could come up with something so similar to one of the Beatles’ greatest records a full five years before their rivals.
Brian and Mike sing lead, and both have only rarely been in better voice.
I’m So Young
A cover of an old doo-wop song, presumably influenced by the then-recent version by ‘Veronica’ (Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes) produced by Brian’s idol Phil Spector. While it’s a decent enough track, this is a bit of a retrograde step for the band, sounding more like We’ll Run Away from All Summer Long than the more sophisticated music around it.
Kiss Me Baby
One of the most glorious pieces of music the band ever made, the only bad thing I can say about this is that while the mono mix is of course gorgeous, this track is so musically dense that it’s easy to miss individual moments of beauty, like the French horn under ‘tossed and I turned, my head grew so heavy’, or the single vibraphone notes at oddly appropriate spots. Thankfully for those of us who study these things, a stereo remix was made available in 1999, and a vocal only mix in 2001. Thanks to these, we can make out individual parts (until the stereo remix, I’d never been able to figure out the backing vocals in the chorus – they’re “kiss a little bit and fight a little bit and kiss a little bit”), and truly appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this.
Just as an example, Mike Love’s vocal here is an astonishing piece of work, and has very obviously taken a huge amount of thought (whether by him or Brian). I single this out because Love often gets criticised for his vocals – and it’s sometimes deserved, especially in live settings, when he’s singing in his nasal tenor. But here he turns in the vocal of his career.
He sings in four distinct voices here. At the beginning, and in the verses, he’s double tracked with a hell of a lot of reverb. It’s a great double-tracking job by Love’s standards up to then (the double-tracking on earlier albums had been very sloppy, because of the pressure they were under) – he matches himself in pronunciation and pitch precisely, even matching his breaths. But he’s singing in two distinct voices – one, the more prominent one, is his standard throat voice, while the other is an almost-whispered huskier throat voice. It almost sounds in fact like Dennis is double-tracking him here. This gives the vocal a strength, but with an undertone of hesitancy, that works perfectly for the lyric.
Then on the bridge, after Brian’s line, we get him singing in his normal nasal head voice, again double-tracked, but this time so closely I had to listen to the a capella mix four times to decide if it was double-tracking or just reverb.
And then finally on the choruses he’s down in his chest, singing the ‘kiss a little bit and fight a little bit’ in his bass voice.
The thing is, though, this isn’t just a matter of range. All Love’s vocal parts here take place in a very restricted range, and he could easily have sung the whole thing in no more than two ‘voices’ maximum. There’s an attention to detail here in both arrangement and performance that borders on the obsessive, but it’s produced one of the finest vocal performances I’ve ever heard.
And Love was by most people’s reckoning only the fourth-best singer in the band!
Lead vocals by Mike & Brian. Surprisingly, this song seems to be based around a B-side instrumental Brian had written for another band, After The Game by The Survivors. While the chord changes are different, the first three notes of the melodies are the same and the guitar in the earlier song presages the ‘kiss a little bit fight a little bit parts of this song.
She Knows Me Too Well
The third world-class ballad on side two of Today!, this one suffers slightly in comparison with the other tracks, but that’s only because we’ve alread heard two of the best songs ever written. This one is ‘merely’ exceptionally good. Another song about a man who isn’t good enough for his woman (“I treat her so mean, I don’t deserve what I have/And I think that she’ll forget just by making her laugh/But she knows me, knows me so well, that she can tell I really love her”), this is the most blatant of Brian’s songs about male vulnerability yet, and one of the most haunting.
With a gorgeous lead vocal from Brian, this track apparently only features the Beach Boys instrumentally. And the quality of the performance should lay to rest any thoughts of it being incompetence on the band’s part that led to the use of session players, rather than time pressure. Other than a couple of slightly stiff fills on the drums, this performance is every bit as good instrumentally as any of the others.
In The Back Of My Mind
And we finish the album as we start it, with a Dennis lead vocal. But this song couldn’t be more different from Do You Wanna Dance?, being a slow ballad in 6/8 without any harmonies, and by far the most lushly orchestrated song on the album. Even more explicitly about Brian’s mental state than the previous track, the lyrics to this one are clearly personal – “I’m blessed with everything in the world to which a man can cling/So happy at times that I break down in tears, in the back of my mind I still have my fears”, the chords here move obsessively around the same few tones, clustering in chords like Abdim and Bbm6.
