Monday, May 16, 2016

The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds 50 years ago today

First posted 5/6/2012; updated 6/7/2019.

Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys


Released: May 16, 1966


Charted: May 28, 1966


Peak: #10 US, #2 UK,


Sales (in millions): 1.6 US, 0.3 UK, 1.9 world (includes US and UK)


Genre: surf pop


Quotable: “This is more than just an album by a great American band; it’s THE great American pop album.” – CD Universe


Tracks: (Click here for codes to singles charts.) Click on song titles below to go straight to comments for that particular song.

  1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice (Brian Wilson/Tony Asher/Mike Love) [2:25] (7/18/66, #8 US, #58 UK, #2 AU, #4 CN)
  2. You Still Believe in Me (Wilson/Asher) [2:31]
  3. That’s Not Me (Wilson/Asher) [2:28]
  4. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) (Wilson/Asher) [2:53]
  5. I’m Waiting for the Day (Wilson/Love) [3:05]
  6. Let’s Go Away for Awhile (Wilson) [2:18]
  7. Sloop John B (traditional, arranged by Wilson) [2:58] (3/21/66, #3 US, #2 UK, #17 AU, #2 CN)
  8. God Only Knows (Wilson/Asher) [2:51] (7/18/66, #39 US, #2 UK)
  9. I Know There’s an Answer (Wilson/Love/Terry Sachen) [3:09]
  10. Here Today (Wilson/Asher) [2:54]
  11. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (Wilson/Asher) [3:12]
  12. Pet Sounds (Wilson) [2:22]
  13. Caroline, No (Wilson/Asher) [2:51] (3/7/66, #32 US)

Review:

Pet Sounds is “a pop milestone” SP “considered by many to be one of the most influential albums ever.” SM British magazines New Musical Express, The Times, and Uncut have all procoalimed it “the greatest album of all time.” WK It also rated the top album of all time by Acclaimed Music, which aggregates all-time album lists. WK

“In everything written about this album, ‘genius’ and ‘masterpiece’ are two words that invariably appear.” SP “Of course, the former is applied to the album’s creator and spiritual avatar, Brian Wilson,” SP who had humbly “set out to construct the greatest pop record ever made.” SP By general accounts, he succeeded; it is his “evolutionary compositional masterpiece” RS and “a sea of pure sonic joy.” MF “This is more than just an album by a great American band; it’s THE great American pop album.” CDU

“Fans loved the band because they released consistently fun surf music while detractors despised how basically all of Wilson’s songs had the same stolen Chuck Berry riff and themes.” CS Pet Sounds, however, marked a shift away from the Beach Boys’ surf-music roots and familiar material about “fast cars and cute girls to something much more intangible.” JM “Nobody was prepared for anything so soulful, so lovely, something one had to think about so much.” RS “No one ever expected that Brian Wilson could produce the acute level of artistry evident in…Pet Sounds.” CS

The Album As Art

It “proved to be a watershed moment in the evolution of the album as art.” JM It was a “carefully planned recording that attempted to present an album as a unified work and not merely a collection of singles.” NRR Few other artists – especially not singles-oriented groups like the Beach Boys – were thinking in such terms. “The Beatles were the only other group to step up their game in that way (Dylan too, but his success wasn’t as mainstream. The Stones were still a few years off from making consistently great LPs). After Pet Sounds, even the Top 40 groups were thinking bigger.” EK “The unique recording style, the combinations of sounds [and] the deeply personal lyrics” JC “changed the rules of rock & roll.” CDU

It really “was the first rock record that can be considered a ‘concept album,’” RS largely because it broke with the approach of the day which dictated surrounding a few hits with filler. Brian aspired to make “a complete statement,” similar to what he considered the Beatles to have done on their 1965 Rubber Soul album. WK >

Brian also took a cue from John Coltrane’s jazz classic A Love Supreme, intending Pet Sounds “to be an offering to God and an inspiration for man to love and heal one another.” CS As such, there is also a somewhat unified theme through its “melancholy meditation on adulthood, desire, and failed romance.” SS The end result “has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel.” RS

Brian’s Retreat to the Studio

Brian Wilson was the band’s leader, but decided to retire from touring after a panic attack on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston on December 23, 1964. WK He focused his attention on writing and recording in the studio while the rest of the band hit the road. Music journalist David Wild called the moment when Brian “intuitively decided he was going to be an artist” CA “one of the most profound moments in rock history.” CA His efforts reflected his “preoccuapation with pure sound.” RS “Brian didn’t use studio trickery in so much as he simply knew how to use the studio. He knew where to place a microphone and which microphone to use…All good record engineers…know these things [but] Brian wasn’t really a producer or an engineer.” AD He learned the craft from “watching trusted lieutenant Chuck Britz in the control room” AD while cutting those early Beach Boys’ records.

