The way the story is sometimes erroneously told, The Beach Boys were nothing more than a convenient vehicle for Brian Wilson’s incendiary songwriting and brilliant producing. Of course, that misconception overlooks the crucial contributions of the talented men at Brian’s side bringing his artistic vision to thrilling life with their vocals. It also neglects to take into account the years when the troubled genius contributed only sporadically to the band’s output. Consider 1971’s album Surf’s Up, where the rest of the band picked up the songwriting slack for their leader and Bruce Johnson’s wistful waltz “Disney Girls (1957)” stood out as one of the disc’s finest moments.
Johnston would make a mint later in the decade as the writer of Barry Manilow’s “I Write The Songs,” but this earlier effort is the stronger song. “That’s just the way I write,” Johnston said of “Disney Girls (1957)” in a 2011 interview. “That wasn’t anything other than a really nice song. I was able to weave the voices into it, oohs and aahs. Not that it was ever a hit, but it sold millions of copies riding around other people’s albums. People just loved the lyrical point of view. That’s just one of those nice accidents.”
If you’re not listening closely enough, you might read the title, hear some of the references in Johnston’s opus, and think that it’s easy nostalgia, something in which The Beach Boys have been known to trade. But what you come to realize, either by perusing the lyrics or listening to the subtle ache in those “oohs and aahs,” is that the “fantasy world” on which the narrator fixates is just that, an idealized vision of happiness that he hasn’t yet attained. “Oh, reality, it’s not for me/ And it makes me laugh,” he says. So he instead conjures something that’s part romanticized past and part desired future, a world filled with Tootsie Rolls, Patti Page and “a local girl in a smaller town.”
The unspoken context is that this song comes from a touring musician leading what was likely a hectic life with one of the most famous bands on the planet, so when he sings, “Guess I’m slowing down,” it doesn’t sound like he’s fighting that instinct. In fact, he suggests that this new lifestyle might actually be good for his muse: “Just in time, words that rhyme/ Well, bless your soul.”
In the bridge, the narrator even brings his whole family in to meet the hypothetical girl who will transform him from the rat race to church bingo; he even uses the word “swell” to describe her without a trace of irony. When he reaches the final verse, his longing for this simpler life is palpable, and he seems to regret the path that led him to miss out on this dream girl and idyllic life the first time around. It even seems like he has completely shunned reality by song’s end: “Guess I’m going to stay/ It’d be a peaceful life/ With a forever wife/ And a kid someday.”
In each refrain, the narrator promises, “Fantasy world and Disney girls/ I’m coming back.” The chance that he might never get back there to fulfill that promise is what lends “Disney Girls (1957)” its melancholic air. No Brian Wilson, no problem on this one, as Bruce Johnston stepped up for his signature moment in The Beach Boys.