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 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 LA 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 US and no. 6 in the UK 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 UK 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 UK.
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 look at 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.
1. “Do You Wanna Dance?”
This first track on The Beach Boys Today! is a cover of the 1958 Bobby Freeman song, “Do You Wanna Dance”. At first, this fact may seem ironic, as I stressed in my introduction that Today! raised Brian Wilson’s status as a “songwriter who deserved respect and admiration for his musical innovations”. But by opening the album with a cover, we are allowed to see more intimately what Wilson can really do with a song. Here, we have a reference point with the original, which can then be compared to the Beach Boys’ version, revealing Wilson’s skill as an arranger and interpreter more clearly.
Outside of the slap-back delay on the drums and an unusual false ending, there’s nothing particularly notable about the original 1958 recording (though it does feature a young Jerry Garcia on guitar, for whatever that’s worth). It’s a piano-driven rock track that features a standard I-IV-V chord progression, simple lyrics, and a loosely sung melody. The Beach Boys version, in contrast, is lushly orchestrated, tightly structured, and includes an instrumental bridge in a different key. Essentially, it sounds very little like the original version, and musicologist Philip Lambert notes that this track “highlights the difference between ‘a song covered by the Beach Boys’ and an existing song transformed into ‘a Beach Boys song’.”
Much of what we’ll be talking about throughout this series is the question of what exactly “a Beach Boys song” is. What is it about this arrangement that leads Lambert to distinguish “Do You Wanna Dance” from earlier covers such as “Summertime Blues” as sounding like “a Beach Boys song”? To answer this, we need to look at what Brian Wilson has changed in the song. Most salient is the addition of an intricate vocal arrangement to back up Dennis Wilson’s enthusiastic lead vocal. Next is the transformation of the “Do ya do ya do ya do you wanna dance” hook from a tag used only in the final chorus of the Bobby Freeman version into the central hook of each chorus in the Beach Boys version.
This rhythmic vocal chanting is a prominent feature in many Beach Boys songs and its inclusion here, sung in three-part harmony with a characteristic falsetto descant part, goes a long way in establishing this re-interpretation as sound like “a Beach Boys song”. There’s also the instrumental bridge, which cycles through distant chords before making its way back to the original key for the final chorus. These kinds of harmonic explorations became essential to Brian Wilson’s compositional technique around this time. Lastly, the orchestration of the song, which Jon Stebbins refers anachronistically as “both Phil Spector-like and punk-rock influenced”, includes timpani, two saxophones, five guitars, and organ. Compared to the piano, guitar, bass, and drums of the original recording, this is extravagant instrumentation.
But it is important to compare the Beach Boys’ 1965 recording of “Do You Wanna Dance” not just against the original 1958 version but to also discuss popular covers from Cliff Richard (1962), Del Shannon (1964), and the Four Seasons (1964). Notably, the use of the “Do ya do ya do ya do you wanna dance” hook throughout each chorus appears on the Cliff Richard version, along with the squarer vocal phrasing in the verses. And the vocal arrangement in the chorus has a lot in common with the Del Shannon version. Conversely, though, there is very little in the Four Seasons version that found its way into the Beach Boys’ recording. But even with these more contemporaneous comparisons, the fuller instrumentation and the harmonically adventurous bridge are sure signs of Brian Wilson.
And in this sense, opening Today! with “Do You Wanna Dance” situates us as listeners to properly appreciate the rest of the album. Assuming that we are familiar with any of the previous versions of the song, we would be struck by the creativity of this re-interpretation upon our first listening. The differences between those versions and the Beach Boys’ recording highlight a lot of what is interesting about the songs throughout the album: the dense arrangements, the intricate vocal harmonies, and the complex chord structures.
But most importantly, this is still a fun pop song. As its title suggests, it’s meant to be danced to, and Brian Wilson’s sophisticated re-interpretation doesn’t lose that quality. In my introduction post, I discussed how Today! focuses on this dichotomy between musical complexity and commercial accessibility, and “Do You Wanna Dance” perfectly sets up this idea. The fact that the song became a top 20 single when it was released as a single in February of 1965 reinforces the point. While it is surely not the most musically interesting track on the album, “Do You Wanna Dance” allows Wilson to show off his skills as an arranger more transparently and assures listeners that despite their growing musical complexity, the Beach Boys are still centrally a group dedicated to fun, fun, fun.
