1963 had been a year of big changes for the Beach Boys.
Brian Wilson had been feeling under increased pressure by the middle of the year. Not only was he principal songwriter and producer for the Beach Boys, responsible for putting out three albums that year plus a couple of non-album singles, but he was also writing and performing with Jan and Dean, and producing for half a dozen side projects (including the Honeys, the band that featured his future wife Marilyn, along with her sister and cousin). On top of this, he had never liked touring — the travel stressed him out, the loud amplifiers made his bad ear hurt, and he couldn’t get to a piano to write — and was tiring of the stresses of the road.
The solution was obvious — call in Alan Jardine, who had been in the band at the start, but had quit after the first single, to take Brian’s place on the road. Jardine could play bass, the instrument that Brian had been playing on stage, his voice sounded very like Brian’s, and he knew everyone in the band. Brian could stay at home, write songs, work on his side projects, and turn up to the odd important show and TV appearance, and the other five could go out on the road. Having Jardine in the studio would mean that Brian could play keyboards without having to use up an extra track for an overdub, and Jardine added a valuable extra harmony voice. It was the perfect setup.
At least, it was the perfect setup between April and August 1963, at which point David Marks announced he was quitting the band. After October 5, 1963, Jardine moved over to rhythm guitar, replacing Marks, Brian resumed his bass duties, and the band were back to their original line-up. Suddenly, the band’s music changed focus — the surf instrumentals, which relied on the interplay between Marks and Carl Wilson’s guitars, took a back seat, while the band’s harmonies became dramatically more complex, as Jardine was possibly the most versatile of the group vocally and had a voice that blended spookily well with the four family members who made up the rest of the band.
And with the move away from surf music, the band also moved away from surf lyrics. After the Surfer Girl album, released in September 1963, the Beach Boys would only do one more song about surfing — Don’t Back Down, on the All Summer Long album — in their next twelve albums. What they did do, starting with the Little Deuce Coupe album released two days after Marks left the band, was to make cars a more major theme of their songs.
This was partly because, as Mike Love has noted, people on the coasts could surf, but teenagers everywhere in America could drive, so the car-themed B-sides of several of the band’s surf singles had become hits in their own right as middle America could relate to them, but also because Brian Wilson had a new friend, Roger Christian.
Christian was a DJ who Wilson had heard criticising 409 on the radio, saying it was a great song about a terrible car. It quickly became apparent to Wilson that Christian was able to provide enough technical detail to make his car songs ring true, and Christian was established as one of Brian Wilson’s small team of regular collaborators, along with Jan Berry and Mike Love, pushing Gary Usher out of his position (not that Usher seems to have minded — Usher and Christian collaborated on many, many songs themselves around this time, for various beach films and quickie cash-in albums of hot-rod songs).
We’ve come across Christian’s work before — he collaborated on Dead Man’s Curve and may have had a hand in Surf City — but here is his finest moment, his greatest collaboration with Brian Wilson, and one of the greatest pop songs of all time.
Don’t Worry Baby is, in many ways, a refinement of the Dead Man’s Curve formula. Even more than that song, it’s based around Be My Baby, and it was apparently offered to the Ronettes as a sequel for that record before the Beach Boys recorded it themselves.
It’s hard, though, to see how the Ronettes could have done the song justice, as it’s a quintessentially masculine (though definitely not macho) record, one that perfectly sums up the themes that Brian Wilson would return to throughout his career. Here, as in Dead Man’s Curve, the car race is a source of anxiety, brought about by macho posturing, but unlike in Dead Man’s Curve the focus is no longer the race itself, but the woman who reassures the protagonist. When we get to the chorus, it follows the same pattern that earlier Brian Wilson hits, both for the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, have used — mass chanting block harmony vocals singing the title over and over, while Mike Love’s bass vocal moves freely underneath, like Brian Wilson’s left hand on the piano while the right hand blocks out the chords, singing “Now don’t, now don’t you wor-ry, ba-by”.
But Brian Wilson’s falsetto at the top of the stack isn’t the usual wordless wail that we’ve heard so much before, but instead repeats the words that the singer’s nameless girlfriend tells him — “Don’t worry baby, everything will turn out all right, don’t worry baby”.
This is the moment. This is when everything that makes the Beach Boys the Beach Boys gels perfectly. The male vulnerability and insecurity of a singer confronted with a woman who loves him despite — maybe even because of — his faults, the glorious five-part harmonies, and the instruments used not in a display of virtuosity but entirely in service of the song (the guitar “solo” is just a series of stabbed chords, utterly rudimentary but utterly perfect) make this the moment when they transcend Phil Spector, Chuck Berry, and the Four Freshmen, and become their own, perfect, thing.
The Beach Boys were about to face an existential crisis, with the Beatles and the other British invasion groups challenging them for their position as the most important band in American music. But this song showed that they didn’t need to worry. Everything would turn out all right…
Don’t Worry Baby
Composers: Brian Wilson and Roger Christian
Line-up: Brian Wilson (vocals, piano), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Mike Love (vocals), Alan Jardine (vocals, bass)
Original release: Shut Down Vol. 2, The Beach Boys, Capitol LP T2027
Currently available on: Surfer Girl/Shut Down Vol. 2 Capitol CD, as well as numerous Beach Boys hits compilations.