Excerpted from 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, by Andrew Grant Jackson (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
The Brill and the Beach Boys Fight Back
Phil Spector’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” tops the charts on February 6, followed immediately by a second hit from the Brill Building songwriting factory, “This Diamond Ring.” Meanwhile, Brian Wilson begins his evolution from poet laureate of high school to baroque visionary on The Beach Boys Today!, released on March 8, featuring the chart topper “Help Me, Rhonda.”
Thanks to the Beatles-led British Invasion, Americans had succumbed to a ravenous thirst for all things English—a culture simultaneously exotic yet similar enough to relate to. Of the twenty-seven records that hit the U.S. No. 1 spot throughout the year, thirteen were from the United Kingdom. Motown was the biggest bulwark against the onslaught, with six chart toppers. New York’s Brill Building would ﬁght back with three.
Before the Beatles, the songwriters and producers associated with the Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway, had been pop’s most prolific source of hits. (Technically, a number of the artists moved out of the actual building and up the street to 1650 Broadway, but the term “Brill Building sound” stuck.) Aldon Music’s publisher, Don Kirshner, would find out which recording artists needed a new song, and then goad his songwriting teams to compete to write the best one. Three of Aldon’s teams were married couples: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Gofﬁn, and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. They were all young and Jewish, working in small cubbyholes with a piano, a bench, and a chair, hearing the other teams composing right next to them. King bounced her baby on her lap at the piano or kept her in a playpen. The writers were one another’s greatest competitors but also best friends. On holiday road trips, they’d make bets to see whose songs would be played most on the radio. They wrote for the Drifters and girl groups such as the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Crystals, and the Dixie Cups. Gerry Gofﬁn even had a child with the Cookies’ lead singer, though he stayed married to Carole King.
Phil Spector produced epics for the Crystals and the Ronettes. A tiny man with a Napoleon complex, he compensated by making the biggest-sounding records possible with his Wall of Sound, often with LA session musicians the Wrecking Crew. He would have several guitarists, bassists, pianists, drummers, and percussionists play simultaneously, and then bury instruments in the mix, so they could be felt but not heard, and swathe the cacophony in echo.
But now Motown had taken over the girl group genre with the Supremes, the Vandellas, and the Marvellettes. The Beatles made it seem effortless to write, sing, and play your own material, inspiring bands to try it themselves and rely less on outside sources. Suddenly the Brill seemed out of date. The Ronettes’ “Walking in the Rain,” Spector’s cowrite with Mann and Weil, couldn’t crack the Top 20 after its release in December.
To shake things up, Spector decided to work with men, the blue-eyed soul singers the Righteous Brothers. Spector lived in Los Angeles, so he ﬂew Mann and Weil out to stay at the Chateau Marmont and rented them a piano. Inspired by the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving,” they came up with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” When they played it for Spector, he got choked up at the lines about something beautiful dying. He would turn it into his most desolate blockbuster yet, its adult sophistication in stark contrast to the juvenilia that made up much of the current hit parade. But at three minutes and forty-ﬁve seconds, it was longer than most radio stations would play. Spector remedied that by printing labels that said the song was only three minutes, ﬁve seconds. In 1999 the performing rights organization BMI declared that the song had been played on radio and television more than any other song of the century.
“Feelin’” held the top spot for two weeks before being supplanted by Gary Lewis and the Playboy’s “This Diamond Ring,” by Brill songwriting team Brass-Kooper-Levine. Later in the year, Al Kooper would play the organ in Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Around the time “Feelin’” peaked on the charts, Mann and Weil were sleeping when their phone started ringing in the middle of the night. It was Brian Wilson, the leader of the Beach Boys. “Your song is the greatest record ever. I was ready to quit the music business, but this has inspired me to write again. I want to write with you guys.”
“Now?” a groggy Weil managed to reply.
Originally, Wilson saw his band as a combination of the Four Freshmen’s vocal harmonies and Chuck Berry’s rock and roll. He wasn’t a surfer. It was his younger brother Dennis who surfed, originally to get out of the house to avoid ﬁghting with their overbearing father, Murry. But Brian picked up the lingo from Dennis and used it in their songs, with Brian on bass, Dennis on drums, little brother Carl on guitar, cousin Mike Love on lead vocals, and a folk musician from Brian’s football team named Al Jardine on rhythm guitar. The rest of the country, stuck back in the snow, daydreamed about catching waves in an endless summer with the girls on the beach and sent the boys ever higher up the charts. Hot rods, drag racing, and high school were the other big themes. The Beach Boys felt like the kings of rock. Then the Beatles pulled into town.
Eleven days after the Beatles’ ﬁrst appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Wilson went into the studio to record “Don’t Worry Baby,” which tells the story of a guy who was bragging about his car but now doubts whether he can win the upcoming race. His woman looks him in his eyes, makes love to him, and tells him not to worry. “I knew we were good,” Wilson said, “but it wasn’t until the Beatles arrived that I knew we had to get going… So we stepped on the gas a little bit.” “Don’t Worry Baby’s” A side, “I Get Around,” became their ﬁrst No. 1.
But the day before Christmas Eve, the pressure caught up to Wilson. His good friend Loren Schwartz, an assistant at the William Morris talent agency, had recently introduced him to marijuana. Brian had been married to his sixteen-year-old wife, Marilyn Rovell, for only two weeks, and now he had to go back on tour to Texas. Not only was Brian singing and playing bass, but he was also writing, producing, arranging, and managing the group.
