Mind of Brian 9: Don't Worry Baby

byGreg Panfile


music by Brian Wilson, words by Roger Christian

key of E

For years, I was a person who lived in "Brian denial;" that is, the music had penetrated deeply into many areas of my musical and emotional consciousness, but I was too put off by the outre nature of many of the lyrics (not to mention the striped shirts, Mike's personality, most of the Seventies and Eighties material, association with Ronald Reagan etc.) to admit of same. While the early surfing material was part of my problem, perhaps even moreso were the infamous "car songs." An East Coast urban dweller and pseudointellectual English major, I could not find my way from Lennon pieces such as "A Day in the Life" and "Strawberry Fields" to things like "Fun Fun Fun" and "409."

At some point, I suppose I just became mature or openminded enough to admit the validity of all four of the above, and to realize that Brian's achievements were fully embraceable despite, and sometimes even because of (who can honestly turn his nose up, after all, at phrases like "four-speed dual-quad positraction?" *That* is *poetry*!), the lyrics about fun, sun and auto parts. There could be no more concrete case in point than the number at hand, which on one level spins a somewhat trivial and pathetic tale of adolescent race-related derring-do, yet somehow conveys deep and quite mature emotional content in spite of, even because of its relatively ridiculous context. And how does one explain the way a song about such relatively "macho" subject matter succeeds so well with a vocal line a full octave above any normal male singing range, sustained in falsetto completely throughout?


E   (2x)             A         A (B bass)

Boom boom chip boom chip... a few drum hits get us going, and in comes the stack singing some ahhhs. The high voice is up there, Brian as usual starting on the B note with which he ended In My Room, and we are into some interesting material that on one level is a simple 1-4-5 pattern, but with the five chord (B) left out of the harmony. This is a neat trick; it looks as though what was originally planned was to do an intro of verse material, then later during overdubs Brian arrived at the brilliant idea of letting the bass go up but having the chord remain static... it works so well, we'll see it again. The bass also puts in some nice notes from the major scale, to avoid being too humdrum.

First Verse

E  (2x)                                      A              B    
Well it's been building up inside of me for oh I don't know how long
I don't know why but I keep thinking    something's bound to go wrong

We get extra mileage here by keeping the same bass line as the intro, but moving the harmony to the B chord in the fourth measure to stay in keeping with the melody. So far our lyrics are untouched by motor oil, and feel like they could be on Pet Sounds. Looks like another foreshadowing of future problems... The leaps in the lead falsetto line are breathtaking (and breath-taxing), and resemble in some ways the ones we'll see in Good Vibrations years later. Note that our background singers "lay out" on this one.

The Climb

F#m           B
But she looks in my eyes

G#m          C#
And makes me realize when she says

Now one could easily position this material as part of the verse, as it is connected with the verse in terms of meaning and is extremely short. However, this little four-chord part accomplishes more than might meet the eye at first... for not only do we have an emotional shift from the negativity of the verse to the positivity expressed here, we are also moving through three in-key chords to get to the out-of-key major of the sixth tone, setting up an upward modulation of a full step to be delivered in the chorus.

This isn't the most sophisticated device in the world for classical musicians, but it is certainly advanced territory for pop composers. It has a nice, graceful pull upward and is not at all shocking. It's also fundamentally different from other modulations we've seen, whether the simple upward half-steps in Surfer Girl and Warmth of the Sun or the minor-5-to-major-flat-3 excursion fired off in The Lonely Sea. The leaps in the melody line, again challenging and beautiful, contrast with the more smooth movement in the harmony, and prepare us for a hook in F# major, a full step above our home key. Our backing vocals have returned on the "oohs" again, and will participate even more strongly when we drive (pun intended) the message home in the chorus.

The Hook/Chorus

F#          (2x)             G#m            C#              
don't worry baby                don't worry baby
(boh)            Don't worry baby             Everything will turn 

F#          (2x)                       G#m         A#m-C# G#m-B
don't worry baby                       don't worry baby, ooh-ooh
out all right              Don't worry baby

There is much of interest in this part, that's for sure. The background singers come to the foreground (I put them in the top line, with no capital letters, to make it easier to follow the chords) and play the typical girl-group role of Greek chorus, alternate character, what you will, someone other than the lead singer. The modulation up is wonderful, and the song really takes off at this point. The typical Mike Love bass "duh" from the end of the climb resolves to the root of the new key, setting up our new home quite neatly and eliminating any feeling of discomfort from the key change.

