MUSIC: Pet Sounds Turns 50

The_Beach_Boys_-_Pet_Sounds

Today, Pet Sounds turns 50. It’s one of my favorite albums ever. And I have a few things to say about it.

It was sometime in the spring of 2000 when I first discovered Pet Sounds, the greatest ever achievement from the greatest American rock band of them all, the Beach Boys. I was in 7th grade, which needless to say, is an interesting time in one’s life. I had an affinity for ‘60s music going back to my Beatles obsession that started years earlier. But that spring ABC aired a two-part TV movie entitled “The Beach Boys: An American Family” that stoked my interest in the band (the movie was forgettable, yet the music was anything but).

Shortly thereafter I splurged my allowance money on a couple of Beach Boys greatest hits compilations and Pet Sounds. Inside I discovered a whole new world of pop music, one I never knew existed. Since then, it has been one of my three favorite albums ever, alongside Who’s Next and Abbey Road.

Pet Sounds was like opening a sonic Pandora’s box. For the first time, I experienced pop sensibilities in music alongside very sophisticated, very refined instrumental stylings. Most of all, though, I strongly identified with the words, mostly conjured by Brian Wilson and his co-writer Tony Asher.

I’ve always associated Pet Sounds with this overarching theme lyrically: the transition from youth to adulthood, and how hard it can be. But at the same time, the hallmark of Pet Sounds musically is so very rich and vibrant. And that’s what stands out to me most after so many listens.

Wilson was in the throes of a competition with the Beatles to reach creative heights in pop music that started after he picked up a copy of Rubber Soul in late 1965. He was also dealing with his own emotional issues and a taste for psychotropic drugs. Amidst this, he wanted to take his music in a more artistic direction. For context, the previous Beach Boys album was called Beach Boys’ Party! And that only arrived six months before Pet Sounds.

These were not simply boy-girl love songs, or songs about cars and surfing, which had dominated the Beach Boys’ catalogue up to that point. Wilson had started to dabble in introspective, self-examining lyrics with 1963’s seminal “In My Room”, but Pet Sounds was different. This was virtually an entire album dedicated to very specific feelings of youth, love, frustration, disappointment and desire. It was one of the key landmarks in creating the style of “concept albums” that would come to dominate the popular rock landscape.

Years later, the late Beatles producer Sir George Martin put it simply: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened…Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”

The Beach Boys not only changed music forever with Pet Sounds but it changed how I thought about music forever. I love Pet Sounds just as much today as I did when I was a wide-eyed 14-year-old growing up in a small town. I hear so much of what Pet Sounds started in today’s music as well.

So in honor of its 50th anniversary, I’m taking a song-by-song look at 13 tracks that make up Pet Sounds. I’ll write more about some songs than others, but know that each has played a vital role in making this incredible album stand all tests of time. Enjoy.

“WOULDN’T IT BE NICE”

One of the greatest albums ever deserves one of the greatest opening songs ever, and that’s what we get with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Over the last 50 years, few songs have ever encapsulated the feeling of being young and in love, and the frustrations often associated with that feeling, better than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

From those opening harp plucks to the gorgeous, “Good night, sleep tight” ending fade-out, this song bursts with enthusiasm and joy from a sonic standpoint, supplied by legendary studio players the Wrecking Crew here and throughout the album. I imagine these lyrics have been recited by lovestruck youngins over the phone to each other for years, all the while hoping their parents didn’t pick up the phone to listen.

(You know, back when people had landlines. Work with me here!)

Although love is the prevailing theme, Brian Wilson’s words are also imbued with adolescent impatience. Note that Wilson and Love sing more about hypothetical joys than actual ones. Thinking and wishing and hoping praying that something might come true is all well and good, but won’t result in immediate happiness.

It’s that frustration that makes this song unique and worth so many listens.

