Monday, 25 April 2016

The Beach Boys "Today" (1965)




The Beach Boys "Today"

Do You Wanna Dance?/Good To My Baby/Don't Hurt My Little Sister/When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)/Help Me Rhonda/Dance Dance Dance//Please Let Me Wonder/I'm So Young/Kiss Me Baby/She Knows Me Too Well/In The Back Of My Mind/Bull Session With 'The Big Daddy'

"You stepped on my French fries!"

A full four months before The Beatles were getting nostalgic with 'Yesterday', The Beach Boys were looking towards the future...today. The year 1964 was the peak one for The Beach Boys being The Beach Boys, full of hit singles and album about surfing, cars and girls. But 1965 is when everything changes and The Beach Boys first become men, moving with the times and their audience at rapid speed. Of all the band's pre-'Smile' albums it's this one, not 'Pet Sounds', that's get me every time: unusually Brian writes all the original songs alone (though Mike Love had his name added to most of them after a court case in the 1990s that's still up for some debate) and more than any previous Beach Boys record this sounds like 'his' album, the amount of Mike Dennis 'n' Al vocals notwithstanding. Instead of a whole album of teenage kicks (something The Beach Boys had got out of their system on 'All Summer Long') we get nagging doubts, insecurities, rows: we've moved past the point of a 'beach romance' to the point where the Beach Boys' couples are trying to be grown-ups and make things work, getting things wrong more often than they get them right. Brian, always a fragile soul in life (if a lion every time he got near a recording studio) is caught at a crossroads in life himself, on the cusp of marriage to his long-term girlfriend Marilyn, and is as worried as we'll ever hear him. Thankfully he's also the perfect mirror to fans going through the same changes in their life, acting as the perfect shoulder to lean on, swapping stories and confessions in between the more Beach Boys style numbers. Much as I love the work of lyricists Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks to come, it's a real shame that Brian will pretty much only write this album 'alone' for the rest of the 1960s: he was always much too hard on himself as a lyricist, with words coming less easily to him than the music every time. Here, though, his words are pretty much as perfect as his music, with 'Today' a candidate for the first ever adult rock and roll LP: nine whole months before 'Rubber Soul' and a full year before The Kinks and The Hollies et al start writing from the heart consistently too.

The reason this is the Beach Boys 'Today' as such is probably a reference to the fact that the band hadn't released a 'normal' album since the Summer, thanks to time-fillers like 'Beach Boys Concert' and 'Beach Boys Christmas', cute as they are. Only this isn't a 'normal' album - suddenly everything's changed. Much has been written about Brian's breakdown on December 23rd 1964, hours after a hurried TV appearance on 'Shindig' (amazingly one that still exists in the archives), the event that left him screaming onboard an airplane that was about to fly off for yet another long hard slog of public appearances (with Brian left strapped next to poor Al Jardine for the flight, who never gets the credit he deserved for at least recognising what was happening to Brian enough to alert the captain and comfort his friend; you worry what might have happened if Brian was seated next to his cousin Mike!) Most commentators see it as an inevitable result of the strain Brian felt as lead writer, singer, arranger, producer and bass player with The Beach Boys at the start of their fourth non-stop ride through giddy years of continual singles, albums and concerts. Which of course it partly was: it's important to remember that no pop act had actually lasted as long in the public eye as The Beach Boys and their package tours had been arranged because of fear that the band would start to go out of fashion, not because anyone seriously thought nine hit albums in two and a half years was a conceivable marketing campaign (even Elvis, the closest to a lasting phenomenon in the past, had 'time out' in the army and - worse - making films). But Brian was already showing signs of strain, worry and doubt in the months before he got on board that airplane: just look at the songs recorded for this album before that flight: 'Don't Hurt My Little Sister', a line said for real to Brian by his future sister-in-law Dianne who worried what Brian might be like as husband material (it didn't help that Brian had gone out with her first and had also spent time with middle sister Barbara!); 'When I Grow Up To Be A Man', in which Brian's narrator worries what adult life will be like and whether he's ready for it; or the earnest 'She Knows Me Too Well' in which Brian admits to being a rotten jealous boyfriend 'afraid of showing my love' and who is saved only by the love of the girl he's afraid he's hurting (The Beach Boys also recorded 'Dance Dance Dance', arguably the last of the Beach Boys originals in the 'old' style - although the alternate early version featured on most CDs of 'Today' as a bonus track proves that even getting this was a struggle). Brian's worried about many things: feeling the pressure of the record company on his back is only part of his problems as he tries to get his life and work balance right and finds himself struggling at both.