Dennis, with his fragile voice, is the perfect vocalist for this track, and his practical breakdown at the end, on the words “it will always be in the back of my mind” as the track falls away into a dissonant string fade unlike anything in the rest of the track, is one of the best moments on the album, and it makes for a perfect ending for the album.
Bull Session With The Big Daddy
Unfortunately it isn’t the end of the album, and we have the most bathetic piece of sequencing ever, as we go from that into two minutes and fourteen seconds of the band (plus Marilyn Wilson and journalist Earl Leaf) talking over each other while eating burgers and kosher pickles. Quite the most pointless thing in the band’s discography.
Summer Days… And Summer Nights!
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston (uncredited)
While Today! is considered a major step forward in the band’s musical progression, Summer Days is usually regarded as, at best, a step sideways. In truth, this is unfair. The album suffers because Today! was such a massive leap forward while Pet Sounds, the next proper studio album, is The Greatest Album Ever Made And The Only Beach Boys Album You Should Own (copyright every music magazine ever). But in truth, there’s not a single bad track on here, and it contains three of the band’s biggest hits and one of Brian Wilson’s greatest songs. Roughly contemporaneous with the Beatles’ Help, it’s also of roughly that quality. Both albums are solidly good 60s pop with a few moments of brilliance, and any other band would have killed for an album like this in 1965.
The first album to feature Bruce Johnston, Johnston was not credited as he was still signed to Columbia at the time. Al Jardine also didn’t appear in the cover photo, due to illness. This was also the first album after Brian Wilson gained access to two things which would change the band’s recordings forever – an eight-track recorder, and LSD.
The Girl From New York City
This is an ‘answer record’ to the Ad Libs’ hit The Boy From New York City. Based around the same riff, it has a different verse melody and lyrics, but the inspiration is clear. A simple, fun, dance tune, the main point of interest is Mike Love’s delightfully dumb bass vocals.
This is a song where Mike Love won co-writing credit in 1993. Love sings lead on the verses. The choruses are sung by the group, but with Carl’s voice most prominent.
Amusement Parks USA
This is one of the few actual backwards steps on the album. Based around Freddie ‘Boom Boom’ Cannon’s hit Paisades Park, this is essentially a reworking of County Fair from the Surfin’ Safari album, but with the addition of a list of place names (Mike Love seems to have become convinced that this is the secret to commercial success after Surfin’ USA). The soundscape gives a better sense of place than the earlier record (and Hal Blaine is quite risque for the time with his turn as a carnival barker advertising “Stella the snake dancer…. she’s got the biggest asp in town”), but it’s filler, albeit enjoyable, well-crafted filler.
Another one that Love won co-writing credit for, Love and Brian Wilson share the lead vocals here.
Then I Kissed Her
A cover version of the Crystals track, written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector, and originally produced by Spector and arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Other than the gender re-write, which also changes the protagonist from being passive to active (“Then he kissed me” becomes “Then I kissed her”), the track sticks very closely to the original. The main differences are that Brian gets rid of the superfluous string section (the one bit of interesting melodic material the original string part had is replicated on a Hammond organ), and he provides a full, though rudimentary, backing vocal arrangement (mostly just ‘ooh’ chords – still more than the Crystals had, where the backing vocalists were limited to doubling Darlene Love on the title phrase). They also cut the instrumental break and superfluous repeat of the middle eight and final verse.
Al Jardine takes the lead here and does a sterling job, his vocal easily better than that of Darlene Love on the original (and that’s saying something – Love was one of the best session singers of the time). The end result is a refinement and improvement on the original, already a very fine single.
This was released as a stopgap single two years later, in a very different marketplace, and still managed a very respectable number four in the UK charts.
Salt Lake City
Another one for which Love won co-writing credit, this one is a simple little rocker, driven by a neat doubled-up four-note phrase on guitar and bass. But listen for when the instrumental break starts – the sax is playing a variant of the Fannie Mae/Help Me, Rhonda riff, which continues through the rest of the song. This variant would return as late as Brian’s 2004 album Gettin’ In Over My Head, where the same sax part is used to drive Desert Drive.
Lyrically, the song is pretty standard fare, except I find it hard to believe that even by 1965 standards Salt Lake City, the home of Mormonism, had ‘the grooviest kids’. Mike and Brian share lead.