“YOU STILL BELIEVE IN ME”

Really the only negative thing I can say about Pet Sounds is that “You Still Believe In Me” feels out of place as the second song. Coming off the sugar rush of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “You Still Believe In Me” is quite a downer. However, it’s still terrific for what it is, and it sets the emotional tone for much of what’s to come.

This is less of a straightforward pop song and gets more into the chamber/symphonic style Wilson was really going for, including its lilting guitar runs and harpsichord strums. The harmonies along with the percussion hits at just the right times make “You Still Believe In Me” extremely memorable.

But what really takes the cake here is the inclusion of a bike horn and bell near the end. This is not the last time on Pet Sounds you’ll hear something unusual.

“THAT’S NOT ME”

Mike Love doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to flex his nasally vocal muscles on Pet Sounds, but he took advantage each time, including here on the deeply-introspective “That’s Not Me.” On an album of so many favorites, this one has always stood out to me thanks to its unique subject matter.

Over the course of two-and-a-half minutes, Love and Wilson go on an interesting vocal journey. The speaker here isn’t talking so much about who he is, but what he is. He wants to be independent, but he’s scared. He doesn’t sound optimistic about what his self-examination has ultimately wrought. “What matters to me is what I could be / To just one girl.” The music takes soft and quiet approach while the speaker slowly loses his mind.

In addition, this is perhaps the only track on Pet Sounds where the Beach Boys actually got to play their own instruments (including Dennis Wilson on drums, which definitely didn’t happen on any other songs here). The internal journey for Love/Wilson is accompanied by some fun guitar licks by Carl Wilson and Glen Campbell, and Brian taking a whirl on the organ.

And, the song includes (and ends on) one of my all-time favorite vocal couplets.

“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.”

Love it. Always have, and always will.

“DON’T TALK (PUT YOUR HEAD ON MY SHOULDER)”

This is the first of several very sad-sounding songs here. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” is expertly constructed by Wilson both lyrically and musically. Here’s a song about two people going through difficulty and hoping to find strength in each other. But the way Wilson sings, both the speaker and subject know it’s over, or at least close to being over.

So many of the lines sit with the listener for a while, punctuated by swelling strings throughout and big-sounding percussion late in the proceedings. “We could live forever tonight / Let’s not think about tomorrow,” the heartbroken Wilson sings. And the chorus that’s so earnest it’s almost painful to listen to, especially at the end when Wilson hits the high note on “heeeeaaaaaaaart-beat.”

There’s so much to the texture of this song that’s easy to miss because it’s so quiet. That includes a looping bass line and quiet guitar runs. When Wilson implores “listen, listen, listen,” he’s not just talking about his heartbeat. What a brilliant little song.

“I’M WAITING FOR THE DAY”

In terms of subject matter, “I’m Waiting For The Day” is more traditional and straightforward than many of the others here. Brian Wilson is simply offering his love and support to a young girl of his interest who was recently left heartbroken. With that, Wilson is biding his time and “waiting for the day when you can love again.”

But musically, “I’m Waiting For The Day” is a wonder, another Phil Spector-inspired Wall of Sound taking a simple song of love and longing into another stratosphere. Anchored by huge percussion, a full orchestra of strings and a flute solo midway through, “I’m Waiting For The Day” is a marvel. It’s the one song on this album that would not have felt totally out of place on the Motown releases of the day.

“You didn’t think!” Wilson shouts as the song closes and the organ sounds shoot out amongst the timpani blasts. “I’m Waiting For The Day” might be the most underrated song on Pet Sounds, one I love going back to every time to find something in the Wall of Sound I may have missed previously.

“LET’S GO AWAY FOR AWHILE”

Pet Sounds features two instrumentals, “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” being the first. It’s a quick jaunt, but I’ve always felt like it was like going on quite a journey. It’s a quiet song, but a warm one with a lot of different orchestral touches.

My favorite part has always been about 1:40 in when the drums and other percussion instruments kick in. It makes this quiet song all the sudden feel pretty big.

Anyway, it’s a good little interlude before heading into the second half of the album. I’ll have much more to say about the second instrumental later on.

