'Today!' was the band's first flirtation with the album-as-art form.
The Beach Boys released seven albums between 1962 and 1965, generally perfunctory collections of singles and B-sides with the odd cover song thrown in. Today! was their first flirtation with the album-as-art form. The album’s most notable conceptual element is its division into two contrasting sides, with the first featuring up-tempo songs (both “Dance Dance Dance” and their cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” are on this side) and the second featuring emotional ballads. Both the fast and slow sides showcase production more adventurous than in their earlier recordings: the up-tempo “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” makes prominent use of harpsichord and harmonica in an exuberant arrangement full of pauses, tempo changes, and key modulations.
The orchestral arrangement on the ballad “In the Back of My Mind” anticipates Pet Sounds, with swelling string and horn sections and baroque interludes. Its final instrumental coda mirrors the emotional discord expressed in the song’s lyrics, as, in Carlin’s words, “the strings, horns, and bells are played out of synch, each instrument meandering alone into the descending silence.” Pet Sounds was released only a little over a year after Today!, and it can be hard to separate Today! from the masterpiece it led to—so much so that Today! can feel like a rehearsal for Pet Sounds, with its themes and ideas repeated and perfected in the later album.
In Pet Sounds’ “You Still Believe in Me” we can hear tones of Today!’s “She Knows Me Too Well”, with their narratives of a man who’s aware of how patient his lover is with his bad behavior. The narrator of Today!’s “Please Let Me Wonder” decides not to confess his love, letting his romantic fantasy remain in his imagination; this reticence seems to mature into the meaningful silence between the lovers on Pet Sounds’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).” “I’m Waiting for the Day” from Pet Sounds can be heard as a reversal of the roles from Today!’s “Help Me Ronda”, with the narrator agreeing to be his beloved’s rebound guy. In the cover of the doo-wop standard “I’m So Young” on Today!—“I’m so young, can’t marry no one”—we might hear “wouldn’t it be nice if we were older.”
But to hear it only in relation to Pet Sounds would be to undermine what a strange and original work Today! really is. In truth there are lyrical themes and echoes that ripple through all of Wilson’s work, for various reasons. As Carlin points out, “It was extremely difficult for [Wilson] to resist the pressure to build on his greatest hits by repeating them over and over again.” But beyond the expectations on Wilson to produce new hits, his is also a mind of intense preoccupations and hang-ups—his songs revisit the same circumstances across albums because he is still racked by the same apprehensions.
There are lyrical themes that recur frequently over Today!’s 28 minutes. “Good to My Baby” from the fast side and “She Knows Me Too Well” on the slow are surely sung by the same narrator: on the first he protests that he’s good to his girl, despite all evidence (“They think I’m bad and I treat her so mean / But all they know is from what they’ve seen.”). On the second he confesses to being the worst boyfriend imaginable—“When I look at other girls it must kill her inside/But it’d be another story if she looked at the guys”—before explaining that she knows him so well “that she can tell” that he’s devoted to her. More broadly, Today! displays an intense anxiety about relationships, as with the withheld confession on “Please Let Me Wonder”. On “In the Back of My Mind”, a man in a happy relationship is tormented by the fear of the relationship ending. “So happy at times that I break down in tears,” he says, “but in the back of my mind I still have my fears.”
There’s also a focus on the teenage experience on Today!, which has been a consistent subject for the Beach Boys’ music. This makes some sense—Wilson was barely out of high school when the Beach Boys formed—but on Today!, the childlike lyrics take a turn for the unsettling. “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” takes the stance of a teenager wondering what adulthood will be like, but with lyrics like “Will I love my wife / For the rest of my life,” we might wonder if the song isn’t expressing a child’s questions about the future, but newly-married 23-year-old Wilson’s uncertainties about adult life.