It's easy to say Brian shouldn't have worried about the 'work' end of this because we know what happens: the more desperate he gets to prove himself against The Beatles and Phil Spector the better he gets and for now his audience are eager to grow alongside him, eager to hear what happens to The Beach Boys once the sun goes down and the party's over. The confidence Brian gets from this well-received, strong-selling album is a key part of his decision to make an album like 'Pet Sounds', albeit with a lyricist in tow and for now the breakdown gives him no lasting problems at all: in fact it helps, with Brian taking the unheard of decision to step away from The Beach Boys as a touring band and spending more time where he felt 'safe'; creating in the studio with time to spare instead of pounding around stages in the middle of nowhere re-creating complex singles on simplistic equipment. For a time a pre-fame Glenn Campbell is his on tour replacement and wore his striped shirt with pride, though he was eager to re-start his solo career once the tour was over (Brian even gives him a single 'Guess I'm Dumb' as a thankyou gift - it sounds like an outtake from this doubting, troubled album from the title on down; perhaps Brian simply chickened out of asking his cousin to sing it?) with Bruce Johnstone a more longterm replacement starting in the Summer. Crisis averted then - and there's a sweet story in Brian's autobiography 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' (and thus possibly fictional, given how hard Brian to disown his own book) that when the plane got back home Brian's friends had organised everyone he'd ever loved to meet him at the airport for a 'welcome home/you're loved' party, with a special huge picture taken that sat by his bedside through years to come through thick and thin to remind him that, actually, he really was loved. The next album, 'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!)' shows almost no sign of the strain heard on this record (making this one of the most 'contrasting' sequences in The Beach Boys' two-fer-one CD series) and the one after that is, quite literally, a 'party!' Brian seemed not only to be coping, but thriving as Beach Boys records got more and more complex and more and more popular - but appearances can be deceptive.

The 'breakdown' is a detail mentioned in every Beach Boy book (and if it isn't then you should probably think about taking it back...) Of even more significance to me, though, is that marriage. Brian is only twenty-three and a young twenty-three at that outside anything to do with music (where his instinctive grasp of what works and what doesn't makes him more like an experience two-hundred-and-three) and he's getting married for far more complicated reasons than the usual twenty-three-year old. He's genuinely in love with Marilyn Rovells, whose been his most loyal and supportive fan ever since the day he accidentally knocked her drink all over her in the front row when walking off stage a couple of years earlier. But he's also gone out at different times with both her sisters. He's also been living for most of his time away from the road at her family home already (scandalous in 1964, though the Rovells were a very hip family for their time) and if anything it's the family life he craves: the educated father and expert cook mother who are so loving kind and supportive along with three sisters who are all close - which all seems so different to his own difficult upbringing. Brian proposes to Marilyn because it seems the 'right' thing to do if he loves her (though it doesn't stop Brian accidentally calling her by one of her sister's names from time to time), but from reading between the lines doesn't seem at all certain that she's going to say 'yes'. Never the most sociable of creatures away from the music world, Brian has probably convinced himself she's going to say 'no' because of his awkwardness and clumsiness, perhaps forgetting that Marilyn is aware enough to recognise all his other many wonderful qualities: his passion, his loyalty, his self-deprecating wit and his own kindness when around the right people, so like her own. Of course she was going to say yes - and yet Brian seems to have been unprepared for anything past the actual proposal. He's actually greatly flustered when it comes to buying a big house for the two of them to live in (something that takes an age what with his trips away on tour) and the wedding on December 7th (sixteen days before Brian's breakdown) is a slightly chaotic and rushed affair with the Wilsons the ultimate dear-God-no wedding family from hell by and large. Away from her sisters and parents Marilyn, who'd just turned eighteen when 'Today' was released, understandably feels out of her depth and unable to cope with an increasingly fragile Brian on her own. It's a recipe for disaster, with both of them missing their family unit for different reasons and a lengthy Christmas-January tour away from home isn't helping. Still, the match itself is a strong one that will hold together many decades yet and despite the problems that come between them years later you can bet your rare Beach Boys EP collection that Brian wouldn't have lasted anything like as far through The Beach Boys journey as he did without Marilyn there for him, through thick and - ultimately - thin. Brian, though, doesn't know that and sounds as if he's already regretting not the marriage as such but the timing, with Diane Rovell's warning 'Don't Hurt My Little Sister' still ringing in his ears and his own guilty feelings of inadequacy rising up in 'She Knows Me Too Well' and 'Kiss Me Baby'.

You'll note that so far we've only really talked about Brian. There's a reason for this: even more than 'Pet Sounds' and 'Friends' if Brian can be considered to have released a 'solo' album in the 1960s then this is it. Compared to 'All Summer Long' and even 'Beach Boys Christmas' the rest of the band seem to have stepped back too: Dennis gets two long overdue lead vocals that bookend the album, Al copes well with an ever-changing 'Help Me Rhonda' and Mike excels on co-lead vocals for the two hit singles and especially 'Kiss Me Baby', performing 'duets' with his cousin more than ever before (Carl, amazingly, won't get his first lead vocal until the next album 'Summer Days'). Other than that, though, this is Brian's baby and he sings lead on a whopping nine of the songs here, proving perhaps how close to his heart all of these tracks are 9and how well they suit his fragile falsetto rather than, say, Mike or Dennis' confident growl).

