Pet Sounds Is 50!
What might be the greatest pop album ever made, has turned 50 today, May 16, 2016.
How does one articulate one’s thoughts and feelings about a set of songs that forever changed and modified just how deeply I listen to music?
It’s an acknowledged masterpiece now, yet in the late 1980s, that was an opinion held by few, at least in my social circle. None of my people seemed to get the hullaballoo about The Beach Boys Pet Sounds. It wasn’t until my circle widened, and I got to know other musicians and artists in town, when I found like-minded folk who adore the music as much as I do. Its perceived legacy grew as the years progressed, not least because of the rediscovery of this music when it was re-released in 1990. From then on, a ridiculous amount of words have been scribed to illuminate the significance of this great gathering of music. And for good reason.
Pet Sounds came to me in waves.
When the Endless Summer compilation came out in 1974—my first exposure to the music of the Beach Boys—nothing from Pet Sounds was on it. Still, I seemed to gravitate towards the songs where Brian Wilson sang lead, although I wouldn’t have known him by name at age 8. The buttery falsetto voice atop the lower stack of harmony vocals was easily discernible to my ears.
Another elementary school friend who lived one block away from me had the 1975 compilation follow-up, Spirit of America. Like Endless Summer, it had an engaging illustrated gatefold cover, which I loved because I loved to draw. No Pet Sounds songs were on this collection either, so I still had no awareness to it. I would learn years later that the Beach Boys had licensed their Pet Sounds and post-Pet Sounds Capitol recordings from 1966-1969 for use on 1970s compilation releases on Warner, the company that was distributing their most recent music from their Brother Records label. On Spirit of America, I do recall noticing that The Little Girl I Once Knew stood out as a fuller production than say, 409, which had a rudimentary sound. The Little Girl I Once Knew was the single released between the Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) and Pet Sounds albums (with the “live” Party! album a stop gap along the way.)
Purchasing The Beach Boys 15 Big Ones in 1976 slowed down my interest in the group, because I was not old enough to appreciate its ragged splendour for what it was: a half-baked dysfunctional mess, with moments of greatness, amidst a sea of unfinished, coarse throwaway covers, produced by a man pushed, prodded, and clearly suffering great emotional pain. At 10 years of age, I would have sensed none of this. All I knew is it contrasted too severely from their iconic, trend-setting sound they were known for. I did love songs like Had To Phone Ya and For Once In My Life. Brian’s wounded falsetto on In The Still Of The Night is still quite beautiful. I can see now how it would have been a shock for longtime fans to hear this album, given the heights they attained on Pet Sounds. Years later, I can return to it and understand the context with which it was made.
When the Beach Boys released their self-titled album in 1985, I was fascinated in how they seemed to be attempting to recapture their earlier sound with singles like Getcha Back and California Calling. With its then contemporary synth sheen aiming for ears accustomed to top 40 radio during this period, it didn’t seem quite authentic to the production one would expect from the Beach Boys. It’s Getting Late seemed fresher, yet the album didn’t really hit the marks their classics did. Where I Belong came closest.
I had encountered the song Wouldn’t It Be Nice on the radio before, throughout the 1970s. It was only when I picked up The Big Chill: More Songs from the Original Soundtrack on cassette in 1984—the follow-up to The Big Chill Soundtrack in 1983—and compared it to songs I knew from the Endless Summer compilation, that I began to pay attention to the song’s more fulsome Beach Boys sound. There was something lush going on in the orchestrated arrangement, and I noticed that it sounded bigger than their other songs, perhaps with the exception of Good Vibrations. Hearing Good Vibrations for the first time in 1976, on a “Brian is Back” themed radio show, was the first time I learned anything about Brian’s struggles, and seeming inability or desire to produce substantial records after 1966/1967. Again, that’s another story.
After college, from 1987 on, for a time I had a roommate, someone I knew from high school. He had the Endless Summer compilation on cd, and a cd called California Project by a Beach Boys cover band, Papa Doo Run Run. (Jeffrey Foskett contributed vocals on this one.) My roommate kept playing Sloop John B. over and over again. I liked the song. As it was a cover purportedly faithful to the original recording, I wanted to hear the original. This was years before the internet or YouTube, and around where I lived, Sloop John B. wasn’t being played often on the radio at the time.
In the summer of 1988, Brian Wilson released his first solo album. As the media focused on this, there was much discussion about his legendary album, Pet Sounds. At the time, the album was not in print. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I had to settle for hearing it piecemeal. As this was two years before the release of the Beach Boys music on cd, the act of assembling the chronology of their recording career was a task in and of itself. I learned more about the history of Pet Sounds in the second edition of The Beach Boys and the California Myth, written by David Leaf. I visited used record shop after used record shop, not finding Pet Sounds, but finding compilation records where songs from that album were included.
I found the 1982 Capitol compilation, Sunshine Dream at a used record store. This was a more interesting collection to me, as it contained six Pet Sounds recordings: Here Today, Caroline, No, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, I’m Waiting For The Day, and Sloop John B. These tracks stood out in a big way, both in their unique production style, and in vibe. It was imperative that I hear the rest of the album.
Thankfully, a fellow music-loving college friend, Richard Gagnon filled in the blanks for me by sending me a cassette of the songs that weren’t found on the Sunshine Dream collection. (He also sent me the ultimate Pet Sounds tribute song, Pale and Precious, by The Dukes Of Stratosphear, but that’s another story!) That was it for me. I had never heard music like this before, and it touched me so deeply; resonating on such a spiritual level. It was “feel” music.
Much has been written about how the album was conceived, written, arranged, and produced. The sessions have been released in deconstructed form, so music students like myself can pour over the bed tracks, the acapella harmony and lead vocals, demos, mono and stereo mix downs, etc.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice is a perfect recording. Everything about it is jubilant, anthemic, and triumphant. It is an intoxicating blend of joy, hopeful longing, romantic angst, and melodic bliss.
