Sunday, May 15, 2011
“It was 45 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.” Well, maybe not quite exactly like that. But May 16th marks the 45th anniversary of the release of the Pet Sounds album by the Beach Boys. Beatles producer George Martin has said that without Pet Sounds there would have been no Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.
Considered one of the first themed rock albums, Pet Sounds had its origins in Brian Wilson’s love of creativity and his spirit of competitiveness. Wilson’s creative spirits were surging during the waning months of 1965. He had decided to stop live touring with the Beach Boys and to concentrate instead on writing and studio work.
Earlier in 1965 the Beatles released Rubber Soul – presenting the world with a new, increasingly creative Beatles. George Martin; “For the first time we began to think of albums as art of their own, as complete entities.” Rubber Soul’s emotional range and thought-provoking lyrical slant caught Wilson’s attention.
Brian Wilson had just bought a new house in Beverly Hills and arranged it to be conductive to his brand of musical creativity. “I started to plan the new direction of the group. I wanted to move ahead in sounds and melodies and moods. For a month or two, I sat at a huge Spanish table looking out over the hills, just thinking, or at the piano playing ‘feels.’ ‘Feels’ are musical ideas: riffs, bridges, fragments of themes, a phrase here and there.”
Once in the studio, Wilson was a determined and focused man on fire. Through the Beach Boys earlier commercial successes, the recording companies loved everything they did (up to that point) and allowed Wilson extremely generous amounts of paid studio time to create, re-track, experiment and do things his way. Over four months the studio musicians lead by Wilson laid down all the musical tracks when the rest of the Beach Boys, with Bruce Johnson replacing Brian, were off touring in Japan.
The accomplished studio musicians could read music, Wilson could not, he was self-taught and worked out detailed arrangements in his head. Wilson would show up for a scheduled recording session and proceed to take each musician aside one by one to teach them their parts – from his memory. Once everyone knew their parts, the recording would start. Typically, one song would be recorded at each session with the studio musicians playing under Wilson’s direction until they had recorded a take that satisfied him.
While Wilson often knew exactly the sound he was trying to create, surviving tapes of his recording sessions show that he was remarkably open to input from the professional musicians, often taking advice and suggestions from them and even incorporating apparent 'mistakes' if they provided a useful or interesting alternative. On working out the track for God Only Knows, Wilson and studio guitarist Ray Pohlman are striving for a certain sound. Pohlman suggests, “Why don’t I play this part short” (staccato) and demonstrates the effect for Wilson. “OK we’ll try it!” responds Wilson without hesitation. The studio sessions are absolutely filled that that kind of creative innovation and give-and-take among the musicians. In recording just the introduction to the 2:16 minute Caroline No, you hear Wilson instruct: “A little more ‘dit-dit-dit-dit’ on that part. Ok, take 14 please” as the session continues. No musical details were unimportant to Wilson.
Contrast Wilson’s creative approach with the famous “wall of sound” created by Phil Spector (much admired by Wilson). Spector had everything written out before he entered the studio and the musicians better play it just the way he wrote it or there’d be hell to pay.
Producer Danny Hutton was a friend of Brian’s and one of the only non-performers allowed in the studio. “I heard the stuff that he (Wilson) was working on for Pet Sounds, it was overwhelming. There wasn’t any way I could figure out what instruments were playing. And I didn’t care what was playing. It was like going into sonic heaven. At that moment, my image of Brian turned into a whole different person musically.”
When the rest of the Beach Boys returned from their concert tour of Japan, Wilson taught them the lyrics and harmonies to accompany each track he had laid down while they were away. And Wilson wasn’t afraid of giving a lead part to one of the others if it produced a superior final arrangement or “sound.” So its brother Carl that sings the lead vocal on the God Only Knows version released on the album; certainly one of Brian Wilson’s finest pieces ever.
With few exceptions, most rock and roll albums of the day were “assembled” by adding filler tunes to a handful of hit songs. Pet Sounds was much more thematic and hung together as a unit, one song complementing the other. Top 40 radio wasn’t the ideal medium for Pet Sounds and the album failed to reach gold status on its initial release in the U.S., where it reached #10, which deeply disappointed Wilson.
Paul McCartney has repeatedly named it as one of his favorite albums (with God Only Knows as his favorite songs). “It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I've just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life ... I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album ... I love the orchestra, the arrangements ... it may be going overboard to say it's the classic of the century ... but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways ... I've often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John [Lennon] so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence ... it was the record of the time.”
Pet Sounds placed #2 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time behind only Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 2004, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.
This is a studio version of God Only Knows but with Brian singing, not the released album version with Carl on lead.