Time Capsule: The Beach Boys, The Beach Boys Today!

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re putting the focus on the Beach Boys' pre-Pet Sounds appetizer, a stunning collection of songs penned by Brian Wilson before he made his masterpiece.

Music Reviews The Beach Boys
Time Capsule: The Beach Boys, The Beach Boys Today!

By the time 1965 arrived, the Beach Boys had reached new heights in their popularity. On the Fourth of July the previous year, their song “I Get Around” became their first #1 hit—and is said to have formally jump-started the years-long rivalry between them and the Beatles. One of the great, misrepresented stories in rock ‘n’ roll history is the competition between the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Much has been said about the way each group was constantly one-upping each other in the mid-1960s, and that’s how we got Pet Sounds, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all within one year of each other.

As Mike Love told me last spring, the back-and-forth competition between the two powerhouse rock bands was never a negative deal. Bruce Johnson played an acetate of Pet Sounds for John Lennon and Paul McCartney; the Beach Boys were always guests at Beatles shows when they came to the States; everyone knows about how McCartney has gone on record about “God Only Knows” being his favorite song of all-time (and McCartney would play the celery on the SMiLE song “Vegetables”). In 1966, the Beach Boys were voted the #1 band in Great Britain by music polls. A year later, the Beatles would put out the album that always, without fail, seems to trump Pet Sounds on all-time lists.

But what gets left out of these conversations is, months before the Beatles would take that crucial turn in their artistry with the dense, mature and sublime Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys made the—at the time—greatest album in rock ‘n’ roll history, The Beach Boys Today!, and you can trace its origins all the way back to “I Get Around” flooding the country’s airwaves on Independence Day. Nine days later, the Beach Boys would release All Summer Long—one of the first real concept albums in rock history—and it’d reach the Top 5 on the Billboard albums chart.

While “I Get Around” didn’t deviate too drastically from previous charting Beach Boys songs, there were small flourishes that hinted at Brian Wilson’s progression towards the perfectionist godhead brilliance he would fully embrace and labor over on Pet Sounds. Through rhythmic shifts, kooky organs, Brian’s falsetto piercing through the sound barrier like an angel’s wing slashing through clouds and Carl Wilson’s guitar packed with more fuzz than ever, “I Get Around” was dynamic and irresistibly catchy—graduating from the same school of harmony as the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day.” Not only was it the last major car song the band would make, it was unlike anything they’d made up until then.

“I Get Around” was a turning point, the first sketch of a blueprint that hadn’t yet unwound. In December 1964, while on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston at the dawn of a two-week US tour, Brian suffered a nervous breakdown—crying over his strained marriage with Marilyn, which had already been on the rocks ever since Brian began experimenting heavily with pot. “None of us had ever witnessed something like that,” Al Jardine would later note. Of course, Brian gathered himself and took the stage that night in Houston, but it would prove to be his final time doing so for many years. Session player Glen Campbell would fill in for the Beach Boys’ leader for the remainder of the itinerary, as Brian retreated to Western Studio in Hollywood to record the band’s new album while the rest were on the road.

That record, known now as The Beach Boys Today!, featured Phil Spector’s session musicians—the Wrecking Crew—and became the most explicit precursor to what Brian would later do on Pet Sounds. Songs would feature up to 11 players (the album itself has a credits list that runs a tally of more than 25 players in total), with some takes of their performances reaching up to 30 times in total. In his memoir, Brian wrote that, after his nervous breakdown in 1964, he vowed to “take the things I learned from Phil Spector and use more instruments whenever I could. I doubled up on basses and tripled up on keyboards, which made everything sound bigger and deeper.”

And that much was true. But calling The Beach Boys Today! a musical triumph feels like an undercut to the larger story. Across 11 songs (not counting the unnecessary closing track “Bull Session with the ‘Big Daddy’”), the Beach Boys—and Brian Wilson especially—set ablaze everything anyone had ever known about rock ‘n’ roll up until that point. The Beach Boys Today! is the greatest pre-masterpiece record ever made; a sharp set of ingenuity and innovation that no other band could truly replicate, delivered through some of the most handsome, graceful singing melodies pop music had ever seen.