Girl Don’t Tell Me
Despite his avowed preference for Paul McCartney’s work, Brian Wilson seems to me to be far closer as a songwriter to John Lennon. Both have the same lyrical themes, both structure their songs around chord changes and harmonies rather than primarily around melody, both use lots of leaps into falsetto and small stepwise movements, rather than jumps within the same range. Certainly, when the band came to record the stopgap Beach Boys Party! album, the three Beatles songs they covered (Tell Me Why, I Should Have Known Better and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away) were all Lennon songs as was the fourth, unreleased, cover, Ticket To Ride.
And Ticket To Ride is the crucial one here. Brian has claimed this was ‘written for the Beatles’, but he presumably means it was inspired by them – specifically, it’s very obviously written off the back of Ticket To Ride.
Quite possibly this was Brian feeling the same urge that drove Paul McCartney to write That Means A Lot – the urge to add more chord changes to a song which has none in its first ten bars. But whereas That Means A Lot keeps Ticket To Ride‘s dark, ponderous production, this goes to the opposite extreme and is light and breezy as a feather.
The whole thing is very, very clearly modelled on its inspiration. The celesta figure (played by Johnston, in his first recording session with the group) is essentially an anagram of the guitar riff from the Beatles song, the vocal melodies start out almost identically, and most obviously the chorus – “Girl don’t tell me you’ll wri-i-ite” repeated three times followed by “me again this time” is almost fingerprint identical to that of Ticket To Ride.
There are other, more general, Lennonisms scattered throughout the song as well – ‘gu-u-uy’ and ‘ti-i-ime’ both seem to be copying Lennon’s copies of Smokey Robinson (e.g, Not A Second Time).
The whole effect is very different from any other Beach Boys track of the time, especially since it features a solo vocal with no backing vocals, and that vocal is by Carl Wilson, who had only ever taken one lead before (Pom Pom Play Girl). Carl clearly sounds hesitant here, and there’s no hint that within a year he’d have become one of the greatest vocalists in rock history. It’s also a surprisingly sparse backing track, featuring only the Wilson brothers (on acoustic guitar, bass and drums) plus Johnston and a session tambourine player, and sounds like it was cut more-or-less live, with only the slashed electric guitar chords on the chorus being overdubbed.
If the song doesn’t rise to its inspiration’s emotional intensity, in some ways that’s a good thing – it’s hard for Brian to write that kind of song because he’s neither as fundamentally selfish nor as misogynist as Lennon was at that time. Even so, this song is fascinating as the most blatant example of the trans-Atlantic creative dialogue between the two bands that would heat up over the next eighteen months.
Help Me Rhonda
This is a remake of the track from Today!, and this is the version that got to number one. Comparing the two versions shows how Brian would refine his musical ideas. Rather than starting with the ukulele intro, this comes straight in with “Well since she put me down…”, backed by bass and percussion, before the rest of the instruments come in. Carol Kaye’s bassline is far more prominent here, and a much better part, with a strong jazz influence – one of the first of the truly great bass parts that Brian would come up with over the next couple of years. Mike’s bass vocal part has been completely rewritten – the “bow bow bow” and “come on Rhonda” parts that are such a crucial part of the song’s appeal only show up here. The harmonica, if it’s there at all, is submerged in a horn section and the drums don’t over power the rest of the instruments.
Rather than an instrumental break consisting of just the track without vocals, here we have a properly thought out break, a brief dialogue between boogie piano and electric guitar. And finally, instead of the annoying, overlong, fake fade on the chorus from the original version, we have a short instrumental fade on a repeat of the main riff.
While to a casual listener the two tracks are fairly similar – in fact the original version was included on the multi-platinum hits compliation Endless Summer in the 70s without many listeners even noticing – a comparison of the two shows the difference between a filler album track and a massive hit single.
This version still features Al Jardine on lead vocals, and reached number one in the US (knocking Ticket To Ride off after one week – the shortest time a Beatles record had had at the top of the charts up to that point) – the band’s second of four US number one hits.
This song is a difficult one to talk about, because its problematic aspects make it hard to hear just how good it actually is. The lyric (for which Mike Love won songwriting credit in the 90s, and which definitely sounds like Love’s work to me – a string of placenames with a bit of leering on top) is dull-witted and unpleasant, and Love’s nasal vocal doesn’t really sell it. But ignoring that, there’s a lot to love here.