He “mastered producer Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound, saturating each track with echo, studio tricks and a cornucopia of gorgeous music.” CS He “plundered orchestra pits for new instruments and obsessed over the layering of what may be the most perfect harmonies in rock history.” TL “Conventional keyboards and guitars were combined with exotic touches of orchestrated strings, bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, theremin, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments…barking dogs” RU and “even used a coke bottle on a guitar to make it sound ‘slidish.’” GS

Brian had full song arrangements worked out in his head and in the studio would break down how each instrument should sound, starting with keyboards, then drums, and then violins. WK In contrast to Spector’s Wall of Sound recording technique of using three-track recorders, Brian used four-track and eight-track recorders. WK These flourishes were expensive – more than $70,000 in total production cost, the equivalent of over half a million dollars today. WK

Lyrics and Themes

Although Brian “carefully aligned the famous Beach Boy harmony” SP with those “recording techniques and orchestral flourishes,” PF this is “effectively a Brian Wilson solo album.” BL He co-wrote most of the album with Tony Asher, a 26-year-old copywriter working on jingles for an advertisting agency. Through discussions about women and relationships, Asher helped Brian turn his feelings into words, crafting “lyrical themes which evoke both the intensity of newly born love affairs and the disappointment of failed romance (add in some general statements about loss of innocence and modern-day confusion as well).” RU Pet Sounds reflects “Brian’s sense of discomfort in a world where he lacks the control that he has in the recording studio.” JF-69

Nick Kent called the album an attempt at Brian’s “attempts at coming to terms with himself and the world about him.” WK Author Scott Schinder described it as a “song cycle that surveyed the emotional challenges accompanying the transition from youth to adulthood.” WK He broke down some of the specific songs, showing how they “encompassed the loss of innocent idealism (‘Caroline, No’), the transient nature of love (‘Here Today’), faith in the face of heartbreak (‘I’m Waiting for the Day’), the demands and disappointments of independence (‘That’s Not Me’), the feeling of being out of step with the modern world (‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’), and the longing for a happy, loving future (‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’).” WK

Add in “some of the group’s most stunning melodies” RU and “some of the most gorgeous upper-register male vocals (especially by Brian and Carl Wilson) ever heard on a rock record” RU and this is “the most complete statement of Wilson’s musical and lyrical aesthetic.” NRR

The Band’s Response

When the rest of the band returned from a three-week tour, Brian presented them with a substantial portion of the album. The new direction caused friction with the band. Some of them considered it too arty, too much of a change from the formula that had brought them success – and they weren’t sure how they could perform the new material live. According to Al Jardine, Mike Love was “a formula hound – if it doesn’t have a hook in it…he doesn’t want to know about it.” WK Love told writer Tom Nolan it was “Brian Wilson’s ego-trip music.” JF-112 Asher has said Love was never critical of the album, he just though “it wasn’t right for the Beach Boys.” WK

The rest of the band did, however, eventually decide it was better to put the Beach Boys’ stamp on the record instead of it being a Brian Wilson solo effort. Brian sat down at the piano with each member individually to teach them their parts. WK April 13, 1966 marked the final vocal overdubbing session, capping a ten-month recording period that began with “Sloop John B” in July 1965. WK

The Cover and Album Title

Capitol’s working title for the album was Our Freaky Friends. The label arranged a cover shoot at the San Diego Zoo with goats representing the “freaky friends.” When the group started playing with the name Pet Sounds (based on nothing more than a few animal sounds on the record), Asher thought “it was a goofy name for an album – I thought it trivialized what we had accomplished.” WK Jardine initially thought “pet” was a reference to the slang term for making out. WK Love has said he came up with the title, but Carl believed it came from Brian as a reference to his collection of his “pet” sounds. WK

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”