So is 'Today' just a one-off moment of misery largely recorded during a busy couple of months? Not really - hard as Brian will try in the future to be the 'hero' figure he thought fans wanted to see, it's 'Today' that sounds like the 'real' Brian in a way we won't hear again until after his 'real' breakdown roughly 11/12ths of the way into making 'Smile' in late 1966. Sadly it's the only time the 'real' rather than the 'I'm coping, honest' Brian was still working closely with the other Beach Boys, instead of recording songs alone or putting younger brother Carl in charge of making them- and thus the only time Brian's 'inner world' gets heard in the full technicolour he uses for big Beach Boys production numbers. There's something particularly satisfying about the arrangements on this record: the way 'Don't Hurt My Sister' doubles back on itself to point an accusing finger; the mass criss-crossing harmonies of 'When I Grow Up To Be A Man', still one of the most intellectually demanding songs to ever make the US top ten; the sheer aching loveliness of 'Please Let Me Wonder', arguably the best of the many love songs Brian wrote for his new wife across their quarter century of marriage; 'She Knows Me Too Well' which starts off pure 1964 Beach Boys and ends up in 'Smile', with a daring empty reflective instrumental that suddenly bursts into pure harmony as the narrator switches between rubbish boyfriend to caring sensitive soul; the darting flittering strings on 'In The Back Of My Mind' as Dennis Wilson competes with an orchestra for 'most romantic Beach Boys moment'; the sweet and sour chords of 'Kiss Me Baby' as a couple have their first serious row and the narrator feels terrible about it, yearning for the moment his life can go back to the major key and things can be right again. For my money there are more moving songs and better arrangements here than anything on 'Pet Sounds', which take the open sighing vulnerability of this record's sound and goes so over-board with it that at times it threatens to sink the record. It's 'Today' that features the more believable, poignant songs and the more sophisticated use of orchestra, whatever the usual rock biographies try and tell you (while you can't usually judge by sales figures, it's worth remembering that on their original releases in America 'Today' outsold 'Pet Sounds' by about two-to-one). This is Brian singing from the heart on two thirds of the album, approximately one-third more than 'Pet Sounds' - open on everything except the two dance numbers, one curious failed experiment (which will end up a hit single when a more confident Brian returns to it later in the year) and a manic interview randomly stuck on the end of the LP.

Admittedly 'Beach Boys Today' is, as usual for The Beach Boys, recorded at such a speed that it's all far from perfect. That final track 'Bull Session With The 'Big Daddy', ie Earl Leaf, is heavy going even for Beach Boys fans who've been patient enough to sit through 'Cassius Love Vs Sonny Wilson' and 'Our Favourite Recording Sessions', similarly tedious bits of fluff here to pad the record out rather than do anything else (don't worry folks, this is the last of these oddball 'spoken tracks' at long last...) Unless, of course, you're the sort of fan who wants to know what each Beach Boy's favourite burger is... Rockin' as 'Do You Wanna Dance?' might be, this Bobby Freeman cover with rare Dennis vocals is a bit of a mess compared to most clean-cut Beach Boys recordings (though still a respectable-selling hit single). The first go at 'Help Me Ronda' is rubbish, irritating in the way it keeps fading in and out as if there's a tidal wave happening over at the mixing desk. It probably wasn't a good idea to get Dennis to put on a comedy 'crooning' voice for 'In The Back Of My Mind' when his own works perfectly well - and then asking him to double-track it. Killer single as it is (The Beach Boys' most under-rated top ten hit?), the sheer exuberant fun of 'Dance Dance Dance' has no place here amongst the deeper songs. And the album cover may well be the band's worst yet, a cropped shot of the band sitting round a swimming pool wearing hideous jumpers with most of the album cover taken up with an ugly form of beige (if this is The Beach Boys 'Today' in 1965, you ask yourself, what on earth were they wearing back in the 1950s when these things were popular?! Although at least there's not a striped shirt in sight...) All of the above, though perfectly in keeping with the inconsistency of other Beach Boys record of the period, just prevents this album reaching the very highest ranks of Beach Boys albums (hence the fact that I didn't get round to reviewing it early on as part of our 'core' 101 albums list!)