2. “Good to My Baby”
If opening The Beach Boys Today! with a cover of “Do You Wanna Dance” was intended to show off Brian Wilson’s skills as a producer and arranger, then following it up with “Good to My Baby” was meant to remind us where his band came from. It’s not that “Good to My Baby” isn’t musically exciting or complex, but of all the tracks on Today!, it’s the most similar to the Beach Boys’ early music. So, just like covering a popular song provides a reference point to see their creative arrangements, the familiar songwriting on “Good to My Baby” acts as a reference point to compare the more innovative songs on the album against
Philip Lambert, in his book Inside the Music of Brian Wilson, notes that “[‘Good to My Baby’] has all the earmarks of a classic feel-good Beach Boys song: powerful, catchy vocals, including back-and-forth leads between Brian and Mike [Love], a clean, tight instrumental track, and a straightforward message about the rewards and benefits of monogamy.” And so despite never referencing surfing or cars, “Good to My Baby” would most easily fit on an earlier Beach Boys record like All Summer Long or Shut Down Vol. 2.
The song opens with an idiosyncratic vocal tag as we find on “I Get Around”, “Catch a Wave”, and a number of early hits from the group. Like those previous songs, the “Good to My Baby” vocal tag cycles through chords that move far away from the key of the song (A-flat in C major), but where the other songs find the Beach Boys singing in homophony — all singing the same words and rhythms — “Good to My Baby” has a more complex arrangement. Lambert compares it to songs of the Four Freshman, a vocal group that was highly influential on Brian Wilson’s writing style. “Like ‘It’s a Blue World’ (1954) or ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ (1960), ‘Good to My Baby’ begins with a web of imitative lines that present the main musical ideas of the song to come.” Amongst lush chords of “oohs”, the melodic motif attached to the words “Good to my baby” gets passed around between four different singers throughout the chords of this intro. So even in evoking their earlier work, the Beach Boys make it clear that their sights are set on the future. We’ll see this kind of intro again on “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” with even more complex chords.
After the intro, though, everything is status quo. The verses are driven by a simple guitar riff over a standard I-IV-V chord progression with Brian singing a syncopated falsetto line. For the pre-chorus, Mike picks up the lead vocal and the chords subtly shift us from C major to G major before leading us to start the chorus in A minor. This kind of stealthy harmonic movement is not uncommon even in their early music, and by the end of the chorus, we reach the A-flat chord of the intro to get us back to the verse.
But it’s unfair to continue discussing only Brian Wilson’s contributions to these songs. Mike Love wrote or co-wrote all of the lyrics on Today! and much of their earlier albums as well. And although the lyrics are rarely the main selling point for a Beach Boys song, Love brings out the simple and fun qualities that were so important to their success. “Good to My Baby”, as referenced earlier, is an ode to monogamy—-at least on its surface. Brian Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin notices a more complex narrative in the song, pointing out how “oddly defensive” the narrator seems while he sings against his “unnamed critics”. More than just praising long-term relationships (“We stay together while other couples come and go”), the narrator seems to be countering perceptions that he is not, in fact, “good to his baby”. He sings that “They think I’m bad and I treat her so mean” and that “Some guys may think they’d be better for her”, but reassures himself, “When I get her alone now / You know we’re happy as a couple could be”. The defensiveness and anxiety running throughout the song adds a dark quality that’s not immediately on the surface and ultimately makes “Good to My Baby” all the more interesting.
But despite the more complex vocal intro and the layered meaning in the lyrics, “Good to My Baby” still stands out on Today! for its similarity to their earlier music. And when it’s juxtaposed against songs like “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” and “Please Let Me Wonder”, it shows us just how impressive those other songs really are.
3. “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”
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 original 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 continues 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.
4. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
In many ways, “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” not only stands as the most impressive track on The Beach Boys Today!, but the best track in the group’s entire catalog. Musically, the song is unusually structurally and harmonically complex: it changes keys, builds its main hook on an ambiguous, dissonant chord, stretches the tempo, and climaxes on a long pause. In regards to its lyrics, Craig Slowinski notes that, as “one of the very first rock ‘n’ roll songs to explore the subject of impending adulthood, ‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’ was a strangely melancholic choice for a single in a climate dominated by upbeat Beatles (and Beatles-soundalike) songs.” But despite its oddities, “When I Grow Up” managed to become a Top 10 single in the US when it was released in late 1964.
Possibly more impressive is that all of the instruments—excluding the harmonica on the verses—were played by the Beach Boys themselves. For much of Today!, Brian relied on session musicians for the instrumental tracks, but not for “When I Grow Up”. Jon Stebbins comments that “this tune is a great example of the self-contained musicianship that the Beach Boys rarely get credit for. ‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’ is all Beach Boys, and it’s all great.” From Brian Wilson’s intricate electric harpsichord melodies woven throughout to Dennis Wilson’s passionate and precise drumming, “When I Grow Up” shows that the Beach Boys weren’t just competent instrumentalists, but damn good ones, even if it took them 37 takes to get it right.
