The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’

‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ was the opening track on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, an album that, by any objective standards, must be regarded as one of the five most perfect albums ever made. In Britain, it was released as the b-side to ‘God Only Knows’ but in America, where they were stupidly conflicted over the use of the word God in a pop-song title, it was the a-side and it reached no. 8.
I heard of it before I heard it, in a piece about Pet Sounds, that spoke, as anyone who considers the album seriously must do, of its relationship to the closing track, ‘Caroline No’, as the journey from innocence to experience, from the youthful buoyancy of not knowing, to what knowing brings in terms of the end of hope.
And ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ is Innocence personified, from the moment that perfectly poised, perfectly enacted intro bubbles out of the speakers, sounding of summer and sun and sand and sea, like all Beach Boys songs were supposed to do, the California lifestyle at its most free and careless. But this isn’t going to be about surfing, or hot-rodding. This is a whole new level of Innocence. This is going to be about two people, a boy and a girl, who are in love.
What makes that any different from ninety-five percent plus of pop music? How is this naivete to be distinguished from all the other naïve lovers wrapped up in themselves, whose love is a world of its own? Because this pair of young lovers are readying themselves for what is to come, for what they imagine to be the adventure of life together, the joy of finally getting to have sex under the protective shield of marriage, for these are good and dutiful young American boys and girls who know there are boundaries and respect these instinctively.
Wouldn’t it be nice? are the first worlds to come out in Brian Wilson’s high range vocals, but unlike Roger Daltrey, the thing that would be nice is to be older. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, and we wouldn’t have to wait so long? And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong? Because these are model citizens, you and Is, the suburban youth who joyously await the time when they know it’s going to make it that much better when they can say goodnight and stay together.
If you’ve got this far without being touched by the beauty, the purity of their confidence in themselves, you should register yourself for medical examination. Ok, they’d be eaten alive in 2022, but in 1966 this kind of innocence was both natural and perfect. They are so sure in themselves that everything must be so much better when they don’t have to be apart. 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? What they have gives them strength in each other and gives them delight, and all they can imagine is that the chance of being together twenty-four hours a day must be even better.
The happy times together we’ve been spending, I wish that every kiss was never-ending. Love and growing up just means more of it, all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice?
And if you’ve got this far without thinking to yourself, sadly, that it isn’t like that, that they are going to have a lot of things to learn when they do grow up, you may be just a fourteen year old boy in mid-Sixties California, But you will still want it to be like this for them for as long as possible, for lessons not to be learned until they absolutely have to be.
There they are, straining against themselves to want it to be so. Maybe if they think and wish and hope and pray, maybe if miracles do happen, it’ll all come true. Grown, adult, independent, free to do everything they could do. They could be married (and the band agree in chorus), and then we’d be happy… And your heart aches for them, thinking that marriage is the answer to all, the all-day, all-night guarantee of happiness, and the passport to that thing they’ve been thinking of but not doing or even speaking about.
And you know what they’re going to find out about marriage.
Still, they remain innocent. It only makes it worse to imagine the time when all their longings can be fulfilled, when the kisses can indeed be never-ending, the thought that makes those longings and urgings so much more present and intense that it hurts. But let’s talk about it is Wilson’s final statement. Let’s play with fire. Oh wouldn’t it be nice?
But for now, good night. Sleep tight baby, and the implication is that in their dreams they will meet when in real life it’s separate beds, separate houses, separate streets. Sleep tight, baby, and dream of when it won’t be like this any more.
The odd thing about this song is that it sprang from somewhat impure motives, being Brian Wilson’s confused attraction to his sister-in-law, his wife’s sister, who had an innocent aura that he wanted to capture in music. The song was one of only two on the album where Wilson completed the music before bringing in Tony Asher to write the lyrics, drawing on this innocence for its theme. Wherever it came from, the music was pure, and joyous, the perfect opening into an album of meditation on what it was like to just be in that world.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’

Of course I knew about The Beach Boys. Radio 1’s Golden Oldies policy made free with their work so that I had heard practically every hit single they’d had in Britain many times before I took advantage of K-Tel Records – a mail order label who advertised on TV and weren’t available in record shops – to buy their 20 Golden Greats.
