Alone in the Crowd
The Pet Sounds Sessions
By Howard Kramer

From Gadfly April 1998


"Nobody is educated musically until they've heard Pet Sounds...It is a total classic record that is unbeatable in many ways."—Paul McCartney

In 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.

When 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.

By 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.

Between 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.

Although 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 in 1965?

First 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.

There 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.

The 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 others could.

With 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.

Emotionally 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.

Now 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 box set.

Due 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.

When 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 more.

All 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.

Arguably 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.

When 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.

Disc 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 their mark.

Brian 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.

Sounding 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 but delivered.

Within 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.

In 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.

"Wouldn't 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.

The 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.

On 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 California Dream.

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."

Pet 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.