Less surprising, though, is how great the vocals are. Like many early Beach Boys songs, “When I Grow Up” opens with a vocal refrain, but here, the chord that the boys hit on “When I grow up” is dissonant, unstable, and functionally ambiguous. Music theorist Philip Lambert rightly questions, “What is that chord, and what’s it doing at the beginning of a pop song?” While the first part of the question may be too difficult to answer here, we can attempt to explain the second half.
“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” is particularly interesting lyrically. On the surface, the song is about a teenager looking forward and wondering what his life will be like, though, as Alice Bolin points out, it’s actually about “a 23-year-old who imagined a 13-year-old imagining what it was like to be 23”. He is anxious about what his children will think of him, whether or not he’ll always love his wife, and the impending end of his youthful freedom, not to mention the inevitable end of his life. So this jarring chord is used to capture the fraught unsureness of the character’s perspective as well as the narrative tension that arises from the difference between Brian Wilson’s age and his narrator’s. This is a pretty heavy subject matter for a pop song released in 1964, and Brian doesn’t soften it with simple music. Instead, he embraces the difficult subject matter and expresses it simultaneously through the music. And somehow, the group still managed to make it a hit.
The destabilizing nature of the “when I grow up” chord is exploited throughout to shift the song into different keys. The first time we hear the chord in the intro, it allows the song to resolve to the home key of A-flat major. But after the second verse, the refrain leads to a wordless bridge in E-flat minor. And after the third verse, the chord prepares the song to modulate into A major. But outside of the magical “when I grow up” chord, there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on in the music.
The verses follow a simple I-V-I chord progression with Mike Love singing a repetitive melody that outlines the chords. Here, he begins asking questions like, “Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid?” Moving into the pre-chorus, Brian Wilson takes the lead in a falsetto whine accompanied by a harmonized vocal counterpoint. This layered texture increases the urgency and angst of the questions they’re singing. All the voices come back together, though, for the refrain of “When I grow up to be a man”. In addition to the wonderful vocal writing, the instrumental track is inventive and exciting. Throughout the song, there is an ornate harpsichord counter-melody to the vocal line. The harpsichord hadn’t been used on a Beach Boys record before this, but would pop up again later on Pet Sounds and the failed SMiLE album. In the second and third verses, a rhythmic harmonica accentuates the texture in an unexpected way that further adds to the unique sound of the track.
In the song’s verses, background vocals start counting in harmony, signifying the passing of time. By the time we get to the outro, they’re at “22…23…24…25” and so on. On top of this, Mike repeats a hook of “Won’t last forever” and Brian offers a blunt observation, “It’s kinda sad”. The contrapuntal outro feels like a precursor to the outro of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, another song about looking forward into the future. But unlike “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “When I Grow Up” is tense and distressed. Even the title, with its parenthetical inclusion of “To Be a Man” implies masculine anxiety similar to their earlier song, “Don’t Worry Baby”. In a 2011 interview with Goldmine, however, Brian reassures fans by saying, “As I look back, I am happy with my life now and I didn’t think I would be [when I wrote the song].”
This is not songwriting that’s complex for the sake of complexity, though. Rather, these clever harmonic maneuvers are directly related to the sophisticated lyrics and the emotional state of the narrator. And it’s this kind of artistry that makes “When I Grow Up” stand out, and marks Today! as a real turning point in the Beach Boys’ career.
5. “Help Me, Ronda”
When “Help Me, Rhonda” was released as a single in mid-1965, it became the Beach Boys’ second number one hit, following “I Get Around” from the previous year. But it’s not “Help Me, Rhonda” that’s on The Beach Boys Today!, it’s “Help Me, Ronda”. After recording the original version of the song in January of 1965, the Rip Chords — a band featuring Bruce Johnston, who would later join the Beach Boys officially in 1966 — expressed interest in recording a version to release as a single. Instead, Brian Wilson reworked the song, added an “h”, and the Beach Boys released it for themselves. But the first recording still ended up on side one of Today! After the success of “Rhonda” as a single, the group placed it on its next album, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), and the Rip Chords did record the song, but never ended up releasing it.
Most of the lyrics, chords, and melodies remained unchanged for the single version, but the arrangement has a few key differences. “Rhonda” opens right on Al Jardine singing the first verse, but “Ronda” uses a four-bar instrumental intro featuring the main guitar riff and layers of jangly ukuleles. In the chorus of the single version, the vocal arrangement adds the iconic “bow-bow-bow-bow” vocal bass line that’s missing from “Ronda”. And a guitar solo was added to a previously empty instrumental section. But the biggest difference is the outro.