On the airplane, he started crying into his pillow. As soon as the plane took off, he shrieked and fell to the ﬂoor, sobbing. Carl Wilson and Al Jardine tried to help him, as did the ﬂight attendant, but Brian told her to get away from him. He did the Houston show that night, but it was his last live performance for twelve years. The morning after, he woke up sick to his stomach and cried in his hotel room all day, even turning Carl away. He ﬂew back to LA, where his mother picked him up and comforted him as he cried some more.
Wilson told the rest of the band he wasn’t going to tour with them anymore. Love and Jardine cried; Dennis freaked out and threatened to strike the road manager with an ashtray, but Carl calmed him down. Brian told the group not to worry, that it would all be worth it because he would write them some good songs. Wrecking Crew member Glen Campbell had cut many of the Beach Boys’ tracks in the studio, so he stepped in to play bass and sing falsetto onstage through early March. (The rest of the band performed live, just not on record anymore, though they had for their ﬁrst six albums.) Campbell didn’t know the lyrics, but the girls were screaming so much that it didn’t matter.
Thus, in January, Brian Wilson could focus on his passion, the Beach Boys’ next album Today!, reinvigorated by marijuana. “It opened some doors for me, and I got a little more committed to music than I had done before, more committed to the making of music for people on a spiritual level,” he said.
The Beach Boys couldn’t necessarily top the Beatles as writers or singers, but Wilson knew he could create the most luxuriant soundscapes captured on vinyl. While the Beatles were a tight combo who played everything themselves in the studio (frequently accompanied by producer George Martin on piano), the Beach Boys now laid their gorgeous vocal harmonies over the Wrecking Crew performing on everything from mandolins, English and French horns, saxophones, and harmonicas; to organs, harpsichords, and accordions; to timbales, congas, vibraphones, xylophones, and sleigh bells.
Today!’s ﬁrst side has the hits: “Dance, Dance, Dance” (No. 8), “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)” (No. 9), and a cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” (No. 12). Dennis sang lead on the last, and the track holds its own against the original 1950s classic by turning into a hard-pounding rocker with the Wall of Sound kicking in at the chorus, ﬁtting for Dennis’s wild-man personality. He was the kind of guy who kicked in dressing room doors to make an entrance when introducing himself to other bands on the bill. Once, when the Beach Boys were cornered in a stairwell by a gang of jealous local boys, Dennis kicked one in the nuts and split his scrotum. While the rest of the band still looked like the Four Freshmen, in sweaters and with neatly parted hair, Dennis’s bleached mane got shaggier, and he was the most popular with the female fans.
The second side of Today! was a dry run for the Beach Boys’ landmark album Pet Sounds, with its opulent orchestration, multilayered vocals, and lyrical concerns moving away from teenage Americana. Though the band was not usually renowned as wordsmiths, the songs on Today! grew surprisingly mature. In “She Knows Me Too Well,” the singer admits he treats his woman bad and then expects to be forgiven by making her laugh. “In the Back of My Mind” sees the singer striving to rationalize the fears that haunt him.
Brian originally didn’t think much of “Help Me, Rhonda,” perhaps because he had borrowed the melody from Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae.” Love wrote the lines about a man who, after being dumped by his ﬁancée, asks Ronda—as her name was originally spelled in the lyrics—to help him forget her. Before his current marriage, Brian had once proposed to another woman and was rejected, so perhaps that was the inspiration, though Brian told Jardine that Ronda was a made-up character. Jardine sang lead, only his second time as lead vocalist on a Beach Boys track; Love or Brian usually handled that duty.
It was just an album cut until Terry Melcher, the Byrds’ producer, wanted to cover it for his own group the Rip Chords. Melcher’s interest made Brian realize that “Help Me, Rhonda” was something special, so on February 24, the Boys and the Wrecking Crew went back into the studio to cut a new version for a single. Brian shaved twenty seconds off, Campbell added guitar to the instrumental, and an h was added to Ronda’s name.
The group was laying down new vocals when Murry Wilson arrived, drunk, and started trying to direct the proceedings as he had done in the early days as their manager, before they ﬁred him. The father had terrorized the boys when they were young. Brian said in 1999 that “[Murry] hit me with a two by four, right to the side of my head. He totally put my right ear out. He made me so deaf.” Murry would also take his glass eye out and make his kids look in the socket.
But Brian wasn’t intimidated anymore, as revealed in the session tape that, years later, was circulated as a bootleg.
“Brian, you’re coming in shrill,” Murry told him. “Al, loosen up a little more, say sexy ‘Rhonda’ more ... Dennis, don’t ﬂat anymore ... you’re so tight fella, I can’t believe it ... loosen up, sweetie.”
“Oh shit! You’re driving me nuts, shut up!” Brian ﬁnally screamed. “That’s it; I’ve got one ear left, and your big loud voice is killing it.”
“You’re an ingrate when you do this ... When you guys get so big that you can’t sing from your hearts, you’re going downhill.”
“We would like to record under an atmosphere of calmness, and you’re not ... presenting that.”
“The kid got a big success and he thinks he owns the business ... Brian, I’m a genius, too.”
The contretemps would inspire the next album’s “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man,” in which Brian bemoans how his dad has sold his surfboard, cut off his hair in his sleep, locked him in his room, boarded up his windows, taken his phone, and given him breadcrumbs to eat. Still, despite Murry’s interruption of the recording session, the revamped “Help Me, Rhonda” hit No. 1 after its release on April 5.
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