Beach Boys – Today!

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As a songwriter, Brian Wilson falls in the shadow of 60’s peers Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. As a producer and arranger, he falls in the shadow of Phil Spector. When you look at the longer history of popular music, this makes sense as Wilson just didn’t have the longevity, but in March of 1965, it didn’t. The Beach Boys released Today! that month, in the wake of the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” (from Beatles for Sale in the UK and the forthcoming Beatles VI in the US). The Rolling Stones had just released No. 2/Now! (depending on which side of the Atlantic you were on) with only three or four Jagger/Richards tunes respectively. So, the greatest bands of the 1960’s were either still recording catchy (and largely meaningless) love songs with clever titles or largely sticking to the ways of pop bands past by doing other people’s songs. Phil Spector, one of pop’s great innovators, had just reached the pinnacle of his powers the previous December with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

Enter Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys with Today! Well before the Beatles hinted at maturity with “Yesterday” and “Hide Your Love Away,” let alone Rubber Soul and before Jagger and Richards even established themselves as songwriters to be reckoned with, Today! shows that pop music could deal with the real, personal trials of coming of age. Rather than simply loving someone one more day than exists in a week, the Beach Boys take on outside pressures on relationships (“Good to My Baby”), being protective of a younger sister (“Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”) and looking to the future (“When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)”). Better still, these songs have awkwardness that ground them in the real teen experience rather than the imagined one that is often the mark of pop music both before and after. This, coupled with Wilson’s ability to take Spector’s huge sound and incorporate it less overbearingly (and therefore better), results in a record that succeeds on multiple levels.

Aside from Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys are often dismissed and the cover Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” may seem a good example of why. It’s a sappy, superficial AM hit that fits the notion of the Beach Boys as less than serious artists compared to the direction their peers would take within the year. It is puzzling that the Ramones covered the same song a little over a decade later without much criticism. Are the Ramones somehow more real simply for having played faster and written some other songs about sniffing glue and scoring dope? That idea is as convenient as it is stupid. Brian Wilson’s arrangement results in a the superior version and elevates pop to art. The Ramones could never really touch Wilson’s work on Today!.

Today! doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It seldom if ever shows up on greatest albums lists. It gets forgotten under a pile of albums from its era including the Beach Boys’ own Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s other great album-length achievement. Today! had a few things against it in 1965: It was musically too sophisticated compared to most other pop music (except Phil Spector); it was too awkward and personal (traits that would be valued much more decades later) in an age that increasingly viewed collective youth action as profound; and it was probably just too American in the wake of the British Invasion. It wasn’t until the “Good Vibrations” single that pop fans caught up to Wilson’s innovation as a producer and arranger, but by that point, his process was no longer tenable. No matter how great the song was, they needed to record more than one song every six months. The critical and commercial disappointment of both Today! and Pet Sounds made the success of “Good Vibrations” once again just a bit too late particularly for Wilson who had already begun cracking under pressure. The collapse of the Smile sessions was the end of Wilson’s short, but brilliant run. It’s worth revisiting the beginning of that run on Today! In a way, this was the record that expanded what pop music could be and it was the Beach Boys’ best.

Released: March 8, 1965

About bobvinyl

bobvinyl, writer and co-editor of No Song is an Island, founded its predecessor, Rock and Roll and Meandering Nonsense (whose archives are found here), in 2005 and served as editor and principal contributor until it went on hiatus in 2010. He has also been published in AMP and Loud Fast Rules! (in print) as well as Glide and FensePost on the web. He has been an avid record collector since he was seven years old and enjoys sharing his love of music from the common to the esoteric.

2 thoughts on “Beach Boys – Today!

  1. Chuck

    We talked in the comments of the Pole/Pan American post about how when we encounter music influences the way we hear it. As soon as “Do You Wanna Dance?” came on, I immediately pictured Pavement and Weezer, two ‘90s bands that I detest. My knee-jerk reaction was to turn off the record, but this is an amazing performance and an amazing version of the song. If I’d heard this before Pavement and Weezer, I probably would have loved it, and it might have completely changed how I felt about the Beach Boys. It was years, if not decades, ahead of its time.

    As the rest of the album unfolds, I hear the sound that has made me bristle at the Beach Boys for the better part of 40 years: the super-sweet vocals that are rooted in doo-wop and barbershops, the diminishment of the teenage experience to simplistic tropes about girls and cars, the sound that defines surfing but still feels fraudulent. (As someone who grew up listening to metal in a landlocked desert, clearly I’m an expert on surf rock.)

    I’ve never heard this record, though, so with some focused effort, I can listen with a beginner’s mind. There are amazing things here. The distortion on the guitar has a bite that I’ve never associated with the Beach Boys. The vocals might be super sweet, but they’re closer to the sweetness of a perfectly fresh orange than the saccharine sting of diet soda. The production is perfect, at least for an album from 1965.

    While I agree with you that the lyrics capture some teenage awkwardness, they still feel extremely disconnected from the intense highs and lows of being a teenager. Again, maybe this is a matter of when we encounter music. It’s easy to dismiss the Beach Boys’ ability to capture the bipolarity of those years when my teenage soundtrack included the hard rock dynamics of Zeppelin and Sabbath, the intensity of the Clash and Metallica, the drama of Bowie and the Cure, and even the manipulative commercialism of records like Foreigner 4 and Pyromania. None of that existed in 1965, and I recognize how, for its time, this might’ve been an incredibly powerful expression of adolescence. For me, though, the lyrics feel flat and simplistic. (I’d argue that Coltrane’s records from ’65 — like The John Coltrane Quartet Plays and A Love Supreme — capture the intensity of the teenage years better than this does, but I’m guessing not too many teenagers were identifying with Coltrane in 1965.)

    All in all, I don’t think this will make it into my regular playlist but I’m glad you shared it with me. It grabs me more than Pet Sounds ever did, and despite its flaws, it has an honesty and urgency that I’ve never associated with the Beach Boys. You’re right, this is a really good record, far better than other rock records of the time.

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  2. bobvinyl Post author

    I think one of the things I like about Today! is the move away from surfing and hot rods and that helps it be more relatable/believable. That added substance without losing innocence.

    I love your description of the sweetness being like a fresh orange rather than a diet soda. I think that captures what the Beach Boys did well in this period. Their sweetness matured rather than just turning dark.

    Pavement and Weezer could probably turn anyone off of anything. Instead of getting to the crux of anything they touch, they instead turn it into smugness and kitschiness. Those are bands I really have no respect for. They are destroyers rather than creators.

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