THE BEACH BOYS: TODAY! (1965)
1) Do You Wanna Dance?; 2) Good To My Baby; 3) Don't Hurt My Little Sister; 4) When I Grow Up; 5) Help Me, Ronda; 6) Dance, Dance, Dance; 7) Please Let Me Wonder; 8) I'm So Young; 9) Kiss Me, Baby; 10) She Knows Me Too Well; 11) In The Back Of My Mind; 12) Bull Session With "Big Daddy".
Let me put in a few kind words for Mike Love. Whatever he did for the Beach Boys' reputation starting in the mid-Seventies and onwards — we'll get to it eventually — is inexcusable. But as for his infamous clashes with Brian over the band's direction in the «classic» era of 1965-67... well, it would be one thing if the Beach Boys wrote and recorded their surf/cars/girls songs like any generic teen pop band. But by 1964, Brian had already learned to keep such gems as 'I Get Around' coming on a regular basis — songs that were, at the exact same time, artistically innovative and commercial. So... if you can write music that is loved both by the critics and the public, what's your problem?
No wonder Mike got so infuriated when he saw Brian concentrating, first and foremost, on complex, not-so-easily-accessible ballads. He might not have been railing so much against innovation and progress as he was upon what he perceived as an incomprehensible haughtiness, an out-of-nowhere desire to go and lock oneself up in an ivory tower. And, to a certain extent, I get that feeling. By concentrating exclusively on his «pet sounds», which could, medically, be interpreted as giving in to the call of autism, Brian, want it or not, would lose some of the versatility and flexibility that he showed off so well in the early years. In a way, paradoxical as it may sound, his music, with Pet Sounds and whatever ensued, became more predictable — more complex, more profound, more spiritual, but less diverse and adventurous.
Which is why The Beach Boys Today! has eventually become my favourite Beach Boys record. For a very simple reason — it contains everything one should know and understand about the Beach Boys, a perfect demonstration of all of their capabilities and almost none of their flaws. On Side A, it has songs tailor-made to send Mike Love into waves of ecstatic frenzy, and yet, at the same time, impenetrable to criticism unless one just hates pop altogether. And on Side B, you have a bunch of ballads whose lyrical subjects may not reach the depths of thought that Tony Asher or Van Dyke Parks would soon bring in... who knows, perhaps that's a good thing... but whose musical layers and heavenly vocal arrangements would never truly be surpassed; I am, in fact, arguing, that, even if Brian would be still writing music every bit as beautiful in the following years, Today! already finds him at his accomplished peak.
Four words: 'Please Let Me Wonder'. The most perfect synthesis of romanticism and realism that the band had created up to that moment — and when you think that Mike Love is actually credited for the lyrics, it also becomes an acutely band-like thing, more so than Pet Sounds and Smile that were more like «Brian Wilson solo albums with invited guests supplying vocal harmonies». Not that the lyrics are great, but they're okay, a nice rendition of a perfectly believable situation. The poor protagonist guy is smitten, but hasn't really got the nerve and/or courage to come out with it, so he is just content with asking to "please let me wonder if I've been the one you love, please let me wonder if I'm who you're dreaming of" — ah, what the hell, most of us have, at one time or another, asked this question, no matter how macho some of us may try to seem in everyday life. (If you haven't, you must at least be Che Guevara or something).
The music, owing quite a bit to Phil Spector's wall-of-sound, is not stunning on its own (but then I have also never been a big fan of the instrumentals on Pet Sounds, either), but it acquires stunning power in conjunction with the vocals — even before the chorus comes in, with Brian's lead line "Now here we are together..." as the most gorgeous verse melody the man ever wrote and sung. There's such a delicate mix of loving tenderness (his inner voice is addressing the invisible heroine as if she were made of china), fearful insecurity, and down-to-earth realism — not one single note is overcooked — that I can only express pity at the fact that so few ballad-makers took serious notice. This is how these things ought to be done, period.
The magic of 'Please Let Me Wonder' has always obscured the solid qualities of the other ballads for me — perhaps they should have placed the song last rather than first — but there is no getting away from the fact that musically, 'She Knows Me Too Well' and 'In The Back Of My Mind' are more thoroughly developed, and presage the psychedelic/baroque qualities of Pet Sounds. 'In The Back Of My Mind', furthermore, has been donated to Dennis — a questionable decision, seeing as how he was always the least technically accomplished singer of the whole bunch, but, on the other hand, his «painful» delivery is also a quirky precursor to his later career; you can easily trace a straight line from the experience of singing it on this album to the aching confessions on Pacific Ocean Blue twelve years later.
Then there is no forgetting the first side, either. 'Do You Wanna Dance' does away with Bobby Freeman's silly bongo sound, cranks up the speed dial, and becomes a rip-roaring anthem to the powers of dancing, with yet another lead vocal from Denny, this time far more confident and collected. The original creation 'Dance, Dance, Dance' that bookmarks Side A on the other edge, has all that and terrific vocal harmonies, rising and going in circles according to a pattern that has its direct precursor in 'I Get Around', but may be even more tricky this time. For 'When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)', Brian hauls out the harpsichord — still a fairly rare instrument in late 1964/early 1965 — and trades a set of commonplace, but always relevant teen-philosophy questions with Mike ("will I love my wife for the rest of my life?" — nice question to ask, Brian, I'm sure Marilyn was only too happy to hear that one). Only the early, rushed, version of 'Help Me Rhonda' sounds underdeveloped, a mistake the band would soon correct on their next LP. Elsewhere, no trouble with anything whatsoever.
Oh yes, a brief reminder of the fact that the LP medium is not allowed to exist without filler is still there in the form of the last track: 'Bull Session with Big Daddy', which tries to pass for about two minutes of civilized interviewing, but is constantly getting derailed with complaints about stepping on one's French fries — and that one immortal quote: "Of all of Europe the only thing that stuck out in my mind is the bread" (I don't quite understand who exactly said that, and I don't think I want to know) — granted, American bread does suck, but just how patriotic is it to rub that fact of life in our faces? Anyway, two minutes of humiliation for us all here to remind that listening to perfection may be dangerous, since it makes us forget that we are still living in the real world, where people not only write and perform beautiful music, but also behave like silly clowns and eat cheese sandwiches.
As a beautiful, well-balanced, and (for a bunch of young kids in early 1965) intelligent album, Today! has few peers — in fact, even a «Beatles person» like myself must admit this was the only time when Brian Wilson clearly was in the lead; and I do not mean the formal richness of the sonic texture, which Brian, ever the trustworthy disciple of Phil Spector, would always excel in, but simply the realization — the conscious realization — that his mission here on the planet was to create something bigger than just «pop music». The Beatles would slowly gravitate towards this realization over the course of 1965; Brian must have been thriving on that mindset as early as late 1964, and maybe even earlier than that. Sensitive soul, that Brian. Thumbs up.
Check "Today!" (CD) on Amazon