[2 June 2014]
In his book, The Beach Boys FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About America’s Band, Beach Boys scholar Jon Stebbins keeps a fairly neutral tone in describing interesting tidbits about the group’s music and career. But he becomes uncharacteristically enthusiastic when discussing “Kiss Me, Baby”, the third track on side two of The Beach Boys Today!:
“Perhaps the pinnacle of balladry…is “Kiss Me, Baby”. It’s one of the Beach Boys’ most romantic and emotional songs. “Kiss Me, Baby” is also a mammoth artistic achievement. There is something so penetrating about this recording that it can make the hairs on your neck stand up, or even bring tears. The level of quality that Brian [Wilson] and the Beach Boys could produce in bunches is astounding, and this song is more proof of that. “Kiss Me, Baby” would be a career achievement that any musical artist would be proud of, but for the Beach Boys it was just another album track on another album of great ones.”
It would be hard to get more glowing about a song than this, but it’s also hard to disagree with him. “Kiss Me, Baby” is truly something special, and it’s because every aspect of the song from composition to arrangement to performance is so flawlessly executed.
Brian Wilson wrote the song during the band’s European tour at the end of 1964, either in a hotel café or a brothel, depending on whose story you trust. Regardless of the setting in which it was written, the song is one of the most interesting compositions in his entire output. Its subtly shifting chord progressions and tightly constructed melody have an elegance and powerful expressivity to them. And the arrangement just brings everything to life. Instrumentally, Wilson uses his Spector-esque set up of three guitars, two basses, two pianos, two saxophones, and percussion, as well as touches of English horn and French horn to add an orchestral flavor to the mix. But like we saw on the other side two songs, nothing feels cluttered. Wilson has figured out a way to use the expanded instrumental palate more effectively by bringing sounds in and out, rather than combining all the colors into a wall-of-sound. This sparser instrumental texture makes room for the vocals, which are some of the thickest and most beautiful harmonies the group had pulled off up to that point. An a cappella mix of the song was included on the 2001 rarities album Hawthorne, CA, which shows off the complex and lush vocals throughout the whole track, sung to perfection.
The lyrics, penned by Wilson and Mike Love, explore the pain felt after an argument ends a relationship. The narrator reflects on the fight he and his girlfriend had, wishing things could be different, but resigning to his situation. Though the chorus asks her to “kiss me baby”, the rhythmic background chanting of “Kiss a little bit / Fight a little bit / Kiss a little bit / Fight a little bit” implies that he knows the on-again/off-again relationship should remain off. But this doesn’t stop him from wondering, as he lies awake at sunrise, “Are you still awake like me?”
The song was recorded in two separate recording sessions: the instrumental track on December 16th, 1964; the vocal tracks on January 15th, 1965. Craig Slowinski notes that, “this is probably the most historically significant track on the Today! album, simply because Brian suffered his notorious in-flight nervous breakdown between the date of the session for the instrumental track and that for the vocals.” Unlike other tracks we’ve discussed, “Kiss Me, Baby” doesn’t seem to lyrically parallel Brian Wilson’s personal life at the time, but the occurrence of his nervous breakdown before the recording of the vocals adds interesting meaning to the regret-filled lost-love lyrics.
For an album whose songs are so concerned with the future—whether worrying about it or anticipating it—“Kiss Me, Baby” is an odd man out, focusing on coming to terms with the present. In that way, the song feels spiritually connected to Pet Sounds, and it helps that the composition and arrangement of “Kiss Me, Baby” also point towards the unique style that would appear on that album the following year.