That little lot, though, is peanuts compared to what you do get: some of the most tender and heartbreaking songs delivered by a vocal group fully at the top of their game and under the wing of a producer who now knows exactly what he's doing in directing the backing musicians and orchestras too. Time and again 'Today' astonishes you with something so grown-up or ahead of it's time for March 1965 that you have to start wondering if Brian Wilson had the ability to time travel. Has there ever been a more emotional moment (outside 'Smile' anyway which is nearly all emotional moments) than 'Kiss Me Baby' where Brian and Mike lie in their respective beds, crying their eyes out after their 'first argument' (something clearly not true in real life...) and wondering if the other is 'still awake like me?' 'Please Let Me Wonder' is one of the most beautiful creations The Beach Boys ever made, making up for a surprisingly poor and muddy mix with 2:47 of pure goose-pimpling ecstasy as Brian proposes to 'us' falteringly, telling us everything he can't say in words with the most gorgeous music instead. 'She Knows Me Too Well' is a psychologist couch session a decade before such songs were fashionable which features a ridiculously high vocal line that pushes Brian well out of his comfort in more ways than one. Ignored for far too long and disliked by many fans for some reason, the mid-1964 outtake 'Don't Hurt My Little Sister' is the album's core centre, Mike and Brian angrily turning on the narrator for playing loose with someone who matters to them dearly. 'When I Grow Up' still sounds like the deepest song ever released in the 1960s despite coming so early in the decade, a rumination on the ultimate no-no subject of the pop world: aging. Throw in the perfect Beach Boys escapist moment ('Dance! Yeah! Whoooo!') to counteract this album's many ballads and you have so many reasons why The Beach Boys should have sounded like this always: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

'Do You Wanna Dance?' is a bit of a deceptive start in the sense that it's both an uptempo number (one of only two really on this album, both about dancing) and a cover song that would have been by far the most recognised song on the album. Or at least the original would be: what we have here is one of Brian's biggest productions yet as he completely re-arranges the song from a simple statement of teenage euphoria into something bigger and more complex. Brian's added a complete jangly piano-with-echo riff that keeps running between each line, better playing cat and mouse with the listener as the song never quite lets go until peaking in the energetic chorus (whereas Bobby Freeman's 1958 original and most cover versions since sounds like one long enthusiastic scream!) Unfortunately Brian's been paying a little too much attention to his hero Phil Spector (having spent a day at the end of 1964 watching him work first-hand) instead of listening to his instincts and has covered everything in a tinny echo that makes the production of this song a bit of a mess, without the Beach Boys' usual clear-cut style (it sounds better on the original mono vinyl this track, with everything held together by a strong Carol Kaye bass line mixed recklessly low when the album was converted into stereo for the CDs). However Brian's brothers both do him proud on this track: Dennis with a rare lead vocal (his first on a studio Beach Boys track since 'Our Car Club' quite a while ago now) that's perhaps a little laboured compared to his best but still enough to make a certain section of the group's fanbase weak at the knees and Carl with a stunning swirling surfing guitar solo, which should be really out of place on a song about dancing (if you did that on a surf board you'd fall over!) and yet which fits amazingly well. The full Beach Boys harmony power behind Dennis every chorus is pretty memorable too, turning a private affair between two lovers into a group activity. The result is successful enough to help The Beach Boys score a #12 hit but is perhaps a little too unfocussed to be amongst their best work, especially on this album.

'Good To My Baby' might not sound like the sort of instant classic we've talked about either, being comparatively simple for this period of Beach Boys history and built around a dramatic guitar riff and a punchy power chorus. Brian's recent productions haven't left much room for harmonies though so it's something of a relief to hear such intricate counterpoint parts all working in tandem across this record, with the whole band soaring in synchronisation. Though the chorus is sloppy work ('She's my girl and I'm good to my baby' repeated lots of time), Brian's lyric on the verse is an interesting insight into his inner psyche too. Tired of people worrying about his impending marriage, which should be a happy occasion, he wearily puts down all his nay-sayers by telling them they don't understand what their love is really about: they only see it from the 'outside'. This isn't a couple made for showing off, celebrity style, at every big event but one that comes alive behind closed doors when 'I get her alone now' - it's everyone else getting in the way that's the problem! However, true as that may be, Brian's narrator sings so much about how happy she is, honest, truly, oh yes she is that you begin to wonder if that really is the whole truth - especially when sung against a guitar break that's as mean and tough as any 1960s Beach Boys lick. In context that happy-go-lucky chorus (with an unexpected shift from minor key to major) sounds a little hollow - it's the angry snarling narrator of the verses (unusual for The Beach Boys and especially for a part Brian mainly sings rather than Mike) that sounds more like the 'real' story in this song. Though it sounds simple, 'Good To My Baby' is a typically complex Beach Boys song of the period and much under-rated.

