If opening The Beach Boys Today! with a cover of “Do You Wanna Dance” was intended to show off Brian Wilson’s skills as a producer and arranger, then following it up with “Good to My Baby” was meant to remind us where his band came from. It’s not that “Good to My Baby” isn’t musically exciting or complex, but of all the tracks on Today!, it’s the most similar to the beach Boys’ early music. So, just like covering a popular song provides a reference point to see their creative arrangements, the familiar songwriting on “Good to My Baby” acts as a reference point to compare the more innovative songs on the album against
Philip Lambert, in his book Inside the Music of Brian Wilson, notes that “[‘Good to My Baby’] has all the earmarks of a classic feel-good Beach Boys song: powerful, catchy vocals, including back-and-forth leads between Brian and Mike [Love], a clean, tight instrumental track, and a straightforward message about the rewards and benefits of monogamy.” And so despite never referencing surfing or cars, “Good to My Baby” would most easily fit on an earlier Beach Boys record like All Summer Long or Shut Down Vol. 2.
The song opens with an idiosyncratic vocal tag like we find on “I Get Around”, “Catch a Wave”, and a number of early hits from the group. Like those previous songs, the “Good to My Baby” vocal tag cycles through chords that move far away from the key of the song (A-flat in C major), but where the other songs find the Beach Boys singing in homophony—all singing the same words and rhythms—“Good to My Baby” has a more complex arrangement. Lambert compares it to songs of the Four Freshman, a vocal group which was highly influential on Brian Wilson’s writing style. “Like ‘It’s a Blue World’ (1954) or ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ (1960), ‘Good to My Baby’ begins with a web of imitative lines that present the main musical ideas of the song to come.” Amongst lush chords of “oohs”, the melodic motif attached to the words “Good to my baby” gets passed around between four different singers throughout the chords of this intro. So even in evoking their earlier work, the Beach Boys make it clear that their sights are set on the future. We’ll see this kind of intro again on “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” with even more complex chords.
After the intro, though, everything is status quo. The verses are driven by a simple guitar riff over a standard I-IV-V chord progression with Brian singing a syncopated falsetto line. For the pre-chorus, Mike picks up the lead vocal and the chords subtly shift us from C major to G major before leading us to start the chorus on A minor. This kind of stealthy harmonic movement is not uncommon even in their early music, and by the end of the chorus, we reach the A-flat chord of the intro to get us back to the verse.
But it’s unfair to continue discussing only Brian Wilson’s contributions to these songs. Mike Love wrote or co-wrote all of the lyrics on Today! and much of their earlier albums as well. And although the lyrics are rarely the main selling point for a Beach Boys song, Love brings out the simple and fun qualities that were so important to their success. “Good to My Baby”, as referenced earlier, is an ode to monogamy—-at least on its surface. Brian Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin notices a more complex narrative in the song, pointing out how “oddly defensive” the narrator seems while he sings against his “unnamed critics”. More than just praising long-term relationships (“We stay together while other couples come and go”), the narrator seems to be countering perceptions that he is not, in fact, “good to his baby”. He sings that, “They think I’m bad and I treat her so mean” and that “Some guys may think they’d be better for her”, but reassures himself, “When I get her alone now / You know we’re happy as a couple could be”. The defensiveness and anxiety running throughout the song adds a dark quality that’s not immediately on the surface, and ultimately makes “Good to My Baby” all the more interesting.
But despite the more complex vocal intro and the layered meaning in the lyrics, “Good to My Baby” still stands out on Today! for its similarity to their earlier music. And when it’s juxtaposed against songs like “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” and “Please Let Me Wonder”, it shows us just how impressive those other songs really are.
// Notes from the Road
"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.READ the article