The album version of the song features a few bizarre false endings. As a looping chorus of “Help me, Ronda / Help help me, Ronda” begins to fade out, the mix suddenly jumps back up in volume and starts to fade out again, only to come up once more and repeat the main hook. It starts to fade away again and then comes back one last time, only to finally fade away for good. Brian Wilson must have realized this wouldn’t go over well on radio and decided to end the single version with a normal fade-out on an instrumental tag. In general, this original recording feels messy and strange, and the cleaner and more energetic instrumental and vocal arrangements on “Rhonda” are a definite improvement. Jon Stebbins quipped, “Brian’s decision to rerecord it for single release was a wise one.”
Though there’s been some speculation of the contrary, both Brian Wilson and Mike Love have claimed that there was never any real Ronda (or Rhonda, for that matter). The song tells the story of a man who was recently left by his fiancé and who wants Ronda to “get her out of my heart”, with, essentially, a one-night stand. The sexual implications are more direct here than on most Beach Boys songs, but it’s still vague enough to fit their clean-cut image and to go to the top of the charts. This is helped not just by the insanely catchy music from Wilson but by the lyrics leaving the plot out of the chorus. The entire story takes place in two brief verses, while the chorus just repeats the phrase “Help me, Ronda / Help help me, Ronda” until the hook of “Get her out of my heart”. This is the part that everyone remembers, so the specifics of what Ronda is being asked to do in order to “help” are often forgotten.
Both versions of the song feature Al Jardine singing lead. It was only the second Beach Boys song he sang lead on, the first being “Christmas Day” on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but he proved himself more than competent and would go on to sing more leads throughout their career. And like many of the tracks on the b-side of Today!, “Ronda” almost entirely utilizes session musicians for the instrumental track. The only exception being Carl Wilson playing guitar alongside Glen Campbell, Bill Pitman, and Billy Strange.
Despite its inferiority to the single version, “Help Me, Ronda” has a lot of charm. Even outside the novelty of the false endings, the messier structure and strange instrumental bridge give the song a unique character. And even with a mediocre arrangement compared to other tracks on Today!, the song still has one of the strongest melodies on the album.
6. “Dance, Dance, Dance”
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 a 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.
7. “Please Let Me Wonder”
As discussed in previous posts, the b-side of The Beach Boys Today! is comprised entirely of ballads, contrasting with the up-tempo songs of the a-side. And although both sides contain complex, introspective lyrics, the slow and densely orchestrated songs of the album’s second half inherently feel more personal. So it’s perfect, then, that the side opens with “Please Let Me Wonder”, possibly the most sentimental of the Beach Boys’ songs up to this point in their career. Like so many of the other songs we’ve looked at on Today!, “Please Let Me Wonder” is a layered narrative exposing personal anxieties. Here, Brian Wilson explores ideas of intimacy and love along with the difficulty of growing up and pursuing creative fulfillment.
The first verse sounds like a rumination on losing your virginity, especially with the lyric “I always knew it’d feel this way.” This reading of the lyrics works throughout the rest of the song, with Wilson’s narrator occupying the traditionally feminine role. Over the course of the song, he worries that, though he is in love with her, she is not in love with him. In the chorus, he begs her to “Please let me wonder / If I’ve been the one you’ve loved.” He cherishes “this beautiful image” he has of her and her feelings, as opposed to her reality. Most interesting, though, is the line in the second verse where he sings, “You’ll never know what we’ve been through.” This implies that, although they have been in this relationship together, he has perceived it very differently than she has. She couldn’t possibly know what their relationship has meant to him. Or that’s his fear, at least.
“Please Let Me Wonder” was the first song the Beach Boys recorded in 1965, just one month after Wilson and Marilyn Rovell were married. Even if we assume that he had lost his virginity prior to their marrying, this interpretation of the lyrics makes sense with what Wilson was going through on an emotional level. Progressing a relationship to the next level, whether to sex or to marriage, can make partners feel vulnerable. This would be especially true for the famously over-emotional Brian Wilson, who had gone through his first mental breakdown only weeks before recording this song. With that in mind, reading “Please Let Me Wonder” as using a virginity metaphor to discuss his fears of commitment and intimacy in his own marriage seems like an obvious interpretation of the lyrics.
