#2 – The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds – (1966)
May 2, 2015
I remember as a kid listening to a friend of my father’s rhapsodizing about how much Roy Orbison’s music had meant to him in his youth. He recalled being out on his paper route, riding along with a tinny little ear piece connected to his transistor radio, and becoming so absorbed by the climax of “Running Scared” that he crashed his bike into a tree. It always seemed to me a striking model of perfect attunement to music–a level of engagement that only a truly, uniquely compelling kind of song could provoke.
Many years later, in my early twenties, I had my own version of that experience. I was taking a summer class at a community college in Massachusetts, and drove there every morning along misty, unpopulated country roads. It was kind of a rough summer for me–I was nursing a broken heart, and was generally unenthused about life. Sometimes, I felt very sad. (Don’t cry for me. It all worked out okay.) Anyway, I listened to this record just about every morning on that drive, and far and away my favorite track at the time was “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which, if it didn’t speak all that specifically to my condition, at least resonated in a general way with my profound sense of self pity. The rousing “sometimes I feel very sad” chorus was, of course, a particular highlight, and one morning I got so into it that I simply drove right off the road. Nothing happened. I was fine. I just rolled onto the grass, slammed on the brakes, collected myself, and sheepishly pulled back out onto the empty morning road. It’s not great that I actually lost control of my car, and the whole thing feels less archetypally resonant than a kid on a bike crashing into a tree. But still, on some level, I felt gratified that I had finally found a song powerful enough to lull me into that kind of singular absorption.
It was not ever thus. Compared to albums by The Beatles, for example, I had very little connection to this album as a kid. It’s not something I really grew up with in the same way as all the other albums in the top five. I first heard of it by way of my Beatles obsession, as one does, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. When I first learned about it, the idea seemed preposterous–that The Beach Boys, with their striped shirts and surf boards and squeaky clean fun in the sun ethos–should also have made an album that was regarded as something not only on par with Rubber Soul and Revolver, but as an entry in a kind of artistic arms race–a friendly competition with The Beatles to elevate the status of the pop album to something approaching real art. I was intrigued, if skeptical.
I wound up buying my father a copy for his birthday one year, since it was he who had told me about it. I don’t think he really listened to it much, since he hadn’t actually ever been much of a fan of the record–he just knew enough about it to help me round out my interest in the music of his generation. I listened to it once or twice, and was unimpressed by it. I don’t remember exactly what about it didn’t sit right with me–I guess a lot of it seemed kind of vague and unengaging, and the songs that did jump out more–like the opening track “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”–just sounded like…The Beach Boys. I didn’t get it at all.
It was many years until I came back around to it. I started hearing about the fabled Smile sessions, and tracked some of that remarkable music down in the waning days of Napster. The almost mind-altering brilliance of that music, even in murky unfinished fragments, was harder to miss, and I became an immediate convert to the idea of Brian Wilson as one of the singular geniuses of twentieth century popular music. And so naturally, I gravitated back toward this album, which, if not as jaw droppingly complex and compelling as the fragments of Smile I had managed to track down, did have the advantage of being an actual, finished, readily available album.
I’ve been a fan of this album ever since, although having backed into in that way, I will perhaps never quite shake the slight taint of feeling underwhelmed by it. To cite the most obvious (really the only truly relevant) point of comparison, it would be as though you had spent a lot of time absorbing Sgt. Pepper before ever hearing Rubber Soul. I’m a big fan of Rubber Soul, but there is some obvious sense in which it is less overly amazing than the wizardry of the later album. Now, some–quite possibly including myself–might argue that what Rubber Soul lacks in orchestral ornamentation, it makes up for in a warmer, more emotionally accessible feeling. And one could also perhaps say the same about this one compared to the album that would be Smile.
Smile is, after all, not only a good deal more overt in the brilliance of its orchestrations, but also much more psychedelically abstract in its lyrics. While Wilson was able to come up with broad strokes of what he wanted his songs to be saying, he was not a wordsmith at heart, and on both projects, he employed third party lyricists to help him realize his vision. For this album, he worked with Tony Asher to come up with a set of songs that, in the main, addressed in an intimate, almost artless way, some of Wilson’s nascent existential confusion and melancholy. That state of mind, of course, fueled by psychedelic experimentation and artistic pressures from within and without, eventually grew into the full blown mental breakdown which is the chief reason he never quite finished Smile in 1967. On Smile, he employed the more ambitious and experimental-minded Van Dyke Parks to write a suite of songs that was intended generally as a kind of fantasia of the American experience, but which is characterized especially by a very psychedelically-tinged kind of obscurity. On paper, the former sounds more up my alley–emotional immediacy over flippant, stylish abstractions. And yet for whatever reason (possibly simply because Parks was more gifted than Asher), I tend to be more seduced by the cavalcade of brilliant nonsense on Smile. God help me, but “Dove nested towers the hour was, strike the street quicksilver moon” just sounds cooler to me than, say, “I went through all kinds’a changes, took a look at myself and said ‘that’s not me.’”