Better still is 'Don't Hurt My Little Sister', a similarly defensive song inspired by Brian's sister-in-law's words of caution to him (interesting that both similar songs should be programmed together). The song had a long and complicated genesis, Brian figuring that it's merry little tune and 'sisterhood' lyrics might make a good match for one of Phil Spector's girl groups. Eager to work with his hero, he submitted the song and offered to work as the piano player, but Spector was in a typically evil mood and told Brian (his writing if not production superior) his song wasn't good enough and re-wrote it on the spot to become the bland feminist rant 'Things Are Changing (For The Better)' - a track Spector left unreleased until 1966, gloating when it was a rare Spector flop single for The Blossoms (however it's flop status is more because of what Spector did to the track than Brian's lovely original). Brian was also 'demoted' from piano after fluffing the chords - all in all a highly unsatisfactory meeting of two clever minds that could have been so much more. Brian's original, after all, is one of the most personal things he'd written up to this point, composed from the point of view of his sister-in-law (as played here by cousin Mike - this is a complicated family!) as she warns Brian off. Most writers faced with such a situation would have made 'them' out to be the baddies, over-protective when he only wants to love her, but Brian is more intelligent than that: this is a case of family control, a warning made out of love and concern rather than vengeance. You wonder what Brian's new bride made of lines like 'She's awful used to getting her way', but there's affection from all sides in this song as her 'sister' (here changed to her brother) demands that 'his' love better be as real and heartfelt as their family love. It's a promise that Brian seems to be agreeing to here, even passing on the line 'She digs you and thinks you're a real groovy guy - but yeah I'm not sure I feel the same!' The song's cute and catchy riff is also a step ahead anything else around at the time (given that this song was first taped back in June 1964 and held over across the Xmas Album sessions where it didn't really fit), stopping the song in its tracks and sounding just like a nagging finger-wagging older brother (or sister: this is probably the part that convinced Brian Spector would like - and which he seemed to 'miss' in his arrangement, deliberately or not). The Beach Boys' family sound really comes in useful on this one too, as the 'pre-chorus' (the bit that isn't a verse or a chorus) builds up into a chilling moment of tension and family values clashing with love - something The Beach Boys would have known all about. Another much under-rated track and a particularly important one to Brian.

Even more complex is the single 'When I Grow Up To Be A Man', a song astonishingly far ahead of its time. Most if not all singles released in the 1960s by pop and rock groups up to March 1965 had been about being young to some extent, whether it was young and cross at the establishment or young and in love. This song, though, is young and worried about the future, nay make that terrified, because Brian's lyrics are truly blood-curdling when read without the pretty music alongside: 'Will I love my wife for the rest of my life?' is a cry from the heart from a recent groom, alongside with the thought of being guilty over things done at this stage in life, the twin pulls of 'settling down' and 'travelling the world', the worry that the narrator's own kids will grow to this same age and think the narrator a 'square' the way he does his own parents, the fear that he'll never have fun again and all good times are over...this is the sound of a man having cold feet about marriage, about growing up, about everything. Across the song The Beach Boys count out the ages, passing by in seconds from 'fifteen' through to 'thirty-one' by the very end of the fade, like a manic ticking clock that feels like it's getting faster by the second. Even the backing track sounds like it's in a hurry, hustling and bustling its way through some retro harpsichord twinkles and Hal Blaine drumming that also sounds like a ticking clock as if it has something important to say before it's too late, but hasn't quite worked out what yet. The other Beach Boys must have looked on this leap forward with amazement following the simpler 'Dance Dance Dance' 'The Man With All The Toys' and 'I Get Around' into the charts and if Mike Love didn't say 'Don't fuck with the formula' about now perhaps he should have done (by Beach Boys standards this one was a flop, of sorts, peaking at #9 in Billboard). Yet they turn in a stunning performance, one of the great Beach Boys band performances, with vocal harmonies so tight you couldn't get a piece of paper between the cracks and Mike especially nailing the paranoid narrator who doesn't want to grow up but fears he has to (it's worth remembering how much this song mirrors Mike's life too, having urged Brian to start up The Beach Boys in the hope of getting extra money for his wife and child back in 1961 as well as his love for the music). In actual fact the interaction between the cousins may well be the best thing about this song: 'It won't last forever' growls Mike, 'It's kinda sad' admits Brian, making full use of their respective 'characters' within the band, while the chorus (with Carl particularly loud) ticks down the seconds. Perfection. Perhaps a little too far ahead of its times, 'When I Grow Up' may well be the most impressive Beach Boys single from a pure construction point of view, fitting some of the biggest subject matters of pop and roll in a little over two minutes.