Brian recorded The Beach Boys Today! on 3-track tapes and then used one track for vocal overdubs, only to dub it again on a second tape to add stacked vocal augments. Lyrically, he continued the concept-album formula from All Summer Long and applied a semi-auto-biographical lilt to the material. While, technically, The Beach Boys Today! is a feat of sonic genius, the songs themselves, thematically, are introspective, bluntly vulnerable, self-deprecating and, above all, precious.

As far back as “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room,” the Beach Boys were no strangers to singing blissfully about sadness. Love’s ability to write vibrantly about California and Brian’s uncanny knack for confessionals about romance and melancholia, on paper, should have never gelled. But when they did converge, the result was, often, a perfect pop song relentlessly bound to the band’s own fascination with the human condition—the idealizations of love and the cresting waves that couldn’t always outmuscle Brian’s propensity for complexity and didn’t always rely on catchiness.

That’s why Pet Sounds remains so reverential. It largely abandoned the lyrical hooks that Love was so apt at funneling into Beach Boy records, preferring to favor ruminative, sometimes non-sensical percolations of fantastical imagery and dreary, memoiristic fever dreams—thematics that gave Brian the space to embrace an orchestral, fine-tuned musicality that thrived in segments on records like The Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) while his drug habits accelerated. Though the Beach Boys would release two albums in-between The Beach Boys Today! and Pet Sounds, the former remains a massive bridge between the boyish surf charm of the band’s early singles and the sophisti-pop ambitions of Pet Sounds and SMiLE. Brian conceptualized record sides separated by tempo, with side one working mostly through upbeat dance tracks and side two shrinking down into glossy, ornate balladry.

The Beach Boys Today! begins with a cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?,” featuring a rare moment where Dennis Wilson sings lead vocals (but not the only moment on the album). The band recorded the track at Gold Star Studio and employ a three-part vocal and key-change at the song’s bridge, and you can hear subtle influences from songs like Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and Dion and the Belmonts’ “I Wonder Why”—but only in small doses, as the Beach Boys momentarily abandon their doo-wop interests for the sake of turning Freeman’s jam into even more of a beachside hootenanny.

“Good to My Baby” has 15 players on it in total, and the arrangement boasts elements of tenor saxophone, autoharp, upright piano and an incredible guitar riff from Bill Pitman and pulling bass lick from Carol Kaye. It’s an understated romp in the Beach Boys’ catalog—flashed by a diatonic scale thrown a step above the tonic—and memorable first and foremost for Brian’s competence in guiding the entire unit through so a dozen key-changes. The music is dexterous and the song’s story—something about a guy getting defensive about others criticizing his behavior towards his own sweetheart—is sung anxiously by Love and Brian, but the vibrancy of the instruments strip back the tonal darkness.

“Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” flaunts an opening guitar riff that the Vogues would mimic a few months later on their Billboard Top 5 hit “You’re the One.” Brian wrote the song for the Ronettes, originally framing the melody in a way that would match that of Phil Spector’s oeuvre—but Spector would rewrite Brian’s work, change the name to “Things Are Changing (For the Better)” and have one of his lesser-known acts, the Blossoms (the group that sings the version of “He’s a Rebel” Spector claimed was sung by the Crystals) record it. Thus, the song was lost to the annals of Spector’s Wall of Sound. But “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” would go on to live multiple lives in the Beach Boys’ canon, as Brian later repurposed the chord progression for a refrain in “California Girls.”

In his memoir, Love posited that “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” was influenced by the Wilson brothers’ father, Murry, who was belligerent, abusive and toxically challenged Brian’s manhood, especially. The song briefly flirts with a Surfin’ U.S.A.-style tone, but it quickly abandons that accent once Love and Brian openly sing about the fear of growing old and losing touch with sentimentality, all while Brian pairs a Baldwin harpsichord with Carrol Lewis’ double-reed harmonica.

