Where to start with Pet Sounds
? Where can you possibly start? This is an album that routinely gets put at the top of those 100 Best Albums Of All Time
lists, an album whose classic status is absolutely assured, one of the few pop albums (and whatever else it is, this is pop music
and emphatically not
rock) that is regarded as Art-with-a-capital-A .
First, to dispel the myths, this is not 'The only good Beach Boys album', and many (including myself) would say it's not even the best. Nor is it a concept album - unless one regards any album that deals with the emotions of the principal songwriter as a concept album anyway. What it is is a genuinely great piece of work, an astonishingly mature piece of composition expressing what are at times remarkably callow sentiments.
While Pet Sounds has the Beach Boys' name on the cover, it shouldn't be taken in the context of their Endless Summer image (although it fits remarkably well in the general progression of their work). Best for a newcomer to the band or to this album (and many people unfortunately never progress further in their investigation of the Beach Boys than this album), to think of it in terms of the interaction of four distinct creative voices. All of these have their own nodes, but I'll do a paragraph on each here for context.
Brian Wilson is obviously the major creative force on this album. He wrote the music for 12 of the 13 songs, produced and arranged the entire thing, co-wrote a good portion of the lyrics, and sang lead on almost everything. The album was his statement to the world, and can easily be regarded as his de facto first solo album. Inspired by The Beatles' Rubber Soul (the US version), the 23 year old genius had announced his decision to 'make the best rock album ever' and 'bring love to the world'. Since he'd stopped touring with the band earlier in 1965, he finally had the chance to make the album he'd always wanted to.
Tony Asher was the lyricist or co-lyricist on 9 of the 13 tracks. An acquaintance of Wilson's before making the album, he regarded his job as taking Wilson's ideas and turning them into lyric form. However, while a song such as I Just Wasn't Made For These Times is based on Wilson's comments, the lyric to God Only Knows is 100% Asher.
The Wrecking Crew is the name generally applied to the loose coalition of session musicians who played on every track (except That's Not Me) of the album. While they were playing parts written by Wilson, they did also make a real creative contribution - many of the more memorable arrangement ideas were suggested by musicians, for example playing the bridge of God Only Knows staccatto , or doubling the lead part on Sloop John B on a 12-string guitar.
Mike Love . I can already see the flames coming my way for this, but the fact remains Love had a very definite influence on the album. Love, for those who don't know, is the nasal voiced 'lead singer' of the band, who cowrote many of their biggest hits. While almost every commentator agrees that Love disliked this album intensely at the time, calling it 'Brian's ego music', he was the only band member other than Wilson himself to co-write any of the songs.
With the main personae in place, we can move on to the songs... and what songs they are.
Wouldn't It Be Nice is one of those songs that everyone knows so well they almost forget how great it is. An upbeat song about teenage love and hopes for the future, this is the perfect album opener. Written by Wilson and Asher (Love claimed co-writing credit for this in a lawsuit in the 90s - apparently he contributed 5 words to the tag) and with lead vocals by Brian Wilson (with Love on the middle eight), you know this one, and know just how stunning this is - the 12-string intro, the drums, even the accordion sounds good. I'll never forget seeing Mike Love's touring 'Beach Boys' perform this song live. It was an open air gig, it was raining as badly as only an English summer day can, and the crowd (waiting for Status Quo) had been apathetic. This song started, the rain stopped, and every single person rose up from their seat and roared. Of course, that was nothing to seeing Brian Wilson perform it at the start of his live rendition of the whole album six months later...
You Still Believe In Me is one of the most beautiful songs Brian Wilson (and Tony Asher) ever wrote. Like much of the album, this is a solo Brian Wilson vocal performance, and deals with the perennial recurring theme throughout his work - not surfing or cars, the theme of Brian Wilson's work is, and always has been, the portrayal of the emotions of a man who needs to be loved but doubts his own worth, a man who turns to stronger women who he considers too good to stay with him. Over and over again in his work we see this theme - from 'she makes me come alive/ and makes me want to drive when she says/Don't Worry Baby' in 1964 to 'don't let her know that she's touching me/I'm scared that she'll want to leave me' in 1989, and in almost every song in between. This song captures that feeling better than he ever did before or since - 'And after all I've done to you/how can it be/You Still Believe In Me' and couples it to one of Wilson's heartbreakingly beautiful, nursery-rhyme like ascending-scale melodies. Gorgeous.
That's Not Me is in many ways a misfit on this album. It has a much sparser instrumentation than anything else (and it's the only song where the Beach Boys provide instrumentation), it has the most obvious instrumental mistakes (Terry Melcher's appaling tambourine playing), and it has a Mike Love lead vocal. Musically, this points the way for future organ-dominated albums like Wild Honey and Friends but lyrically it fits well, being about the doubts and insecurities of a young man leaving home for the first time, who needs 'just one girl'.
About Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) there is nothing to say. This track (another solo Brian Wilson vocal, another Wilson/Asher song) is quite simply the best love song ever written.
I'm Waiting For The Day is an anomaly on the album. Co-written by Mike Love (although some sources say again that he only altered a few words), this is a left-over from 1964. Although it has some wonderful arrangment touches (the incredibly dumb 'doot doot' backing vocals, and the flutes powering the whole arrangement among them) the track as a whole doesn't hold together as well as it might.
Let's Go Away For Awhile is the album's first instrumental, and it's here, with the steel guitar and vibraphone to the fore, that Brian Wilson's indebtedness to the exotica of people like Martin Denny is most obvious. Almost the definition of easy listening, this has absolutely nothing to do with rock, but everything to do with great music. This track originally had lyrics, but it was decided not to record them. Several people have tried writing and recording their own lyrics for this - probably the best of these versions is by Sean Macreavy on his Dumb Angel album.