This is “an up-tempo, impossibly sophisticated pop song” AD – a “little slice of perfection.” MF It “is a perfect choice to open Pet Sounds;” JF-41 it “defines The Beach Boys’ sound, with its bopping rhythm, bright melodies…layered harmonies” CS and “radiant choruses” GS “teeming with rich instrumentation -- saxophones, bicycle bells, tympanis, violins, accordions and French horns.” SP “Brian is showing a bit of his humor as well as his awareness of the impact of a clever, sophisticated arrangement.” JF-41 Jerry Cole’s twelve-string guitar that kicks off the song “sounds like…a child’s toy, making a statement of innocence, of unbridled happiness.” JF-41

Reviewer Jim Esch says the song suggests the album’s overriding theme: “fragile lovers buckling under the pressure of external forces they can’t control, self-imposed romantic expectations and personal limitations, while simultaneously trying to maintain faith in one another.” WK The lyrics intelligently convey the challenge of being young and in love, but naively believing that life would be simplier as married, grown-ups.: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long / And wouldn’t it be nice to live together / In the kind of world where we belong.”

“It’s a fantasy…supported by” AD “a stupendous vocal blend from Wilson, brother Dennis and Mike Love.” SP “The group’s voices are superb, as is the backing band. This...is why musicians in L.A. were canceling other recording gigs to get in the studio with Brian.” JF-42

“You Still Believe in Me”

Pet Sounds’ astonishing power comes from its less familiar songs” CDU such as non-hits, but “equally worthy” cuts like “You Still Believe in Me.” RUAs the album’s second song, it signals that “Pet Sounds will not be a collection of standard Beach Boys’ fare.” JF-83 It features “complex upward progressions,” CDU “Brian’s lovely harpsichord playing” RS and “double lead vocals from Brian (on the mono version of the album at least) and [it] showcases his heartbreaking falsetto very well.” AD “The overall feel is akin to an image of a boy and his bike lost…on a lonely stretch of road.” JF-83

It “was reworked from an earlier song called ‘In My Childhood.’” AD The song is about Brian’s new, young wife who said “He knew that he was not a good husband and that I was lonely…There wasn’t much of a relationship. The only way we related was musically.” JF-82 He believed, however, that Marilyn would always forgive him. That was, in his mind, the definition of love. JF-82

“That’s Not Me”

This song is “fairly straightforward: the narrator left town to go after his dream didn’t like life in the big city, came home.” JF-52 He decided it was more important “to be loved by one girl than the whole world.” JF-52 One “can make too much (or maybe not) out of the fact that Brian sings the song’s two most revealing lines – ‘You needed my love…’ and ‘I’m glad that I went’ [while] Mike sings the rest of the song." JF-53

This is “a simple song on the face of it that is transformed purely by the playing and production.” AD “The harmonic structure…is deceptive, and the arrangement is unlike anything in the Beach Boys’ canon to that date.” JF-55 It features Brian on organ, Carl on guitar, Glen Campbell on twelve-string, “at least one electric bass…and several unidentified percussionists…but there are no horns, no strings.” JF-56 “It’s an avant-garde piece of pop music…almost a subversive performance.” JF-56

“Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”

Lyrically, this song “directly links to Brian’s early ballads;” JF-25 he is with his love, who is pulling away and he can’t make it right. JF-25 “It’s what you say when you know it’s the last time you’ll hold her.” JF-27 Musically, it is “an awesome love hymn…a ‘religious love song’ [that is] a love song with almost religious notes.” GS

“Brian’s wrenching, melting butter falsetto” RS “soars and quivers,” JF-26 revealing a faint strain of desperation in [his] voice.” JF-26 “The bass line by Carol Kaye emulates a beating heart, and a string section rises up to simulate tears swelling in the lovers’ eyes.” JF-26

“I’m Waiting for the Day”

This was one of the album’s two songs Brian didn’t write with Asher (the other was “I Know There’s an Answer”). This one dates back to 1964 and was co-written by Mike Love. JF-89 In both songs “the musical arrangement and performance are superior to the lyrics and vocals.” JF-91

With its “shifting moods and devious instrumentation,” CDU this “is a fast-paced song of longing.” CS “A man proclaims his willingness to come to the emotional rescue of a young girl who’s been cast aside.” JF-90 Brian sings “in a harsher tone, ‘I know you cried, and you felt blue / But when I could, I gave strength to you / I’m waiting for the day when you can love again.’” CS It fits well with the “na├»ve perspective that pervades Pet Sounds.” JF-90

“Let’s Go Away for Awhile”

