September 9, 2016

Two quotes that define the #2 album on my Top Ten list: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Let’s roll the tape, Gordo…

“…Rubber Soul blew my mind. When I heard Rubber Soul, I said, ‘That’s it. That’s all. That’s all folks.’ I said, ‘I’m going to make an album that’s really good, I mean really challenge me.’ I mean, I love that fucking album, I cherish that album.” — Brian Wilson

“…Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened….Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.” — Beatles producer George Martin

It’s December 1965 and Brian Wilson’s creative muse was on overdrive. Stoked after hearing the Beatles’ latest release he was inspired to try something that could match, if not exceed, what Rubber Soul had been able to accomplish, at least in his mind. He wanted the next Beach Boys release to make a similarly full statement, and in a way no prior Beach Boys album had previously done. Having collaborated primarily with lead singer Mike Love over the past couple of years, he knew his next project needed a different ear and attitude, one that would help express the thoughts and sentiments he felt inside. His choice was Tony Asher:

In 1965, Wilson met Tony Asher at a recording studio in Los Angeles. Asher was at the time a 26-year-old lyricist and copywriter working in jingles for an advertising agency. The two exchanged ideas for songs, and soon after, Wilson heard of Asher’s writing abilities from mutual friends. In December 1965, he proceeded to contact Asher about a possible lyric collaboration, wanting to do something “completely different” with someone he had never written with before. Asher accepted the offer, and within ten days, they were writing together. Wilson played him some of the music he had been recording and gave him a cassette containing the backing track to a piece called “In My Childhood”. The result of Asher’s tryout was eventually retitled “You Still Believe in Me”.

It wasn’t just depth and creativity he was looking for, he was looking for someone who could serve as an equal and supportive partner in the process. He felt his relationship with Love lacked that depth; besides, Love and The Beach Boys were out touring most of the time. In Tony Asher, therefore, Wilson had the person he felt could speak his language, understand his feelings, and be able to turn the subject matter Wilson was looking for into meaningful, understandable lyric:

Asher explains that he and Wilson had many lengthy, intimate discussions centered around their “experiences and feelings about women and the various stages of relationships and so forth”. He maintains that his contribution to the music itself was minimal, serving mainly as a source of second opinion for Wilson as he worked out possible melodies and chord progressions, although the two did trade ideas as the songs evolved. On his role as co-lyricist, Asher clarified, “The general tenor of the lyrics was always his … and the actual choice of words was usually mine. I was really just his interpreter.”

With Asher as collaborator, Wilson had someone he felt comfortable sharing his own ideas, concerns, fears, and desires with, and between the music he would compose and the lyrics Asher helped create, Pet Sounds became not just an album that exceeded everything Brian thought Rubber Soul had achieved, it became one of the most admired and respected albums in pop music history. For in a most timeless fashion, Pet Sounds speaks to the emotions, concerns, and innermost thoughts of someone moving from adolescence to adulthood, with all the conflicts, uncertainties, responsibilities, and demands that go along with it – a life passage just about anyone can relate to.

Pet Sounds starts by looking forward – with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” a couple dreams about how perfect their lives and their could be were they to be married:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up
In the kind of world where we belong?

You know its gonna make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up
In the morning when the day is new
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night through

By the time the album closes, with “Caroline No”, the writer is left to lament the fact that the object of his desire has changed – and while it’s the hair he notices, there are other changes as well, for they’ve both changed:

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

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

In between, the songs speak of the intimate emotions and concerns shared between two people involving self-worth (“You Still Believe In Me”), reassurance and emotional support (“God Only Knows”, “I’m Waiting For The Day”), and questioning the relative meaning of it all (“I Know There’s An Answer”, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”). While some point to the latter as the most intimate expression of what Pet Sounds is all about, in my view that instead comes from “That’s Not Me”), for here all of one’s dreams, fears, feelings, aspirations, and deepest emotions are encapsulated into a tightly-wound narrative about growing up and the impact on one’s relationships with family, friends, and (most especially) the object of one’s affection:

I had to prove that I could make it alone
But that’s not me
I wanted to show how independent I’d grown now
But that’s not me

I could try to be big in the eyes of the world
What matters to me is what I could be to just one girl

I’m a little bit scared
Cause I haven’t been home in a long time
You needed my love
And I know that I left at the wrong time
My folks when I wrote them
Told ’em what I was up to said that’s not me

I went through all kinds of changes
Took a look at myself and said that’s not me
I miss my pad and the places I’ve known
And every night as I lay there alone I will dream

I once had a dream
So I packed up and split for the city
I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty
I’m glad I went now I’m that much more sure that we’re ready

Enveloping all of these songs are beautiful, rich, and complex arrangements that run the gamut from Burt Bacharach-inspired orchestral settings to classic pop, with a little jazz, and exotica thrown in for good measure. The arrangements themselves, from the accordions that drive “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the bass harmonica soloing during the break in “I Know There’s An Answer”, to the electro-theremin that haunts “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” are nothing short of incredible in their originality and depth, the Beach Boys’ vocal work is incomparable, and the production throughout is pristine. Pet Sounds was meant to be Brian’s most personal statement, and he left nothing to chance.

Some have complained that one of the hit singles from the album, “Sloop John B”, doesn’t really belong because of the subject matter, but the title Pet Sounds (suggested by Love) reflects the sounds Brian Wilson was hearing in his head as the vehicle to convey the complex subject matter and sentiments he wanted to communicate. The album approaches perfection in so many ways, and that’s why it’s universally held as, if not the greatest rock album of all time, one that’s right near the top. It’s that good, and it never gets tiring to listen to. The reason for that might be the universal message conveyed throughout. As David Cavanagh writes in The Beach Boys Ultimate Music Guide:

Every day in every town, sons and daughters leave home, embark on college courses, pack up and split for the city. Will they miss their home? Will they do what Brian couldn’t and move imperceptibly into adulthood? Or will they find, half a century later, after it was written, reflections of themselves in Pet Sounds?

It took a while for Pet Sounds to get its due. Upon its initial release in 1966, even though it spawned three top ten hits (“Sloop John B”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”), Capitol Records executives got antsy when the album didn’t zoom up the charts like previous Beach Boys albums. Like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Pet Sounds was a bit “off the reservation” as far as the Beach Boys listening public was accustomed to, and so, concerned over its sluggish chart movement, a “Best of The Beach Boys” collection was rushed out, dampening Pet Sounds‘ momentum. After a healthy marketing push “across the pond”, it became a huge success in England, however, and it was only over time that the album finally achieved the recognition and appreciation it so richly deserved.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:15 | Comments (0)
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