Originally offered to Phil Spector to record with the Ronettes, the third track on The Beach Boys Today! presents a conflicted and guilt-ridden autobiographical narrative.
Undoubtedly, Brian Wilson’s biggest influence during this period of his life—and for most of his career, in fact—was Phil Spector. The songs that Spector wrote and produced for groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes would be a constant source of fascination for the Beach Boy. In the early part of his career, Wilson would go to Gold Star Studios to sit in on Spector’s recording sessions to see how he created his “wall of sound” production style in order to mimic it on the Beach Boys’ records. The production style utilizes layers of guitars, keyboards, and percussion instruments, often along with strings, brass, and woodwinds, all tracked together live in the same room to create a thick and chaotic yet wonderful sound. And this “bigger is better” philosophy to arranging and producing is what pushed Wilson towards much of the innovation we find on albums like The Beach Boys Today!, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), and Pet Sounds. But despite arguably surpassing Spector’s achievements in his own technique (which we’ll discuss later in this Between The Grooves Series), Wilson remained humble, saying in 1998, “I never considered [the Beach Boys] to be anything but just a messenger for his music.”
Infamously, Wilson has been obsessed with Phil Spector’s song for the Ronettes, “Be My Baby”, throughout his entire life. Daughter Carnie Wilson recalls, “I mean, I woke up every morning to ‘Ba-baba-cha! Ba-baba-cha!’ Every day…Every day!” Biographer Peter Ames Carlin recalls how Brian would listen to the song over and over again, “as if he could absorb some vital energy from the sound of its thundering echo”, Late in 1963, Brian offered a song to Spector called “Don’t Worry Baby” for the Ronettes to record as a sequel to “Be My Baby”. He turned it down, and the Beach Boys recorded it for themselves in 1964, releasing it as the B-side to their first no. 1 song, “I Get Around”.
Later in 1964, Wilson offered another song to Spector to record, “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”. The song mimics Spector’s “wall of sound” production style in addition to modeling its chords and melodies after classic Spector songs. But, again, Spector didn’t accept the piece as it was given to him. He reworked it with new lyrics and changes to the melody and arrangement, releasing it in 1966 as “Things Are Changing (For the Better)”, recorded by the Blossoms as part of a campaign by President Lyndon B. Johnson to, “correct the inequality in employment opportunities between whites and minorities including blacks in the U.S.”
The version that made it onto Today!, however, contains the originally lyrics penned by Wilson and Mike Love. The song is told from the perspective of an older sibling warning a male suitor, “Don’t hurt my little sister.” The song is commonly understood to be autobiographical, with Brian Wilson in the role of the suitor and Diane Rovell in the role of the older sister. Late in 1964, Wilson had married Rovell’s younger sister Marilyn, who was 17, but some suspect the song to be about Brian’s feelings for the youngest Rovell sister, Barbara, who was 13 at the time. Friend and collaborator Gary Usher notes, “[Brian] fell madly in love with Barbara…I was over there many times, and I could see this happening and Brian becoming so frustrated because there was nothing he could do about it.”
In this sense, “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” is a manifestation of Wilson’s own guilt, culminating in the final chorus where he sings in his pained falsetto, “Why don’t you love her / Like her big brother?” The song has a conflicted view throughout on whether the love should be fraternal or romantic. The first pre-chorus sings, “Why don’t you kiss her / And while you kiss her / Tell her you miss her”, while the second pre-chorus sings, “Why don’t you love her / Like her big brother?” And this confusion of roles reflects the reality of the situation. Wilson had effectively moved in with the Rovells by 1964 and in many ways acted as an older brother to all three sisters. He also became in some way romantically entangled with all three of them before finally marrying Marilyn on December 7th, 1964. So the confusion as to the nature of the relationship in “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” should not be seen as sloppily lyric writing but as capturing the conflicting and tortured feelings Wilson was dealing with through this period. “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”, then, becomes another example of seemingly simple lyrics that house deeply complex and emotionally layered narratives that you would not expect on first listen, much like “Good to My Baby”.
Musically, we find a similar type of deceptive simplicity. As mentioned previously, the song was modeled on the songs of Phil Spector. But while it may not be the most original composition on Today!, it’s not without its interesting moments or sophisticated craft. Following the structure set up in Spector’s “Be My Baby”, the verses of “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” are simple and straightforward, while the pre-choruses are harmonically adventurous. But the chorus here, too, moves far away from the home key of B-flat in a sequence of chords led by a call-and-response vocal chanting. Wilson would later use this same technique for the chorus of “California Girls” for the Beach Boys' Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). In Philip Lambert’s analysis, this chord pattern “has a ‘distancing’ effect, as if separating the insensitive guy from the younger sister just as the key gets farther and farther away from its tonal home”. But in the final chorus, the chords stay between B-flat and E-flat as the song fades away. Lambert’s interpretation explains, “as the vocal admonishments continue, the underlying chords refuse to portray the earlier distancing. He’s staying closer to home, and yet feels no better in the face of constant reminders in the vocal part. The song can no more resolve the problem than could Brian set aside his feelings. The inherent complexity and difficulty of the circumstances can only be acknowledged, not overcome.” Though, outside of the context of the song, Brian does seem to overcome this conflict when he marries Marilyn.
The inclusion of “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” on The Beach Boys Today! is an important reminder of Wilson’s musical debt to Phil Spector. As he continue to expand his own “wall of sound” in more interesting and creative ways, the presence of a song written specifically for Spector shows not only his mastery of Spector’s technique but also the ways in which he is able to exceed his idol.