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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Beach Boys, "Pet Sounds"

The Beach Boys
"Pet Sounds"
Capitol (1966)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, and Elton John all have two things in common. For one, all are music legends, some of the most respected representatives in rock 'n' roll history. Second, all agree that "Pet Sounds" by The Beach Boys is a landmark album. McCartney bought a copy for each of his children, saying "I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album." Clapton described it as "everything that's ever knocked me out and rolled it all into one." I'm not one to disagree with these guys.

Although "Pet Sounds" is listed under the name of The Beach Boys, it could just as easily be described as a Brian Wilson solo album. Wilson was so moved by The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" that he challenged himself to one-up it. The elder Wilson had always been the de facto leader of the group, but this album fully displays his self sufficiency (and his iron fist) as a band leader.

First, there's the basics: songwriting. There are two writers credited in the liner notes of "Pet Sounds:" Wilson and Tony Asher. Asher, previously a radio jingle writer, has openly stated that he served more as a translator for Wilson's thoughts than as an original lyricist. The childlike nature of Wilson's themes on tracks like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "You Still Believe in Me" summarize the musician's life story: a man who continually grasped for his youth, perhaps as a result of his father's rough treatment.

Wilson not only wrote the lyrics; he decided who got to sing them. The Beach Boys' trademark sound is its harmonies and multi-vocal parts, but Wilson would take no chances with his masterpiece. Four of the tracks on "Pet Sounds" feature only his voice, either by design ("Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)") or because he was simply frustrated with his fellow bandmates ("I'm Waiting For The Day"). He knew when he wasn't the best option however; he gave brother Carl Wilson the lead role on "God Only Knows," albeit after having tryouts for the part amongst everyone in the group.

"Pet Sounds" is most renowned for its role in the development of "baroque pop" however, pop music featuring large amounts of instruments and many layers. Every track on the album features at least ten credited musicians playing both standard and unusual instruments. Theremins, timpani, accordions, French horns and dozens of eccentric additions make appearances throughout. Perhaps the greatest indication of Wilson's arranging genius is how he places these musical touches as backdrops. Others might use a celeste as the cornerstone of a song due to its unique tone, but Wilson treats each part in the same way as a Baroque composer would treat each individual part of an orchestra. All have an equal role in a completing a song's perfection. Only three tracks on "Pet Sounds" break three minutes, meaning that Wilson was more interested in creating short bursts of perfection than epic pieces, as would become popular later during the decade.

Although Wilson readily multi-tracked vocals (especially if it meant he got multiple parts), songs like "God Only Knows" are interesting because they feature up to 23 studio musicians all playing in unison in the studio. In modern times, computers make the removal and re-addition of misplayed parts simple. In the '60s, one instrument being off meant everyone playing again, and Wilson was not afraid to execute dozens of takes.

Wilson, along with his friend and "wall of sound" pioneer Phil Spector, paved the way for dozens of "super producers," such as Rick Rubin. His desire to control every aspect of the recording process, and to add flourishes via minute details in every track, has actually had a bigger impact on hip-hop more than any other genre. His creative OCD is typified by mainstream rapper/producers like Kanye West and underground artists like El-P.

"Pet Sounds" served as the second part of a "friendly" rivalry between The Beach Boys and The Beatles, and part of what many would call three of the greatest records of all time (the other two being The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"). That puts this album in some pretty elite company.

INTERESTING FACT: Despite the existence of stereophonic recording at the time of "Pet Sounds," Wilson chose to stick with monophonic recording, as the process was easier due to his being deaf in the right ear. It is rumored that Wilson lost hearing in the ear as the result of a beating from his abusive father and former Beach Boys' manager Murry Wilson.

God Only Knows by The Beach Boys on Grooveshark


  1. Well dude, I think you summed up the reasons for this better than anyone I have seen, including Tom Moon in his book. I didn't really get what the big deal was, but I'll go back and hear it again. It's kind of like watching a movie from the '40s: it can seem cliche and basic, but it's because everyone copied off of it for decades before I heard it.

  2. Thanks Mike!

    An important point I forgot to point out was that with the inception of "baroque pop," artists began making more and more music that was almost impossible to perform live. Hence live versions of some of these tracks lacking the original "wow"-factor.