Many people, of course, found this album disappointing from the opposite direction. Not everyone who grew up with “Little Deuce Coup” and “Fun Fun Fun” was willing to follow Wilson over to this more personal, maudlin kind of territory. There are even a number of critics out there who maintain that this album is overblown and overrated, and that Wilson’s genius is really best enjoyed on some of the gorgeously orchestrated but more unpretentiously themed songs in the years leading up to it, such as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Let Him Run Wild,” “Please Let Me Wonder” and “California Girls,” the last of which, despite its quotidian subject matter, was the first song Wilson wrote under the influence of LSD. I have an old family friend I discuss music with a lot who graduated from high school (with my father) right around the time this album came out, and he has never been able to understand what the big deal is with this album. To him, it’s just less fun and less immediate than the simpler pleasures of The Beach Boy’s classic cars, surfing and girls material. And he’s not a terribly conservative, “I like what I like” kind of music lover. He just regards himself as insufficiently musically educated to understand what’s so special about what Wilson is doing on this album. He simply doesn’t hear it, and sometimes asks me to explain it to him.
It’s a somewhat daunting task that I’ve never managed to pull off to his satisfaction, which is regrettable, since that’s also the job that lies before me here. What I don’t want to do is a song-by-song analysis of the sort I’ve fallen into over the past several entries. Briefly, the only song I actively (though not intensely) dislike is “Sloop John B.” It’s not just that a Caribbean sea shanty feels out of place with the more personal nature of the album (even factoring the double meaning of the line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”), though that is part of it. It’s also that it feels like a rare misstep in Wilson’s vocal arrangement, so that the “hoist up the John B. sails” chorus feels kick of shrill and off-putting, or always has to me, anyway. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” also feels slightly out of place, as though it’s there primarily to meet the obligation for a good, accessible single rather than to contribute to the presiding spirit of the album. But it’s a good solid tune, so it gets a pass. It’s really one of the very last songs Wilson ever wrote that fits in easily enough around the teenagerly concerns of The Beach Boys‘ first and most commercially enduring period.
Beyond those better known, single-type songs, I feel like part of the reason some people have trouble finding their way into this record is that it does not, truth be told, have an overabundance of what you’d call great songs on it. Certainly there are a handful. “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulders” and “Caroline, No” are both heartbreakingly gorgeous ballads, and exceptionally fine solo vocal performances by Brian Wilson. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” though it’s one close to my heart, may not in the end be a great song so much as just the “Sometimes I Feel Very Sad” part has a unique and transfixing power. And a lot of songs, like “I’m Waiting for the Day” or “I Know There’s an Answer,” while certainly nowhere close to bad, also don’t really have that immediately graspable aura of great songness about them. The one song that best matches that description and more is the magnificent “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney famously considers the greatest pop song ever written, and whose peculiar spiritual power is undiminished by the passing decades. When people say (and they do) that Brian Wilson’s music will endure in the same way that Mozart’s has, this is surely one of the songs they have most prominently in mind.
So it is, of course, not principally in the songs that this album’s greatness resides, but in its spectacularly thoughtful, adventuresome and gorgeous orchestrations and production technique. But let’s be clear–it’s not fair to say that what makes the album great is just its orchestrations, any more than it makes sense to say that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just a nice decoration. It’s really where the action is–in the ethereally uplifting vocal harmonies, in the rich tapestry of timbres and unusual instrumental sounds (marimba, bass harmonica, that clicking hooves percussion sound, and on and on). One who is confused about why this album is so important might do well to start by focusing on the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Let’s Get Away for Awhile” and the title track, since, though they could almost be dismissed as like cinematic sort of background music, one can at least more easily hear the level of thought (and playfulness) Wilson is putting into his instrumental arrangements. Indeed, though the meaning is obscured by the presence of farm animals on the album’s cover and the barking dogs at the album’s end, the title “Pet Sounds” actually refers to the specific timbres and tones that Wilson was most excited by, and lovingly wove throughout this album.
The fact of having had to defer listening to all of these emphatically great albums until the very end of the project has been a trying one, but the bang of finally being able to hear them now under more ideal sonic conditions than ever before has proved to be worth it, and never more so than with this one. I’ve long admired the gorgeous orchestration and harmonic complexity of this album, but I was never before able to hear it so clearly, and so movingly, as I was this time around. “God Only Knows” didn’t happen to make me well up with tears this time, as it sometimes does (such as, let’s face it, at the end of Love, Actually). But much of the album got much more deeply under my skin than it ever had before.