And of course I knew about the legendary album, Pet Sounds, if only from Nick Kent’s tremendous three part series on Brian Wilson in the NME in 1975. I just didn’t consider getting hold of it and hearing it for myself.
Not that I was totally unfamiliar with the album. Weren’t ‘Sloop John B.’ and ‘God Only Knows’ big hit singles from it? Not that you would necessarily take the former to be an advertisement for a whole album’s worth of that.
No, for some reason, it just never struck me to listen to Pet Sounds.
Part of that is one of my lifelong failings that I hope I’ve now grown out of, but I didn’t go much for other people’s recommendations. Paradoxically, for someone whose self-confidence was as uncertain as mine, I was possessed of something that was part-stubbornness and part-arrogance. I was the loner, I was the outsider, I was the oddball whose tastes veered away from the conventional to the obscure and the unknown. I was used to finding things by myself and the concomitant of that, which should never have been, was that if I hadn’t found it, it wasn’t worth it. I couldn’t follow other people’s tastes because mine veered so distantly from them.
See what I mean about arrogance? Even the popular bands I was into, I got into them my own way, without any prompting. And so it had to be.
I remember it as being a Sunday afternoon, a request programme, and taping a track, a Beach Boys track that I knew I’d never heard before. If it was a request programme then surely it had to be Annie Nightingale, but the timing was completely out. I’d stopped listening to Radio 1 at all in the mid-Eighties and her Request Show didn’t outlast the Seventies, and besides, once I’d absorbed this previously unheard song, which was nothing like any Beach Boys track I already knew, I sought it out on CD, which means the Nineties…
The album was of course Pet Sounds, and the song was ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’.
It’s the album’s penultimate track, coming just before the aching ‘Caroline, No’, the end of the journey that the album takes from the wide-eyed innocence of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and the lovers’ imaginings that all that is necessary to be happy is to marry and be together all the time, to the wistful air of disappointment that, on the contrary, lovers and girls change and there is no such thing as emotional perpetuity.
I’d never heard such a Beach Boys track before. There was none of the cheeriness, the sun and surf gaiety, the big choruses with those wonderful harmonies. Instead, the song was slow, its instrumentation a world from the Chuck Berry-influenced rock the Wilson family sprung from. It came from an entirely different level of sophistication that almost negated in one moment everything the band had been for me before now.
For once, I’m not going to say that it was a song that I responded to, although elements of its lyrics were pertinent to me. Most people regard it as the most personal song on Pet Sounds, a recounting of just how isolated and alone Brian Wilson felt, which, given his relationship with his bandmates during the recording of this album, is certainly true. Whether it’s Brian or not, it’s the introspection of someone who, for all his intelligence, can find nothing in life to attach himself to and to bring people along to. Whatever he gets into, he cannot find those to join in with him.
In the end, his conclusion, sadder in its way than even the realisation buried in ‘Caroline No’, is that he is out of step with everyone and everything around him, and damned to be so: I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.
But like I said, it wasn’t the words that spoke to me but the beauty of the music, its layered effect, its difference from not just the ‘California Girls’ and ‘Darlin”s, but from everything else. It was slow, it was strong, it was smooth. Even the vocals were not quite the same, because they were Brian Wilson on his own, aptly, building up harmony after harmony.
And ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’ was the song to make me go out and buy Pet Sounds, at long last. It was my doorway, my route of access, my stepping stone to listen to one of the most perfect albums ever recorded. How stupid I had been to resist other people’s opinions, because, yes mother, it was every bit as good as everyone had always told me it was, and even better than that, and what’s more in all those years that I could have been listening to it, it hadn’t aged a second, it was as bright and fresh and imaginative as it had been on the day it was first released.
And the times that Brian Wilson thought he wasn’t right for turned out to be forever, because even in 2022, this is one of the measures that music will always have to have to stand up to.
And, do you know what? If Mike Love and Co. hadn’t fucked Brian around so much, Smile might just have been even better. But that’s another story, for another day.

The Infinite Jukebox: God Only Knows

The Infinite Jukebox has a lot of Beach Boys songs on it, and a lot of love songs. The two come together in possibly the purest song of all, Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”.
