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.