This first track on The Beach Boys Today! is a cover of the 1958 Bobby Freeman song, “Do You Wanna Dance”. At first, this fact may seem ironic, as I stressed in my introduction that Today! raised Brian Wilson’s status as a “songwriter who deserved respect and admiration for his musical innovations”. But by opening the album with a cover, we are allowed to see more intimately what Wilson can really do with a song. Here, we have a reference point with the original, which can then be compared to the Beach Boys’ version, revealing Wilson’s’s skill as an arranger and interpreter more clearly.
Outside of the slap-back delay on the drums and an unusual false ending, there’s nothing particularly notable about the original 1958 recording (though it does feature a young Jerry Garcia on guitar, for whatever that’s worth). It’s a piano-driven rock track that features a standard I-IV-V chord progression, simple lyrics, and a loosely sung melody. The Beach Boys version, in contrast, is lushly orchestrated, tightly structured, and includes an instrumental bridge in a different key. Essentially, it sounds very little like the original version, and musicologist Philip Lambert notes that this track “highlights the difference between ‘a song covered by the Beach Boys’ and an existing song transformed into ‘a Beach Boys song’.”
Much of what we’ll be talking about throughout this series is the question of what exactly “a Beach Boys song” is. What is it about this arrangement that leads Lambert to distinguish “Do You Wanna Dance” from earlier covers such as “Summertime Blues” as sounding like “a Beach Boys song”? To answer this, we need to look at what Brian Wilson has changed in the song. Most salient is the addition of an intricate vocal arrangement to back up Dennis Wilson’s enthusiastic lead vocal. Next is the transformation of the “Do ya do ya do ya do you wanna dance” hook from a tag used only in the final chorus of the Bobby Freeman version into the central hook of each chorus in the Beach Boys version. This rhythmic vocal chanting is a prominent feature in many Beach Boys songs and its inclusion here, sung in three-part harmony with a characteristic falsetto descant part, goes a long way in establishing this re-interpretation as sound like “a Beach Boys song”. There’s also the instrumental bridge, which cycles through distant chords before making its way back to the original key for the final chorus. These kinds of harmonic explorations became essential to Brian Wilson’s compositional technique around this time. Lastly, the orchestration of the song, which Jon Stebbins refers anachronistically as “both Phil Spector-like and punk-rock influenced”, includes timpani, two saxophones, five guitars, and organ. Compared to the piano, guitar, bass, and drums of the original recording, this is extravagant instrumentation.
But it is important to compare the Beach Boys’ 1965 recording of “Do You Wanna Dance” not just against the original 1958 version, but to also discuss popular covers from Cliff Richard (1962), Del Shannon (1964), and the Four Seasons (1964). Notably, the use of the “Do ya do ya do ya do you wanna dance” hook throughout each chorus appears on the Cliff Richard version, along with the squarer vocal phrasing in the verses. And the vocal arrangement in the chorus has a lot in common with the Del Shannon version. Conversely, though, there is very little in the Four Seasons version that found its way into the Beach Boys’ recording. But even with these more contemporaneous comparisons, the fuller instrumentation and the harmonically adventurous bridge are sure signs of Brian Wilson.
And in this sense, opening Today! with “Do You Wanna Dance” situates us as listeners to properly appreciate the rest of the album. Assuming that we are familiar with any of the previous versions of the song, we would be struck by the creativity of this re-interpretation upon our first listening. The differences between those versions and the Beach Boys’ recording highlight a lot of what is interesting about the songs throughout the album: the dense arrangements, the intricate vocal harmonies, and the complex chord structures.
But most importantly, this is still a fun pop song. As its title suggests, it’s meant to be danced to, and Brian Wilson’s sophisticated re-interpretation doesn’t lose that quality. In my introduction post, I discussed how Today! focuses on this dichotomy between musical complexity and commercial accessibility, and “Do You Wanna Dance” perfectly sets up this idea. The fact that the song became a top 20 single when it was released as a single in February of 1965 reinforces the point. While it is surely not the most musically interesting track on the album, “Do You Wanna Dance” allows Wilson to show off his skills as an arranger more transparently and assures listeners that despite their growing musical complexity, the Beach Boys are still centrally a group dedicated to fun, fun, fun.