Sloop John B, the closer to side 1, is another anomaly on the album. A remake of an old folk tune, suggested by Al Jardine, it was only included on the album because it was a hit single, against Brian Wilson's wishes. Even so, it's a remarkable piece of work, and very influential (listen to the a cappella break, the first time that had been done by a pop group, and then listen to the Beatles' Paperback Writer which came out shortly after this track). The lead vocals on this were shared by Brian Wilson and Mike Love (who sang the second verse).
God Only Knows, which opens side 2, is another of those songs that everyone knows, but that never gets really listened to by the majority of oldies listeners. This track is as close to perfection as a human being can get, from the French horn intro, to the minor 6th chords (Bm6 to me is this song) to Carl Wilson's angelic lead vocal, to Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston's three part counterpoint vocals on the tag. The lyrics, while simple, are effective - no-one else would have thought to start a love song 'I may not always love you', after all, and this was also (as Wilson still points out in concerts today) the first secular pop song to use the word 'God' in the title. It's also a curiously downbeat song - taken in isolation, the lyrics suggest nothing so much as a rather narcissistic suicidal depressive. But then, that also describes Brian Wilson's state of mind for much of the next two decades rather well. Dig out your copy of this and listen to it again, as if it was the first time. You won't be disappointed.
I Know There's An Answer started life as Hang On To Your Ego before Mike Love took offence at the lyrics (in fact, he totally misread the point of them) and rewrote the chorus (the verses were written by roadie Terry Sachem. One of the less distinguished songs on the album, this is mainly interesting for its instrumental arrangement - the combination of banjo and bass harmonica is not exactly a usual one. Another interesting point about this song is that it shows just how simillar the Beach Boys' voices are - the lead vocal is shared between Mike Love (first line of each verse), Al Jardine (the rest of the verse) and Brian Wilson (the chorus) and yet everyone I play this track to believes there's only one lead vocalist.
Here Today is another of the lesser tracks (though this is a relative term - it's still better tha 90% of music that gets released), mainly notable for the studio chatter that remained on the finished mono mix, and for its compositional simillarity to Good Vibrations.
A now-deleted lyric write-up for this erroneously stared "Sloop John B is the only other song that even involves more than two people." I Just Wasn't Made For These Times talks about 'fair weather friends' who 'cop out', That's Not Me talks about 'my folks when I wrote and told them what I was up to', I'm Waiting For The Day is based entirely on the protagonist talking to his girlfriend about her ex ('I kissed your lips and when your face turned sad/it made me think about him and that you still love him so'). One could even argue that Caroline, No implicitly discusses other people with the line 'who took that look away?'. This lyric though is still far more outgoing than most of Pet Sounds.
As for the talking there are various noises and off-mic comments on this track (the mono mix only - Brian Wilson requested they be cleaned up in the stereo mix), from 1:46 to 2:03. Brian Wilson says 'top' (asking that the tape be rolled back for a second pass) at the start of the instrumental break. There's then a brief conversation about cameras followed by Wilson shouting loudly 'TOP PLEASE' (the only clearly audible part of the conversation). The conversation is actually isolated as a hidden track on one disc of the 1997 Pet Sounds Sessions box set, so people could finally hear it properly, along with the similarly hard to hear (though intentional) Spanish back-ups on I Just Wasn't Made For These Times. Brian Wilson's current backing band actually include the shout of 'top please!' in live performances of this track.
I Just Wasn't Made For These Times is one of the more overlooked songs on the album. It was this song that originally drew me into this album - lyrics like 'they say I got brains, but they ain't doing me no good/I wish they could' definitely struck a chord, but this is also one of the more musically complex pieces on the album, with at least 6 vocal parts (all sung by Wilson and doubled) in the chorus, tannenin (a theremin soundalike instrument) used for the first time, and low in the mix some beautifully incongruous honky-tonk piano.
Pet Sounds, the album's title track, is the second instrumental on the album. Originally intended for a James Bond soundtrack and titled Run, James, Run, Brian Wilson decided that it would be rejected, and never submitted it. Musically it would have fit 007 well, based on a low repetitive guitar riff on the bass strings, with a lead guitar line through a leslie speaker, and plenty of strings. This song really comes to life live, when Wilson's band insert a 'duelling percussionists' section, but on record it provides some respite from the emotional rollercoaster around it.
Caroline, No, another Brian Wilson solo performance (and indeed released as a Wilson solo single), is another classic (I'm running out of superlatives, but merely because the album is so good, not due to exaggeration). Originally titled 'Carol, I Know', this song conflates Wilson's then-wife Marilyn with his high-school sweetheart Carol Mountain, to create a song of lost innocence every bit as poignant as anything on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, using the simple image of a haircut to express everything about the ending of a relationship and the loss of teenage innocence as a woman grows into maturity. The polar opposite of Wouldn't It Be Nice, this was probably based at least in part on You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin, but is head and shoulders above even that classic in its expression of lost love and world-weary resignation.
And then the album closes to the sound of a train in the distance and two dogs (Banana and Louie) barking...
This album, originally released in 1966, is currently available on a CD featuring the original mono mix, a 90s stereo remix and the leftover track Trombone Dixie - however if you don't yet own the album your best bet is to buy The Pet Sounds Sessions, a 4-CD box set including both mixes of the album along with instrumental and a capella mixes, outtakes, alternate versions and session recordings, and two excellent booklets featuring contributions from band members, session musicians, Tony Asher, Paul McCartney, George Martin and Garry Trudeau among many others. Few albums deserve this kind of treatment, but Pet Sounds does, and the people (David Leaf, Andy Paley and Mark Linnet) who put the box set together did an unbelievably good job. You owe it to yourself to buy this.
The band members for the album were Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston.
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