A first version of the song, sung by Mike Love, contains slightly different lyrics, but these, too, support the marriage anxiety reading. Gone is the interesting “You’ll never know what we’ve been through” lyric, but added are lyrics like, “I’m so afraid of what you’ll say.” The new lyrics emphasize the anxiety the narrator feels and the certainty of his love being unrequited. He begs her “Please don’t say what you want to say” before his chorus advocating ignorance as bliss.
Most interesting to me is why, on the same day of recording, Wilson decided to sing the song himself and change some of the lyrics. The personnel switch can be attributed at least in part to Wilson’s frustration with Love’s performance of his vocal overdubs (as heard on studio outtakes of the song), as well as an indication that Wilson saw “Please Let Me Wonder” as deeply personal. And the lyrical alterations could be assumed were intended to make the song feel less cynical. But I also feel that the changes make the song more ambiguous and open to other interpretations.
It has been said by Brian Wilson himself that “Please Let Me Wonder” was the first song he wrote while high on marijuana. While discussing this in his controversial autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Wilson also describes the song as “a plea to the others to let me pursue my own creative path”, a path no doubt helped by the drugs. Even though this description of the lyrics seems a bit revisionist — if he wanted to write a song about frustrations with his creative autonomy, he could have been more direct about it, as on Pet Sounds‘s “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” — the alternate meaning is an interesting one.
In this reading, the verses start by discussing how far the band has come and how proud of their accomplishments Wilson is. “I always knew it’d feel this way”, then, is not about sex, but about fame and success. But his pride is cut with apprehension. He asks his bandmates, who rely on him as their primary songwriter and producer, “Can’t you tell my heart is breaking?” This anticipates the distance that will continue to grow between Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys later in the decade, culminating in the shelving of Wilson’s overly-ambitious SMiLE project. In this analysis, the “You” of “You’ll never know what we’ve been through” is actually us, the listeners. This interpretation, however touted by Brian Wilson, falls apart in the chorus. But the ambiguity of the lyrics, allowing for layered meanings, makes “Please Let Me Wonder” one of the most interesting songs on the album.
To accompany these beautiful lyrics is equally beautiful music. “Please Let Me Wonder” remains one of Wilson’s most beloved ballads, and for good reason. Opening with an infectious 12-string guitar line from Carl Wilson, the instrumental arrangement is subtle and balanced throughout, more spacious and lean than Brian Wilson had normally been producing. In that way, “Please Let Me Wonder” marks the true departure from Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound and into Brian’s own distinct producing style. Instead of layers of doublings, hints of different instruments like the organ, the vibraphone, and the 12-string guitar come in and out with short melodic ideas that color the arrangement but don’t overwhelm it. Vocally, the group adds dense harmonies in the intro and chorus over Brian’s sprawling chromatic chords. And the vocal melody in the verse is one of his idiosyncratic lines that snakes up and down in unusual, but lovely ways. More than any song on The Beach Boys Today!, even the wildly complex “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, “Please Let Me Wonder” points towards what’s to come for the Beach Boys.
8. “I’m So Young”
When your band has a songwriter as talented and inventive as Brian Wilson, why do you record covers? “I’m So Young”, the second cover song featured on The Beach Boys Today!, serves a very different purpose than “Do You Wanna Dance?” As we saw in our discussion of the latter, that track was used to show off Wilson’s creativity and skill as a producer and arranger. By taking a familiar song as a starting point, Wilson’s extensive changes to the track could stand out as impressive displays of his budding genius. But the arrangement of “I’m So Young”—originally recorded by the Students in 1958 and covered by the Ronettes in 1964—doesn’t change much.
So, if not to flex his creative muscles by tampering with someone else’s song, why cover “I’m So Young”? We have to assume that something about this song resonated with Wilson and the rest of the band to be worthy of inclusion. Especially in the context of side two of this album, which was conceived of as a collection of Wilson’s sophisticated, introspective ballads, “I’m So Young” must have felt personal enough to him to want to record. And when we look at the lyrics and the recording history of the song, it’s clear to see how the song reflects Wilson’s own fears and anxieties at the time.
The song is lyrically very simple. The narrator is young and in love with a girl who “says I’m her only one”, but their parents won’t let them get married. The chorus pleads and whines immaturely, lamenting, “I’m, I’m, I’m so young!” The choice of the first person singular is interesting here because in the verses, he sings “we”, but for the chorus—the real emotional outpouring of the song— he shifts to “I”. Perhaps this is another sign of selfish immaturity. In the first verse, he sings, “They say our love is just a teenage affection”, and although he disagrees, he similarly treats the marriage as now-or-never in the second verse, when he sings about how he’ll soon go away and “their mother’s baby will have seen the last of me”.