It says a *lot* about the kind of songwriter Brian Wilson is that this was the result of his first LSD trip, the music being written while he was on acid. Inspired by the intervals and general feel of Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring (another of the many pieces that haunt the band’s career), Wilson and Love turn it into a celebration of a rather more secular kind of joy.
The most striking part of the track is, of course, the intro – a simple, repeated, nine-note phrase, slowly building up with the addition of instruments. Starting out with just 12-string guitar, within its twenty-two seconds it adds organ, trumpet, two saxes, bass, cymbal and vibraphone, to create a unique instrumental texture unlike anything else. (Just a shame about the studio chatter that makes it onto the very end of the intro. While in every other way a perfectionist, Wilson was never the best about ensuring his tapes were free of studio noise).
The driving force of much of the rest of the song is Carol Kaye and Lyle Ritz’s bassline, revolving for almost all the time around the notes B, F# and G, and the band’s vocals. This was the first track to feature Bruce Johnston on vocals (he can clearly be heard singing the answering “wish they all could be California” in the chorus – one of the most prominent vocal parts he takes on a well-known Beach Boys track), and also one of the first for which the vocals were recorded on eight-track, allowing them to triple-track all the vocals. This means that while previous Beach Boys tracks tended to feature just the five Beach Boys singing live plus usually the lead singer double-tracked, this has a full eighteen voices on it, giving the harmonies a thicker texture they’d never had before.
And those harmonies are astonishing. They’re low in the mix, but listen to the backing vocals under “I dig a French bikini on Hawaiian island dolls” – those block harmony “ooh-wah-ooh-wah-ooh-wah-ooh-wah-aah” parts are as good as any vocals ever recorded.
On its release this went to number three in the US charts, and it’s still one of the band’s most popular tracks. Lead vocals are by Mike Love on the verses, with Brian and Bruce Johnston on the choruses.
Let Him Run Wild
Supposedly inspired by Burt Bacharach, this actually has very little similarity to his work, being harmonically and rhythmically very simplistic, consisting for the most part of a shuffle between i7 and iv7 (or vi7 and ii7 – I’m not sure whether to consider this as being in D#m or F#, its relative major). Harmonically, there’s little here that anyone couldn’t write (I could knock out similar chord changes in a few minutes, as could any semi-competent songwriter). This one, again, Love claimed co-writing credit for in 1993.
What makes the track work – and it’s easily the best track on the album – is the arrangement. Every instrument here is made to sound unlike itself. The piano part is actually, if you listen to the isolated instrumental track (available on the Stack O’ Tracks album) a tack piano doubled with a vibraphone and with some hand percussion playing at the same time in the same range. The guitar is played through a Leslie speaker (something the Beatles didn’t start to do til Revolver, nearly a year later).
The instruments are used in ways that go completely contrary to their normal rock usage as well. The guitar, which would normally be the lead instrument, instead just repeats a four-note phrase (this use of the guitar paves the way for the track Pet Sounds next year). The bass, on the other hand, which would normally be plodding along with the four-on-the-floor feel of the piano part, is instead playing a fluid contrapuntal melody – one that changes and gets more complex as the song goes on. If you want to hear why Paul McCartney’s basslines suddenly got interesting in 1966, this song (and others like it) is why. The drums, which only come in on the bridge to the first chorus, aren’t used to keep time but to punctuate the end of the bass phrases.
The only instruments that are used in their normal way are the horns, and the backing track for the chorus sounds more than anything like the Count Basie band, a straight horn-driven slightly bluesy swing piece. I could easily hear Ella Fitzgerald or Ray Charles singing lead on this.
But Brian’s lead vocal on this track is astonishing. Unfortunately, he doesn’t think so himself – he kept it off the 1993 5-CD retrospective Good Vibrations: 30 Years Of The Beach Boys (making it, along with Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) one of only two essential Beach Boys tracks not on that superb collection) because he thought his voice sounded effeminate. But it’s an absolute tour de force. Singing mostly right at the top of his tenor range, occasionally shading over into falsetto in the verses, on the choruses, while the band sing the main melody, he hits some of the highest notes of his career as he practically screams “Let him run!”
Easily the masterpiece of the album, this is one of the greatest tracks of the band’s career.
