Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" /
"God Only Knows"
The Beach Boys


Beatlemania was the reigning passion of my adolescence, but I'll confess that there was an interlude -- think of it as my own Lost Weekend -- in the summer of 1966, when my family took a train trip west to Southern California. Our West Coast sojourn was one golden blur of Disneyland, malls, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, and trips to the beach, preferably in the company of my one-year-older boy cousin Jeff, who had black hair and ice-blue eyes and a strong jaw -- possibly the dreamiest male I had ever met in the flesh. This SoCal infatuation lasted well into the fall -- as I recall, that was also the year the Monkees debuted on TV -- until who knows what Beatles song jarred it loose.

And right in the heart of that Golden Summer came this double-sided hit from the Beach Boys. They'd always been the sound of summer for me -- even in the Midwest, with a turquoise cement-rimmed swimming pool standing in for the LaJolla cove. (I suppose in the Midwest we needed the Beach Boys even more, to create the illusion of summer.) How did they do it? Was it the nimble Chuck Berry-like guitars, sparkling like sunlight on ocean waves? The sweet foregrounded vocal harmonies, surging and lapping like tides? Or was it just the ineffable beauty of Brian Wilson's melodies, soaring toward a distant horizon?

The Beach Boys brand was a dependable commodity by the summer of '66. But with these two songs, Brian Wilson leaped light-years into the future, leaving even the Beatles in his dust (presumably that was Brian Wilson's goal). Even as an untutored kid, I could instantly tell this was something special and new. Really, listen to these two melodies -- was anything EVER this gorgeous?

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" was a stroke of genius -- the ultimate Good Kids Waiting For Sex song. The Beatles were all about sex, but now here were the Beach Boys making chastity sound romantic and cool. Sure, it was uptempo and catchy, but listen to how that plinky little electric piano riff at the beginning is suddenly smacked down with a treMENdous drum whack. This whole song is about trembling on the verge of intercourse, yet the rock-bottom assumption was abstinence. "Wouldn't it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn't have to wait so long" -- we all knew what they were waiting for.

Cynicism was never the Beach Boys' game, and it is remarkable how earnest this song is. Brian Wilson was enough of an arrested adolescent to dwell whole-heartedly in this pre-lapsarian scenario. In verse two, he does get a little hungry as he projects into the future: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up / In the morning when the day is new / And after having spent the day together / Hold each other close the whole night through." And yet STILL so innocent -- just holding each other, that's all, really! (I love how it slows down, almost groaning with desire, as he sings, "You know it seems the more we talk about it / It only makes it worse to live without it..."). Naturally they will be married ("we could be married") which equals being happy ("then we'd be happy"), and OH, wouldn't it be nice? And then the whole thing dissolves into a masturbatory swirl of overlapping phrases and echoes and harmonies, as never-ending as that passionate long kiss. Brian Wilson's discovery of aural texture was a new frontier for pop music, and we were all gobsmacked by it.

I was young enough in 1966 to eat up this song's scenario. I didn't have a boyfriend at the time (unless you counted my hunky cousin) but I yearned and burned in principle. Nevertheless, the B side of this record had one advantage for me: The glorious lead vocal of the most underrated Wilson brother, Carl. I had no idea it was him singing, of course -- if you'd asked me, the only Wilson I was interested in was the beautiful Dennis -- but something about Carl's voice dove straight into my heart.

The song has no dramatic tension at all -- it's just a straight-shooting expression of devotion, and nobody could do sincere like Carl. But even more important was his exquisite ear -- who else could have steered that tune through its morphing key changes, vertiginous swoops up and down the scale, the surging swells of volume? The vocal had to be strong to stand up against the densely layered instrumentation of strings, woodwinds, synthesizers, and whatever else obsessive Brian had hauled into the studio. It expresses passion on an operatic scale, and for once pop music had musical tools worthy of that passion.

That opening is so damn noble, like an opera overture, with marching electric piano chords and a French horn fanfare. Enter our white knight, Sir Carl, singing humbly, "I may not always love you" -- hunh? but no, it's a rhetorical trick, as the next line resolves. "But long as there are stars above you / You never need to doubt it / I'll make you so sure about it." The way he throws his voice into "sure" is equalled only by the poignance of the same line in verse two, as he imagines her leaving him and protests -- "So what good would livin' do me?" What good indeed, I ask myself. Again, cyncism would ruin this song, and there's never a whisper of it.

That's about it as far as lyrics go -- from there on it's just repeats of "God only knows what I'd be without you," sung as a round, then as a madrigal, then amplified into full orchestral counterpoint, until you're lost in the dizzying tapestry of aural textures. I find myself singing along with one voice, then another; sometimes the wave breaks on "what," other times on "without," but it never resolves, never ends, a continuous spiral of sound. He's fighting through a wilderness, with only his steadfast love to guide him. It's amazing how ego-less this is -- he's not bragging about his passion, simply stating, over and over, with dogged humility, that he'd be nothing without her. Simple as that.

Raised on songs like this, is it any wonder that we who were girls in 1966 found real-world adult love baffling?


ssspune said...

Oooh, Holly! I was hoping it was gonna be this one!!! Beautiful...especially the "trembling" part. I totally hear you about Carl's vocal on GOK--there's a vocal-only version on disc 5 of the Good Vibrations set (pretty sure that's where it is) that's insane. Hope you don't mind if I post a link to my recent homage to Mr. W: http://ssspunerisms.blogspot.com/2010/01/doughy-lumps-stomach-pumps-enemas-too.html

Holly A Hughes said...

Thought you might like this! Funny thing is, I've never owned Pet Sounds, though I can't tell you how many times I've held it in my hand and stood at a cash register, on the verge of buying it. But somehow I love these two songs as a single so much, the fact of the album seems almost irrelevant. Is that perverse or what?

Mark said...

Thanks for writing about two of the most gorgeous Beach Boys songs! Wow, what a single.

Holly A Hughes said...

Really, the music was just pouring out of Brian Wilson right then -- I don't think he could have written a bad song in those days if he'd wanted to!

wwolfe said...

In a documentary about the Beach Boys, there's a montage of film clips showing Carl singing "God Only Knows," starting immediately after its release and continuing until shortly before his death. It's remarkable how well his lovely voice stood up over several decades. I'll add a tip of the hat to Tony Asher, who wrote the lyrics to both songs.

Gary said...

There's a very affecting performance of "God Only Knows" by Carl, accompanied by Brian at the piano, in the movie "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times."