is educated musically until they've heard Pet
Sounds...It is a total classic record that is
unbeatable in many ways."—Paul
1966, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds.
The brainchild of Brian Wilson, the album set the
recording world on fire. Instead of merely a singles
collection which most albums were up until that
point, Pet Sounds was a complete album—it
had a consistent tone and feel throughout. With
the release last November of the four-disc The
Beach Boys: The Pet Sound Sessions, it is again
in the spotlight. Howard Kramer, assistant curator
at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, explores The
Pet Sound Sessions and its documentation
of one of the great rock albums ever.
Duke Ellington was in the first half decade of his
recording career, he was technologically limited.
The 78 RPM records of the day restricted his works
to a maximum of four minutes. When record companies
began putting together collections of 78s—albums—it
was only then that he could branch out and show
the depth of his work. Brian Wilson faced a somewhat
similar situation more than thirty years later.
1965 the 33 1/3 LP was commonplace but it served
no greater purpose than as an additional marketing
tool for acts that had already scored a few hit
singles. Though Capitol Records was riding high
with both the Beatles and the Beach Boys on their
roster, they pushed Brian and the boys to keep pumping
out catchy little surf tunes. But Brian Wilson had
a different idea. He saw the LP as an opportunity
to expand his musical vocabulary. He knew that he
had more to offer than just listing all the surfing
spots from coast to coast.
the Beach Boys and the Beatles there had always
existed a rivalry. The Beach Boys were the first
American act of the 60s to have a sustaining impact
on the UK. And the Beatles... well, you could say
they did OK on these shores. They had both put out
records on small labels before signing to Capitol.
They both were pop stars and teen idols. The two
bands went toe-to-toe on the charts and in the popularity
polls but always maintained a mutual respect. They
came from similar Chuck Berry/Everly Brothers stock
and saw that in one another.
the Beach Boys had wrested a great degree of creative
control from Capitol, it wasn't until the Beatles
released Rubber Soul that Brian Wilson
felt as if the gauntlet had been thrown down. Here
was a record, by a self-contained band, that spoke
in one cohesive voice. It wasn't a congruous story,
but a unified feel. There was true emotion in those
grooves; hearts betrayed, love found, adultery,
spiritual longing and loneliness. It took chances
and broke ground. I mean, who the hell had ever
heard of a sitar let alone used one on a pop record
and foremost, Brian Wilson was a lover of music.
If you cut him he'd probably bleed quarter notes.
No matter the rivalry and the threat to the Beach
Boys' position, Brian loved the Beatles. Musically
speaking they were the complete package. They could
write, sing and play. The Beach Boys may have had
pipes like no others, but as a band their talents
could not keep pace with Brian's growth as a composer.
was probably no small amount of envy for the Beatles'
poise either. Where John, Paul, George and Ringo
seemed to not only relish, but flourish, in the
spotlight, Brian was withered by it. At age 22 Brian
suffered a nervous breakdown. By 1964 he had tired
of the touring grind and looked to find sanctity
in the studio. Two years later the Beatles would
also hang up their stage clothes for good.
Beach Boys as a band were almost like a subsidiary
to Brian's role as writer and producer. This is
not to say that the other bandmembers didn't contribute.
Mike Love teamed with Brian to pen many great songs.
Nonetheless, without the distraction of touring
he could stay home and stoke the creative fires
while the band would tour relentlessly. They would
return to L.A. to find the tracks completed and
vocal arrangements ready. And as only blood can
do, the harmonies would flow and lock in like few
the tide of the British Invasion rising and their
chart positions not what they once were, the Beach
Boys delivered a record that could be considered
a throwaway. The 1965 release Beach Boys Party
was a casual affair featuring the band at its most
relaxed and knocking out some of their favorite
songs by other artists. This session produced the
chartbuster "Barbara Ann," originally
done by the Regents, and three Lennon/McCartney
tunes. Having made amends with the label by delivering
the commercial goods, Brian set out to please himself.
he was still fragile. It was in music that Brian
found solace. He felt capable of reaching a deeper
point within himself and delivering music that spoke
in its own spiritual voice. It wasn't necessarily
God that he was looking for but a sense of peace
that can only come through achieving one's vision.
The vision he had was fueled by a flood of emotions.