Sadly 'Help Me R(h)onda' is the biggest mistake on the record. No, no, don't worry, I'm not slamming one of The Beach Boy's biggest and most loved singles (though the finished version is still a step behind 'When I Grow Up') - this is the first version, complete with original 'h' less spelling, taped in too much of a hurry by a writer who hasn't quite realised its full potential yet. Brian wrote the song simply because he liked the name and needed a strong moniker with two syllables (though by chance when he has his second breakdown in the late 1970s the nurse who helps get him through it is called...Rhonda): chances are he was actually thinking of Marilyn's caring nature when he wrote this (note the mentions of 'marriage', unusual for The Beach Boys). Best remembered for one of the greatest opening lines of 1960s hit singles ('Since she put me down I've been out doin' it in my head!') and a catchy singalong chorus, it will ended up becoming only the second ever Beach Boys number one. However, Brian seems to have considered this song at first to be mere 'filler' and treats the songs to several experiments: some of which plainly work but many of which that don't. On the plus side Al Jardine's second ever lead vocal on a Beach Boys record (taped a few months after the slightly wobbly one on 'Christmas Day') is a good one, the 'newest' Beach Boy ably suited to a song that demands a slightly more acid tone than anything the Wilsons or Loves can offer. The backing harmonies, too, are unusual for The Beach Boys in that they seem to 'comment' on the action rather than emphasise or dart away from it ('Ooh, come on Ronda!' sings Mike at one point). However the opening Dick Dale surf guitar pastiche is fluffed, the switch between chorus and verse too subtle, the harmonica obtrusive, Brian's Ron-Ron-Ron-da Yeah!' a steal too obvious from The Crystals' 'Da Doo Ron Ron', there's a lengthy instrumental break which chooses the only moment of this over-busy song where nothing seems to be happening and worst of all the ending of the song keeps fading up and down seemingly at random, which is most distracting if you've got this album on as 'background' music (not that you should ever have The Beach Boys on as mere background music of course...) This 'hookless' version of the song is so inferior to the re-recording (made a mere five weeks later) that it's hard to believe it's the same song as the one we know and love. But then, even Brian is allowed to make mistakes - especially when he puts them right as well as he does on the 'Summer Days and Summer Nights' version.

Another much under-rated single, the infectious 'Dance Dance Dance' is perhaps the zenith of Beach Boys mark one: certainly in the top five of greatest combinations of purely teenage words and ridiculously complex backing tracks. Brian writes a great groove for this one which Carl, playing alongside the session musicians and horn players, positively nails and the first song he's written around a rhythm for quite a while makes for a refreshing change compared to the deeper Beach Boys material of the period. With clever emphasis from a tambourine (that must have had a whole in it by the end of the session - The Beach Boys recorded many takes trying to get this song just right), it's impossible to sit stills during this song (in fact the backing track - curiously absent from 'Stack-O-Tracks' in 1969 but available on 'Beach Boys Sessions' in 2014 - may well be the best Beach Boys backing track of them all). Not that this song is simple: you think you know where the song is going with the oh so Beach Boys opening to the verse (Mike singing 'After six hours at school I've had enough for the day!') but suddenly the song leaps up an octave for added excitement ('I hit the radio dial and turn it up all the way!') and only then to The Beach Boys pound in en masse. Like a conjurer using up all his tricks in one go the song runs a little out of steam thereafter (a thirty second guitar solo in a song that only lasts two minutes is a brave move, though it's another good one and Carl deserves his only co-credit on a 1960s Beach Boys single) but for that opening verse-chorus this is one of the most exciting things The Beach Boys ever did. Plus the harmonies, of course, are perfection, even by their own high standards. Not the deepest thing the band did by any means, but surely one of the catchiest, this song deserved better than to peak at a mere #8, one place higher than 'When I Grow Up'. An earlier version, included on the CD re-issue, is pretty close to the finished product but has a different weaker second verse ('In my car a wild record drives me out of my tree, I punch all the buttons for a station that swings!' replaced by the far more sensible 'When I feel put down I try to shake it off quick, with my chick by my side the radio does the trick!') and Carl is still feeling his way into the solo. The biggest difference though is a 'missing' extra layer of harmonies that makes all the difference to the song's excitement levels. Still, even the outtake is groovy stuff!

Onto side two and 'Please Let Me Wonder' is an unusual song to open the side with - a slow, cooing romantic track that would be one of the most gorgeous things The Beach Boys ever did had they mixed it as well as they sang it. We're back to Brian the romantic, gathering up the strength to propose, and Brian's deeper-than-usual lead vocal (clearly trying to ape his brother Dennis) is most affecting, vulnerable and anxious as he sings about waiting for this moment 'forever' and how 'I always knew it would feel this way'. However Brian is man enough to admit to us that what he didn't plan in his head was how much he'd be 'shaking' or 'feel like my heart is breaking'. The moment when the Beach Boys chorus sweeps in to lift the narrator off his feet as he breathes in (on the word 'Baby'...) is utterly thrilling, as is Carl's most audible moment yet on a Beach Boys record, his earnest spoken word 'I love you!' at the end of the last chorus which somehow sounds heartfelt and fitting, unlike every other spoken word that's ever appeared on a Beach Boys record. Though simpler than most of this album's examples, even the backing track has a certain sophisticated charm rare for early 1965 as a guitar effectively tries to tie the knot with an organ, Carl slashing away at chords until the organ note breaks down and joins in matrimonial harmony (or something like that). Note also the very end of the lengthy fade, which ends not as you'd expect but on a sudden minor key chord played on...a xylophone! Superb - it's just a shame that every mix ever made of this song sounds so frustratingly muddy (the best one is the '30 Years Of Good Vibrations' set mix, but even that annoys by splitting the vocals and instruments into different stereo channels: like many 1960s Beach Boys albums Brian only ever mixed this one into mono originally but even that mix sounds fairly awful).

