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The Beach Boys Today!: A Shift in Sound and Style

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by Ashly Rico

 

The Beach Boys are most famously known for their catchy, fun songs about surfing, girls in bikinis, and for their revolutionary 11th studio album Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds has been hailed as one of the greatest and most influential albums of not only the 60s, but of all time. While it’s undeniably one of Brian Wilson’s masterpieces, there’s another album that doesn’t get as much love as Pet Sounds, despite having material great enough to have been included into Pet Sounds. That album is their eighth studio album, Beach Boys Today!.

Beach Boys Today! for me marks the beginning of a more lyrically introspective Brian Wilson. We first get a glimpse of that introspection in 1963 with the album Surfer Girl, with tracks like “In My Room” and “Your Summer Dream” capturing a greater sense of yearning beyond the usual lyrics that revolve around catching waves and driving hot rods. But it wasn’t until their 8th studio album that Brian Wilson steadily tackled more mature lyrics and themes with elaborate arrangements and intricate instrumentation.

Dennis Wilson opens Beach Boys Today! with a cover of the Bobby Freeman song “Do You Wanna to Dance.” This track was the first song The Beach Boys recorded at Gold Star Studios, Phil Spector’s favorite studio. “Do You Wanna to Dance?” is akin to their previous lively music but the production sounds fuller, in the way Phil Spector would produce a song with his “Wall of Sound” technique. Brian Wilson submitted the album’s third track, “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister,” to Phil Spector after getting their hit single, “Don’t Worry Baby,” turned down by him. The production of this song, and the album as a whole, to me is very reminiscent of the techniques used in The Ronettes’ only studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes.

“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” is the track that transitions the album from a fun, teenage pop album about dancing to a more lyrically mature work with lyrics like “Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn’t done what I did?” and “Will I love my wife for the rest of my life?” It’s a thematically anxious track disguised as a happy pop song with Mike Love’s signature upbeat vocals. The harpsichord played by Brian Wilson on this track foreshadows the baroque sound that later dominated Pet Sounds and the late 60s music scene.

Side 2 of the album greets the listener with harmonies reminiscent of The Four Freshmen, the vocal quartet that Brian Wilson was a great fan of and heavily influenced by. “Please Let Me Wonder” has always been one of my favorite Beach Boys songs because of Brian’s ability to capture the fine line between wanting to know whether your love goes unrequited or not, but also wanting to be left hopeful and unknowing to avoid potential heartbreak. From the lush vocal harmonies to the sporadic vibraphone that only appears three times, this track is a song that many Beach Boys fans, including myself, regard as one of Brian Wilson’s perfect masterpieces.

Track 2 of side 2, “I’m So Young,” is another cover on the record. Originally a song by the Students, it’s been covered by numerous artists, including The Ronettes. What makes The Beach Boys’ version stand out from all the covers is that their version isn’t centered around the love interest. While definitely being a song about wanting to be old enough to marry someone, Brian Wilson expresses an emphasis on the desperation of wanting to no longer be regarded as a child. You can almost feel the narrator’s anxiety and heaving chest with the repetitive “I’m, I’m, I’m so young.” This shift of focus from love to age could be due to Brian’s reported “inferiority complex” growing up. Murray Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ father, had a turbulent relationship with the three brothers, especially with Brian who constantly had his manhood challenged by Murray. According to Mike Love’s mémoire, he speculates that “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” was also influenced by Murray Wilson.

Tackling jealousy, insecurity, and perhaps even emotional abuse, the narrator of “She Knows Me Too Well” continues the bittersweet mood established from the previous track, “Kiss Me Baby.” Both songs describe unhealthy relationship dynamics, one of a possessive and jealous boyfriend (who may or may not have cognitive dissonance when it comes to jealousy) and the other of an on again off again relationship that breaks up over fights they can’t remember having. For songs that aren’t necessarily romantic lyrically, the instrumentals certainly create a romantic atmosphere. “Kiss Me Baby” has background vocals in the chorus done in a doo-wop style that takes the listener back to the early 1960s and that further develops the sense of yearning for the past and longing for the relationship that once was.

Dennis Wilson pensively sings lead on the last song of Beach Boys Today!. After nearly an hour of songs about the uncertainty of growing up, no longer wanting to be seen as a child, but also fearing what not being a child may look like, is “In the Back of My Mind” letting us know that fear of the future will always exist in the back of the mind. Eventually he’ll realize that “things are just good the way they’ll be.” Concluding the album with a song about hopefully coming to terms with the fear of the uncertain future and rationalizing that the present is good enough to live in is the perfect ending to a perfect album.

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