It came from his own disappointing childhood. It
was to be a release from his yoke as the one everybody
sought out. It would at once resolve and inflame
the tensions within the Beach Boys. It would, irrefutably,
be a statement that Brian Wilson picked up the Beatles'
gauntlet and ran farther than anyone could imagine.
This vision would be called Pet Sounds.
that the powers that be have finally given consent
to its unabridged release, we can hear in candid
detail what was at work. The thirteen tracks are
presented in the original mono form, a new true
stereo mix, broken down into sessions, a collection
of just vocals, and alternate versions. The requisite
additional tracks were previously included on the
initial CD release of Pet Sounds and
on the Beach Boys Thirty Years of Rock and Roll
to a loss of hearing, and an affection for the work
of Phil Spector, Brian preferred to work in mono
at a time when stereo recording technology was advancing
rapidly. The depth of these recordings, however,
can't be measured by the number of channels used
in the final mix. Pet Sounds has always
been about the songs, and in this collection we
see how the individual parts equal the beauty of
their sum. The Sessions found on Disc 1 and 2 allow
us to stand in the studio, on both sides of the
glass. You're next to Brian at the talk-back mic
and on the drum stool at the same time. There has
never been a less self-conscious collection of recordings
released. Perhaps it's the inherent intimacy of
the work that gives it the strength to stand up
to such a microscopic viewing.
you hit track 14 of Disc 1 (The Sessions - Part
1) the band of studio pros are happily screwing
around. Over the strict tempo of drummer Hal Blaine,
a gaggle of guitars and basses are trading licks
and loosening up. Brian calls out the track and
the musicians start to take their cues. Back before
rock 'n' roll all session players were given charts
for their specific part and just played along. Brian
may have blocked out some chord changes in writing
but the rest of the arrangement came straight from
his head. He asks for the flutes and when they hit
the notes he hears in his head, he emphatically
tells them, "Right there, don't move, don't
move." As "Sloop John B" begins it
becomes obvious that this old folk song will never
be the same. The sweet guitars and fluid bass dance
while a second bass guitar steps in with a firm
walking figure. Layer by layer it builds. Even without
the vocal lines it exhibits a discrete melody. While
it never abandons a seafaring feel it moves into
the romantic realm of the Ronettes' "Be My
Baby." Tart and wistfully, it shifts into double-time
and plays out. As you anticipate the fade you've
heard for years, the tune is interrupted by Brian
calling the end of the take. You're left wanting
throughout this collection delivers. Song after
great song seem to define the time frame they were
recorded in yet transcend into otherworldliness.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the eight
different versions of "God Only Knows."
In most cases eight versions of any song would be
overkill. "God Only Knows," however, ain't
just any old tune.
the finest song ever written by Brian Wilson (with
Tony Asher, co-author of eight tunes on Pet Sounds)
"God Only Knows" is a love song, a tale
of wanting, a prayer for acceptance and a declaration
of independence—pretty much the whole of Pet
Sounds in microcosm. On the Sessions
version the track is heard from first try to final
take. The recording session began after midnight,
and while the players are the finest of professionals,
it's overhearing their mild horseplay contrasted
with Brian's focused concentration that brings this
segment alive. After directing the keyboard players
through a particular passage, pianist Don Randi
inverts the figure to reveal the hook from the Rolling
Stones' "Satisfaction." Alan Robinson,
on French horn, cracks up the session crew by goofing
on his own mistake. Brian promptly calls them back
to order with a sharp rapping on the control desk.
His sense of urgency is palpable.
it all comes together on Take 20 the result is stunning.
Majestic horns and delicate keyboards merge with
mournful strings on a bed of sleighbells and woodblocks.
Fat bass shoulders the rhythm. A descending staccato
makes an unlikely, yet perfect, bridge. Recalling
traditional pop music forms, the song coasts sweetly.
It couldn't be more obvious where the Beatles copped
much of the "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny
Lane" single. Larry Knechtel's organ fills
offer a splash of psychedelia and the strings moan
deeply. On top, a sanguine French horn calls like
Gabriel. Like a waterfall, this could go on forever
and never lose its grace. Abruptly, Brian Wilson
thanks the musicians for the take and asks them
if they want to hear the playback. He got what he
wanted. Next comes the singing.
3 starts with an offering entitled "Stack-O-Vocals."