You’re So Good To Me
Another disputed co-write, listening to this and the previous song back to back it’s hard to believe they’re the work of the same band, let alone that they have the same lead vocalist. But actually, this song helps tie the album together neatly. Like Girl Don’t Tell Me it’s a take-off on a rival band, this time the Four Seasons with their Motown-esque four-on-the-floor stampers. Like Let Him Run Wild it’s structured round two-bar crotchet phrases with simple chord changes and features a guitar put through a Leslie speaker. And it has some harmonic similarities to The Girl From New York City.
Here it’s all put in service of a Motown-style stomper, with Brian’s vocals being the closest he ever came to being a conventional rock singer, and with some delightfully goofy “duh duh duh” backing vocals from Love. This might only be a minor track, but it’s a wonderfully enjoyable one, and if I had to choose one track to sum up this album it would be this one.
Summer Means New Love
While previous Beach Boys instrumentals had been dull Dick Dale pastiche, this one is a very different beast. Melodically owing a little to Graduation Day by the Four Freshmen in the middle eight, and stylistically similar to Brian’s earlier After The Game, this little piece of semi-exotica owes most to the instrumentals on The Lonely Surfer by Jack Nitzsche (Phil Spector’s arranger and later an Oscar-winning film composer), especially Theme From A Broken Heart. While this is more romantic and less bombastic than Nitzsche, who could do subtle but always preferred to have half a dozen kettle drums bashed at full volume, the inspiration is clear. More than any other track on the album, this points the way forward to what Brian would be doing on Pet Sounds a few months later.
I’m Bugged At My Old Man
And from the sublime to the ridiculous, we get this comedy song. Just Brian at the piano, with the other band members adding backing vocals, this is possibly the first thing the Beach Boys did that could be described as ‘outsider music’, as much of their mid-70s stuff was, though this is still more knowing than that material.
Over a twelve-bar blues played in the style of Fats Domino, Brian sings, sometimes in a parody Elvis voice, about how he’s been locked in his room by his dad for being suspended from school (“I ripped up my wardrobe and I’m growing a beard/Oh when will they let me come out?”). While the punishments here are comically exaggerated, and the song is all in good fun, there’s more than a hint of truth behind it, and Brian occasionally sounds almost sincere.
This is the last of the comedy interludes on Beach Boys records, and has the virtue of being a proper song of sorts, but it’s also quite painful if you actually know anything of Brian’s personal history. I suspect it’s a case of having to laugh to keep from crying…
And Your Dream Comes True
And the album finishes with one of the lovely little fragments that are scattered about the Beach Boys’ career. This is an a capella piece, just 63 seconds long. In Four Freshmen style harmony, this is a slowed down version of Baa Baa Black Sheep, but with four lines of lyric – “You’re so sleepy, wish that he could stay/Love him so but now it’s getting late/He’ll be waiting, waiting just for you/One more summer and your dreams come true”. Surprisingly moving.
The Little Girl I Once Knew
A non-album single that ‘only’ reached number 20 in the US chart, its relative lack of success is generally put down to the fact that between the verses and choruses there are two bars of silence, and DJs don’t like ‘dead air’.
In fact, I suspect its relative failure is down to it sounding like an attempt to write California Girls Part II. It has a similar rhythmic feel, another (less successful) slow-build instrumental intro, and another chorus where Brian and Bruce sing the title in call-and response fashion. It’s structurally almost identical to the earlier song, other than the ‘lah doo day’ interlude, but less subtle, with a kitchen-sink approach that suggests Brian had been paying too much attention to Spector.
It’s an enjoyable enough single, but its reputation among Beach Boys fans as an unappreciated masterpiece owes far more to its chart position than to its quality. Had it been a massive hit, no-one would think anything of it.
It is, however, unusual in that it’s the only Beach Boys hit single never to have been included on an album. (Cottonfields wasn’t included on a US album, but was on the US version of Sunflower). It was probably originally intended for the album that became Pet Sounds, but by the time that album was being sequenced it was obvious it didn’t fit.
Dance Dance Dance (alternate take)
An early version of the song, featuring just the Beach Boys themselves performing. Fairly similar to the released version, except that the guitar solo clearly hasn’t been worked out properly, and the tambourine on the chorus seems almost to drown everything else out.
I’m So Young (alternate take)
An early, slightly-sloppily-doubly-tracked, vocal take over the same backing track as the released version. Almost indistinguishable from the released version.