The chord pattern is full of ambivalence, as the background singers add all sorts of interesting incidental sixth and ninth tones from the new major 2 scale. Is that second chord really a B or just a G#m with a B in the bass? What exactly are the chords at the end of it all? One can hear all sorts of interesting movements in the melody the backing singers sing, while the stated harmony by the instruments is rather static and sparse. Yet somehow it all works, and in its own way creates an atmosphere of being both vulnerable and self-assured at the same time.

We should also note that the main pattern expressed in the first three chords is highly reminiscent of our verse material, just a step higher. It's also a fairly direct Spector quote, mapping quite nicely to the hook of Walking in the Rain and also prefiguring that element in the middle of Good Vibrations. In the latter, a home key of E flat minor rather circuitously finds a way to state the Walking in the Rain theme up a step in F; here, our home of E major leads us more directly but still subtly to a rainwalk up a step in F#.

Second Verse, Climb, and Chorus

The B chord at the end of the hook takes us back to our home key of E, and from here on out we will essentially be repeating material that's been heard before. The one exception is that the background singers join in on this and the third verse, adding some variety because they stayed out of the first one. The climb and chorus material remains the same, though, so we end up again on a B chord bringing-us-back-to-do as usual, but not to another verse:

I guess I should have kept my mouth shut when I started to brag about my car
But I can't back down now because I pushed the other guys too far
She makes me come alive
And makes me want to drive when she says
Don't worry baby, everything will turn out all right, don't worry baby.

The Break

After the second hook, it is that time in the average pop song where some sort of instrumental obbligado often happens. Interestingly enough, what Brian chooses to do is essentially restate the intro, with its trick of remaining on an A chord in the fourth measure while the bass goes to B. However, this new beginning differs from the first one because the background singers lay out again, and the foreground is occupied by the surf guitar hitting simple staccatto E and A chords over the intro harmony.

In its own way this is totally brilliant, as the last thing that would work here would be some intricate noodle solo on guitar... that would totally ruin the mood... and anything smarmy on some new instrument (strings? horns?) would err as egregiously in the other direction. Nonetheless, we needed some relief, and this choice re-uses the nice intro trick with a slightly different color to set up the song's essential message: that true love should eliminate the worries that accompany day-to-day life and its conflicts.

The effect of this restatement is that the last third of the song is shaped pretty much exactly the same as the entire piece overall, and acts as a summary/Cliff's Notes version, before exiting with a quick fade.

Third Verse, Climb, and Hook

She told me baby when you race today just take along my love with you
And if you knew how much I love you baby nothing could go wrong with you
Oh what she does to me
When she makes love to me and she says
Don't worry baby, everything will turn out all right, don't worry baby.

Lyrically, we do have something a bit radical here, the notion of a woman making love to a man, somewhat reminiscent of issues raised in the Beatles' Please Please Me, but in this case the fellow doesn't have to ask. One almost has to think that the falsetto vocal and thick production hid this rather risque notion from whatever forces of censorship might otherwise have stigmatized this song as being obscene or advocating premarital sex or whatever. Which in some ways takes us back to the original notion that even these notionally trivial surf-and-car songs contain occasional lyrical or conceptual gems or points of interest, not unlike the notion of female empowerment implied in Surfer Girl.

Rebel with a Chorus

Pieces like this, while presenting us with a challenge due to the somewhat trivial and dated nature of the central plot, also offer wonderful opportunities to contrast historical perspectives, to look at what I call the fourth and fifth dimensions of recorded music. In its time, the lyrical story was relevant and pretty serious; even today, lots of teenagers die in cars around prom time. Before drugs and choking on one's own vomit, car crashes were the most legendary cause of premature fatality for rock and film stars, with James Dean and Jan Berry (though he did not die) among the most noteworthy victims.

Viewed from today, after so much disenchantment and technological "progress," there's a Tell Laura I Love Her/Teen Angel period nature to this piece that gives a bizarre spin to America's love affair with the automobile, evokes its dark side (as embodied in material such as J. G. Ballard's novel Crash), and in the end is best summarized in the T. S. Garp formula of sex, humor, and pathos. That's probably what has caused some cover versions to try and substitute alternative "hipper" lyrics, for example. What was once completely serious on an emotional and sociological plane is now sweet nostalgia for simpler days, or laughable naivete that makes one cringe a bit.

Yet the central message, taken from a simple phrase that used to offer Brian some calm in the storm that was his life, still touches something essential. And what he did musically with it, in terms of sheer songwriting craft, harmonies, and a wonderful arrangement that truly gets a lot out of a little while breaking new ground in the pop context; all of that shines through with no ambivalence whatsoever, and makes for a truly wonderful listening experience. That's where a timeliness and esthetic beauty takes over, rendering moot passing fancies like the automobile and attendant anxieties.

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