Beach Boys fans generally fall into three categories. First, those who view the group as the ultimate surfing band, known for hits like “Surfin’ USA” and “Surfer Girl.” The second involves those who worship Brian Wilson’s musical genius, particularly his and the band’s masterpiece, Pet Sounds. In numerous interviews, Paul McCartney has stated that the album spurred on he and the Beatles to create Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Finally, the third category comprises the 1980s generation, who were first introduced to the group via pop singles like “Getcha Back” and the monster 1988 hit “Kokomo.” Clearly, the Beach Boys have greatly impacted rock and expanded boundaries for arranging and recording. But one song that often receives less recognition than ones such as “Good Vibrations” is “In My Room,” a lovely ballad that showcases the group’s breathtaking harmonies.
Co-written by Brian Wilson and musician/songwriter/producer Gary Usher, the song first appeared on the 1963 album, Surfer Girl. Originally it served as the B-side of the single, “Be True to Your School;” the 45 peaked at number six on the Billboard charts. Subsequently “In My Room” became an A-side, rising to number 23 on the charts. What makes “In My Room” so special is its complexity and sophisticated harmonies. According to AllMusic, the song represented a major departure from the group’s traditional surfing tunes, both in subject matter and intricate structure. Instead of crooning about girls, cars, and catching a wave, the Beach Boys sang of solitude, of finding comfort in a safe place.
Sounding like a cross between a lullaby and a country tune (in fact,Tammy Wynette later covered the song), the group’s gorgeous harmonies at times mask the often dark lyrics. Brian Wilson, as is now well known, suffered from psychiatric problems, drug abuse, and his father’s physical abuse. The lyrics of “In My Room” definitely hint at his troubles: “In this world I lock out / All my worries and fears / In my room.” The protagonist states that although his room is “dark and I’m alone / But I won’t be afraid.” Presumably the narrator struggles with personal problems, as his room represents “a world where I can go / And tell my secrets to.” Despite these dark lyrics, the tune’s subject matter applies to all teenagers, touching on the universal experience of a bedroom as a private place for plotting and fantasizing: “Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray / Do my crying and my sighing laugh at yesterday.” These words evoke vivid memories of adolescence, capturing a teen’s hopes and heartbreaks.
Musically, the beginning of “In My Room” resembles a ’50s ballad chord progression slightly reminiscent of “Blue Moon.” But the harp’s entrance signals a departure from the usual pop song, followed immediately by the lush, complex harmonies. Listen to the track through headphones and experience virtually every nuance of the vocal arrangement. Every time one will hear a different note, a subtle inflection, an unusual chord change. True to many later Beach Boys songs such as “Caroline, No,” the atypical chord progression differs greatly from other pop tunes on the charts at that time. For a detailed, theoretical analysis, read Greg Panfile’s article “Mind of Brian 7: ‘In My Room.’”
The elaborate harmonies echo The Four Freshmen, a pioneering jazz vocal quartet that influenced many rock artists, including the Mamas and the Papas, Spanky and Our Gang, and The Beach Boys. The Four Freshmen developed a distinctive singing style, utilizing close harmonies but also incorporating free, improvisational or “open” vocals. Look no further for evidence of their massive influence on The Beach Boys than on Four Freshman tracks such as “It’s A Blue World,” “Mood Indigo,” or “Laura.” Wilson and Usher obviously translated their jazz-oriented, elegant harmonies for the rock world, demonstrating that rock and roll could be just as well-respected and complex as other music genres.
“In My Room” teased audiences for incredible musical achievements yet to come, namely Brian Wilson’s triumphant Pet Sounds and the adventurous Smiley Smile. Despite the fact that the beautiful song tends to be overlooked (The Beach Boys edition of iTunes Essentials fails to include the track), Rolling Stone recognized “In My Room” in its 2004 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, listing it at number 209. The song helped change the 1960s pop scene, demonstrating that rock and jazz could coexist peacefully. It also successfully argued that the Beach Boys were a creative force to be reckoned with. Finally, “In My Room” functions as a lesson to all bands that stepping out of one’s comfort zone—and challenging audiences with intelligent words and music—can reap great rewards.