There is a rule–somewhere–that at some point, as a serious student of pop music, you have to discover that the Beach Boys actually sang about more than just surf, girls, and cars. It’s a dumb rule. I don’t like it. It implies that their music about surf, girls, and cars was superficial, insignificant, and bereft of the craftsmanship and genius that just somehow magically manifest itself on an album like–oh, I don’t know–Pet Sounds. Sure, there were some duds on those early albums, but there were so many more beautiful and meticulously crafted songs: “Ballad of Ole’ Betsy,” a song about an aging car, often makes me teary-eyed, “Surfer Girl” is a timeless song of love, and who doesn’t identify with the introspective “In My Room”? The skill and depth of this band was always present; the images their name and a few dozen songs conjured just often overshadowed it.
The Beach Boys were my almost favorite band (there’s just no getting over them dang Beatles) in 7th grade. I was so enraptured with them that when I received a Beatles poster for my birthday (a really sweet shot from the ‘Mad Day Out’ sessions, by the way) amidst a pile of Beach Boys CDs and videos, I was almost disappointed. Almost. I learned the “more than surf etc.” secret very quickly. I mean, all I had to do was buy an album (Surfer Girl/Shut Down, Volume II was my first)–and there are so many great Beach Boys albums (including the new one). Pet Sounds is an undisputed masterpiece, Sunflower is so freaking smooth, Friends is Paul Weller’s favorite so it’s obviously really cool, Love You is gritty and wonderful, and I could probably even argue quite effectively that Little Deuce Coupe is the greatest concept album ever (it’s all about cars, man, and it’s awesome). There are days when I wonder if it’s even possible to have a favorite Beach Boys album.
But I think I have one.
During a hedonistic, Beach Boys-obssessed summer, I bought three Beach Boys albums on vinyl off eBay. They were cheap (reeeeeal cheap), I didn’t have them on CD, and I couldn’t wait until my birthday or Christmas. I also didn’t have a working record player. Well, the record player actually worked, but the speakers didn’t, so you couldn’t really listen to records. But I had figured out a way to hook up the record player to the tape player so that I could play the vinyl, push record on the tape machine, and have a tape copy of the album that I could listen to on my Walkman. I don’t think it was really that hard. I also don’t think I had any friends.
I had bought The Beach Boys Concert, The Beach Boys Christmas Album, and Today!. These three albums are all very dear to my heart, but only one of them is still in the shrink-wrap–and it’s my favorite.
Today! reminds me of my favorite Dylan album, Bringing It All Back Home. The first side is full of that blistering electric guitar that the Devil gave to Bob Dylan, alienating all those hardcore folkies, while the second side is just a really skinny guy with some major fuzzy hair and an acoustic guitar, just like the folkies like ‘im. It’s the perfect marriage of the two sides of Dylan for me. Today! similarly is the perfect representation of the two sides of the Beach Boys.
Side one is upbeat, carefree, fun. It has nothing but hit singles about dancing, growing up (to be a man), being good to your baby, and getting help from some girl named Rhonda. It’s pretty awesome. You can’t go wrong playing side one over and over and over. I speak from experience. But side two is where it really starts happening. It’s so beautiful, I don’t know if I can write coherently about it. It opens with “Please Let Me Wonder,” one of the most tender and beautiful songs the band ever recorded. It makes my heart beat just a little bit faster. Beware: after hearing this song, you will never want to listen to any other song again because none of them will ever be as beautiful as this one. Never ever.
“I’m So Young” is a fantastic cover of the doo wop classic originally by the Students. It laments young love and not being able to get married, a topic Brian Wilson explored earlier on All Summer Long‘s “We’ll Run Away” and would visit again on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” I love how they make it their own (I didn’t realize it was a cover until I bothered to read the songwriting credits more closely–oops), fitting perfectly into the lush and pensive mood of the album’s second side, and how Dennis’s voice sticks out like a Beach Boy who surfs the last thirty seconds or so.
Remember how no other song could ever be as beautiful as “Please Let Me Wonder”? Well, “Kiss Me, Baby” actually comes very, very, very, very, very close. The musical and vocal arrangements of this song are absolutely astounding. I know everyone’s all about hating Mike Love and everything, but the contrast between his deep bass and Brian’s soaring falsetto makes this song: “Kiss a little bit, fight a little bit…” That’s the Beach Boys story right there.
If you wanted to draw a line from Today! to Pet Sounds, it’d be pretty easy. It’s called “She Knows Me Too Well.” You might even forget to draw the line and mistake it for a Pet Sounds outtake. And most people would stop talking about Today! right here. But there’s another track (actually two but one of them is an “interview” track–a common “filler” on early Beach Boys albums) that I think is just as beautiful and significant as the others. Dennis opened the album with “Do You Wanna Dance?”, and he closes it with his best vocal to date, “In the Back of My Mind.” Dennis was still a few years off from coming into his own as a songwriter, but all the potential is evident on this track. The vocal is incredibly raw and breathtaking. You just don’t want it to end.
But it does end. So you have to get up and move the needle back to the start. Or you have to push rewind. Or you have to create an iPod playlist and just have it on constant replay. It sounds great any way. It’s the perfect mixture of the fun and the melancholy, the catchy pop singles and gorgeous ballads. It’s my favorite Beach Boys album.