Released May 11, 1964 as the ‘B’ side of ‘I Get Around’, the Beach Boys minor classic ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was an unabashed homage to Phil Spector‘s ‘Be My Baby‘ by the Ronettes. Coming off the back of a series of teenage angst songs (Don’t Ever Change/Baby I Don’t Care/It’s My Party) Ferry recalibrates These Foolish Things by re-writing some of the lyrics for ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘ and wisely rejecting the drag-car teen drama in favor of an expression of love that is more in tune with Brian Wilson‘s music than the original lyric ever was.
It’s easy to see why Bryan Ferry would include a Beach Boys song on his first solo album, as both band and subject matter personified for the singer an ideal American Dream of the 60s, brimming with potential and pleasure in equal measure. “At least 50 per cent of the things that influenced me were American,” Ferry explained to Disc magazine: “The best films were American films, the best stars were American stars… and the best music was American, until The Beatles came along.” At this stage of These Foolish Things – 7 songs in – the source of the music belongs to America and the great hit-making factory of The Brill Building in New York, with the subject matter veering towards the lovelorn and the heart-broken – ‘River of Salt‘ and ‘Piece of My Heart’ both originally sung and made famous by female singers (Ketty Lester and Janis Joplin, respectively) and presented by Ferry in a straight-forward fashion (if a man singing a song as a woman in a quivering European accent can be seen as straight-forward). Nevertheless, at this juncture of These Foolish Things Ferry avoids the American vistas of ‘Virginia Plain’ with its images of classic Hollywood, Route 66 and James Dean, and steers instead towards the universal – love lost, feelings squashed, narratives spun. That is until we get to The Beach Boys ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – a song that strives to re-state and confirm the American Dream, with its hyperbolic ode to California, Chevy Impalas, ice-cream floats, and illegal hot rod racing.
‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was co-written by early Brian Wilson‘s collaborator/lyricist Roger Christian. Wilson, the gifted yet troubled singer-songwriter and co-founder of the Beach Boys (and composer/arranger of one of the best pop songs of all time – ‘Good Vibrations’ – even Paul McCartney was in awe of that one), was obsessed with Phil Spector and the sound Spector created with The Crystals (‘Da Doo Ron Ron‘) and The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), in particular ‘Be My Baby’ – the song of which ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is an attempt to emulate and eulogize.
Salon magazine paints a pretty good picture of Wilson’s obsession with Spector, with Wilson eagerly awaiting the opportunity to provide Spector with a self-penned song (‘Don’t Hurt My Little Sister‘): Spector invited Wilson to play keyboards on the backing track, whereby Wilson was cut off after only a few bars, and was told by Spector that his playing was not good enough and he should be on his way. Weeks later Spector sent the head Beach Boy an official American Federation of Musicians paycheck for the few seconds Wilson performed on the track. Ouch. (The Beach Boys eventually recorded ‘Don’t Hurt My Little Sister’ – it’s a decent song, embodied with the Spector sound). This act of disdain did little to dissuade Wilson that Spector was mecca, and with typical obsessiveness – see the Roxy entry Strictly Confidential for an overview of Wilson’s mental health struggles – Wilson records his thoughts on his home tape-recorder (“Hour after hour of stoned ramblings on the meaning of life, color vibrations, fate, death, vegetarianism and Phil Spector…” according to Beach Boys biographer David Dalton). Wilson keeps copies of Spector’s ‘Be My Baby‘ everywhere inside his home, in his car, in his studio: “Brian locked in the bedroom of his Bel Air house in the early ’70s, alone, curtains drawn shut, catatonic, listening to ‘Be My Baby’ over and over at aggressive volumes, for hours” (Dalton). The result of this extremism is the birth of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – a song that conclusively beats Spector at his own game.
Bryan Ferry’s first album of covers (or “readymades” as he prefers to call them), These Foolish Things is not known for its radical re-interpretation of classic songs (barring the breath-taking opening cut A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall). What is radical about his arrangement of ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘ is his decision to re-write some of the lyrics. While keeping the song-writing credit intact (Wilson/Christian), Ferry tackles and removes the song’s greatest flaw: the tediousness of its original Girls & Hot Rods storyline. Writing in 1964, with The Beatles already penning ‘And I Love Her‘ and ‘A Hard Days Night‘ (and hurtling at astonishing speed towards ‘Eleanor Rigby‘), ‘Don’t Worry’ is sung from the point of view of a teenager who agrees to a street race after bragging about his car. At root then ‘Don’t Worry’ is a reiteration of the classic cars and Beach Boys idea – getting a bit old in the tooth by ’64 – but Brian Wilson’s wonderful music for ‘Don’t Worry’ works against the constraints of its lyrical narrative, taking the track beyond previous Wilson/Christian car-obsessed curios like ‘Little Deuce Coupe‘, ‘Ballad of Ole’ Betsy‘, ‘Car Crazy Cutie‘, and ‘Cherry, Cherry Coupe‘. Although a car-lover himself, Ferry successfully clocked the lyrical deficiencies of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ before taking the decision to re-write the lyric and change the emotional sentiment and point-of-view of the original.
The primary lyricist of the original ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was Roger Christian, a member of the California Hot Rod & Surfin’ Set and a prominent Los Angeles DJ during the 50s. In addition to his day job, Christian was a car-and-surf song composer, and ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is a standard template of the genre:
I guess I should’ve 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
No threat to Shakespeare, but well within the frame of reference for the writer of ‘Car Crazy Cutie‘ and ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘:
Well its 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
But she looks in my eyes
And makes me realize
And she says don’t worry baby
Rhyming looks in my eyes with makes me realize does not qualify Mr. Christian for any literary prizes, but interestingly, Bryan Ferry keeps this line and the entire first verse intact – a hint that Ferry’s concerns in re-writing the lyric was not poetic fussiness but a desire to secure the emotional and gender-sensitive tone of Brian Wilson’s original music without the clutter of Roger Christian’s hot girls/hot cars balladry. Here’s a comparison of Christian‘s and Ferry‘s lyric for ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ (Ferry’s changes in blue):
In Ferry’s version the car race is removed entirely, and the song is turned into a mediation on what the woman’s love means to him. The change is effective as it allows Ferry to write a romantic poem (“Each morning I awake to find…”) and find a tenderness (“there’s magic in her eyes“) that was never in the original, which suffered such banalities as “she makes me come alive/and makes me wanna drive”. The song shifts out of writer Roger Christian teen-male zeitgeist and expands into a mature song that shows the male narrator discovering – or at least responsive to – his inner feelings, fulfilling the musical vision that Brian Wilson intended for the song, with those gorgeous trademark Beach Boys harmonies and group interplay.
And so side one of These Foolish Things comes to a close after providing an entertaining mix of radical re-interpretation (Hard Rain), expressions of heart-break beautifully rendered (River of Salt), and a re-working of a Beach Boys classic that provides a lyric worthy of a Brian Wilson original. The effect is captivating and moves beyond Ferry’s original intent of the album, which he hesitatingly stated was “for amusement value. I think”:
It’s a very catholic selection, I’ve given up trying to please all of the people all of the time. Some will like it for one reason, some for another…I hope the general point of it will be understood.
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.
Credits: James Dean memorial junction – some interesting reading out there, I was surprised to learn that a car pulled in front of Dean resulting in the crash (Dean’s speed obviously a factor – he was training for a car race); Beach Boys promos; Phil Spector walks past his competitor Brian Wilson (again); Bryan Ferry recording these Foolish Things, June 1973; Bryan Ferry Foolish promo.
Next: Foolish Things takes a darker turn with ‘Sympathy For the Devil‘ – woo-woo!