In 1961, the three Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine came together to form a band, The Beach Boys. By mixing influences such as 1950s pop vocal groups, R&B and rock and roll, the band created an idiosyncratic summery sound, defined by lush vocal harmonies and a thematic focus on youth culture.
During the 1960s, the band released at least one album a year, becoming known for hits such as ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Surfin’ Safari’. However, by 1966, bandleader Brian Wilson took complete control, creating what he referred to as a solo album in the form of Pet Sounds. Taking control of the production and composition almost entirely by himself, he threw a wide range of genres into the mix, from classical and jazz to avant-garde and doo-wop. The album spawned several of the band’s signature hits, including ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’.
The latter details a relationship between two young lovers, frustrated because their age prevents them from living a happy life together. Wilson sings, “And wouldn’t it be nice to live together/ In the kind of world where we belong?” In Wouldn’t it Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds by Charles Granata, Tony Asher, who co-wrote ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ explained: “It’s a song that people who are young and in love can appreciate and respond to because it revolves around the things they’ve always wanted to do: live together, sleep together, wake up together—do everything together.”
In The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, Asher recalls how he’d be “in restaurants with [Wilson], and some young girl would inevitably walk in, and he’d almost melt, y’know. He’d get all misty-eyed and just stare at her, muttering on and on about, ‘Oh wow, she’s just so-o beautiful. Don’t you think…’” He explained that the song’s theme was helmed by Wilson, “The innocence of the situation — being too young to get married — seemed to be immensely appealing to him.”
Discussing the song’s instrumentals, Wilson said, “Listen for the rockin’ accordions and the ethereal guitars in the introduction. Tony and I had visualized a scene. We had a feeling in our hearts, like a vibration. We put it into music, and it found its way onto tape. We really felt good about that record.” By reflecting the childhood innocence of the song’s lyrics, this introduction makes for the perfect segue into the rest of the track, a song completed by the unforgettable doo-wop-inspired backing vocals.
In Granata’s book, Love revealed that the song took an excruciatingly long time to record. “We did one passage of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ close to 30 times—and some of the tries were nearly perfect! But Brian was looking for something more than the actual notes or the blend: he was reaching for something mystical—out of the range of hearing.”
The instrumentals were recorded at Gold Star Studios, and only the vocals were overdubbed. The song was played in a continuous take, and Wilson provided some of his musicians with instructions to play in different keys, attempting to achieve the perfect version over 21 different full instrumental takes.
After much gruelling hard work (Love nicknamed Wilson “Stalin” when he was working), the result was a pop masterpiece that has spoken to generations of music fans since. The dynamic layers of instrumentation create an emotive soundscape that drives home the lyrics’ nostalgic qualities. In the Pet Sounds liner notes, Asher reflected on the track’s themes, stating that he and Wilson “had the experience of being too young to have what the rest of the world would call a serious relationship with a girl and yet wanting to be able to have it taken seriously.” He continued, “It was autobiographical from the point of view of both of us. We were writing about what we both knew and had experienced.”
Wilson channelled his personal naivety and mixed it with his intense musical knowledge and dedication, and the result was ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ – one of the definitive hits of the 1960s.
Revisit the track below.