‘Pet Sounds’: The Beach Boys’ Masterpiece

HAVING BOUGHT TIME (and handed Capitol a purely incidental hit album) with The Beach Boys’ Party! , Brian Wilson now turned his full attention to his new project. Inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP (released in December 1965), which he considered to be “full of all good stuff, no filler”, he told wife Marilyn: “I’m gonna make the best rock album in the world”… and, in the view of many expert critics, he succeeded. 

In three Nineties UK polls, Pet Sounds emerged at or near the top of the pile each time — and these are critics’ polls, the considered opinions of professional rock journalists, and not merely a reflection of the flavour of the month. An artistic validation 30 years too late, true, but very welcome all the same. 

Wilson’s compositional style for Pet Sounds bordered on the impressionistic; rather than writing a complete melody, he instead sketched out what he called “feels… specific rhythm patterns, fragments of ideas”. 

The melody and lyric would come later, inspired directly by the mood of the “feels”. As a writing method, it was luxurious, organic…and time consuming, to the extent that, when Capitol reminded Wilson that a “proper” LP was again overdue, just one song had been completed (’Sloop John B’) and one basic track recorded (’In My Childhood’ — which he decided he hated). 

Gripped by a mild panic, and with the band away on tour, Wilson recalled a chance acquaintance, advertising jingle writer Tony Asher, whom he asked to help out with lyrics. Asher immediately agreed, but soon found out that collaborating with Wilson (whose chemical experimentation was escalating) was a distinct chore outside the strictly musical arena, and in later years offered the famous quote that Brian Wilson was “a genius musician, but an amateur human being”.

The Beach Boys, largely absent on tour while their resident Svengali was creating, offered a more considered, if fragmented, critical opinion. Dennis and Carl Wilson loved the new music; Al Jardine decided “it sure doesn’t sound like the old stuff”; and Mike Love was memorably forthright — “don’t fuck with the formula”; (Bruce Johnston also loved the music, but as a wage slave like Jardine — rather than a voting member of the corporation — he had no real clout in such matters). 

Love’s disapproval also concerned certain lyrical themes, which Wilson, ever diplomatic, duly ensured were revised. In other matters, however, Wilson was totally intransigent, and this benign dictatorship resulted in Pet Sounds being, essentially, a Brian Wilson solo album with guest vocalists. 

The rest of the band barely contributed instrumentally, and there is strong documentary evidence that, after group vocal sessions, Wilson would return alone to the studio and re-record them his way; which is not to imply that vocals by his colleagues were in any way substandard, but rather was an example of his increasingly perfectionist nature — something that session musicians were already well aware of. 

As was his habit, Wilson spent much longer in the studio than Capitol deemed fit, with the result that, apart from the previously released ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Caroline, No’, all of Pet Sounds’ complex backing tracks and vocals were mixed in a single nine-hour session (which probably explains the chatter heard on some tracks). 

Pet Sounds has been called an early concept album; while all the main participants repeatedly deny this, it is not difficult to discern a uniting theme — of hopes and aspirations dashed, of a search for love doomed to failure — and even, some claim, by judicious reprogramming of the CD track order, to produce a coherent storyline tracing the rise and fall of a relationship… and certainly the pervading air of Pet Sounds is one of gentle melancholy. Perhaps that’s why, even though it included three US Top 40 hits, Pet Sounds sold significantly fewer copies than any Beach Boys LP since Surfin’ Safari and only just made the US Top 10, although it was a major commercial success in Britain, where it became their first Top 10 LP and their first to spend over six months in the chart. 

Artistically, however, it was a different story: the music business understood that something very special indeed was happening in southern California, and Wilson suddenly found himself at the vanguard of the nascent pop revolution, regarded as an innovator, a man with something to say of whom much was expected. 

Fortunately, the next step was already well in hand: during the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson had also taken a couple of stabs at another title — ‘Good Vibrations’. 

It had been the intention of Capitol Records to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds with a revolutionary four CD box set comprising a remastered mono version (using HD/CD technology), session material as per the fifth CD of the Good Vibrations box set (including the first ever ‘Good Vibrations’ session), the instrumental and vocal tracks in isolation (and stereo!) and, at long last, the first true stereo mix of the complete album. This was lovingly and excellently constructed by Mark Linnett, using the original instrumental four-track and vocal eighttrack session tapes. 

Synchronisation was possible because once he was satisfied with the instrumental backing, Wilson had mixed it down to mono on one of the eight tracks on the eight-track tape, leaving seven tracks for vocals. Linnett thus was able to work with what were effectively 11 tracks for each song once he had synchronised the start of the instrumental four track with the mixed-down mono on one of the eight tracks on the eight-track tape, leaving seven tracks for vocals. Linnett thus was able to work with what were effectively 11 tracks for each song once he had synchronised the start of the instrumental four track with the mixed-down mono instrumental track. 

