To close the a-side of The Beach Boys Today!, the group includes another straight-forward dance song. And just to be sure you got the message, they titled it three times: “Dance, Dance, Dance”. In many ways, it feels like the band trying to create another hit in the same vein as “I Get Around”, and while it never reached number one, it was a sizable top 10 hit for the group at the end of 1964. But like so many of their fun, up-tempo songs, “Dance, Dance, Dance” is surprisingly sophisticated.
The guitar-driven song—with a killer riff contributed by Carl Wilson, earning him his first songwriting credit on a Beach Boys single—was first recorded in Nashville while the band was on tour in 1964. Unhappy with the original arrangement, they re-recorded the track in L.A. a few weeks later with additional studio musicians, some new lyrics, and a surprising key change. Even more so than the updated version of “R(h)onda”, the second attempt of “Dance, Dance, Dance” was a necessary improvement.
The new arrangement starts off with the main riff performed on the bass before getting doubled by Carl’s 12-string guitar and an acoustic guitar played by session musician, future touring Beach Boy (and famously rhinestoned cowboy) Glen Campbell. Following a very short verse sung by Mike Love, the full band comes in for the chorus, which is led by Brian Wilson’s soaring falsetto and rhythmic harmonic chanting from the rest of the group. Throughout the track, Brian has session drummer Hal Blaine add Phil Spector-esque percussion with sleigh bells, tambourine, castanets, and triangle. Subtle touches of saxophones and accordion pad the buildup in the chorus. They’re almost too low in the mix to even hear, but they add a thickness to the already loud three-guitar arrangement. Much like “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, this song really shows off the Beach Boys as instrumentalists. Despite being joined by some studio players, it’s Carl’s 12-string playing, especially his solo, and Dennis Wilson’s ecstatic drumming that are the real driving forces behind the song.
The most exciting change from the original version, which was later released as a bonus track for the The Beach Boys Today!/Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) twofer CD, is the key change in the final verse. It was not uncommon for a Beach Boys song—or any pop song—to raise the key for the last chorus. It adds excitement and interest, keeping the track from getting too repetitive. But on “Dance, Dance, Dance”, Brian chooses to spontaneously move up a half-step right in the middle of the verse. After the first phrase of the third verse, the band modulates up, finishes the next phrase, and enters the chorus in the new key. It happens so suddenly that you barely have time to notice how unusual it is before you’re already back in the chorus singing along.
The lyrics here are certainly simple; each verse is only two lines long and the chorus is mostly just the word “dance”. But conceptually, there’s more going on underneath the surface. It’s a song about trying to escape the pains of reality through music and dancing. School’s too hard? Turn up the radio. Feeling down? Grab a “chick” and turn up the radio. Faced with existential dread? That’s right: turn up the radio. The chorus makes it clear how imperative this hedonistic escapism really is. They don’t sing “I wanna dance”, they sing “I gotta dance”. And for adolescents, this isn’t necessarily hyperbole. With overwhelming emotional stress, the chance to get out to the “weekend dance” can really feel life or death. It makes sense then that the word “dance” is repeated 72 times throughout the song. It’s as if by singing it over and over again they can make everything else disappear. It helps too, of course, that music is so perfect for actually dancing while they sing about dancing.
Side A of The Beach Boys Today! was an important step for the band. With songs like “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”, the band members showed that they could add depth to their seemingly straightforward and fun pop songs, while the bizarre and unusual “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” and “Help Me, Ronda” proved that their experimentation could still be accessible. But it’s on Side B that we’ll really see Brian Wilson stretch his wings as a songwriter and an arranger.