“Where did your long hair go?
Where is the girl I used to know?
How could you lose that happy glow?”--”Caroline, No,” written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, performed by the Beach Boys from their Pet Sounds LP (1966)
Unlike “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Caroline, No" never made it into Billboard’s Top 10, peaking only at #32. But if it doesn’t have the infectiousness of these two singles, nor the sheer grandeur of “God Only Knows,” it’s nevertheless an indispensable part of Pet Sounds.
The LP, which was released on this date 45 years ago, might have been the 11th studio album for the Beach Boys, but it was the one in which they made a decisive transition from their traditional subject matter of surfing and hot rods in favor of something more ambitious and adult. With unrivaled vocal harmonies and dense, multilayered tracking owing more than a little to Phil Spector's "wall of sound," it was a kind of pop symphony--a parallel made explicit 11 years ago, when Brian Wilson toured the country playing the album with local symphony orchestras.
In this concept album about the course of a love affair, “Caroline, No” concludes matters on a note of heartbreak. That indelible image of long hair gone perfectly symbolizes loss of innocence. Here was arguably pop music's most troubled genius, opening a window into his heart with this song and the even more plaintive "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" (which provided the title for a fine 1995 documentary about the Beach Boys' major creative force).
Pet Sounds might have driven a wedge among the Beach Boys (Mike Love questioned the wisdom of Brian’s movement away from their longtime commercially viable hits), but their fellow artists recognized it for the pop landmark it was. Paul McCartney, a particular admirer, sought to top it with the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Wilson in turn tried to counter with Smile before Brian Wilson's nervous breakdown led to a truncated version of that project, Smiley Smile.
Too bad lead singer Love was so obtuse about Pet Sounds' move into new territory: A musician in his sixties looks downright foolish singing about being true to your school, or "When I Grow Up to be a Man." On the other hand, the exhilaration and torments of love can be understood whether you're seventeen or seventy.
For all the aural pleasure it provides, I also associate Pet Sounds with two films that define the era in which it was made. The later film, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, marks its protagonist’s introduction to the magic of rock ‘n’ roll in the form of “God Only Knows.” A quarter century earlier, over the closing credits, Warren Beatty’s Shampoo commented ironically on the empty emotional life its stud protagonist had been left with by playing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
But more often than not, when I hear the latter song--and the wondrous album from which it sprang--my heart swells with joy.