Well, that’s how it has been explained. The results were stunning, opening up new windows on each song, and the deconstructed vocal and instrumental versions not only allowed intimate study of Brian Wilson’s working methods (as did the session tapes, which were also in stereo), but also confirmed that the majority of the vocals on the album were (as had long been rumoured) by Brian Wilson. 

Whether or not this rankled with the rest of the group is not known, but the fact is that the box had been approved by Wilson and scheduled for a May 1996 release but was postponed several times; once because the band wanted the booklet(s) revised, and on another occasion because they (allegedly) demanded the stereo mix be done again. 

The Pet Sounds Sessions box set was eventually released in late 1997, to huge critical acclaim. In 1999, and again in 2001, the album was reissued in a single CD format that comprised both the mono and stereo mixes, and yet again in 2003 in a DVD-A format, comprising the following versions: advanced resolution surround sound, advanced resolution stereo, advanced resolution mono, DTS 5.1 surround sound and DVD-video compatible Dolby digital 5.1. 

The package also included video footage from the Sessions EPK, and a stereo remix of ‘Summer Means New Love’. Not bad for an album conceived and originally released in mono. 

(NB: Where Mike Love’s composer credit is followed by *, these songs were decreed by a 1994 Los Angeles court decision to have been co-written by him, although he was never previously credited as such; the bonus tracks included on Capitol’s 1990 CD reissue programme are noted by +.)

Wouldn’t It Be Nice (B. Wilson/Asher/Love*) 

Recorded at LA’s Gold Star Studios (where many of Phil Spector’s masterpieces were created), this classic US Top 10 hit’s lilting guitar intro and explosive drum shot usher in a bittersweet tale of longings as yet unfulfilled, hopes tempered by reality. An accordion-driven track of impressive complexity overlaid with Brian Wilson’s keen lead and Love’s wonderfully mellow middle-eight vocal, cushioned by sumptuous group harmonies, the lyrical hints at immorality in the first two verses are allayed by the matrimonial hopes of the bridge. 

A 24-carat masterpiece, this was carelessly released in Britain as the flip side of the Top Three ‘God Only Knows’ single; a classic case of losing an obvious hit through bad judgement — in the US, ‘God Only Knows’ was the flip side of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, but in Britain, ‘God Only Knows’ was the favoured track on pirate radio and thus became a smash hit. Included on the boxed set collectors CD in vocal split format, the vocals are even more stunning… and curiously, it’s Wilson and not Love singing the middle-eight (a point remedied on the second reissue of the mono/stereo single CD).

You Still Believe In Me (B. Wilson/Asher) 

The odd bicycle bell and horn interjections in this stately, almost hymn-like number are relics of the song’s original incarnation as ‘In My Childhood’, a number that Wilson abandoned, but which had been recorded in such a way that these extraneous sounds could not be erased when he decided to recycle the track…yet strangely, they still fit. His lead vocal is sweetness personified, and the chorus harmony blocks are truly angelic. The bell-like piano intro was achieved by plucking the strings of the instrument, which apparently required extensive practice! 

That’s Not Me (B. Wilson/Asher) 

The eccentric drum patterns underpinning this track heighten the sense of uncertainty evident in the lyric, while a melodic bass line weaves in and around Love’s questioning vocal and Wilson’s plaintive counter. As spellbinding, in the view of some commentators, as the two previous tracks. 

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (B. Wilson/Asher) 

The last track recorded for the album, and a solo vocal performance from Wilson, this languid confection is one of his most romantic compositions and, according to some critics, exudes almost overwhelming emotion. 

I’m Waiting For The Day (B. Wilson/Love) 

An attention-grabbing timpani intro leads into a track of great contrasts, juxtaposing reflective passages with aggressive verses to great effect. Similarly, Wilson’s lead vocal swings from tender to strident as required. Originally copyrighted in 1964 and credited to Wilson alone, Love’s compositional contribution was apparently to amend eight words. 

Let’s Go Away For A While (B. Wilson) 

A year after the release of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson considered this wistfully atmospheric track to be “the most satisfying piece of music I’ve ever made”, a statement with which many Beach Boys fans and commentators would concur. Although presented as an instrumental, and long thought to have been conceived as such — even though lyrics were written by Asher — it emerged in 1995 that a session for vocals was scheduled, but — at Capitol’s insistence — was used instead to mix the album. The story goes that as part of a running joke then current, the song was semi-seriously called ‘Let’s Go Away For A While (And Then We’ll Have World Peace)’. 

