Brian Wilson wasn’t really much for improvisation or random happenings. Chaos wasn’t an essential element to The Beach Boys’ studio work, at least not at first. Wilson was meticulous with his lyrics, arrangements, and performances, so much so that he would tweak the smallest lines or notes if he felt like they weren’t working. But on one Beach Boys classic, a misheard name led to Wilson favouring a new title for the song he was working on.
‘Caroline, No’ wasn’t technically a Beach Boys song when it was first released in 1966. The single version of the track was credited to Brian Wilson as a solo artist, as he had recorded all of the vocals for the song on his own and none of the other band members featured on the track. It was only after the song was included as the closing song on Pet Sounds that ‘Caroline, No’ officially became a Beach Boys song.
Written by lyricist Tony Asher about the loss of innocence that comes with age and maturity, ‘Caroline, No’ was inspired by a high school girlfriend of Asher’s named Carol Amen, who had moved away and changed her appearance over the course of a year. “When I went east to visit her a scant year after the move, she had changed radically,” Asher told Brad Elliott in 1999. “Yes, she had cut her hair. But she was a far more worldly person, not all for the worse.”
Asher originally conceived the song’s central lyric as ‘Carol, I Know’, but when Wilson heard Asher working on the song, he misheard the pronunciation as ‘Caroline, No’. Although it hadn’t been what Asher intended, both of the writers liked the poignancy that the new reading brought to the song, so ‘Caroline, No’ was kept as the song’s official title.
“[‘Caroline No’] is a story about how, once you’ve fucked up or once you’ve run your gamut with a chick, there’s no way to get it back,” Wilson recalled in 1989. “It takes a lot of courage to do that sometimes in your life. … I just felt sad, so I wrote a sad song.” Although it was rumoured that Wilson had his own Caroline, or a variation on that name, in his life around the time of the song’s writing, Wilson claimed in 2005 that the song, “wasn’t written about anyone. I just used the name Caroline.”
Check out the studio recording of ‘Caroline, No’ down below.
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