Beach Boys - Pet Sounds - Review

Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me, That’s Not Me, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head O My Shoulder), I’m Waiting For The Day, Let’s Go Away For A While, Sloop John B, God Only Knows, I Know There’s An Answer, Here Today, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,Pet Sounds,Caroline No

Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson grew up in the Los Angeles area, close to the Pacific Coast. Together with their cousin Mike Love and school buddy Al Jardine they started the Beach Boys in 1961. The Wilson brothers used to sing harmony at home as particularly Brian loved the vocal acts that were so successful in the States in the Fifties. Their first hit was Surfin’ (they were called the Pendletones at that time) and soon thereafter the band was renamed Beach Boys and signed a record contract with Capitol records. Their second single Surfin’ Safari hit the Top 20 in 1962 and helped starting the Surf Rock Craze in Southern California. The group launched a number of successful singles and Albums but by the end of 1964 Brian got tired from touring and wanted to concentrate more on writing and producing song material. His friend Bruce Johnston became his replacement in the band.
A lot of people may think that all music that the Beach Boys made before Pet Sounds was just throw- away happy but simple surf pop with texts about surfing and teenage daydreams. But in songs like Catch a Wave and In My Room and on the Album The Beach Boys Today from 1965 it’s clear that Brian Wilson was capable of a lot more than that.
In December 1965 Brian Wilson listened for the first time to the Rubber Soul Album from the Beatles. And this is the moment where the inspiration for Pet Sounds was born. But first, let’s have a look at my opinion on the Rubber Soul Album:

“ For most Pop bands this release would be their Greatest Hits Album and a fine one too! But actually it’s “just” another Beatles Album.  It’s really amazing isn’t it? There are shiploads of interesting hooks in the songs and they tend to stay in your head. Very few artists achieve that once in their career. The Beatles would do it time and time again. That’s why they are really one of the great, if not the best, Pop-Rock bands of all times.
The songs are mostly written by John and Paul. One song, What Goes On also gives credits to Ringo. Unfortunately it’s the weakest track on the album although it’s still not bad.
George emerges with two fine songs Think for Yourself and If I Needed Someone.
Some great ballads here like Michelle, Girl and the often-covered In My Life. Listen to Bette Middler´s version if you find it.
It’s still mostly Pop Music but the Sitar in Norwegian Wood and the slightly Psychedelic Sound of The Word point out to a new direction.”    

Rubber Soul is one of those amazing albums that do not contain filler. You have to realise that that was most uncommon in the late fifties and early sixties. The Record Industry was completely focused on Hit-Singles. Albums were nothing more than a collection of the latest hits of an artist together with a bunch of unimportant filler songs. You didn’t even have to play your own instruments!
I’m sure that must have irritated Brian Wilson already for some time and to him the Rubber Soul Album meant that times might be changing. Since the early days of Rock, there always has been a mostly healthy rivalry between artists from Great Britain and the USA. You had Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard, the Rolling Stones and the Doors and so on. So it was only natural that Rubber Soul challenged the musical genius of Brian Wilson.
Now Rubber Soul is mostly a collection of great songs. It’s not so much a musical statement and it’s not a Concept Album. There are a wide variety of songs on the album. This is logical as the songs were written by John, Paul, George and even Ringo.
Brian’s situation was different. He was basically alone. So he went to the studio and started working on his musical ideas. He found it sometimes difficult to write the lyrics in such a way that they really expressed his feelings. Therefore he invited his new friend Tony Asher to work with him on this and it proved to be a very lucky draw. 
Brian wanted to make a great Pop Rock Album, at least as good as Rubber Soul. But also something completely different and not primarily a commercial success. His musical background of Fifties vocal groups, some influences from Classical Music, the Surf Pop that was practically invented by the Beach Boys, his love for Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and his abilities in the Sound Studio would ensure just that.
I’m not sure what exactly Brian had in mind when the started the project but I do believe he wanted to achieve at least two things. Firstly, to take harmony vocals to a whole new level. And secondly, to use a whole bunch of new instruments and studio effects.
Lyrically, he wanted to steer away from the simple summer teenager adventures and address the Teenager’s real feelings such as love and sadness and fear. And finally, he did want to maintain the basic strengths of the Beach Boys sound, harmonies and hooks.

The work started with laying down the instrumental tracks. Brian and Tony and a lot of studio musicians recorded layer upon layer of music using all kinds of instruments including but not limited to tympani, saxophone, trumpet, string bass, harpsichord, clarinet, vibraphone, organ, guitars, percussion, drums, violins, cello, viola, bongos, ukulele, piano, flutes, horns, accordion, harmonica and trombone and using bicycle bells, whistles, sounds of trains, Coca Cola cans, barking dogs etc.