Sloop John B. (Trad. arr. B. Wilson) 

Released as a single in March, 1966, and a Top Three hit on both sides of the Atlantic, this version of a traditional folk song (a 1960 UK hit for Lonnie Donegan as ‘I Wanna Go Home’) was recorded in late 1965 at Jardine’s instigation, although the arrangement is 100 per cent Brian Wilson. The sore thumb of the album in lyrical terms, it was long assumed that the song was included at Capitol’s insistence, as a recent hit; however, research has unearthed a mid-February track listing that Wilson handed to the company, on which the then-unreleased ‘Sloop John B’ is included. A totally compelling vocal performance, especially during the a cappella break. Love and Wilson share lead vocals. 

God Only Knows (B. Wilson/Asher) 

Possibly Carl Wilson’s crowning vocal achievement, this has been described by one noted Beach Boys historian as the most beautiful suicide song ever (presumably on the strength of the lines, “The world would show nothing to me, so what good would living do me?”). Be that as it may, Carl’s honeyed lead is matched by a shimmering backing track and a gorgeous rotating tag featuring Brian Wilson and Johnston. A US Top 40 hit as the B-side to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and a UK Top Three smash (see above), Brian reputedly had some misgivings about including the word “God” in the song title; Asher successfully talked him round. 

A major highlight of the 1993 Good Vibrations boxed set was a nine-minute session track, illustrating the importance of the studio musicians in developing the song, and culminating with a version featuring not only Brian’s original guide vocal but also an awesome and previously unheard vocal tag of immense complexity and beauty. Why this was consigned to the vaults remains a complete mystery. The Sessions box included a (wisely rejected) mix featuring a (lamentable) sax break during the middle-eight in place of the vocals we all know. Finally, Endless Harmony featured a very down-home rendition recorded live in the studio in 1967 for the unreleased Lei’d In Hawaii project. 

I Know There’s An Answer (B. Wilson/Asher/Sachen/Love*) 

Initially written and recorded as ‘Hang On To Your Ego’, this was the item that sent Love’s blood pressure soaring, and caused Brian Wilson to get road manager Terry Sachen to marginally revise the lyrics. The track is driven nicely by bass harmonica and banjo, and to many fans, the voice on the verse after Love’s first line sounds awfully like Jardine rather than Wilson. 

Here Today (B. Wilson/Asher) 

A cascading bass line into the chorus and the mid-song chatter highlight this forceful song, taken from an ex-boyfriend’s point of view. If the chords behind the verse sound familiar, they should — Brian Wilson recycled the progression in ‘Good Vibrations’. Love is spot on as usual. The instrumental track was recorded at Sunset Sound. 

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (B. Wilson/Asher) 

A less-than-subtle cri de coeur from Brian Wilson, this near-solo performance boasts what may be the first ever use on a rock song of a theremin (a strange instrument, to say the least, later used extensively on ‘Good Vibrations’), played by Paul Tanner. The three-part vocal chorus has attracted great attention as the second and third lines are less than clear; session tapes reveal them to be, “Ain’t found the one thing I can put my heart and soul into” and, “My friends don’t know (or want) me”. The instrumental track was recorded at Gold Star. 

Pet Sounds (B. Wilson) 

‘Sloop John B’ aside, this spiky instrumental was long thought to be the first track recorded for Pet Sounds (further research has since disproved the notion), and was originally called ‘Run, James, Run’ (the James in question reportedly being Bond, as in 007). 

Caroline, No (B. Wilson/Asher) 

Ushered in by drummer Hal Blaine tapping on an empty soda siphon bottle, this bittersweet US Top 40 ballad was issued as a Brian Wilson solo single. As with ‘Surfin”, father Murry Wilson insisted the master be sped up a tone to make Brian sound younger. The barking on the tag was supplied by the latter’s dogs at the time, Banana (a beagle) and Louie (a Weimaraner). 

Unreleased Backgrounds+ (B. Wilson)  

… to ‘Don’t Talk’: probably a wise omission from the LP in 1966. 

Hang On To Your Ego+ (B. Wilson/Asher) 

Brian Wilson handles the original lyric in a working vocal over a slightly incomplete track. Some find it difficult to understand precisely what Love found so objectionable. Brian Wilson’s appeal to engineer Chuck Britz at the end is priceless, as is the latter’s response. As with ‘God Only Knows’, the boxed set included enlightening session material on this title, as well as an alternate version. 

Trombone Dixie+ (B. Wilson) 

According to David Leaf’s excellent Pet Sounds CD booklet notes, it says ‘Trom- bone Dixie’ on the tape box and features a trombone, so that’ll have to do. Reprising (among others) a riff from ‘The Little Girl I Once Knew’, Brian Wilson would later recycle part of this perky instrumental into ‘Had To Phone Ya’ on 15 Big Ones, the group’s 1976 comeback LP.

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