September 2, 2006

coverAs most regular visitors to this site are (perhaps all too) aware of, I am a big Brian Wilson fan. While I consider his work on SMiLE, the unreleased 1967 Beach Boys album finally issued as a solo work in 2004 his greatest and most ambitious work, the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds remains a close second and a master work. Recently re-released as a CD/DVD combo on the 40th anniversary of the legendary album’s issue, Pet Sounds historically is placed by music critics amongst the top 10 (if not the top five) greatest rock albums of all time. For four decades, Pet Sounds has touched and enticed many into its timeless teenage web-message of hope, dreams, despair, and longing unlike any other work produced either before or since.

I came to know Pet Sounds almost a decade after its initial release. While I had heard the Beach Boys before (primarily through their surf era hits on AM radio), it wasn’t until my friend Bob Noftle had me listen to their “In Concert” album in 1974 that I was hooked for good. Initially, it was their post-surf, post-SMiLE era work that attracted me, but slowly my brother Mark and I began working our way back to their earlier works and finally picked up this album, unaware of its legacy and the respect and love afforded it by so many inside and outside the music industry.

It was January 1966, and Brian Wilson was getting antsy. Already pressured by Capitol Records for a follow-up to the Beach Boys’ “Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)” album from the previous summer (a harried and stressed-out Brian had already delivered the successful “Beach Boys Party” album, a thrown-together collection of sing-alongs performed in a casual “party” setting as a way to keep the corporate wolves at bay), and desiring to create “the greatest album of all time” to trump the recently-released U.S. version of the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” (which had blown him away), Brian was looking for a collaborator who could help him explore new horizons beyond the surf/girls/cars genre that had made him and his bandmates so successful the previous four years.

With the other Beach Boys out of the country on tour (he had ceased touring with the band nearly two years before), Brian sought a lyricist who could provide the kind of down-to-earth, straightforward lyrics that would compliment his own increasingly-sophisticated music and musical ideas. On the recommendation of a friend, Brian contacted Tony Asher, a friend of a friend who worked at a local ad agency, and paid him $50,000 for three weeks’ work. Slowly and deliberately, the two developed a number of songs that, combined with some original Brian Wilson instrumentals, would take the Beach Boys and their fans to previously-uncharted territory. By the time the band returned from its concert tour, the album’s musical tracks had all been laid down, and the Beach Boys spent the next several weeks laying down complex vocals that would provide the finishing touch.

The “hits” from Pet Sounds – and there are several – are undoubtedly amongst the group’s strongest and most recognized works: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”, and “Sloop John B.”, but it is in the album’s lesser-known cuts that, in my view, Pet Sounds shines. Songs like “You Still Believe In Me”, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, and “Caroline, No” find Brian’s own personal vulnerabilities, fears, and concerns laid out in a way any teenager (actually, any human being) could understand, and this is what makes Pet Sounds so special. The emphasis on the universal tension of boy-girl and boy-world relationships: longing, budding, changing, and lost, resonates easily in the listener’s consiousness, for it speaks a language anyone who has ever been love-struck, or felt alienated from the world around him or her, could understand.

The first time I heard Pet Sounds, I immediately connected with the three songs mentioned above, for, not only were the songs exquisitely written and beautifully performed, but it was almost as if I could hear the lyrics being sung to my soul and about me personally. For example, in “You Still Believe In Me”, the singer bemoans his inability to live up to his lover’s expectations and hold up his end of the relationship:

I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be
I’ve been very aware you’ve been patient with me
Every time we break up, you bring back your love to me
And after all I’ve done to you, how can it be
You still believe in me

I try hard to be more what you want me to be
But I can’t help how I act when you’re not here with me
I try hard to be strong but sometimes I fail myself
And after all I’ve promised you so faithfully
You still believe in me

In “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, the sense of feeling alone, alienated, misunderstood, and apart from one’s friends, family, and acquaintances is raw and exposed:

I keep looking for a place to fit
where I can speak my mind
and I’ve been trying hard to find the people
that I won’t leave behind

they say I got brains
but they ain’t doing me no good
I wish they could
each time things start to happen again
I think I got something good goin’ for myself
but what goes wrong

sometimes I feel very sad
sometimes I feel very sad
sometimes I feel very sad

I guess I just wasn’t made for these times

every time I get the inspiration
to go change things around
no one wants to help me look for places
where new things might be found

where can I turn when my fair weather friends cop out
what’s it all about
each time things start to happen again
I think I got something good goin’ for myself
but what goes wrong

sometimes I feel very sad
sometimes I feel very sad
sometimes I feel very sad

I guess I just wasn’t made for these times

And finally, in “Caroline, No” we hear the writer bemoaning the fact that the sweet, innocent, long-haired girl he grew up with and loved (perhaps intimately) has grown hard and cynical – perhaps even bitchy – and this change is reflected in her new, shorter hair style:

Where did your long hair go?
Where is the girl I used to know?
How could you lose that happy glow?
Oh Caroline, no

Who took that look away?
I remember how you used to say
You’d never change, but that’s not true
Oh, Caroline you

break my heart, I want to go and cry
It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die
Oh Caroline why?

Could I ever find in you again
Things that made me love you so much then
Could we ever bring ’em back once they have gone
Oh Caroline, no

The ironic thing is that upon its original release, Pet Sounds was not considered a big hit in the U.S., although with help from Brian’s replacement band member Bruce Johnston and Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham, it became a monster hit in the U.K. (To this day, both Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend consider it the greatest album ever made and “God Only Knows” the greatest pop song ever.) Forty years after the release, the symphonic quality of Brian’s arrangements – using such varied instruments as accordions, bass harmonica, string quartets, saxaphones, vibraphone, and any number of percussion effects – sounds as fresh, new, and inventive as anything you’ll find out there. If you are looking for a listening experience (as opposed to something to listen to), I heartily recommend the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. But be forewarned – you too may find yourself life-connected to the beautiful and timeless music that has made Pet Sounds loved by many.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:43 | Comments (2)
  1. Just bought Beach Boys in Concert (1973) off i-tunes. Although Brian Wilson is not in the picture, it still rocks. Very good selection of tunes including Caroline NO and YOu still believe in me. Not bad for 7.99

    Comment by PATRICK m — September 5, 2006 @ 7:31 pm

  2. That’s a very good deal Patrick, and it’s an excellent album. YSBIM and Caroline, No out-shine the originals with the depth and passion Alan Jardine and Carl Wilson, respectively, bring to their leads. “Let The Wind Blow” is, in my view, a definitive retelling – poignant and moving in the concert setting where the studio version (from “Wild Honey”) was pretty, but a little awkward-sounding to these ears. Thanks for the comment!

    Comment by The Great White Shank — September 6, 2006 @ 12:55 pm

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