It’s almost like working with a Symphony Orchestra. No wonder that during the sessions Pet Sounds more and more started to look like a Teenage Symphony reflecting Brian’s musical and personal views. I’m sure that the other Beach Boys had to swallow when Brian invited them to the studio to record the vocals. Because if you’re not the musical brain of a band, you are usually happy with the fun and the money and what have you that the success brings you and you’re afraid a change of musical direction will scare away your public. I’m sure they wondered as well if Brian’s drug use (LSD mostly) was getting the better of him. But Brian managed to convince them fortunately because Pet Sounds has some of the best harmony vocals in Rock History.
When the record was finally completed they sat down and listened to what they had achieved. What started as a bunch of musical ideas had become a Teenage Symphony. With lots of classical influences while maintaining the Beach Boys backgrounds. With songs that could not specifically be called ballads but were also not fully up-beat. With lots of rhythm changes within the songs. With hooks and moods combined in an unpredictable way. So while the texts were for teenagers, the music maybe wasn’t.
Surely it had become a coherent Album. You can even argue that there exists a certain similarity between the songs, specifically those that started with I. But it was Brian’s album in the end. Caroline No was even released as a Brian Wilson single.
Brian also wanted to include Good Vibrations on Pet Sounds but it wasn’t finished in time so it was left for the next album. That’s a pity. On the other hand I’m sure Brian did not want to include Sloop John B, as the song has nothing in common with the rest of the Album. But the Record company insisted as it was the group’s latest Hit Single that peaked at # 3 in May 1966.
You can also argue if it was a wise decision to include the instrumental Title Track. It was originally called Run James Run and was written as a possible Sound Track for a James Bond Movie. It’s not bad but it seems a bit out of place as well.

The Album was released on May 16, 1966. It remained in the Charts for 39 weeks and peaked at # 10 in early July. It was not such a commercial success as their other albums so far and it didn’t reach the Gold status in that year. The divine God Only Knows only reached # 39 as Flip Side to Wouldn’t It Be Nice. I’m sure that Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al and Bruce must have had some “ I Knew It” feelings. Even Brian wasn’t completely satisfied as he immediately started working on the ill-fated Smile project. Maybe he was looking for more variety on his next album, something the Beatles managed to do later on Sgt. Pepper and the White Album.

On the other side of the Ocean however, Pet Sounds was a huge success. God Only Knows for example was a Top 5 hit in the United Kingdom. And they were chosen Britain’s most popular vocal group in 1966, defeating the Beatles. Paul McCartney loved and still loves the Album. He also said that God Only Knows was the most beautiful Song ever written. It inspired the Beatles to explore new roads that would eventually lead to the Sgt. Pepper Album.

But the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson never were quite the same after Pet Sounds although they kept recording and performing with mixed success. Brian really got into drugs and was AOL for a long time.
Albums like Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds however changed the Record Industry. For a number of years the Album became a place where artists were allowed to explore their musical ideas. It’s not for nothing that the period 1967-1975 has produced most of the real Classic Rock music.

I’m not going to review the songs on a one by one basis. They are all good and some of them are great.  But most songs have their magic moments like the opening Harpsichord in Wouldn’t It be Nice, the heavenly vocals on God Only Knows and the remarkable Bass-Line in Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).

But my absolute favourite on the album is the closing Caroline No. I’m really moved to tears by this Song and I also wonder what happens in the end. What is the meaning of the passing Train and the Barking Dogs? Are they only sound effects, maybe to suggest the loneliness of the boy? Or does he commit suicide because of love lost? Or did Caroline kill herself? Did she get on drugs?
I don’t know but the song fascinates me as few songs have ever done.

So that’s Pet Sounds. I’m not sure if the title only refers to Brian’s dogs that are barking at the end of Caroline No or that it represents this collection of songs that represent his musical ideas, his feelings, his Pet Sounds. I do know the songs on the album have the quality to make me feel genuinely happy or sad or confused.

In the end, Brian has left us a timeless record that has won the hearts of many listeners all over the world. It’s not fair to compare this record to one of the Beatles Albums simply because Brian alone couldn’t defeat the joined efforts of John, Paul & George. You can compare it though to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass Album, released soon after the Beatles split up. Completely different music of course but in both cases it represented the best both Brian and George had to offer at the high water mark of their artistic abilities.

Rating: ********* (9 out of 10)
Black = Good Songs
Green = Great Songs
Red = Could Be Better

Jan van den Ende                                   March , 2012


Rodrigo said...

That is a review ! Congratulations for it.

Jan van den Ende said...

Thanks a lot!

Michael Kimsal said...

What's odd about the whole "rubber soul inspired brian" idea is that he heard the US version, not the UK version. The UK Rubber Soul is, imo, miles better, as it's more diverse. Kicking off with "Drive My Car", keeping in "If I Needed Someone" and "Nowhere Man", the UK version has a more electric feel. The US version has more of a folky/acoustic flavor - "I've Just Seen A Face" as the opening track?!

What would Wilson's view have been had he had the UK album instead? What would Pet Sounds have been like? Would it even have been Pet Sounds? Obviously no way to tell, but interesting to think about. Also, Rubber Soul was their last record with Ken Smith as engineer, and Revolver saw Geoff Emerick take over, bringing youth and unbridled experimentation to the recordings which, I think took things to a whole new level. Wilson largely stayed with the same "Wrecking Crew" and studios and engineers for Pet Sounds IIRC, relying more on exquisite vocal arrangements rather than experimental recording techniques.

Jan van den Ende said...

Thanks a lot for your comment Michael. Very interesting indeed to consider this. Maybe we would have had two Pet Sounds, one that would reflect Brian's musical feelings at the time and another album packed with " just" great songs. Who knows!