“SLOOP JOHN B”

Popular at the time of its release, “Sloop John B” doesn’t really fit in lyrically with the rest of Pet Sounds–at least on the surface. It’s an old traditional island song Brian Wilson rearranges in the musical style of the album after he was introduced to it by Al Jardine. It’s the first song the Beach Boys laid down for Pet Sounds.

The lyrics here recount a maritime excursion gone wrong, but the feelings vulnerability and frustration to fit right in with Pet Sounds. “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” Love sings. “I want to go home.” That sounds a lot like the other first-person narrators on this album.

“Sloop John B” is also notable because of the funny “promotional film” aka music video embedded above. There were not many of these in the mid-’60s, and it’s memorable if nothing else for the image of Brian Wilson leading the guys fully-clothed in a pool while carrying a rubber dinghy. I think that video probably influenced this recent video by one of my favorite bands.

“GOD ONLY KNOWS”

You’ve heard it more times than you can count.

Thousands of brides have walked down the aisle to it. Hundreds of mixtapes have been anchored by it. It served as a TV show theme, soundtracked the end of one of the greatest movies of all time, and has been covered by everyone from Andy Williams to Elvis Costello to Mandy Moore to Paul Dano. It has provided strength to millions in times of both love and despair. Fifty years on, it feels timeless, note-perfect and indestructible.

“God Only Knows” is arguably the greatest pop ballad ever written. And it’s a song I’ve adored deeply since the first time it hit my ears.

It’s hard to believe Carl Wilson has been gone for almost 20 years. But well before he left this Earth in physical form, he laid down a perfect vocal track for “God Only Knows” that will live as long as people can hear.

No matter what’s been going on in my life since I discovered Pet Sounds, and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, “God Only Knows” always hits me the same way. It brings tears to my eyes. It is truly a piece of unimaginable beauty. From the incredible arrangement, to Carl’s vocals, to the lyrics of longing and love to the impeccably-arranged and dramatic closing vocal round with Carl, Brian and Bruce Johnston, this is just damn perfect.

Without “God Only Knows”, Pet Sounds would still be great. But maybe not iconic. Thank God for “God Only Knows”.

“I KNOW THERE’S AN ANSWER”

“I Know There’s An Answer” is not overly direct in its message, but the years have revealed that Brian Wilson intended the lyrics to be about drugs. The original title for the song was “Hang On to Your Ego”, which Wilson related to LSD users losing themselves when ingesting the hallucinogenic.

It would be a few more years before Neil Young would pen the ultimate anti-drug song of this era, “The Needle and the Damage Done.” That was a much more overt plea against drugs. But here was Wilson, in 1966, telling people to be careful with this stuff. And in the ‘60s, being a pop musician and singing anti-drug songs was decidedly uncool.

Among the songs here, “I Know There’s An Answer” has some of the most interesting and diverse instrumentation, including “bass harmonica” (which I never knew existed), tack piano and Glen Campbell chiming in with some banjo. Despite the message, this may have been one instance where the drugs were working for Wilson from a creative standpoint.

“HERE TODAY”

It starts with just a little glance now.

This is easily the most fun song on Pet Sounds.

Right away you’re thinking ‘bout romance now. (Oooooo-ooooo!)

Mike Love re-takes the vocal controls on “Here Today”, weaving a cautionary tale about that someone who catches your eye amidst a blaring maelstrom of instruments. Like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Here Today” bursts at the seams with energy and panache. It’s almost dizzying how many different sounds we experience here. Everything from the fun little guitar runs, the organ smacks, the brass section and the timpani hits all work in perfect concert.

But like with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the giddiness of the music goes on behind the veneer of someone who has experienced hardships when it comes to love. “A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing / But if you’re not careful think about the pain it can bring,” Love sings.

Toying with the loud/soft dynamic that Brian Wilson so expertly managed throughout Pet Sounds, “Here Today” is dramatic, exciting and an awesome ride for all three minutes. It’s one of the songs I always look forward to hearing most whenever I put the album on, and puts a huge smile on my face.