On the the album’s first of two instrumentals, Brian “exhibits a remarkable flair for arrangement.” SP “It’s a wistful tune” with “pounding drums” and “up to a dozen violins surging against the horns and oboe [which] sound as if they’re substituting for the vocal haromoniess with Brian and Bruce on top.” JF-64 It “has a melody that could easily accommodate lyrics, but it doesn’t require words to convey its message,” JF-64 which is “a sense of contentment.” JF-64

“Sloop John B”

Bandmate Al Jardine brought the traditional Caribbean folk song to Brian, who radically rearranged it. JF-17 It was recorded in July 1965, JF-15 some ten months before the release of Pet Sounds. It wasn’t intended for the album, RU but in following industry practice at the time, it was included since hit singles drove album sales. JF-16

The song “set the standard for the use of harmonies in rock & roll.” MF It “features exciting piano, rock rhythms and impossibly simple sounding yet complicated melodies” AD alongside “thickly interwoven vocals.” CDU The “chiming guitars, Lyle Fitz doubling Kaye on bass, [and] the staccato rhythm under the last verse” JF fit musically with the album, but “disrupts the thematic flow.” JF As “the album’s only cover,” SP this “sea chantey with its orgins in the Bahamas” JF-16 is “anything but a reflective love song, a stark confession or a tentative statement of indendence like the other songs on the album.”JF-16-7

“God Only Knows”

“God Only Knows” confirms what the listener suspects about the album thus far: “that Pet Sounds is extraordinary.” JF-99 This is “one of the most beautiful songs ever, of any genre;” MF it is “transcendent” and “awe-inspiring.” JF-99 Wild said it was “where rock and roll becomes a religious experience.” CA According to Love, Paul McCartney called it “the perfect song.” CA

Both it and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” “reflect an innocent time of yearning post-adolescence” CDU as they “teeter on the edge between adolescent euphoria and adult lament.” TL “The lines, ‘If you should ever leave me / Though life would still go on believe me / The world could show nothing to me / So what good would living do me / God only knows what I’d be without you’ were the most magnificent lyrics Wilson and Asher would ever compose.” CS

Brian thought his brother Carl would do better at singing the “loving, introspective lyric” JF-103 so Carl took on lead vocal duties – only his second time doing so on a Beach Boys’ record. AD Of course, Carl is still backed by what Charles Granata described as “the most thrilling Beach Boys harmonies on record.” JF-103

“I Know There’s an Answer”

Brian wrote a song called “Hang on to Your Ego” which didn’t make the final cut for Pet Sounds, but has been added to CD reissues. He wrote it with Terry Sachen, who became the group’s road manager. JF-89 Mike Love objected to the drug references and influence of the song and rewrote it as “I Know There’s an Answer,” “a critique of LSD users” WK and a song about finding yourself. JF-89

“The new lyrics are slightly clumsy, slightly corny” AD and “seem an oddity when compared with the elegance and empathy of the rest” of the album. JF-90 “Fortunately the musical backing is one of the most exotic on the entire record, full of strange noises and held together by wonderfully melodic bass-playing.” AD

“Here Today”:

Brian “creates a mood that perfectly captures the rush of infatuation, with a driving beat and vertical-sounding melody. But lyrically it’s a song that says, ‘Don’t bother. You’re just going to get dumped.’” EK This song, as well as “That’s Not Me,” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” “express the disenchantment, doubt and pessimism The Beach Boys never had the courage to sing about before.” CS

However, the arrangement also foreshadows “Good Vibrations,” which was recorded during the sessions for Pet Sounds. JF-65 Both songs open with Ray Pohlman’s tremelo electric bass and Larry Knetchel’s staccato organ behind the vocal. JF-66 The two songs also share “disparate sections held together by Brian’s arrangement [and] …overarching vocals.” JF-66

Overall, “it’s an interesting song – and not a safe choice” which “lacks the cohesion so gloriously possessed by many of the album’s other tracks.” JF-67

“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”

This song and “Waiting for the Day” “are further testaments to Wilson’s tortured genius.” CDU This “autobiographical statement on social alienation” WK is a “confessional ballad” SP that expresses “disenchantment with just about everything, rendered politely of course, in a low-key manner.” RS In quoting a few of the song’s lines, Jim Fusilli describes the song as “The Catcher in the Rye in one verse and one chorus.” JF-71 It “provided what was to become Wilson’s defining lyric: ‘Sometimes I feel very sad.’” TL

On the surface it didn’t make sense that Brian was such a tortured soul. “He was married to a lovely, dedicated young woman; he was the leader of the most popular American musical group; he could ask virtually any musician in L.A. to record his music and they would willingly do so…People loved him…He had friends and caring associates…Brian even had two dogs. But he didn’t see it. He was lost in turmoil.” JF-71

The song also marked the first use of a theremin-like instrument on a rock record. WK This electronic musical instrument is controlled by two antennas that sense the user’s hands and, without the user touching the instrument, regulate frequency and volume. The result is an avant-garde, eerie music.