The song was first recorded by the Beach Boys in September of 1964, a few months before Wilson and Marilyn Rovell got married. Although Wilson was in his 20s by then, Rovell was just 17, and the fear that they were too young was likely very real for them. On the surface, then, this song seems to contrast “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”. Rather than being worried about growing up, the characters here seem to worry about being young. But on a deeper level, especially when thought about in the context of Wilson’s personal life at the time, “I’m So Young” is equally anxious about the future. He may say that he wants to get married, and he may mean it, but one gets the sense that he is worried that their parents are right: they are too young.
Wilson has said that the Beach Boys’ version was modeled on Phil Spector’s production for the Ronettes more than the original. But in both the first 1964 recording and the 1965 recording that eventually made it onto Today!, there is a clear debt to both. The original starts with a guitar playing through the chords of the verse, which is then joined by wordless vocal harmonies before starting the lyrics in an out-of-tempo opening phrase. The Ronettes’ version, though, starts right on this out-of-tempo phrase and the Beach Boys versions follow this structure, as well as adopting the more lushly embellished chords throughout the track. But the Beach Boys covers also feel small and intimate like the Students’ take, in contrast to the overblown wall-of-sound style on Spector’s production. Also, the Ronettes changed the lyrics in the second verse in addition to changing the title from “I’m So Young” to, simply, “So Young”. The Beach Boys kept both the original title and lyrics.
Their first take of the song features flourishes of melodramatic flute throughout along with a clunkier vocal arrangement and amateurish drum banging from Dennis Wilson. So it was wise for the group to rerecord the song in January of 1965, the last track recorded for the album. This updated version has an elegant vocal intro, a more subdued lead from Brian Wilson, and a refined instrumental arrangement. While the first version sounds like an attempt to capture the grandiosity of Spector’s arrangement, the album version is much more reflective of the mood in the lyrics. We saw on “Please Let Me Wonder” the beginnings of Brian’s own arranging style, out of the shadow of Phil Spector, and “I’m So Young” continues that trend.
But the rerecording of the song is also interesting in light of Brian’s personal life; he and Rovell were married in December of 1964, in between the first and the final recording of the Beach Boys’ “I’m So Young”. Does their marrying mean that Wilson overcame his fears and anxieties over their age and the future they would have? Or does the inclusion of the song on their album, and the imperative to rerecord it and make sure it was right, mean that he was still having these feelings?
The major innovation Brian Wilson brought to the song, in both versions, is his ending. The original Students song and the Ronettes’ cover end at the final chorus, but Wilson adds a new outro to the song, with ornate vocal counterpoint and a soaring falsetto part. The vocal writing is so distinctly Beach Boys and so evocative of the melancholic tone of the song that there are few moments as wonderful on the whole album. Even if “I’m So Young” was not penned by Wilson and Mike Love like the rest of the songs on The Beach Boys Today!, it fits perfectly into the anxious, contemplative mood of the album, and the simple elegance of the arrangement makes it a real stand-out track.
9. “Kiss Me, Baby”
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.
10. “She Knows Me Too Well”
“She Knows Me Too Well” was technically the first song recorded for The Beach Boys Today!, before the band’s All Summer Long album had been released or recording for The Beach Boys Christmas Album had begun. But the song got re-recorded later for Today! and that initial June 8th, 1964 recorded has never been subsequently released (like so many other alternate takes from this and other Beach Boys albums). It’s safe to assume, though, that not much changed between the June and the August recording of the song, compositionally at least. If we look at other tracks from Today! for which earlier recordings that have been released, the changes between versions tend to be in the arrangement and occasionally the lyrics. So while we can’t be sure exactly what changed from the first version of “She Knows Me Too Well” to the final released version, we can imagine that they are fairly similar.
I find this interesting because of the impressive and progressive songwriting in “She Knows Me Too Well”. Craig Slowinski comments, “this track more than any other from the Today! album seemed to point toward the direction [Brian Wilson’s] music would be taking a year later on Pet Sounds.” While I slightly disagree—I gave that distinction to “Please Let Me Wonder” on a previous post—he’s certainly not far off. The harmonically complex song perfectly expresses the tension and confusion of the lyrics, but always manages to be accessible and tuneful in a way that only Brian Wilson can pull off. That the track was first recorded so early in the album process (before the process even began, in fact) and manages to be one of the most forward-thinking tracks the Beach Boys had put out up to this point, is quite astonishing.
