Pet Sounds: The Kind of World Where We Belong
A day that changed music, forever, for the better.
A case could, and probably should, be made that we ought to refer to rock music as “BP” and “AP” (Before Pet Sounds and After Pet Sounds).
Writing about Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, and the miraculous release of the (miraculous) SMiLE Sessions, this is my brief take on the times and circumstances Wilson instigated, embraced and inevitably became overwhelmed by:
Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years — and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox — Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.
For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called the Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined — and restless — frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Soundswas not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.
A lot more on the making, breaking and reviving of the SMiLE legend HERE.
Talk about an opening statement, and statement of purpose. This is the sound of a revolution:
And then it’s a succession of brilliance, one miniature pop-opera at a time. It’s the sound of Brian Wilson maturing and growing into his genius. Not for nothing did Paul McCartney hear this and know he had to up his (already considerable, and all but peerless) game.
Brian Wilson was perfecting a somewhat unprecedented type of songwriting here: upbeat (sounding) but reflective, almost pensive ballads. No question The Beatles were listening closely to songs like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and “That’s Not Me” (see: Mac’s songs on the subsequent Revolver).
Whimsy, possibly enhanced by the ingestion of some consciousness-expanding substances, resulted in songs that are equal parts silly and audacious. It’s hard to imagine Beefheart and Syd Barrett having the balls, or ability, to take their next steps without a song like “Sloop John B”. It is disarmingly simple, but not simplistic. If nothing else, the arrangement is a delivery device for those voices: Wilson (as the image on the back cover, copied above, illustrates) was pushing himself, and his mates, to blend their vocals in increasingly complex and ingenious harmonies.
In hindsight these tracks are equal parts revelation and test run for SMiLE. Regarding the perfection achieved on that recording, I wrote the following:
Until now, the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes”.
Possibly the most important track (at least to Paul McCartney) is the epic “God Only Knows”. Rather than attempt to articulate its import, I’ll let Mac do the honors:
“It’s a really, really great song — it’s a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top ten favorite songs for a Japanese radio station…I didn’t think long and hard on it, but I popped that [“God Only Knows”] on the top of my list. [Thinks for a moment] It’s very deep. [Quotes the lyrics to “God Only Knows”] Very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. There are certain songs that just hit home with me, and they’re the strangest collection of songs…but that is high on the list, I must say.”
More from Macca on Pet Sounds, HERE.
Speaking only for myself, I love Pet Sounds and appreciate its place as perhaps the single-most important stepping stone for the year (’67) where pop became art (a LOT more on that HERE). For me, Pet Sounds is like Sgt. Pepper in that I seldom listen to it all the way through the way I can later albums I prefer (think SMiLE or Abbey Road –more on the latter HERE). And like Sgt. Pepper, there are a handful of songs that I can listen to repeatedly, anytime, and never grow bored or uninspired. The number one example is “Hang On To Your Ego” (which became “I Know There’s an Answer”, allegedly based on Mike Love’s concerns that the lyrics were too blatantly LSD-inspired. Love must be acknowledged, if nothing else, for being the anti-Wilson in virtually every regard). Which one is better? Personally, I’ll take both.
In the final analysis, even though there are few things I enjoy more than writing about music, there is nothing I enjoy more than listening to music. And that, as ever, is the ultimate –if not only– way a work can account for itself. Listen, learn, appreciate, then repeat for the rest of your life. But the final words should be reserved, not for me, not for McCartney, but for the great man himself. In a song that manages to epitomize everything about Brian Wilson: aesthetically, creatively, as a musician, as a man, we must leave it at “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Only Wilson could write a composition that at once underscores how out of place, and out of time, he felt; yet in so feeling, he managed (through a possibly unparalleled combination of talent and will) to write a definitive song that inspired the greatness others emulated but possibly never equaled. In rock music’s ultimate irony, Wilson honestly felt he wasn’t a fit for the times he, as much as anyone, helped create. For that alone, attention must always be paid.