Do you believe in magic? I don’t mean in the dodgy, end of the pier routine type of way – but in real magic; when something happens, or you hear something that is so special that you can’t quite believe that it is for real… Pet Sounds was recorded during 1965 and 1966. It is the bands most creative piece of work, and is often referred to as the best album ever recorded. In short: a work of genius.
Let me make one thing clear before I continue: I absolutely LOVE this album, and have done for probably the last twenty five years or so of my life. For me, this album perfectly encapsulates every human emotion possible: love, hope, happiness, jealousy, wanderlust, redemption, sorrow – and then some…………..
The album starts off full of hope for the future with ‘Wouldn’t it be Nice’, and ends with ‘Caroline No’ – a song yearning for the past, and lamenting on how a girl whom he once loved has changed so much over the intervening years. In between, pure magic awaits.
First things first: Is this really a Beach Boys album? Brian Wilson, the bands leader and creative lynchpin stopped touring with the band in 1964/5 due to nervous exhaustion. He decided to concentrate on song writing and bringing the songs to life in the studio. Apart from the vocals, the rest of the band did not play on Pet Sounds; the instrumental tracks were painstakingly put together by Wilson along with a team of LA’s finest session musicians, (apart from some Carl Wilson guitar work). Each track has such depth, and so many layers; you can only imagine the time spent putting this all together.Wilson also sings lead vocals on most of the albums tracks.
Wilson was unique in the way he would use different instruments; all playing the same melody line to create a whole new sound. For example he would take a guitar and organ and fuse the two sounds together to create something new. Phil Spector, (a massive hero of Wilson’s), had worked in the same way to create his then famous, ‘Wall of Sound’ recording style. In those days, artists would only have had four or eight tracks at most to record on; musicians therefore had to be so much more creative with regards to what went down on tape. It’s also amazing to think that albums like Revolver and Sgt Peppers by The Beatles were also recorded on four track recording machines. Wilson continued to add different elements to the recordings, using instruments such as the bass harmonica that you can hear throughout the album; as well as multiple layers of strings and percussion. As a result it can sometimes be hard to tell what instruments are playing the lead melody lines.
Several members of the band were dismayed and sceptical about what Wilson was trying to achieve; they felt that it was a huge commercial risk to move away from the traditional Beach Boys sound, and in some ways this turned out to be true especially in the USA.
However, work continued. Wilson was heavily influenced by The Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’ album that had been released that year. His aim was to artistically top that album by producing what he described would be a teenage symphony to God. I’ve already mentioned two key tracks on this album; the ones in between are of equal or greater importance. I have several favourites on this album, songs that have meant a lot to me over the years, during different times and situations. Music, when at its most magical, should soundtrack experiences and periods of your life.
I have listened to Pet Sounds during happy times, sad times and times of great loss. It has sound tracked the beginning, and end of several relationships and the loss of certain people who were very close to me.It is an incredibly emotional album and also one of great beauty. Songs like ‘God Only Knows’ or ‘Don’t Talk, (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’, could melt the hardest hearts; and I for one should know……
The album was finally released in 1966. Commercially it bombed in the USA; apart from the lead track, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, there were no other obvious Beach Boys sounding singles, (‘Caroline No’ was released as solo Brian Wilson single). The rest of the band had assumed that ‘Good Vibrations’ would be included on the album, and be released as a single prior to the albums release. Wilson refused to release the track and spent a further six months working on the song). However it other parts of the world this was not the case. Thanks to pre-release reviews the album was a massive success in the UK; the manager of the Rolling Stones at that time, Andrew Oldham, even took out full page adds in the music press telling people to go out and buy the album a wonderful gesture, considering that he had no financial interest in the record – he just wanted people to listen to it. Paul McCartney has described it as the best album ever released.
There’s a lot more to say with regards to what happened after this; not least the recording and non-release of the famous ‘Smile’ album. This left Wilson in a fragile state; and coupled with his increasing drug use, he started to withdraw from his position as the Beach Boys creative force. His two brothers, Dennis and Carl began to come more to the forefront; with Carl becoming in effect the de-facto leader of the group; not only on stage, but also in the studio. Sales wise, the group suffered throughout the remainder of the 1960’s in the USA. The group seemed to lose its way, and didn’t fit in with the late 60’s acid culture that had sprung up around them. However, in the middle of this the band produced some of their best work; albums such as ‘Friends’, ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Surfs Up’, contain some of the best Beach Boys songs. Brian Wilson’s contribution during this period was minimal; however, you only have to listen to ’til I die from ‘Surfs Up’ in 1971 to hear what a tortured genius he was. The song is probably the most heartbreaking and pleading song the band ever recorded. Wilson recorded it mainly on his own, as a few members of the group had refused to include it on the album due to the desolate nature of the lyrics. In the end it was included following various discussions – thank God it was, as it remains my favourite Brian Wilson track to this day.
If you’ve never heard this album, I urge you to do so. You may have a clear idea in your head as to what the Beach Boys sound involves – please leave that to one side. Anyone interested in music should own a copy of this record. It might well pass you by the first time you listen to it; however at some point you will come back to it again and again and again, and discover the beauty and magic contained within. Once that happens you’ll be hooked; just as I, and countless others have been in the past. As Brian Wilson sings on ‘Don’t Talk, (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’, “Listen, Listen, Listen”….