It’s also interesting because of its simple arrangement. While the songwriting is forward-thinking and reminiscent of what we will hear later on Pet Sounds, the instrumentation is limited. In fact, the recording that made it onto Today! was recorded at the same session as “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, meaning that all the instruments were played by the Beach Boys themselves. The instrumental performances aren’t particularly impressive as they were on “When I Grow Up”, but having the sophisticated chord progressions performed without the help of Wilson’s lush instrumental arrangements gives the track an intriguing and unique sound on the album. That and the novel use of what is credited as “microphone boom with screwdriver”, which produces a high-pitched bell-like sound in the recurring opening theme.
The vocal arrangement, as we can expect, is also exquisite. The song’s opening theme oscillates between two seemingly unrelated chords, held together by intricate wordless vocals and ending with Mike Love singing a tag of “she knows me” which hints at the chorus melody to come. The gesture then returns throughout the verses. This kind of intricate vocal writing appears later in the verse as well to add background “ooh”s to Brian Wilson’s graceful vocal lead. And in the chorus, the group sings “she knows me too well” in complex counterpoint while Wilson’s voice soars above in his falsetto. By this point in their career, there’s nothing shocking about a Beach Boys song having an incredible vocal arrangement, but “She Knows Me Too Well” is so wonderfully elegant that you can’t help but be taken over by their voices.
The lyrics, penned by Love and Wilson, offer a fascinating and honest perspective on relationships. Throughout the song, the narrator explores his own relational shortcomings but continues to delude himself into thinking that everything is alright. The first verse expresses his guilt, admitting “I treat her so mean, I don’t deserve what I have / And I think that she’ll forget just by making her laugh”. The second verse, half of which is repeated after the bridge, discusses his jealousy and insecurity, hinting at his emotional abuse of her. He sings, “I get so jealous of the other guy / And then I’m not happy till I make her break down and cry”. But he also recognizes his hypocrisy: “When I look at other girls, it must kill her inside”. But all these issues, in his mind at least, are taken care of by the fact that “she can tell I really love her”. The choruses express the sentiment that because she knows him so well, none of these things matter. They do, of course, but his delusion makes for a more interesting song.
Music theorist Philip Lambert describes that opening theme with strangely related chords as embodying the character’s ambivalence, and the fact that it does not return at the end to bookend the song suggests that the character has moved from this internal conflict towards some sort of clarity. “The song’s protagonist”, he writes, “has learned a little something about how to treat a woman.” I’m less optimistic in that regard, but I think that the investigation into this kind of perspective is an interesting addition to the themes on The Beach Boys Today!. So many of the songs on the album deal with personal anxiety, mainly over what the future will bring. “She Knows Me So Well” exhibits a deep anxiety over the present, and how shows how we can mislead ourselves into ignoring our problems. This contrast in ideas adds an interesting element to the album while remaining similar enough to not break a sense of consistency.
11. “In the Back of My Mind”
For the last proper track on The Beach Boys Today!, Brian Wilson and the rest of the group don’t hold anything back. “In the Back of My Mind” is a huge step forward musically, lyrically, and production-wise, and even tucked away in the back of this album, the song has taken on an iconic status among fans and critics for being a true masterpiece.
It’s notable, then, that “In the Back of My Mind” was recorded in the same session as “Good to My Baby”, the Beach Boys Today! track that I discussed as sounding the most like the group’s earlier music. In contrast, “In the Back of My Mind” really sounds like nothing they’ve ever done before, even with all the experimentation and sophistication we’ve previously seen on this album. Philip Lambert comments, “The chord progressions of ‘In The Back Of My Mind’ are virtually unprecedented in Brian’s previous work”, but it’s not just the chord progressions: the masterful lyrics from Brian Wilson and Mike Love, as well as Wilson’s sublime orchestral arrangement, are innovative in their own right.
The composition is certainly a good place to start, though. The structure of the song is very unusual, eschewing the standard verse/chorus formula for a sort of altered strophic form. Rather than a series of verses all ending with a recurring hook or refrain (as in, say, a typical Bob Dylan strophic song from the same time), “In the Back of My Mind” repeats two similar verses—each containing wildly varying melodic material—and then moves into a strange bridge section before returning to the verse. But this final verse changes the refrain into a melodramatic tag that leads into an orchestral fade out that sounds like the beginning of another song entirely. Inside this sprawling structure is the previously alluded to adventurous chord progression.
The song revolves around F major, but takes liberties and pushes far outside of the key. This is especially true in the bridge, which has chromatically descending lines that all but completely erase the sense of functional tonality. The Beach Boys Today! has not been without its fair share of impressive chord changes, most notably on “Please Let Me Wonder” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, but what we find here is truly special. Jon Stebbins calls the song “a harbinger of things to come”, and when you look at songs like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” from 1966’s Pet Sounds or “Wonderful” from the failed SMiLE project, it’s hard not to see their harmonic antecedents in “In the Back of My Mind”.