As the title implies, it is a compilation of Pet
Sounds final vocal takes. (Only during
extended instrumental passages is the remainder
of the track heard. When the singing resumes the
instruments drop down again.) Once more it is the
incredible intimacy that radiates. The backing tracks
seep through the headphones as a first breath is
taken. Feet shuffle on the studio floor. Shoulder
to shoulder the Beach Boys stand and deliver. This
is where Carl, Dennis, Mike, Alan and Bruce make
had decided to handle the lion's share of lead vocals
on these songs. As usual Mike Love had a few leads
and traded with Brian on others. But as the cutting
of "God Only Knows" progressed, Brian
felt the song would be better delivered by his brother
Carl. And in his hands the song moves into the angelic
expanse promised by the backing track.
distinctly Wilson, Carl's boyish baritone hesitantly
puts forth the idea that "I may not always
love you." The trace of insecurity moves into
confidence. Reassurances are given and promise replaces
perplexity. In taking the Lord's name, our protagonist
declares his mortal frailty and human needs. This
is bloody Romeo and Juliet. A teenage tale of unmatchable
love for the California set. All the while Carl's
cherubic innocence beams. The group moves into a
wordless vocal passage blending doo-wop, madrigal
and barbershop modes. The second verse repeats and
Carl heads into the coda. Repeating the title over
and over the group builds into a round. A ROUND!
And this ain't no "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"
either. It's a scaling, multi-layered crescendo
of perfectly blending voices ascending to a much
desired spiritual place. On several occasions Brian
and Carl led prayers during the recording of Pet
Sounds. Their prayers were not only answered
the alternate versions are ideas that sometimes
make you wonder why they didn't make the final cut.
The a capella tag rendition of "God Only Knows"
adds a compelling vocal hook that'll have you singing
along at full volume in no time. A sax solo replaces
the vocal bridge on yet another take. In comparing
Brian's lead vocal stab versus Carl's you can understand
why he gave this over to his younger brother. Not
that his goes for lacking, but Carl's voice is just
that much younger, that much less worldly. It has
just enough teenager to make it believable. By the
way, it should be noted that "God Only Knows"
only has two verses.
focusing on "God Only Knows" and "Sloop
John B" it may seem I'm giving short shrift
to the other tunes. It's just not possible. There
is not a thorn on this rosebush.
It Be Nice," still a mainstay on oldies radio,
is unmatchable in its wishful optimism. No wonder
it keeps showing up on TV and movie soundtracks.
I can only hope you've at least once lived the intimate
pleas heard in "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On
My Shoulder)." Mike Love has never been particularly
noted for his hand at subtlety, but in "That's
Not Me" his usual braggadocio is put on the
backburner. In keeping with the spirit of Pet
Sounds, he relates Tony Asher's words
with uncharacteristic humility.
ultimate theme song for misfits, "I Just Wasn't
Made For These Times," is clearly the most
personal song on the record. It was no secret that
Brian himself was a square peg. Here he employs
misfit instruments (misfit in the realm of rock
'n' roll at least) like harpsichord, bass harmonica
and theremin to tell of his own alienation.
the instrumental piece "Let's Go Away For A
While" a sophisticated flair for arranging
is showcased. Clearly in debt to Burt Bacharach,
Brian paints yet another perfect picture of the
single of "Caroline, No" preceded the
release of Pet Sounds by two months.
More importantly it carried only the name of Brian
Wilson, not the Beach Boys. This first "solo"
record would appear as the closing track on Pet
Sounds. The dismay expressed in the lyric
clues you in to the end of innocence. Read the words
of this one after "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
Sounds was not a huge hit. It lingered
on the charts for almost nine months and spawned
four hits. Not bad, but not important. Obviously
the significance of Pet Sounds cannot
be measured in numbers. (Can you imagine a need/demand
for a multi-CD box set for Beach Boys Party?)
There will always be the "Sgt. Pepper-was-inspired-by..."
thing and how everybody of a certain age will wax
romantic about how Pet Sounds changed
their lives. I can't argue either point nor should
I. What remains is a fact that time and the current
state of the Beach Boys have both obscured. That
fact is that at one time the Beach Boys were not
only popular but respected. Listening to Pet
Sounds will not only tell you why they
were kings, but it may allow you to forgive them
for what became of the kingdom.