Music Features

Overlooked Albums #30: The Beach Boys - The Beach Boys Today!

There’s no question that Pet Sounds and Smile should continue to rank highly in the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson canon. Still, albums that came before or after, like All Summer Long and Sunflower, keep getting short shrift while those two masterworks get all the editorial ink. The oversight is greater when we consider The Beach Boys Today!, an album that laid considerable groundwork for the innovation and experimentation that would sweep over the late sixties music scene. It’s not just a great collection of tracks but a transitional work that maintains the early-career dance beats while propelling the group forward with some dazzling production pieces.

The album’s creation came during a period of turmoil. The Beach Boys’ dominance as top group had ended with the British Invasion. Now they found themselves vying for the attention of Capitol, a label that also had The Beatles on its roster and was focusing its strategies in promoting that group. On their side, the Wilson brothers had the undying loyalty of their father, Murry, who fought on their behalf as the group’s manager. Yet Murry had become another adversary, his old-fashioned, meddlesome ways keeping him at constant loggerheads with his son, Brian. Though Murry was fired in April 1964, the pressure as group leader still mounted on Brian, whose duties as songwriter, producer, and performer threatened his mental balance. It all came to a head on December 23, 1964, the eve of a short winter tour, when Brian had an anxiety attack during a flight to Houston. Except for one date, the group performed without him, giving Brian time to pull himself together. 

When work on the album resumed in January 1965, Brian was in a better place. He had recently married, and there was a new division of labor in the group, who would tour with Glen Campbell taking his place as he concentrated on writing and producing. The decision to fire Murry would still haunt the group, but the album sessions ran smoothly and gave Brian the opportunity to stretch as producer. 

The times called for a new vision. Gone were the songs about surfing and hot-rods. Instinctively, Brian knew he couldn’t rely on old formulas, and that he had to step up his game as songwriter and producer. His model was Phil Spector; whose influence can be heard in the two uptempo songs that open side one: Do You Wanna Dance and Good To My Baby. Brian even employed the same musicians that worked on Spector’s sessions, but the apprentice was developing a sound of his own. Brian’s style was less concerned with the creation of sound walls. He could do that, but his focus was on combining different instruments to produce new sounds. It came natural to him, applying the same curiosity he had for the blending of voices.

As an album track, Help Me, Ronda (without the ‘H’) reveals he was still enthralled at that stage with Spector’s dense productions. A month later, second thoughts prevailed. The single version not only adds an ‘H’ to ‘Rhonda’; Brian gives propulsion to the song through the addition of a guitar hook and new dynamics in the background vocals. He was showing an instinct for production that was all his own.

The Beach Boys never used outside arrangers. Brian worked with each instrument individually until the music matched the sounds he heard in his head. Songs like Don’t Hurt My Sister, When I Grow Up, and Dance, Dance, Dance are short but pack a wallop in terms of musical ideas, chord progressions and dazzling harmonies. Take When I Grow Up, which made an effective use of a harpsichord as a rock ‘n’ roll instrument; a move that would be imitated ad nauseum by lesser 60s musicians. In Wilson’s universe there was careful attention to musical detail, the harmonies and instrumental sounds worked to perfection to fit like a jigsaw puzzle. 

The five ballads on the album’s second side point to a new direction in The Beach Boys’ sound. This is the midnight side of the record, the sunny journey of side one taking a detour into sadness, insecurity and heartbreak. It opens with Please Let Me Wonder, one of the most romantic tracks in The Beach Boys’ catalog. A fat bass, a percussive guitar and a church organ drive this song about a man confessing his love, the soaring harmonies conveying his hopeful, vulnerable state.

The yearning feelings continue with So Young, a cover of a 50s doo-wop ballad sung by The Students. The production and the harmonies here surpass the original, and the themes of love, marriage and maturity serve as a preamble to the next tracks, which are as good as anything found on Pet Sounds.

Kiss Me Baby is a great make-out song, with an ascending vocal riff that is echoed by a guitar and accented by terrific drum fills. She Knows Me Too Well is deeper in subject. Sung by Brian, who was just 22 at the time and newlywed, it’s about a man coming to terms with his shortcomings. The lyrics are not all his but the music is, and some deep personal emotions have been spilled into the song. Equally introspective is In The Back Of My Mind, which combines a jazz feel with nuanced orchestrations that set the stage for a confession of insecurity and fear. 

The last track is Bull Sessions With ‘The Big Daddy’, a filler that is skippable unless you want to hear the group shoot the breeze with DJ Earl Leaf about touring abroad, beer, and bread. It is mind-boggling in light of the events surrounding the album. In truth, the Wilsons were a family in crisis. Murry’s last flare-up occurred when Brian invited him to the re-recording of Help Me Rhonda on February 24, 1965, resulting in a sad scene captured on tape for posterity. It wasn’t just the sons who had trouble being around him; his wife Audree would divorce him later that year.

For The Beach Boys, family and business would always be entangled. At that stage in their career, they had the good sense to move on and assert their creative independence. Today! became a successful album that pointed the way to new musical adventures.