Let Him Run Wild (alternate take)
Again, nearly identical to the released version, this has a different vocal part on the chorus – “Let him run wild he don’t care baby” instead of “Let him run wild he don’t care”, and the additional word ‘so’ before the word ‘before’ in the second verse. If you hadn’t heard the finished version, you’d think this was wonderful, but the chorus was hugely improved by the change.
A studio run-through, with just vocals and a single electric guitar, of a Four Freshmen ballad that was a staple of the band’s live set at the time. Being British, I haven’t had the American High School experience that this song is about, so perhaps for those who have it would give a very different impression. But to me this is fairly dull kitsch, redeemed only by some very good vocals.
remarkable insights as always, AH. never considered a Wilson/Lennon connection, for example. and was unaware of the “Ticket to RIde” outtake (which somebody posted to Youtube).
Thanks! For more on the similarities and differences with Lennon, see my comment to Wesley below.
I wanted to mention that I’m finding these posts quite useful–the Beach Boys are a band that, purely in terms of their sound, I should love. But I was alienated by their cars-and-surfing hits, which are practically all the Beach Boys I’ve ever happened across, and which all sound to me like “California Girls”: snapshots of a dumb frat-boy subculture I can’t sympathize with at all. So the only Beach Boys album I actually own is Pet Sounds. Now I’m hearing about non-beach-related songs I didn’t know existed, and I’m planning to track some of them down on iTunes or Amazon.
I’m *very* glad to hear that. If you want to try a single compilation, I’d recommend Classics Selected by Brian Wilson or Endless Harmony. The latter is a rarities and outtakes collection, but it’s actually much better than most of the released stuff.
*VERY* roughly speaking, there are two poles within the Beach Boys – Mike Love and Brian Wilson. Mike is the ‘dumb frat-boy’ stuff you don’t like – he co-wrote Kokomo without Brian, he’s the frontman of the band now and makes jokes about “N’Stynk” and how “It’s called Surfer Girl and it’s for all the girls out there, because we’re the Beach Boys, not the Village People” and so forth.
But on Mike’s plus-side, he does have a handy way with a hook, a good way of finding commercial potential in otherwise difficult material, and an incredible work ethic.
At the other extreme is Brian. While Brian still thinks in commercial terms, he’s primarily an artist. Whereas Mike Love without Brian Wilson will come up with “Well, I’ll take you to the movies, but I’m no fool/First I’ll get you on a beach or in a swimming pool/doing unto others is the golden rule/But doing it with you would be so very cool”, Wilson without Love came up with “I’m a leaf on a windy day/Pretty soon I’ll be blown away/How long will the wind blow?/Until I die…”
Brian is effectively what you’d get if you took the self-absorbtion and misogyny out of John Lennon, but also took away the skill with words. He’s verbally inarticulate, and his lyrics when not writing with someone else are often laughable. But his themes (the unattainable woman who’s too good for the weak man being the main one) are very similar, and there’s an openness of spirit there that’s frankly humbling.
One thing that may be surprising, but which shows there’s more to them than the frat-boy thing – I don’t think there’s a single song in the band’s whole fifty-year career that could be described as bullying or attacking anyone else. For all the posturing, the Beach Boys are far more likely to present themselves on the losing side than to be attacking anyone else – whether it be the people stealing their surfboard in “Finders Keepers” or the fear of losing the race in “Don’t Worry Baby”. Even in something like “I Get Around” it’s “The bad guys know us and they leave us alone” rather than “we’ll beat them”.
This is of course in stark contrast to every other band of the time, who would do at least *some* songs about how they were going to beat up their woman, or how much better they were than The Businessman In His Suit And Tie or whatever. The *only* occasion in their career where they came close to that is the song Surfers Rule, where they sing “Surfers rule, Four Seasons, you better believe it”.
Otherwise, where Lennon would sing about how jealous he was of someone else, Brian sings about how he’s jealous – and how his jealousy is unreasonable and he wishes he didn’t have it and thanks his girlfriend for putting up with it. “When I look at other girls it must kill her inside/but it’d be another story if she looked at the guys/But she knows me so well that she can tell I really love her” is a hell of a lot *nicer* than “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man”, you know?
Don’t know *WHAT* was going on there – tried inserting Amazon links into the comment, and just got pictures of the things I was linking to, and part of my comment got eaten.
On an intellectual note, I’m one of those people who always heard the opening line of “Help Me, Rhonda” as “Ever since she put me down, there’s been owls pooping in my bed.”
I just thought you should all know that.
Thanks for sharing!