Lyrically, the song continues the theme we’ve seen over and over again on The Beach Boys Today!: anxiety over what the future will bring. The narrator states in the opening line, “I’m blessed with everything” but admits by the end of the verse, “In the back of my mind, I still have my fears”. This cynicism runs throughout the song. In the bridge, he sings about trying to run away from these thoughts and convince himself that being with his love is for the best. At the end of the last verse, he asks, “What will I do if I leave her?” and confesses in the final lyric that this question will “Always be way in the back of my mind”. The musical change that follows this—the descent into the abyss of another mysterious song that fades out before we can catch a glimpse of it—can be interpreted as a fantasy of what would happen if he left her.
All the idiosyncrasies in the music, actually, can be related to the anxiety found in the lyrics. When he sings in the bridge about trying to run far away from these bad thoughts, the music mirrors this by moving further and further away from F major. The added musical drama in the last refrain emphasizes the importance of his final statement. Where he previously sang about how these thoughts are currently “In the back of my mind”, the last lyric condemns him to perpetual torture: “It will always be in the back of my mind”. These lyrics take on an extra dark quality when you remember that the song was recorded just one month after Brian Wilson got married. Stebbins refers to the lyrics as “a cry for help” which came “squarely in the midst of mental health problems [and] having just decided to forgo making live appearances with the Beach Boys”. With that context, it’s hard to not interpret “In the Back of My Mind” as at least partially biographical.
But perhaps more than any other element, the arrangement is what is truly incredible about this song. Like many of the songs on Pet Sounds, there’s no traditional drum set on “In the Back of My Mind”. Instead, the rhythm is driven by the strumming of the guitars, the melodic vibraphone and Wurlitzer, and touches of woodblocks and timbales. In the bridge, percussive string pizzicatos keep time, but never do we fully fall into a groove. This opens up room for the instruments to have more expressive lines and textures, and ultimately treats the pop arrangement like a composer would work with an orchestra. Harbinger indeed, this approach to orchestration would become a touchstone of Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds and SMilLE and would even continue on the Beach Boys’ late-’60s psychedelic albums.
Also notable about this arrangement is the lack of vocal harmonies. The song is sung by Dennis Wilson (who also sang the opening song, “Do You Wanna Dance?”, thus bookending the album with his vocals), and on the bridge his brothers Carl and Brian sing together in unison, but there are no harmonies throughout the whole song. Where other anxiety-filled Beach Boys songs employ vocal harmonies to either emphasize a sense of communal emotion, conflicting ideas, or even a sort of schizophrenia, the solitary vocal track on “In the Back of My Mind” adds to the lonely, claustrophobic feeling of the lyrics. And Dennis shows off his surprising skill as a vocalist, capturing the nuance and pain that his character feels.
The most impressive musical moment comes at the last lyric. As Dennis climbs to the top of his vocal range to belt out, “It will always be at the back of my mind”, the guitars and bass begin a descending scale while the strings continue to float above in a cloud of thick harmony. The scale goes down almost two whole octaves, reaching to the lowest range of the instruments and giving the song a sinking momentum. After this is when the track moves into the psychedelic orchestral fade out, with the strings taking on a cinematic melody over a flourish of acoustic guitar arpeggios.
Following “In the Back of My Mind” is the filler chatter track, “Bull Session With Big Daddy”. The short track is part of an informal interview with journalist Earl Leaf talking about the group’s recent European tour. But over the two minutes, very little of substance is said, and one seriously questions why it was included at all. After the sublime magic of “In the Back of My Mind” and all of the inventiveness of The Beach Boys Today!, perhaps the group wanted to come back down to Earth for a bit. In hindsight, I think we can all agree that the album would be better off without it.
Today! is an album that dwells on the future. Brian Wilson and the rest of the group explore in painful detail the devastating power of love and the insecurities that come with it. Even in the upbeat songs like “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”, there is a sense of focus on the future, and a distinct, unsettling feeling that they’re trying to dance off. The intricate and sophisticated music that Brian Wilson supplied for the album brought the group, and pop music in general to a new place. As Keith Badman recounts, despite the album going to number four on the charts, Capitol Records was not quite satisfied with the less-than-commercial direction the band took on the record. They told Wilson to return to “simpler, happy-go-lucky themes on future Beach Boys releases”, insisting that is what the group should be about. But, as we know, his best was truly yet to come.