You Still Believe In Me has a vocal melody only Brian Wilson could conjure; one that soars through the heights and valleys of several octaves, over a childlike bed of bike bells and timpani.
That’s Not Me provides an awesome vocal by Mike Love, with a more spare organ arrangement more rooted in the sixties than anything else on the album.
Don’t Talk Put Your Head On My Shoulder is the deepest track on the album. The string arrangement is as spiritual as any music Brian created, and his voice is that of an angel here.
I’m Waiting For The Day is the song that really seemed timeless to me when I first heard it, not on Pet Sounds, but on the Sunshine Dream compilation from 1982. For some time, I was unsure who was doing the lead vocal. Was it Brian? Was it Al? I later learned it was all Brian, singing in different styles. Sumptuous.
The title Let’s Go Away For Awhile suggests the listener do just that: go into another world of bliss. That arrangement is pure genius.
I Know There’s An Answer is another song where I was uncertain who was singing the lead. Mike Love starts it, but then who sings lead, Brian or Al Jardine? Later I realized it is an Al/Brian doubled lead vocal. It’s a production style Bjorn and Benny appropriated for Frida and Agnatha years later on ABBA’s biggest singles. I Know There’s An Answer has it all: bass harmonica, banjo, vibes, tambourine, EVERYTHING. It makes me cry when I listen to it, it’s so beautiful. I like the alternate lyrics of Hang On To Your Ego too.
In many ways, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times is the centrepiece of the album. Brian tells us everything about where he was at and how he felt in 1966: scared, feeling out of place with the world, and alone. It’s a sad song about the search for belonging, and it is one for the ages. It’s arguably Brian’s finest vocal performance, in a sea of great performances. The use of the theremin here—or tannerin—is a stroke of arrangement genius. I love Tom Petty’s thoughts on Pet Sounds. For me, they most apply to I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times. Timeless perfection. Listen to the harmony vocals in Spanish. They’re in there.
Pet Sounds is big orchestral fun. The revelation that it was a rejected Bond song didn’t become known until about 2001. Makes sense when one listens to it; it has that Bond feel.
Caroline No is the melancholy closer to this album, its “end of innocence” paean to lost innocence and romance a bittersweet conclusion; one that utilizes the sound of a train going by and two dogs barking to drive its musical statement straight home to the heart of it all.
Back in 1995 and 1996, during the early days of the internet, I searched community boards to find more information on the work of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. I learned the chords to a number of Beach Boys songs, all in an attempt to discern the magic within the great songs of Brian Wilson and his collaborators. Caroline, No was one of the songs I studied. In this cassette demo medley from 1996, I marry SMiLE‘s Bicycle Rider with Friends‘ Meant For You, before launching into a lo-fi reading of Caroline, No.
I was fortunate to meet Carol Kaye in person one day in March 1998, when I was in Los Angeles on business, after enjoying a two year pen pal friendship with her. What a day that was. She introduced me to Hal Blaine and Don Randi. They all signed my Pet Sounds Sessions booklet. When I finally had an opportunity to have Brian Wilson sign the same box set booklet as well, in 2001, his handlers commented on the other signatures as they were passing it to him. As he signed it, he accidentally smeared his signature. Seemingly horrified, he looked up at me, with a stare I will never forget. I locked eyes with him for a moment frozen in time. Then I shrugged as if to say “oh well.” He then passed it back to me without saying a word. It’s funny when I think about it.
Pet Sounds captured youthful romantic angst as plaintively as it has ever been captured in music: lyrically, harmonically, melodically, and in peerless vocal performances and sound production that paved the way for a pop music industry to grow into adulthood. It captured my coming of age angst, and as I was listening to it twenty two years after it had been released, I can only imagine the impact it may have had on those who heard it and understood what Brian Wilson was aiming for in 1966.
While still in art college in April 1987, my friend Richard Gagnon played for me the then recent songs by Brian Wilson; songs like Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car, and Too Much Sugar, an A/B side culled from the Police Academy 4 soundtrack. Brian Wilson’s long road out of the wilderness had begun, and his faithful legion of fans stood beside him, believing that with a healing heart comes a redemptive spirit. With the spiritual and musical support of some extraordinary musicians, along with his wonderful wife Melinda, author and documentarian David Leaf, and others, in 2004, he finally released the follow-up to Pet Sounds, SMiLE. And it was and still is beautiful.
Pet Sounds is the one that cemented Brian Wilson’s stature with the great composers: Bach, Gershwin, Ellington, Lennon and McCartney, Davis, and Mozart. I’m forever grateful to have had this music in my life. Thank you Brian!
I almost forgot. Brian answered my question once, pitched to the Entertainment Tonight website in June 1998. I received a signed copy of his album Imagination for it, which was amazing. I must thank legendary jazz bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye for her friendship. She was and is the inspiration for the question!
They edited down my question for space considerations, although I did take a screen capture of the original email.
MT Question: “Did Carol Kaye’s fine picking style of [bass] playing ever influence you to write a certain way, in terms of your bass arrangements that you wrote for her when songwriting?”
Brian: “Yeah. She taught me how to make a more energetic beat where the beats were stronger and impressive. It made my music easier to tap your foot to. Made a better beat. And then I microphoned her right in the center of her amp. I got the best of her thumb [pick] and the best of her tone by the way I microphone her. Her playing turned me on to want to write songs with good bass lines—which is a creativity of how you tie your notes together.”
Carol was kind enough to let me know she saw the EW post. It’s awesome how much respect they have for each other, and there’s a reason for that. They created a masterpiece. I was so touched that I had the opportunity in life to enjoy such a wonderful musical exchange.