Where did your long hair go?
Where is the girl I used to know?
How could you lose that happy glow?
Oh, Caroline no.
Who took that look away?
I remember how you used to say
You'd never change, but that's not true!
Oh, Caroline you
Break my heart.
I want to go and cry.
It's so sad to watch a sweet thing die.
Oh, Caroline why?
Could I ever find in you again
Things that made me love you so much then?
Could we ever bring 'em back once they have gone?
Oh, Caroline no!
[Sound effects coda]
Caroline No was unique in psychedelic development due to the song's (and Pet Sound's) ending. It is the first time that a pop album had a song that felt like the ending of a whole art object, not in the sense of the grand finale of a performance but as completing a theme. That theme is nostalgia for a youth that has passed; perhaps the poet has returned home from college or some other far off place (That's Not Me) to find the woman he is ready to marry has changed from his memories of her. Pet Sounds lyrics are often about realizations of an adolescent that are disappointing, but help the young man mature into an adult. As Greg Panfile wrote in his Mind of Brian8, looking back, it is easy to see this song in a larger sense as a goodbye to the innocence of surf music and pop hits.
Another reason for its inclusion in psychedelic history is also in the song's ending, the train whistle and dogs barking that close Pet Sounds. It is again the first time in pop that sound effects had been integrated into a Top 40 song. Caroline No was released in March 1966; but the first Number One hit to use the technique was Summer in the City by the Lovin' Spoonful a couple of months later, which used the sounds of car traffic. Various sound effects would be ever more used by psychedelic artists, most popularly by the Beatles during this period. In the case of Caroline No, the train & dogs create a sound that is hollow and huge, cast out in wide open space. A haunting loneliness longs after the roar of the train wheels clacking off into the night, which represents time rushing past.
This hollowness of mood kicks off Caroline No by the percussive use of an empty plastic bottle (according to Wikipedia and Greg Panfile's Mind of Brian8) for two bars before launching into a song accompanied by a harpsichord. The plastic bottle continues to create an echoing percussion through much of the record. Also according to the references cited here, Caroline No is said to have been released as a half tone higher speed than it was recorded, so that the initial G chord became an A Flat. This changing of key by either speeding up or slowing down a recording is another first in the development of psychedelic music, a technique the Beatles would frequently use later and other psychedelic groups would experiment with.
The lyrics of Caroline No portray to Greg Panfile the loss of a loved one to square society through marriage or adult obligations, or maybe, as the song suggests, from a broken heart. The light is gone from Caroline's eyes. They create not only a loss of a girlfriend, but the fear of such a loss of innocence in oneself. The recording of Caroline No seems a photograph of a moment before the poet too is swept off by time into a job and a mortgage. Brian Wilson is reported to have explained [in the Pet Sounds Track Notes (Brad Elliott 1999)] "The song was most influenced by the changes Marilyn [his wife] and I had gone through. We were young, Marilyn nearing 20 and me closing in on 24, yet I thought we'd lost the innocence of our youth in the heavy seriousness of our lives."
The actual simplicity of the melody in Caroline No is such that the only formal variety in the quatrain with a reprise rather than chorus, all verses marching along according to the same chord progression, is to key the verse up a notch for the third stanza. This slight suspension of the melody communicates yearning ("breaks my heart"). The song returns to the same register, and the break, such as it is, is not an improvisation at all, but the same melody without change played softly with a flute section. To Greg Panfile, this suggests stasis, a lingering at the end of the record, and I am inclined to agree with him.
This was Brian Wilson's first single by himself, and though it did break the Top 40 and stick around the charts for nearly two months, it never reached the upper regions of the U.S. charts. As far as I know, this was the first time that a member of a group (leader or not) in pop music had attempted to try a solo record under his own name. Paul McCartney's Yesterday, popular in the Fall of 1965, had also essentially been a solo release, but had been marketed as a Beatles tune.
Much has been made in recent literature about Brian Wilson's indebtedness to Phil Spector for the "Wall of Sound" inspiration that guided Wilson's sonic decisions in the making of Pet Sounds. It has even been suggested that the title of the album itself is a reference (PS) to Wilson's mentor. Wilson had experimented with Spector's sound before, trying to reproduce his aural depth in And Then I Kissed Her (with a gender adaptation), as well as adopting Spector engineering techniques to earlier Beach Boys hits such as California Girls and Help Me Rhonda. I believe by the time of Pet Sounds Wilson had surpassed his teacher, and he certainly had taken the lessons he'd learned from Spector in production to a more mature level. Lyrically the songs in Pet Sounds may be of high school experiences, or not far from them, and made to appeal to the same teenage audience as most pop records. However when it came to musical composition, Spector was making pop records with an orchestral veneer that clung to the structure of simple verse and chorus songs, whereas Wilson was composing complex orchestral works that stretched pop sensibility beyond the usual hit formula, producing pop art.