Near the end, a thought that I never imagined I would have struck with me a certain force and clarity: this album is, by a wide measure, greater than anything The Beatles ever did. I don’t mean that I like it more, necessarily, or that it has better songs on it. I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s the better pop album, since the song has always and rightly been the measure by which pop music is usually judged. But evaluating it by some other, more distant vantage point–one that extends a good deal further back than Elvis or Chuck Berry–there’s just no way to compare what Brian Wilson did here with The Beatles, or with any of his contemporaries. (Frank Zappa’s music may approach a similar degree of impressiveness, but is far less emotionally compelling.) Brian Wilson may not be a Mozart or a Bach, but he is the closest thing that music understood to be twentieth century popular music ever got.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that he was much more of a self-contained artist than The Beatles. Sure, he needed help with the lyrics, and he wrote with the voices of his brothers and other bandmates in mind, but as an orchestrator–or composer, really–he was a wholly singular artist. As The Beatles developed more “classical” aspirations, they would come up with their own general ideas of what they were looking for, but would ultimately leave the actual working out of all the parts to George Martin, who was an extraordinary producer and arranger, but ultimately more a deftly interpretive technician than a real artist in his own right. Wilson, who had a good deal less formal musical education than Martin (and no more than Lennon or McCartney), figured out every last bit of the music on this album all by himself. It’s kind of mind-boggling. Even Wilson’s hero, Phil Spector, generally relied on his arranger Jack Nitzsche to hammer out the specifics of his musical vision.
While the sort of aspirations toward art music that both Wilson and The Beatles displayed in this period pretty quickly devolved into a morass of overblown pretensions in later, lesser artists, Wilson’s work on this album strikes me as anything but pretentious. There is a kind of innocence and purity of motives one hears in Wilson’s music that has rarely existed alongside such obvious genius. Certainly this music is ambitious, but it seems to me to be an ambition of the very best kind–to express that which was within himself as clearly as he could, and to give to the world music that would be uplifting, healing, and ultimately spiritual in intent and in effect.
Source: LP. I have a Capitol copy from the 60s–maybe an original, though I’m not sure. But I have heard from a lot of people that, oddly enough, the copy they threw in as a bonus with their 1972 album Carl and The Passions – So Tough (which seems a pretty poor indicator of their confidence in that album) is regarded by many as the best this album ever sounded. When I found a copy I snapped it up, and have been eagerly waiting to hear it ever since. And yeah–it’s absolutely incredible–transparent and immediate feeling, practically glowing with sonic beauty. I haven’t done a side by side with my Capitol copy yet, but this one seems destined to become my go to.
Before I close this one out, I’d like to pay tribute to a fallen comrade of musical appreciation. Bob Fisher, who very dearly loved this album, was one of the warmest, most generous and genuinely spiritual people I ever had the privilege to meet. Though we first met in real life, I came to know him better in an online capacity. At some point, he found his way to my blog, and quickly became my most treasured reader and interlocutor. Bob was a few years younger than my father, and a good deal less cynical (sorry, Dad), meaning that he came of musical age right at about the time a lot of these great records were coming out. But, like a true and dedicated music lover, he kept right on exploring and discovering new music his whole life through. His love and knowledge of music was incredibly, often unexpectedly, far reaching. What was both wonderful and challenging about talking music with Bob was that he loved everything. Or damn near everything, anyway. He at least gave it all a good honest try. But the music of this period–and that of Brian Wilson in particular–I believe remained a particular favorite, a touchstone whose spiritual sort of beauty I think really resonated with the person that he was.
We often disagreed on the merits of any given album, since I do not love everything in the way he did. But no matter how indelicately I treated an album that he held dear, he always responded with remarkable generosity. He would often write long, articulate rebuttals to my reviews, revealing a keen intelligence, a more personal perspective than I had, and a patience with my particular musical predilections that was unerringly kind. (I only wish that he had posted them here, rather directly to Facebook, so that I could more easily access them now.) I began to listen and write with him in mind, with the result that I found myself trying (imperfectly) to approach every album I heard with a kind of generosity and curiousness. He reminded me of what the core purpose of my project really was, which was to remain as open as possible to new music, and to enjoy as much of it as I could, rather than merely to sharpen my critical acumen or develop the “right” kind of tastes. I didn’t do it as well as he did, but he helped me to reaffirm that a love of music was what was–and should be–driving me as I made my way through this project.
Somewhere along the line, Bob let it slip that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but he seemed so unworried about it that I didn’t quite grasp the immediacy of his condition. As the project wore on, he became less consistent in replying to my posts, but would sometimes come roaring back, writing a series of passionate defenses, personal reminiscences and general appreciations of the role some of these albums had played in his life. Even where we sharply disagreed, he seemed glad to have the opportunity to reflect on the music that he loved. The last such outpouring came just a few weeks before I received word that he was within the final hours of his life. Though I didn’t even know him all that well in person, I wept when I heard the news.
The blog carried on, of course, but it never felt quite the same without having Bob there to read and offer his thoughtful replies. Though great conversations carried on with other readers, an essential voice was missing from the mix which I have missed terribly. And especially here, near the very end, and on an album I know Bob loved, I feel a real sadness that he’s not here to round this thing out with me. Best to you, Bob, wherever you are–and thank you.