Andy Paley has co-written the most popular song in the history of SpongeBob SquarePants. That distinction might sound dubious, but to the franchise's legions of fans, "The Best Day Ever" – originally heard during the closing credits of the 2004 SpongeBob movie – is a bona fide anthem.
Now, the shimmering, deliriously euphoric song has wound up in the climactic spot of honor in SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical, beating out tunes by the likes of David Bowie, John Legend and Steven Tyler, not to mention offerings from seasoned musical-theater pros like Cyndi "Kinky Boots" Lauper and Sara "Waitress" Bareilles. In more traditional Broadway terms, Paley has written the equivalent of "Memories" for an oversized anthropomorphic sponge.
While a formidable achievement, it's possibly the least mind-boggling aspect of Paley's career. For more than 40 years, he has been something of a rock Zelig, witnessing musical history and working alongside a jukebox's worth of talent, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Madonna. His almost supernatural ability to sniff out catchy hooks ultimately led him to record with old masters Phil Spector and, perhaps most famously, Brian Wilson. He is a graduate of Rock 'n' Roll High School both conceptually – he gigged at CBGB in its Seventies punk heyday when he wasn't touring with Patti Smith or Jonathan Richman – and also literally, having performed with the Ramones on the soundtrack to that 1979 film.
Paley's skills as a pop craftsman are obvious whether he's writing songs for the guy who made Pet Sounds, or for a children's series. "I think a song's a song," Paley tells Rolling Stone. "With those SpongeBob songs, we try to make them so it's not specifically for the cartoon. We really want them to be universal." His involvement with the Nickelodeon juggernaut began when NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino introduced him to future collaborator Tom Kenny (a.k.a., the voice of SpongeBob) at an L.A. show. Together they shared an encyclopedia of musical references, plus Paley's extensive Rolodex of guest musicians. Who else would tap James Burton, Elvis Presley's longtime guitarist, to play on a song ("You Will Obey") sung by an animated piece of plankton, complete with a tossed-off "Take it, James," à la the King?
Coming of age in the mid-Sixties, Paley escaped the boredom of upstate New York by cruising his transistor dial in search of songs by the Ronettes, the Shirelles or the Miracles. "The records just jumped out of the radio, and there was great variety on the AM radio back then," he says of those formative sounds. By the Seventies he was making music of his own as a member of Boston-based group the Sidewinders. After their debut failed to break through, he formed a new duo, the Paley Brothers, with his brother Jonathan. Despite production help from a young Jimmy Iovine, their first EP – a 4-track set of unabashedly poppy songs in the vein of Big Star – was largely ignored.
Still, Paley's Brill Building–esque songwriting and Wall of Sound arrangements earned the admiration of his hero, Phil Spector, who called Paley's apartment at 3 a.m. one morning in the late Seventies. "I didn't believe it, I thought it was a friend of mine messing around and then I realized it was him," Paley remembers. "He said, 'I heard this EP by you and your brother. I was wondering if you'd come out to L.A. and see if we could work together.'" Within weeks they were at the legendary Gold Star Studios, Spector's favorite haunt, working with the same crew of musicians who'd cut the records that first sparked Paley's creativity.
The result of the session, "Baby Let's Stick Together," would remain unissued for decades, but the experience would prepare him well for working with Spector's best-known disciple, Brian Wilson. Appointed by Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, Paley co-wrote and co-produced Wilson's first solo album, 1988's Brian Wilson, at a time when the Beach Boys leader's genius was emerging from a thicket of drug abuse and mental illness. Considering that Paley had eagerly followed the band around on tour years earlier, his promotion from super-fan to collaborator was a happy one. The partnership pushed Wilson toward his most ambitious work in decades, including the eight-minute epic, "Rio Grande." Paley occasionally primed Wilson's pump by presenting semi-completed songs. "I'd leave out the bridge on purpose [for example] just because I wanted to see what he'd come up with," he says. "And he loved it."
The album was lauded as a critical triumph, and the pair continued to work together through the Nineties. Though widely bootlegged, the bulk of their later material remains officially unreleased due in part to the legal quagmire that resulted when Wilson extricated himself from his tyrannical therapist, Eugene Landy. "I believe that all the stuff he and I wrote together will see the light of day," Paley says. "I know he loves it and I love it."
Glimpses of the Beach Boys' sky-high harmonies, infectious melodies and toe-tapping descending bass lines are apparent on "The Best Day Ever." After turning up in the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie credits, the tune got its time to shine on an episode of the TV show, a soundtrack album and now the Broadway production.
"It's gratifying to see that song have a second, or third or fourth life," Paley says. "It seems to keep coming up."