“Pet Sounds”

The “ridiculously joyously silly” AD title track is a “brassy…blaring” JF-64 and “bizarre, richly crafted orchestral instrumental.” JA It is a “curious, historic relic” GP which is “overly busy and lacks a focus” but “the inventiveness of the arrangement makes it worthy.” JF-65 It was “pretty daring and mind-blowing for the time: the weird time signatures and time changes, the zillions of different instruments used, the ‘heavenly mood’…was perfect ‘ambient music’ for 1966, and with not a single Brian Eno in sight.” GS

Originally titled “Run James Run,” Brian wanted to give the song to the producers of the James Bond films, but decided to put it on the album when he realized he wasn’t going to get it to the “James Bond people.” JF-65

“Caroline, No”

Technically, this was released as a solo song by Brian prior to the album. Asher originally wrote the line “Oh Carol, I know” as a reference to an ex-girlfriend, but Brian like the sound of “Caroline, No.” JF-109 The resulting song became a testimony in which he’s asked multiple questions to which the answer is always “no.” JF-110 “Could I ever find in you again / Things that made me love you so much then / Could we ever bring ‘em back once they have gone / Oh, Caroline no.” This is “three minutes of heartbreaking pathos, a haunting ballad” RS that “deals with the loss of innocence and fading beauty with utter poignancy.” CS This and “God Only Knows” are “undeniably some of the more beautiful songs of the rock era.” MF

Writer Nik Cohn called Pet Sounds a collection of “sad songs about happiness.” JF-107 One could consider “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Here Today” “happy songs about sadness,” JF-107 but “there’s not a trace of happiness in “Caroline, No.” Brian sings from the perspective of a boy wondering if he and his love will ever resume their relationship. JF-108 Brian’s father, Murry, convinced Capitol to speed up the recording so that Brian’s voice sounded higher and more boyish. JF-105

Commercial Reception

Capitol Records wasn’t sure how to promote the album in the United States, “largely because it broke from the unadulterated chirpiness of the Beach Boys’ early work.” TL It “was a relatively low seller compared to their previous LPs” RU and “the label rush-released a best-of to shore up the band’s career.” BL

However, the album spent six months in the top 10 in the UK. WK “The Rolling Stones took out an ad in the British music papers urging everybody to buy it” SS and The Who’s Keith Moon promoted the album as well. JF-111 “The Beatles adored it” SS – “John Lennon and Paul McCartney…were both inspired to expand their songwriting and recording skills.” AD McCartney has said it is his favorite album. NRR The Beatles’ producer George Martin said, “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened.” JF-110

Influence on Rock Music

Pet Sounds did more than just influence the Beatles, though. It was “the precursor to the rock album as an art form.” SP “The complex, underlying track that cements each song provides plenty of opportunity to hear things you don’t normally hear on a rock album.” JC Pet Sounds marked “the first time a group departed from the usual small-ensemble electric rock band format for a whole LP.” WK In regards to the detailed orchestral influence of the album, arranger Paul Pertens said, it “is not that Brian was trying to introduce classical music into rock & roll. Rather, he was trying to get classical musicians to play like rock musicians.” WK

Composer/journalist Frank Oteri called the album “a clear precedent” to album-oriented rock and progressive rock. WK Author Bill Martin saw the Beach Boys and Beatles as transforming rock from dance music into a genre for listening to. WK The album also introduced elements of psychedelic music, thanks to the eclectic mix of instruments and Brian’s experimentation with LSD. WK

“At his core, Brian Wilson is a sad pop geek. He wasn’t cool like Dylan or cynical like Lennon or priapic like Jagger. Luckily for him, most music critics are sad pop geeks, too. He couldn’t have fully realized it at the time, but he made a record just for them.” EK


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