Creepier is “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”, in which the narrator chides a boy who has done his little sister wrong. “Why don’t you kiss her,” he says a little too insistently, and going further, “Why don’t you love her / Like her big brother?” As far as vaguely incestuous pop songs go, “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” was probably composed with innocent intentions. But we do know that in his early 20s Wilson had an interest in younger women. He began dating his wife Marilyn when he was 21 and she was 14, and he married her when she was 16. “He was constantly looking at teenage girls,” said Tony Asher, his co-writer on Pet Sounds. “He thought they were the most beautiful girls in the world. And he was married at the time, so it was fairly obvious he was confused about love.”
Wilson’s attraction to teenage girls and his prolonged interest in teenage life smacks of a kind of arrested development. This delayed adolescence can be attributed in part to Murry’s overbearing ways—Murry manipulated Wilson so that he remained dependent on him for guidance and approval. As the Beach Boys’ manager he babied and controlled them well into Wilson’s 20s. As Carlin describes, “Murry rode herd over them like a Boy Scout leader, rigidly enforcing the rules he’d established to keep the boys polite, disciplined, and out of trouble.” The traumas of Wilson’s childhood and his relationship with his father made it so he never really escaped those years—he always felt a deep connection to his high school life.
Well into the 1970s, when Wilson was in his mid-30s, he would call his high school friends, wanting to reconnect. During 1966, while recording Pet Sounds, he began making frequent calls to his high school crush, Carol Mountain, sometimes as late as 3:00am. Mountain is the subject of Pet Sounds’ “Caroline No” (“Carol, I Know”), which gives an unnerving glimpse of Wilson’s psyche, as he wonders if he could love the adult Carol like he loved the teenage one. “Could I ever find in you again,” Wilson asks, “the things that made me love you so much then.” The problem of his delayed emotional development may be something Wilson never fully worked through, and it was probably made worse by his drug abuse. In the mid-1970s Wilson was actually planning an album called Adult Child, which the other Beach Boys eventually shelved, and, well, that kind of sums it up, doesn’t it?
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“We do another one, ‘When I Grow up to Be a Man,’” Love said recently when speaking about the 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour set list. “The opening is incredible, it’s got fantastic harmonies—but yeah, it’s written from the point of a young guy looking to the future and here we are, very much in that future.” In some ways, of course, this is true. All of the members of the Beach Boys have weathered a lot since that song was written and achieved just as much. The band that recorded “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” was on the verge of their greatest artistic successes, and they were also about to enter an era of chaos and disappointment, drug use and debauchery. The song expresses awe at a future that none of the Beach Boys could have fully imagined.
But in another way the Beach Boys never reached the future that the song dreamed of, because the song does not really envision the future at all. “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” is about envisioning the past. It was written by a 23-year-old who imagined a 13-year-old imagining what it was like to be 23. This is still the position the septuagenarian Beach Boys are in today—looking back at their younger selves looking forward to a future that is not the present, an impossible future. Carlin describes the Beach Boys as utopians, and this is a helpful way to think of them—theirs is a vision of a teenage paradise where everyone’s young forever, where they can all be California girls and you can go surfing in Kansas. Even Wilson’s most mature work, the avant-garde song cycle SMiLE, he described as a “teenage symphony to God.”
This utopian spirit can be sadder than if their music were pessimistic: Wilson and the other Beach Boys have spent their entire lives wishing for a childhood they never could never have. As such, any connection we draw between their past and present feels hopelessly ironic. Take the last track on Today!, “Bull Sessions With ‘Big Daddy’”, in which they talk to journalist Earl Leaf about their 1964 European Tour. “The first show I only made three mistakes,” one of them says of a show in Paris, to which Wilson replies, jokingly, “I haven’t made a mistake yet, in my whole career.” “Brian, we keep waiting for you to make a mistake,” someone else replies.
This snippet of conversation says volumes about Wilson’s complicated relationship to the other Beach Boys, particularly once he chose to quit touring. And this dynamic is still present in the Beach Boys’ new tour, in how crucial it was that Wilson be a part of it, in the fact that the band has existed, holding on, teeth clenched, for 50 years. This is why the Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour can’t avoid some shade of the melancholy, even despite hopeful signs: we wish by now the Beach Boys could have escaped each other, and the complex web of family, money, and history that binds them.