For most fans of The Beach Boys, “This Whole World” is a well-known track.
The song is the second entry on the beloved “Sunflower” album from 1970, and it was the B-side on the “Slip On Through” single (talk about another great song, penned by Dennis Wilson). Brian Wilson, author of “This Whole World,” revisited the song on 1995’s “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” video and soundtrack.
Have you heard it? Let’s take a minute and listen to it together.
Have you finished? It’s only 2 minutes, but wow, what a marvel of song construction in that brief amount of time. I remember my first listen, pretty clearly.
It was the mid 1990s, and I was digging into The Beach Boys’ deep cuts for the first time. I’d checked out “Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys” from the public library, and I’d already spent a lot of time on the first two discs of the box set.
My interest in the group had been fanned after reading Brian Wilson’s disowned autobiography “Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story.” The book had me curious about the “SMiLE” music. These sounded like incredible songs, and the romance of this incredible music being scrapped by a sensitive, strung-out master musician was a powerful enticement. The first two discs of the box set gave me the hits and a healthy portion of the “SMiLE” music.
What I encountered on the third disc, surprisingly, was music at least as interesting, engaging and powerful as the music on the first two. I know, I know, this sounds like hyperbole. How can this material even come close to hits like “Surfin’ USA,” “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations,” not to mention classics like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Surfer Girl,” you could fairly ask.
Well, it isn’t bereft of hits, for starters. It has the “Smiley Smile” single version of “Heroes and Villains,” plus songs “Darlin’,” “Wild Honey” and “Do It Again,” all of which made the charts. To flesh things out, it also features songs I’d never heard before that really moved me, with great vocals, great hooks and great songwriting (the music is great, to simply things): “Can’t Wait Too Long,” “Little Bird,” “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” “Time to Get Alone,” “Add Some Music to Your Day” and … “This Whole World.”
All of these songs knocked me out. I didn’t quite get how this stuff wasn’t more popular. It didn’t sound tremendously different from what The Byrds or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I think a lot of folks will agree that The Beach Boys’ image, reputation and record company marketing did a lot to tank this progressive and enjoyable music.
Take 1970’s “Sunflower” for example. Every band member really brought his “A” game to the project. Great song after great song, Dennis Wilson’s emergence as a primary contributor, some of the best group vocals the band had recorded, and … one heck of a dud on the charts. It went to No. 151 on the U.S. Billboard 200 albums chart. Yikes.
None of this history or merit consideration was on my mind back in the 1990s, though.
I remember I was sitting on the floor, next to my bed, playing the third disc mostly as background music while I worked on some homework. I distinctly recall I was doing a project related to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (tied with “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller as my favorite book) when “This Whole World” came on the stereo.
Listen to that vocal layering. Track the sections. Listen to the movements. Hear how the song weaves melodies and rhythms together so seemlessly. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t. Even “Good Vibrations” and its sections took 3:35 to nail down. But “This Whole World” … How is it done in 2 minutes?
I set aside my homework and listened to the song over and over and over again. (If you ask my family, they’d tell you that I listened to everything on the box set over and over and over again, but I digress.) There was something about it. It isn’t distinctly commercial, it doesn’t have a hook that would get 14-year-olds singing along necessarily, and there isn’t a wailing guitar solo or compelling dynamics that would leap out of a car’s speakers.
But those are incredible vocals. I am hooked by Brian’s intro. And as I listen to Carl Wilson’s lead voice pace the song, as I listen to the individual parts fall in (Mike Love’s bass right at the beginning is a treat), as I hear the chiming bell sounds, not to mention the drum fills and the guitar strums that underpin it all. Whew. Wow.
Lyrically, it’s not terribly complex. And I’m sure some folks would have some words to say about the lyric, “When girls get mad at boys and go, many times they’re just putting on a show,” but there’s a longing and sincerity throughout all of them that feels not just genuine and warm, but also feels very vulnerable and understanding. Who hasn’t felt an overflowing heart? Who hasn’t yearned for love when you haven’t had it? Who hasn’t felt a connection at some time or another that defies simple words or categorization?
But just listen to those opening words. “Late at night I think about the love of this whole world / lots of different people everywhere.” And the affirmation of “You are there like everywhere like everyone you see / happy ’cause you’re living and you’re free.”
Maybe too peace and love? Maybe too flower power? Pshaw. No. Open your ears. Open your heart. “This Whole World” is amazing, and The Beach Boys absolutely deliver on it. If your heart doesn’t stop when the group does the big “om” and the high harmony pops in around 1:34 into the song … Well, I feel bad for you. This is beauty itself.
Shortly after my immersion in the “Good Vibrations” box set, I learned about Brian’s “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” project. And my father found a copy on VHS, which I devoured. Great footage here, some excellent commentary by other musicians, and we got some great Beach Boys and solo compositions given a new airing. As you might expect, I was quite curious to hear how “This Whole World” would turn out.
It isn’t the audio wonderland of the original Beach Boys recording, but it is nonetheless a joy on the ear. Brian sounds lively and engaged, and the studio vocalists behind him provide nice harmony touches.
Clearly the song has legs, it has the ability to be translated, to be rearranged, pared down. And it loses none of its sincerity, even if the beauty is of a different magnitude. A classic is a song that stands the test of time, that can hold up to different presentations, that holds its power no matter who performs it.
And “This Whole World” is a classic. I urge you to play it before you go to bed. Think of it as some sort of prayer of peace, a hymn of love.
We could all use more of that.