'I'm So Young', a cover of a song by The Students in 1958 (though Brian probably got to know it from the Ronettes cover a few years later) is alas not up to the originals on this album. Not that it's bad (and it's better than the surfing instrumentals we kept getting just a couple of years back), just uninspired as a clumsy stuttering chorus ('I'm...I'm..I'm...so young!') and an outdated doo wop backing make this song just a little bit too backwards and 1950s for such a forward looking album. Brian still sounds gorgeous though and the rest of the boys behind him do too, especially on the 'false ending' tag where Dennis suddenly starts soaring and taking the part Brian usually would. The backing track too is an excuse to try out some new combinations of sounds with a weird guitar effect that's an early try for the one on the 'Pet Sounds' title track. Still, by 'Today' standards this is still a backwards step and arguably the weakest thing here (except the 'Bull Session' anyway).

The album highlight, meanwhile, must surely be the extraordinary 'Kiss Me Baby' - a simply thrilling piece of music that's exactly what this period of Beach Boys should be doing, caught between the glorious past and the brilliant future. The narrator's had an argument with his girlfriend, a big one - he can't quite remember what it was about, though it seemed important at the time, but what he can remember is the fall-out and her crying and he bitterly regrets it. No one feels regret by Brian and he's never sounded sadder than here, as he cries himself to sleep and is hit by the thought 'I was losing someone dear'. In Brian's best ever lyric he puts on a brave face to his folks and says he's 'alright', as the backing track fades away to a hush, before plunging straight back into the melancholy and proving that he's anything but. Mike, again, proves the perfect foil, lying in bed on the other side of town and having the exact same doubts as the other end of the conversation (which of the two is meant to be the 'girl?'), both of them worrying about how the other is feeling because underneath it all they love each other really. Brian even starts the song with a long held note on 'Please' and a promise not to do whatever he did again as long as he lives - it's hard not to cry yourself on hearing this track, as Brian and Mike both drift about their vocal sections dreamily, hazily, not quite able to take in what's happened. The chorus is much more Beach Boysy, big block notes on the words 'Kiss me baby, love to hold you...' in a major key, but it's a moment of relief rather than celebration and joined by a nagging voice of overdubbed Brians and Mikes who 'kiss a little bit 'n' fight a little bit' even while the pair of lovers are on course to get back together again. A truly gorgeous and deeply moving song, perfect for the teenage market but created using one of Brian's most sophisticated productions yet, this is a good example of what made The Beach Boys so special and a cut above their peers, at least into early 1965.

'She Knows Me Too Well' is pretty special too, with another troubled Brian vocal/narrator part as he kicks himself for treating his girl 'mean' and 'not deserving her'. He's a moody troubled soul but he keeps his girl locked out of his true feelings, 'expecting her to know what I'm thinking of' and hypocritical, angry when he even suspects she's thinking of another boy but eager to play the field himself. Lamenting, again, that he's made her 'break down and cryyyyy' Brian reaches up to the musical sky while pleading and pushes even his extraordinary upper range to the limit as he tries to prove 'I really love her'. Brian regrets the 'weird way' he shows his love but is desperate to prove that his love is real in song, even though in practice all he can do is make  her laugh through bad jokes. However that's enough: he knows too that Marilyn (for it is surely she) knows that he 'really loves her' and that's enough. This is more of a solo track, albeit with another quick Carl Wilson solo, and Brian's lead vocal seems far apart in the stereo spectrum or even on the mono - deliberately so, probably, to emphasise his 'detachment' from some typically heavenly Beach Boys vocals. Though less memorable a construction than the last song and lacking the strong hooks of the rest of the album, this is another tough and highly impressive song that's unbelievably poignant. Brian really should have continued writing full songs on his own like this one, with such a clever combination of words and music as he opens up his heart like never before.

