THE BEACH BOYS: Pet Sounds (Capitol, 1966)
- Wouldn’t It Be Nice
- You Still Believe in Me
- That’s Not Me
- Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
- I’m Waiting for the Day
- Let’s Go Away for Awhile
- 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
I am not a Beach Boys fan.
I feel I should say that up front. It’s not that I dislike the group. I just can’t relate to them. Songs about sun and surf, hot rods, and girls on the beach just don’t ring true with this Midwestern landlubber. I didn’t hate the music. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. But The Beach Boys had legions of fans, close to and far away from the nearest bodies of water. Power to them.
One evening a few years back, I was watching a movie. Toward the end, an absolutely beautiful song started playing. It was one of the most gorgeous pop songs I had ever heard. The melody, the harmony, the lyrics, the arrangement … everything was positively brilliant. From the opening strain of the lyrics, “I may not always love you / But long as there are stars above you / You never need to doubt it / I’ll make you so sure about it / God only knows what I’d be without you …” I was hooked. The movie was still playing out, but all I could hear were the words to this amazing song. They actually moved me to tears. The end credits told me the song was called “God Only Knows,” and it was performed by The Beach Boys.
It took a few minutes to get past the shock.
How did I not know about this song? Further research revealed the song came from an album called Pet Sounds, which was released in 1966. Now that I album I had heard of, albeit indirectly. Back in the late ’80s, when I was an avid reader of Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip, one of the characters (who was dying from cancer) was listening to “God Only Knows.” Among his dying words were, “Brain Wilson is God …” to which his doctor said to the people at the character’s bedside, “He must have gotten the Pet Sounds CD.” I don’t know why I remembered that. But I did.
Before I knew it, I was of to the record store. I confided my ignorance about this album to a friend, who appeared shocked. “Seriously? How could you not know about that album? You’re a Beatle-maniac!” I failed to see the connection. “Dude, those two influenced each other,” my friend told me. “Rubber Soul influenced Pet Sounds, which influenced Sgt. Pepper!”
Wow. I had really missed the boat on this one.
And so, Pet Sounds found its way home with me. What I heard after pushing “play” was one of the most beautiful albums in my collection.
There is an avalanche of information available about this album and how it came to be. I don’t see the point in regurgitating it here. What matters most is that the album’s foundation lay in the genius of Brian Wilson, whose mental health issues forced him off the road and into the studio full-time. While the rest of the group sang about surf and sun, Wilson dug deeper into his psyche, pulling out unbelievable gems of songcraft with the aid of The Wrecking Crew, a legendary group of California studio musicians. (There is a brilliant documentary about this group available for streaming. I highly recommend it.)
Wilson also made brilliant use of animal noises and sound effects, assembling a recording unlike anything available or even conceived of at the time. Studio musicians often have a “been there, done that” attitude toward the music they’re hired to play. But even they were blown away by what was happening. By the time the rest of the group came off the road to add their voices, an otherworldly album had been created.
The 13 songs on Pet Sounds are full of hope, despair, introspection, and longing, starting with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,’ a song I was familiar with, but had largely discarded because of who sang it. But in context with the rest of the album, it was positively unbelievable! I have often said to the unfamiliar that everything you want to know about how to write a pop song can be found on this album. Melody, harmony, lyrics, arrangements, chord changes, exotic sounds … it’s all here. The album was originally released in mono, but the CD re-issue included to stereo remix, which is what I prefer. The separation of sounds only adds to the sheer sonic brilliance.
There is even a wonderful instrumental, called “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.” I was floored by its lush sound, which comes from the ground (bass and drums) up. I simply could not believe that a song so beautiful could come from a non-jazz or classical artist. But there it was, in all its glory.
The album only got stronger as it went along. “Sloop John B,” the closest the album came to a typical Beach Boys song, did so in subject matter only. The rest of the song is awash in gorgeous bass lines, well-placed percussion, and — of course — the group’s trademark harmonies. If not for the track that follows, it could well be my favorite on the album. But that distinction goes to said track, “God Only Knows.”
I can only imagine the number of superlatives poured upon this song over its 50-plus years in existence. Like every other song on the album, the arrangements, lyrics, and backing vocals are exactly what they should be. It is impossible to imagine this song being played any other way. The perfect song should trigger some kind of emotional reaction. Well, I say to you openly and honestly that “God Only Knows” makes me cry nearly every time I hear it. It’s that damned beautiful. I have no problem declaring it my favorite song of all time.
I have a gift for falling in love with records that don’t exactly burn up the popular music charts. So it did not surprise me in the least to learn that Pet Sounds was not extremely well received upon its initial issue. It peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts in America. The critics didn’t quite know how to handle it. Their response was, shall we say, less than totally enthusiastic. Needless to say, there has been more than a little revisionist thinking toward this album, which is now hailed as one of the most influential works in the history of music. As it should be!
While working on it, Brian Wilson told people he wanted to make the greatest record of all time, containing absolutely no filler. I have no trouble saying he succeeded. There are no bad songs on Pet Sounds. I can’t not play the entire thing when it comes off my shelf. I don’t want to miss out on anything! After all, there’s an above average chance I will hear something new. Any time I get despondent over the state of music, I come back to this album. It is a work of sheer genius. No … it’s perfect.
And to this day, I’m still not a Beach Boys fan. What does that say about this album?
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