It’s one of the only instances on The Beach Boys Today! where Brian, Carl, Dennis, Love and Al Jardine played almost all of the instruments. It’s said that the song took the band 37 takes to get right, but the reward overshadows the labor—as “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” was one of the first rock tracks to forgo teenage and adolescent-driven stories of romance in favor of a mature, introspective and nuanced commentary on aging and masculine expectations, punctuated by the Love-sung line “Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid?”

But the recognizable pop centerpiece of The Beach Boys Today! remains “Help Me, Rhonda” (spelled “Help Me, Ronda”), which would later be re-recorded for Summer Days. It’s one of the uniquest entries of the pre-Pet Sounds era, as Brian would quickly discard the Today! cut for something better-equipped to perform well commercially—and he was right, as the Jardine-sung track, strapped with a new arrangement and subtle lyric changes, became the Beach Boys’ second #1 hit. Side one of the album concludes with “Dance, Dance, Dance,” the spiritual successor to “I Get Around” that gave Carl his first-ever writing credit, as he was responsible for constructing the uber-recognizable 12-string guitar riff. Dennis drums like a madman here, and his rhapsodic percussion is accentuated greatly by Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine—who lends a coterie of sleigh bells, triangle, tambourine and castanets to the background.

It’s on side two where The Beach Boys Today! cements itself as one of the greatest pop records of its era, as Brian plugs in five straight sublime ballads (and sings lead on all but one of them) that illustrate his prodigious talents as good—if not better—than any five-song run on any other Beach Boys album. The songs offer a lush connectivity between Today! and Pet Sounds, with the former’s side two often being characterized as Brian’s first embrace of melange structurings. On “Please Let Me Wonder,” written by Brian while stoned to the bone, he sings about the fear of being unloved and, in turn, chooses to fantasize about the inverse. “For so long, I thought about it and now I just can’t live without it,” he mourns, “this beautiful image I have of you.” The cloak of the hits-heavy side one drops at this moment, as the Beach Boys revel in the glow of doo-wop-inspired baroque-pop—employing timpani, tack piano, organs, horns, and vibraphone and amalgamating them like divine puzzle pieces.

The Beach Boys’ cover of “I’m So Young”—first performed by the Students and then famously by Veronica Bennett and the Ronettes (under the title “So Young”)—sits in blunt contrast with that of “Do You Wanna Dance?,” largely for how closely the band sticks to the song’s original script, mirroring similar melodies to the Chantels’ “I Love You So.” Brian’s outro, however—which features the Beach Boys trading echoes of “can’t marry no one” back and forth—was a stylish embroidery few bands of the era ever had the wherewithal to pull off. Though not as immediately singular as the Ronettes’ rendition, “I’m So Young” would later influence Brian as he was writing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

Sequencing “Kiss Me, Baby” and “She Knows Me Too Well” back-to-back is a rarely talked-about stroke of Brian’s album-making genius, with the latter acting as mini-opus. A sorrowful glint of romance, jealousy and insecurity, “She Knows Me Too Well” is a sibling to “Don’t Worry Baby”—as Brian laments a striking and copious amount of self-doubt, particularly surrounding his admission of jealousy and relationship double-standards. “When I look at other girls, it must kill her inside,” he bemoans. “But it’d be another story if she looked at the guys.” There’s a high-pitched spur of percussion, made possible by smacking a screwdriver on a boom pole. “Kiss Me, Baby” introduces Brian’s interests in using temple blocks for the first time, and the band sings doo-wop background vocals across the chorus and outro. 57 years later, and it remains one of the Beach Boys’ greatest romantic gestures; and the bounty of emotions it carries is platformed by a dense, decorative choir bedecked with lullaby delicacy and orchestral blankets (and some glossy shredding from six-stringer Billy Strange).

