By the end of 1964, things were moving fast for The Beach Boys. The past year had seen three (three!) albums and endless touring, and the upcoming record demanded more. Despite outrageous expectations, 22-year-old Brian Wilson, responsible for writing, arranging and producing nearly all the material for America’s most popular band, still harbored creative ambitions of a huge magnitude.
It was against this frenzied backdrop Wilson famously decided to quit touring and focus on the studio. It should have been no shock the man who wrote “In My Room” abandoned performing surf rock for crazed teenyboppers in favor of committing masterpieces to tape. The decision would pay massive artistic dividends, displayed almost immediately in March 1965 when The Beach Boys’ Today! hit record store shelves.
Wilson had spoken for years about his infatuation with recreating Phil Spector’s wall of sound production, and this was the first instance his music was fully expanded with Spector’s momentous treatment. Side one showcases The Beach Boys’ trademark rock’n’roll revitalized in the gripping new sound.
Bookends “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” feature harmony-inflated choruses with voices so big they feel like they could blow over a brick house. Anchored by Los Angeles’s famed Wrecking Crew studio musicians, the group swept in with power unprecedented for songs with such light-hearted content and accessible melodies.
Though lacking the excitement of the familiar single version, the original “Help Me, Rhonda” features richer texture. Rhythm guitarist Al Jardine takes full advantage of a rare lead vocal turn, delivering one of Wilson’s most enduring melodies with perfect intonation. Wilson’s melodic bass lines, which would soon become a hallmark of ’66’s Pet Sounds, foreshadow their value more than a year in advance.
A tight schedule necessitated a brisk 12-day recording session in January, but Wilson still found himself with a bit more free time than usual, which he spent writing music and indulging in substances for the first time. And somewhere, a new avenue opened in his brain.
“Please Let Me Wonder” and “Kiss Me Baby” offer a vastly matured degree of sophistication and production, asserting that this, not the upcoming “California Girls,” is the true site of the band’s artistic ignition. Their overwhelming cascades of harmony pour in unison with their emotional waves, pulsing alongside the lyrical content. Progressive percussion and horns articulate the sways, and unorthodox chord changes complete the marriage of music and message. The jazzy “In the Back of My Mind” affords even more space in the mix for the Wrecking Crew, and the orchestral ambience it constructs would have been worthy of the forthcoming Pet Sounds.
Standard for The Beach Boys, the vocals throughout are infallible. Wilson’s soft voice on “Please Let Me Wonder,” unlike any he’d sung with before or since, is extremely emotional. “She Knows Me Too Well” and “Kiss Me Baby,” in which he slides seamlessly between his tenor and falsetto, might be his most technically impressive vocal performances ever.
Dennis Wilson brings exuberance to “Do You Wanna Dance?” and earthy reality to “In the Back of My Mind” that wouldn’t have been possible from the immaculate voices of his brothers. Mike Love’s contained narrative style works perfectly on first side hits “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” and on bridges all over side two. He also brings a strong baritone to hold up the harmonies and provide counterpoint to Brian’s falsetto.
Today!‘s one crime is “Bull Sessions with ‘Big Daddy,’ ” a mindless clip of studio banter ostensibly tacked onto the end of the disc to meet the record company’s expectation of 12 tracks. But if regarded as a reference point of the industry’s demands of the era, the track speaks volumes to the accomplishments of the album.
Today! might be a stepping stone toward magnum opus Pet Sounds, but don’t be fooled: It’s a consummate artistic statement, not a work in progress. The surfboards and hotrods had been left behind, but Today! is where Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys started waxing down and revving their engines.