This is one of those songs where it’s impossible to believe that it was written by two people, that it’s not the creation of a single mind, a single heart and soul, but it’s true. Brian Wilson was no lyricist so, whilst the melody and the arrangements are his, the words, pure and simple yet equally from the heart, come from his frequent collaborator, Tony Asher. They are an integral part of the whole, and Asher deserves the greatest credit possibly for so thoroughly understanding the music as to match its calm, its pure essence, its ethereality with words that waste no language, that cut so truly to the centre of any relationship between two people that’s called by the name of love.
“God Only Knows” was a massive hit here, a number 2 single, the Beach Boys’ biggest success in Britain to date, though immediately overtaken by their next release, “Good Vibrations”. In America, where the religious sensibilities made a song with God in the title – and one that was not about any deity – so much more questionable, it was restricted to the lower half of a double A-side and barely scraped the Top 30.
There are many many instances in the Sixties of American tastes being considerably better than British: this is a welcome opposite.
The song was Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal with the band. Later in his life, he spoke of the greatest honour he had ever received as being when his brother Brian asked him to sing this song. Though the two brothers’ voices were similar, Brian chose Carl to sing “God Only Knows” because of the additional sweetness of his voice. He’s also the only actual Beach Boy to play on this record, the backing track being recorded by the experienced session musicians always called in to do the studio work.
I don’t have the words to describe the music, but from the moment of that introduction, the song exists in a higher atmosphere than we breath on Earth. Musicologists have linked it to the music of the baroque, and of Handel, and there is a choral texture from the outset that suggests harpsichords, though it’s a regulation piano that first emerges from the horns, violas and cellos, laying a suggestion of rhythm for Carl to come in over.
I may not always love you, he sings, a line of ambivalence for which Asher fought Brian’s reluctance. In a song that’s about love, about an overpowering, soul-deep love, it’s a strange way to begin, when every other line in that first verse exists to deny it, but it’s only a lead-in to what the song says, to what love says: God only knows what I’d be without you.
Because, in words that lack decoration, lack equivocation, that are so straightforward as to almost be brutal, which encompass everything in the shortest possible statement but are simply beautiful, Asher’s lyrics and Wilson’s music recognise that love is about transformation, about becoming something which alone you are not and never can be.
And love transcends. Having contemplated but implicitly dismissed the notion that his love might not be eternal, the singer turns to the thought that her love might not be eternal. If you should ever leave me, Carl sings, though life would still go on, believe me (this is not a song to desecrate with the notion of any kind of death), the world could show nothing to me. For what good would living do me?
Instead of answering, when we all know the answer he would give, he repeats: God only knows what I’d be without you. Though by now we understand the import of that line.
So far, that gorgeous intro excepted, the music has been muted, rhythmic, the voice carrying the melody as the piano, a tambourine and the lightest of taps on the rims of the drums provide a propulsion that is joined by an organ playing a series of single notes.
Then the bridge cuts in, with a roll of drums and a hitherto unexpected melody, and for a brief moment voices chant, a Gregorian element, but still only three voices: Carl, Brian and Bruce Johnston, splitting the range into three parts. No Al Jardine, no Mike Love, no Dennis Wilson. Voices chant and cross, in true Beach Boy harmony, but only for a short space of time, until Carl repeats both his central question and that reinforcing verse that stipulates that, contrary to his opening line, this is eternal. This is love or nothing.
For a moment, the music tallies, reduced to Pete Townsend’s one note, pure and easy, and then the voices return, the same three voices, weaving into and out of each other, variations on that theme, all and part of that line, and it could go on forever and none would mind for the music holds and the voices sustain and there is no end to this melody, only a fade-out.
There are many who liken “God Only Knows” to a spiritual or religious experience, who take the love as being that all-consuming, transcendent love for the God-head, for the spirit. And the music and the sound is holy, even to those of us who have no faith, who believe in no god. This is religious music for all that it is a three minute pop song.
But to me, it is and always will be the love song beyond which there are no love songs, that says all that has to be said, that says to her that you have made me whole and complete, that you have given me something beyond description, that can only be felt, absorbed, lived, that together we are what neither of us could be and nothing could be greater than that.
God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.