Dennis returns for 'In The Back Of My Mind', the slowest of Today's second side of ballads (maybe Brian was giving his brother so much work to make up for the fact that he'd been replaced as a drummer on the records by Hal Blaine full-time by now - or maybe he just sensed Dennis' romantic air was a good fit for his own romantic mood). In truth Dennis struggles with a song so outside the usual Beach Boys style (and such an instinctive but undisciplined singer as Dennis shouldn't have been allowed near the idea of double-tracking with many of the lines coming out as gibberish - a single tracked version included on the '30 Years' box set is a much easier listen) but he does conjure up a cosy intimate feel backed by just an orchestra and a preview of the 'Caroline, No' coke bottle percussion tapping. This time Brian is feeling blessed and is eager to tell the world that, actually, he can make his girl happy - and yet...he still can't quite settle. In the back of his mind come fears and doubts that something will go wrong or he won't be good enough; that even though he tries to rationalise that the couple are happy now so have no reason to be anything else he can't help but be scared of the future. Given the context (this song was recorded on January 13th 1965, a mere three weeks after that breakdown and six after marriage) this Brian solo song sounds terribly autobiographical too, an early warning to go alongside 'Don't Back Down' that Brian wasn't quite the perfect charismatic renaissance man Capitol publicity tried to make him out to be. Stepping even further away from traditional Beach Boys sounds, 'Back Of My Mind' is another brave track that's perhaps an experiment too far and a little too lush for many fan's tastes (it doesn't help that there's no band chorus, though Dennis is joined by brother Carl on the middle eight). Still, better far ahead of your time than way behind it.

That's the spiritual end of the record, but there's still one more track to go, the manic interview 'Bull Session With The Big Daddy' (which, thankfully, really is kept for the end of the record this time - unlike the other speech Beach Boys tracks that break up the flow). Capitol publicist Earl Leaf tries hard to interview the band but he's interrupted by corny jokes (Mike loved calling everyone 'figs' back then, Beach Boys slang for 'idiot' and plays on his tree-based name), food (brought in by Marilyn, Brian perhaps figuring that an album so much about his new bride really deserved to have her on it somewhere) and band rivalry (Dennis admits to only making three mistakes while perfectionist Brian proudly suggests he hasn't made any yet - 'Brian, we keep waiting for you to make a mistake!' says his cousin pointedly). Unfortunately this interview snippet is probably even less interesting than 'Our Favourite Recording Sessions' unless you really want to know which Beach Boys eats which burgers (Carl likes onions), Brian's comments that he only remembers the countries the band toured from the bread or Mike's memories of him and Dennis holding a giant sheep's head on a cooked lamb for a publicity stunt. The interview comes to a sudden end just as it's getting interesting (Dennis talking about Shindig and Hullabaloo having audiences surrounding the band), which must have surprised more than a few listeners who owned the original vinyl. Pretty worthless then and a depressingly bland end to such a great record, but at least The Beach Boys were leading the way even with the sort of thing you'd find on a 'DVD extras feature' in forty years' time!

Overall, though, 'Beach Boys Today' is a stunning masterpiece which has fewer mistakes than any Beach Boys albums before it and less than most of the records to come, with the highs ridiculously high (even if the lows are pretty low!) The record marks a particular breakthrough for Brian who particularly as composer but also as singer and producer comes on leaps and bounds across this album, finding his confidence in the studio just as he's beginning to lose it in his every day life. Not many records manage to celebrate a marriage and commemorate a breakdown but somehow Brian keeps the two main themes of the records in focus, delivering a revolutionary album based around the doubts and fears of adult responsibility while still including enough special Beach Boys moments for older fans to enjoy. The Beach Boys today sound much like The Beach Boys of tomorrow, even though much of it is spent looking back on the past with regret, a sort of Beach Boys of yesterday. perhaps the best way of putting it is that 'Beach Boys Today' is timeless and the first truly great album the band made.

There are many Beach Boys articles on the AAA now:



'Surfin' USA' (1963) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-beach-boys-surfin-usa-1963.html

'Surfer Girl' (1963) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-beach-boys-surfer-girl-1963.html

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/the-beach-boys-shut-down-volume-two-1964.html

‘All Summer Long’ (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-beach-boys-all-summer-long-1964.html

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/xmas-bumper-issue-revised-beach-boys.html

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/news-views-and-music-issue-65-beach.html

'Party!' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/the-beach-boys-party-1965.html


'Surf's Up' (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/the-beach-boys-surfs-up-1971-album.html


'M.I.U Album' (1978) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/the-beach-boys-miu-album-1978.html

'L.A.Light Album' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-75-beach-boys-la-light-album.html

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/the-beach-boys-keeping-summer-alive-1980.html

'The Beach Boys' (1985) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/the-beach-boys-1985.html

'Summer In Paradise' (1992) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/the-beach-boys-summer-in-paradise-1992.html

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_06_29_archive.html

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/news-views-and-music-issue-55-brian.html

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)  http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/news-views-and-music-issue-142-beach.html

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-beach-boys-thats-why-god-made-radio.html

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings  http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-beach-boys-unreleased-songs-top.html

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/the-beach-boys-complete-ish-guide-to.html

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/beach-boys-sololivecompilationunrelease.html

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014 
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/beach-boys-sololivecompilationunrelease_25.html

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/beach-boys-non-album-songs-part-one.html

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/beach-boys-non-album-songs-part-two.html





No comments:

Post a Comment