With how momentous and influential Pet Sounds remains, it sometimes looks like the Beach Boys’ segue from novelty surf-rock songs to moody, methodical and experimental concertos was near-instantaneous. But Brian Wilson didn’t abandon simple guitar, bass and drum melodies for arrangements featuring water jugs, Coca-Cola cans, harmoniums, glockenspiels and güiros overnight. It was a slow-burn scattered across the better part of three, four years. The more time Brian spent telling the Wrecking Crew what to do and where to go in the studio, the more comfortable he was bringing in as many bells and whistles as humanly possible. He was doing things Phil Spector’s dreams never even flirted with, and it’s such an incredible feat on The Beach Boys Today!—largely due to its presentation as a suite of music rather than a collection of singles collaged with throwaway tracks. Drawing on the easy-listening pop eccentricities of Burt Bacharach and Spector’s Wall of Sound formula of building sounds that don’t just carry records but challenge the boundaries of listening capacities, Brian’s saccharine standards practically invented chamber-pop—or, at the very least, chamber-pop as we understand it in 2024.

That innovation is mostly abandoned on closing track “In the Back of My Mind,” as Dennis Wilson’s double-tracked voice shows up alone, singing from the POV of a man who has everything but fears living with nothing—backed by a set dressing of cellos, violins, violas, autoharp, double-reed harmonica, organ, saxophones, cor anglais, temple block and timbales. At the time of The Beach Boys Today!’s release, “In the Back of My Mind” was the greatest song the Beach Boys had made. Now, 57 years on, I think that idea is still here-and-there unimpeachable. The song is florid and ornamented, furnished with dissonant orchestration and Tin Pan Alley-style songwriting. Musicologist Phillip Lambert once declared the track’s chord patterns as being “virtually unprecedented in Brian’s work,” and the arrangement’s out-of-sync breakdown is proto-Pet Sounds with a bullet.

But what are we to make of the projects that precede masterpieces—albums so overshadowed by treasure that its own fundamentality and legacy gets suppressed? When critics and listeners speak about the Beach Boys, they are speaking about Pet Sounds and—if you’re lucky—SMiLE. Those are the two records that are meant to signify Brian Wilson’s distinctive brilliance and his detrimental chase for perfection, the latter of which eventually led to SMiLE getting abandoned and then, across the next handful of years, those songs being recycled onto various Brian-less Beach Boys releases. The Beach Boys’ legacy exists in chapters: the surfing years; the Pet Sounds era; the Brother Records period; the “Kokomo” comeback.

The Beach Boys Today! is routinely an afterthought caught in the middle of those definitive, tangible checkpoints, and that’s because it is widely considered that everything Brian was doing across these 11 songs was done better on Pet Sounds. “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” have always had staying power, because Brian executed them with commerciality in mind. Even though The Beach Boys Today! was the calm before the storm, and it’s often the stillness that gets forgotten, Brian’s conceptual approach to sonic halving—his interest in splitting the record up by tempo and in a way that mirrors chiaroscuro, the tonal contrasts in art as a way to separate light and dark—was prophetic for the future of concept albums altogether.

The songs on Pet Sounds, save for the timeless, danceable hooks of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” are meant to be digested as exotica and avant-garde pop milieu that is conventional in energy but unconventional in application. On The Beach Boys Today!, Brian Wilson doesn’t yet treat the studio as an instrument—opting to consider his ensembles as set pieces brought in to galvanize a unified vision rather than a cog in the machine of his own unsettled, perfectionist imagination.

The Beach Boys still played on nearly every song and the Wrecking Crew weren’t yet living, breathing wallpaper at Western meant to color the room of Brian’s musical fantasies. The novel approaches to chord voicings and ambiguous key signatures he was flourishing in on Pet Sounds remain overshadowed here by the pop chart sensibilities that the Beach Boys were first motivated to conquer when they were just five teens from Hawthorne, California. Listening to The Beach Boys Today! from front to back, on the other hand, is a measure of hearing a maestro slowly glean confidence from his own deep-bellied grandeur. It’s a materialization of rock ‘n’ roll matrimony between trenchant, emotive back-end ballads and ambitious, marketable and sophisticated singles—arriving like a radical abandonment and a once-in-a-lifetime awakening.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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