Music

When I Grow Up: 'The Beach Boys Today!'

The often overlooked The Beach Boys Today! (1965) finds Brian Wilson and the rest of the band embracing the sophisticated musical experimentation we would later find on Pet Sounds while retaining the catchy accessibility of their early surf and car songs.


The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys Today!

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 1965
UK Release Date: 1966
Amazon
iTunes

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!

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.