The Beach Boys surf their highest wave yet, thanks to four lads from Liverpool
Pet Sounds has been the subject of more reissues than perhaps any other album in pop history. There was the original 1990 CD, with three bonus tracks, followed by The Pet Sounds Sessions box set in 1997, consisting of three discs of previously unreleased material, a 2001 edition featuring both stereo and mono mixes on the one disc, a 40th Anniversary collectors edition in 2006, as well the recent 50th Anniversary 5CD box set. That’s a whole lot of Beach Boys for what was originally only a 36 minute LP.
Pet Sounds was Brian Wilson’s attempt to create the finest pop record of all time, although the entire process took its toll. To realise his ambition, it would take a multitude of musicians, hundreds of hours of recording sessions, resulting in multiple outtakes of the same songs, not to mention orchestral arrangements. It was a journey from which Brian never seemed to recover.
Already Wilson had experienced a nervous breakdown, back in December 1964, resulting in him having to withdraw from touring. The positive side to this was that Brian could focus solely on his songwriting, and thus spend more time in the studio perfecting his craft. In 1966, while the band was in Japan, he rallied session players the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles, taking them through some of his latest songs, including “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” fine tuning the arrangements, which at this point, were becoming ever increasingly complex.
Wilson himself described the inspiration behind the album: “I heard the album Rubber Soul by The Beatles. It was definitely a challenge for me. I saw that every cut was very artistically interesting and stimulating. I immediately went to work on the songs for Pet Sounds.”
But this wasn’t going to be just any old pop record. Numerous pianos, saxophones, violins, even a theremin, were all painstakingly woven together to form one sweepingly blissful statement.
The majority of tunes were co-written with an obscure lyricist by the name of Tony Asher, someone who made a living writing advertising jingles, whom Brian met surreptitiously in 1965. The two hit it off, and soon they formed a creative/writing partnership. But it is of course Wilson’s astute, immaculate ear for sound and melody that was key in terms of making the whole project work, constructing each song from the ground up – like a kind of musical engineer – thus ensuring that the listener would be in for an unforgettable experience, one that might actually blow away The Beatles.
However despite the rapid changes taking place in youth culture, Pet Sounds remains steadfastly innocent. Opener “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is Brian’s heavily old-fashioned view on teenage couples, who wish that they “were older” so that they could marry and finally sleep together. Such idealistic innocence permeates throughout the record, themes which were largely at odds with a society that was becoming increasingly permissive.
On the Baroque-pop of “You Still Believe In Me” Brian expresses his undying belief in true love, heightened by some exquisite cathedral-like vocals, before self analysing his mind via the semi-psychedelic “That’s Not Me.” The relaxing “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” is a gorgeous, harmony-rich paean by Wilson to his then wife, while “I’m Waiting For The Day” has Brian and Mike Love sharing vocal duties a la Lennon and McCartney.
The Beach Boys’ superb harmonies were certainly not lost on The Beatles – just listen to the way Lennon sings on “A Day In The Life,” or the way he and Paul harmonise on “Because,” off Abbey Road, to get some idea of their impact on the fab four. “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” is a dreamy orchestral instrumental, and one of the more ambitious cuts here, followed by the sentimental sea shanty “Sloop John B,” throughout which their voices blend seamlessly together like the aural equivalent to a detailed patchwork quilt.
Carl Wilson, always the George Harrison of The Beach Boys, contributes his own minor pop masterpiece in “God Only Knows,” a lovely ode to young love, before the existential “I Know There’s An Answer,” a song Love refused to sing it in its original form, forcing Brian to rewrite it (the original title was “Hang On To Your Ego”). Other tunes such as “Here Today,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For This World,” and “Pet Sounds,” provide insights into Wilson’s mind, one that required protection from a world which he himself felt increasingly alienated by.
The Beach Boys manage to bring a bit of heaven to earth on closing track “Caroline, No,” Brian’s acknowledgement of the changing times, where women (and men) were no longer living in the more idealistic age of Gershwin and Glen Miller, an era when relationships were a little more black and white, at least on the surface.
Though the question remains: is Pet Sounds as great as they say? Does it deserve the plaudits handed to it by critics over the years? Like anything, it probably all depends on how much of a fan one is of their music. No doubt the production itself makes it a landmark release, by 1966 standards (not to mention that Brian was deaf in one ear, which explains why it was first mixed in mono). Because no matter which way one reflects, Pet Sounds is one of the most significant achievements in the annals of pop, that is until those damned Beatles came along with Sgt. Pepper’s the year after.