[31 March 2014]
In the 1960s, there was a band that changed the way popular music was made forever. They challenged conventional ideas regarding harmony, form, and instrumentation in pop music. They innovated the way the recording studio could be used as an instrument just as crucially as a guitar or a piano. They stretched genres and blended styles while still churning out catchy hits that are as beloved today as they were when they were released. No, I’m not talking about the Beatles, I’m talking about America’s own: the Beach Boys.
Even with their early ‘60s music that focused on surfing, hot rods, and hot girls, the Beach Boys always made pop on their own terms. Led by the genius of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ early music blended the complex vocal harmonies of jazz singing groups, the music of rock ‘n’ roll, the attitude of youth culture, and the lush orchestrations of girl-group pop into something wholly original. Though Brian’s creativity is best known for his work on the groundbreaking Pet Sounds album in 1966, and its infamous failed follow up, SMiLE, this adventurous and innovative spirit was present from the very beginning. It can be seen in the complex chord structure of “The Warmth of the Sun” or the use of a full marching band in “Be True to Your School.” It can even be found on their first single, “Surfin’”, which uses a trash can instead of a drum set.
Still, there’s something truly special about Pet Sounds, which is, of course, why it is generally regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. But traces of what would appear on Pet Sounds can be found earlier in the Beach Boys’ catalog. And 1965 brought about a definite turning point towards the vibrant experimentation the band would find success with on tracks like “Good Vibrations”.
After their major label debut in 1962, Brian and the rest of the group had a string of hits, leading up to their first no. 1 song, “I Get Around” in 1964. Brian was becoming famous as a hit-maker not just for the Beach Boys, but as a writer and producer for other artists as well. With the pressure of making hits for his own and other bands on top of touring, managing finances, and his overbearing (to say the least) father, Brian suffered a mental breakdown—the first of many—at the end of 1964. From that point on, Brian stopped performing with the Beach Boys and stayed in L.A. to focus on writing and producing while the rest of the band went on tour. This inevitably led to an increase in productivity, creativity, and experimentation. The first album to emerge from this new working situation was The Beach Boys Today!
Beach Boys scholar Jon Stebbins accurately refers to the album as the “crossroads of commerciality and artistic expression”. That’s the key to Today! and its follow up, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). They show off Brian’s intricate compositional skill without eschewing their accessibility the way SMiLE (and to a lesser extent, Pet Sounds) did. Stebbins continues, “Brian’s production skills were now reaching full flower, while the group’s sound maintained an absolute accessibility.” The album went to no. 4 in the U.S. and no. 6 in the U.K. and spawned three top 20 hits. But in addition to being commercially successful, Today! continued to legitimize Brian Wilson as a producer, arranger, and songwriter who deserved respect and admiration for his musical innovations.
It’s worth returning to the Beatles here. Today! and many of its singles weren’t released in the U.K. until the following year, but the Beatles were regularly in America by this point, and their awareness and appreciation of the Beach Boys cannot be denied. It’s only after their time spent in America and their encountering the Beach Boys’ music that their own work began to experiment compositionally and production-wise in a similar way. In August of 1965, the two groups would meet for the first time at a show in Portland, Oregon. When Paul McCartney asked the Beach Boys where Brian was, Carl Wilson explained that instead of touring, he stayed home to focus on the music. Paul replied, “That’s a good idea”, and the Beatles stopped touring for good once they returned to the U.K.
The two groups would continue to influence each other over the next few years, with the experimentation of Today! and Summer Days pushing the Beatles further, Rubber Soul causing Brian to work as hard as possible to top it with Pet Sounds, which then directly influenced Revolver. The two groups were both set to release their biggest efforts yet in 1967, but only the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band ever got released, as SMiLE got scrapped for various musical, personal, and financial tensions.
But it all started, more or less, with Today!. The album is neatly organized with uptempo tracks on the a-side and introspective ballads on the b-side, but it would be a mistake to assume that the ballads are more sophisticated than the dance tracks. What’s incredible about this album is that Brian Wilson proves that he can be just as harmonically and structurally inventive with catchy dance songs as he can with emotional ballads. The following year, he would continue to blur the lines between ballad and uptempo songs on Pet Sounds and the “pocket symphony” single “Good Vibrations”, but the seeds of these ideas are seen clearly on Today!. Its positioning in the Beach Boys catalog makes it an exciting album. Gone are the songs about cars, surfing, or being a kid. It’s an album, both musically and lyrically, about looking forward. Pet Sounds is about growing up and moving on, and as such, it’s melancholic and reflective. But Today! is about the optimism, not the sadness, of leaving adolescence. Even on the more sentimental b-side songs, there’s a sense of excitement and longing for what the future has in store.
With all this in mind, we’ll be taking the next 11 weeks to discuss each track on The Beach Boys Today! in great detail. We’ll not only look at the songs themselves, and how they fit into this idea of musical growth and looking towards the future, but also at the recording process and release history. Today! is an often overlooked gem in the Beach Boys catalog, and I’m excited to walk through it together!