“I JUST WASN’T MADE FOR THESE TIMES”

As a teenager, this was the Pet Sounds song I identified with most closely. It was almost like Brian Wilson had written a song just for me, 35 years in the past.

It’s a song that everyone, no matter their station in life, can relate to at one time or another. The idea for this seemed to spring from Wilson’s own ambition to make an album no one believed would be viable.

When I was a kid, I was outspoken in class but shy around classmates. From a young age I had a wide range of knowledge of subjects like music, baseball, history and politics that made me very different from anybody else in my age range. I was so much like the person Wilson sings about, it’s scary. They said I had brains, but they didn’t do me good at least with the kids around me. I often felt I wasn’t made for those times. I found solace in this music at a time when I badly needed it.

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is the quintessential Pet Sounds song, one that encapsulates everything Wilson was trying to do here, from the words down to the chamber-pop sounding music.

Matt Weiner also used this one during Mad Men’s pivotal Season 5 episode “Far Away Places” when Roger Sterling took his first hit of LSD. If there was ever a show where “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” was appropriate, it would be Mad Men, and I’m glad that show found use for something from Pet Sounds during its run.

One other note here: an unusual instrument for rock music called a theremin was included near the end of this track. The creepy-sounding instrument would later be used to much greater effect (and impact) on a Beach Boys single later in 1966.

“PET SOUNDS”

The second of the two instrumentals here is by far the more interesting, unique and weird. The title track to Pet Sounds is in fact the most out-there track on the album and for a lot of people at the time was probably the strangest thing they’d ever heard on a pop record. (My message to those people: just give it a few months.)

What the hell is going on here? How does it even make sense? How is it melodic? And, most importantly, how is “Pet Sounds” so good?

It turns out Wilson originally intended “Pet Sounds” to be a James Bond theme, and you can hear some remnants of that idea in the way the track slinks along. That uncanny percussion sound, which apparently came about after Wilson asked his drummer to smack his sticks on two empty Coke cans, helps keep all the wild sounds together.

There are bongos here. There is some oddly-distorted guitar. There are bass notes from brass instruments you didn’t really think would be possible. The only thing “Pet Sounds” doesn’t have is a vocal track. And in 2:38 it’s over, leading into the final track.

“CAROLINE, NO”

This song, man. Wow.

There can only be one word to describe it: devastation. Have you ever heard a sadder breakup song in the 50 years since? And, hell, the roughly 5,000 years before it?

In just shy of three minutes, Brian Wilson weaves a tale of woe about the end of a relationship in the starkest and most evocative terms imaginable.

“Where did your long hair go? / Where is the girl I used to know?”

“I remember how you used to say / You’d never change / But that’s not true”

“It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die / Oh, Caroline, why?”

An album that starts with such hope and idealism as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” comes to a crashing end with “Caroline, No.” It’s even hard to listen to sometimes. The sadness in Wilson’s voice is just…devastating. I can’t really use any other words to describe this one. My gosh.

Of course, the album ACTUALLY ends with the actual sounds of pets. More specifically, dogs barking at a blaring train rolling by.

It’s a fitting ending, really, as that train carried with it the sounds a new generation would use to propel pop and rock into the next era. Sgt. Pepper’s and Electric Ladyland and Tommy and After the Gold Rush and Blue and Exile on Main St. and Dark Side of the Moon were all still to come. But in that moment, Pet Sounds stood apart.

When it was released, Pet Sounds was both a critical and commercial disappointment (at least in America). It did not take long for it to pick up steam and be considered the cultural landmark it is today.

For me, it will always represent something special, a time in my life when I began to appreciate things that took time, foresight and brilliant execution to create. Pet Sounds will always be special to me for that. And the music of course remains so affecting, so beautiful, so perfect and so damn good.

Happy birthday, Pet Sounds. Here’s to the next 50 years.

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