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