Ten Underappreciated Beach Boys LPs: Today!
Published on November 7th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
To celebrate the well overdue release of The SMiLE Sessions, Rocksucker moves on to part three of our look at ten great Beach Boys albums that don’t quite get the recognition we feel they deserve outside of the group’s admittedly sizeable fan base.
This time round, it’s 1965’s coming-of-age-of-sorts Today!…
The Beach Boys’ eighth studio album and first of three in 1965 alone, Today! was arguably their first LP proper to stand together as one clear piece of work, effectively laying down the blueprint for the even more ambitious undertakings of Pet Sounds and SMiLE.
At the end of a hectic 1964 which saw The Beach Boys release four albums in that calendar year alone, Brian Wilson suffered an anxiety attack which prompted him to retire from touring so that he could focus his energies on the band’s studio output, a move which set Today! up to be more than just a hodgepodge smattering of classic singles interspersed with varying degrees of filler.
Indeed, in tandem with a group of Californian session musicians unofficially dubbed The Wrecking Crew by their now-legendary drummer Hal Blaine, Brian upped his game to such an extent that, just a couple of years later, he was almost destroyed by the intense workload he placed upon himself out of personal and peer group (notably The Beatles) one-upmanship.
Anyway, onto the music.
Proceedings get underway with a cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance?”, with the title altered to the altogether more youth-friendly “Do You Wanna Dance?” and its chorus drenched in a gleaming mirror ball of harmonies that go a long way towards making the song their own.
The manner in which these supernatural harmonies suddenly burst into life after the relatively standard surf-rock of the verses…well, if this kind of thing is your bag, you’ll likely be left agape at what you’re hearing.As opening tracks go, “Do You Wanna Dance?” could scarcely do a better job of grabbing your attention and letting even the most impatient listener know that, for the next twenty-eight-odd minutes, they needn’t bother lifting a finger.
It wrests control of the situation, grabs you by the waist and boogies you into the album’s first original composition, “Good to My Baby”.Getting underway with ‘barbershop baritone’ intonations of its title, “Good to My Baby” establishes a formula – that of simple verses followed by deceptively complex bridges and choruses – and throws down its credentials, as if challenging ensuing songs to beat it for sheer craft and joyous enthusiasm.
It’s cocky in this way, but also tremendously sweet for its wide-eyed, lovey-dovey subject matter.
Within the first thirty seconds of the song alone, a stock surf riff and traditional chord progression leads you one way, before a nasally delivered bridge (“when I get her alone now…”) drops a bomb on the musical comfort zone and takes you on a swerving, slaloming ride along the road of melodic ingenuity, the likes of which might have you rolling down the passenger seat window and hurling your guts were it an actual journey in the physical realm.
Fortunately, when pumped into your brain via your ears, it’s soul-strokingly beautiful and drops you off at a chorus that could be deemed ‘unusual’ were it not so damn catchy.
Much the same can be said of “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”, whose titular refrain-repeating chorus weaves in and out of keys in ways that may barely have seemed possible within the confines of rock and roll at the time – and, to liberally paraphrase the old Shakespeare/monkeys/typewriters analogy, in ways that a thousand modern-day indie bands with a thousand guitars and pianos would be hard-pushed to come up with in even a thousand years.
All in all, the first side of Today! is that rarest of animals: a concession to formula that never fails to enthral, energise and inspire.
The particulars of each song – in particular the way each one unfurls following a conventional verse – are more than marked enough to stave off even the remotest pangs of tedium, and each track could have made for a tremendous single in its own right.
“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” and “Help Me, Ronda” are perhaps the album’s most well-known songs and they pair up to stunning effect on the track listing, the former a quietly poignant yet playfully rendered rumination on what the future may hold, smothered in sharply-twisting brain melody, and the latter (featuring Al Jardine on lead vocals) quite possibly the funnest song ever written by anyone, anywhere.
Honestly, if aliens ever arrive on Earth demanding a visual representation of ‘joy’ on our planet, present them with a room full of people singing along to “Help Me, Ronda” and our intergalactic chums will serenading each other with it all the way home.
It could end wars, if only it were given the chance to.
Side one culminates with “Dance, Dance, Dance”, two minutes and one second of such deliriously ecstatic pop gold that it seems almost out of deference that the album then takes a turn for the slower and more reflective from then on in.
Much like the chorus of “Do You Wanna Dance?”, “Dance, Dance, Dance” erupts with heavenward harmonies and, by virtue of its cannier-than-canny key changes, somehow manages to be even more grin/rush-inducing than its “Dance”-themed counterpart.With Today!, Brian finally had the time to fully realise his vision across a full-length album and, whether by design or not, he drew a stylistic line in the sand in doing so.
The transition from “Dance, Dance, Dance” to “Please Let Me Wonder” mirrors the transition of The Beach Boys from surf-rocking youth culture phenomenon to stately, soulful visionaries responsible for some of the most awe-inspiring music ever written and recorded.
There are flashes of both incarnations in The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), the two LPs either side of Today!, but it is the second half of Today! that truly set the stage for Pet Sounds, which in turn set the stage for SMiLE, which in turn set the stage for the other Beach Boys to emerge as songwriting forces of their own on subsequent records.By now, we know that Brian had quite a way with spellbinding balladry and “Please Let Me Wonder” is yet another such example.
It’s all decidedly of its time for the first fifty seconds or so, with only the affecting juxtaposition of the words “my heart is breaking” with a sharp shift into a 7th chord from a minor 7th giving any hint of the arrestingly weary splendour of the chorus to come.
The third cycle of this chorus breaks down into a brief, softly-spoken “I love you” which, as with the “my heart is breaking” trick, leaves the listener at a junction of introspection at the song’s prevailing mood and elation at the fact that something so confoundingly moving can exist, and will continue to do so no matter how bloated, pompous, vacuous and downright insulting modern popular music becomes.
There are some things that science can’t explain, and Brian Wilson’s ability to reduce grown men to tears by chord progression alone is one that has perhaps been taken for granted – a tribute to the lofty standards he imposed upon himself, you could argue.”I’m So Young” is a diverting and commanding makeover of a doo-wop classic written by one William H.
“Prez” Tyus, Jr., while “Kiss Me Baby” flaunts the xylophone and clacking percussion that would become so key to the Pet Sounds experience, but it is “She Knows Me Too Well” that truly sits alongside “Please Let Me Wonder” as the album’s melancholic highlight.
Right from the thrillingly unusual G# to E chord progression of the intro and killer opening verse line “Sometimes I have a weird way of showing my love”, “She Knows Me Too Well” twists, turns and ultimately beguiles to a degree that’s high even for a Brian Wilson composition.
Like “Let Him Run Wild” from follow-up album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and “‘Til I Die” from 1971’s Surf’s Up, it’s one of those Brian numbers that shuts off the world around you for three minutes of your life, massages your soul and takes you someplace else altogether.
Dare I say it? I dare: it’s transcendent.
There, I said it.Just listen to it, for crying out loud.
Today! concludes with a goofy interview entitled “Bull Session With ‘The Big Daddy'”, in which someone greets a fig and Mike Love flippantly remarks: “Brian, we keep waiting for you to make a mistake.” They would be kept waiting.