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To fully understand and appreciate the scope and grandeur of the album Pet Sounds and mastermind Brian Wilson's remarkable development as a songwriter and producer in the early 1960s, it is necessary to assess the 10 albums that The Beach Boys released prior to this work of genius. Many casual listeners and music fans with only a passing interest in The Beach Boys (read: Pet Sounds) seem to errouneously think that these previous albums consisted solely of surf songs and filler tracks. Disregarding their debut album, that wouldn't be a fair assessment, though. The material on the albums released between 1962 and 1965 was indeed – to a certain extent – of a somewhat erratic quality (except 1965's solid Today! album), but taken as a whole, fans and critics were presented with several ambitious, deep and intriguing songs that indicated the type of superior songwriter and producer Brian Wilson would become and how far he might be capable of taking The Beach Boys sound. Some of these compositions were In My Room (off 1963's Surfer Girl), The Warmth Of The sun (from 1964's Shut Down, Vol. 2), She Knows Me Too Well (off 1965's Today!), and California Girls and Let Him Run Wild, both from 1965's Summer Days (And Summer Nights), all of which bear a strong resemblance to the atmospherics, vibes and emotions explored on Pet Sounds. That said, nobody could've possibly predicted the extent of Brian Wilson's lofty ambitions, let alone how soon he would actually realize them. As it turned out, even his own band mates were caught by surprise.
The aforementioned pre-Pet Sounds songs were plenty proof that Brian Wilson possessed a rare kind of natural talent, and that when he put his mind to it, he could create emotionally complex music of a very high standard. These early songs are all the more impressive considering his young age, and the fact that at that time he was still going through a learning process. He never studied music at college - writing, producing, recording, engineering, he learned his skills in the studio through hard work. His passion for all things music, as well as his perfectionism and his stubbornness, was his driving force. Which is why he felt challenged, when The Beatles released Rubber Soul in 1965. Brian Wilson: "Rubber Soul was a collection of songs that somehow fit together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed. I said, 'That's it. I really am challenged to do a great album.' I immediately went to work on Pet Sounds. I definitely felt the need to compete with The Beatles." Rubber Soul's complexity and maturity, and The Beatles' use of a broader variety of instruments like, for instance, an exotic sitar, inspired Brian Wilson to expand his visions as a songwriter, arranger and producer.
On Pet Sounds he combined conventional instruments like guitar, bass and keyboards with orchestrated strings, organs, harpsichords, flutes, theremin, and the sound effects of bicycle bells, Coca-Cola cans and barking dogs. Like his idol, mentor and rival Phil Spector, he also experimented with the so-called "Wall of Sound" technique, adding depth and texture by combining multiple instruments and voices with echo and reverb. To further enhance certain emotions, Brian Wilson would often double the bass, guitar and keyboard parts. The majority of the backing tracks were recorded (while the rest of The Beach Boys were on tour) with an ensemble of L.A.'s versatile and highly respected session musicians, known collectively as The Wrecking Crew, some of whom were jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Carol Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine. While Brian Wilson was writing, arranging and producing the music that he heard in his mind, he hired lyricist Tony Asher to put into words the wealth of complex emotions accumulating inside him, which he himself felt incapable of expressing eloquently in writing. The lyrics dealt with basic human feelings ranging from the ecstacy of newfound love to the heartbreak of a failed relationship and the loss of innocence - as seen through the eyes of an insecure, sensitive young man, who feels alienated in a modern world. Shortly before he began work on The Beach Boys' previous album, Today!, Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown on a plane caused by anxiety and stress. Consequently, he quit touring altogether to concentrate on writing and producing. On Pet Sounds all of his insecurities are expressed through simple yet affecting lyrics.
When The Beach Boys returned from a three-week tour, Brian Wilson presented them with six backing tracks, and he instantly experienced resistance from the group, who worried how the fans would perceive this new direction, which completely excluded juvenile songs about cars and surfing. Even if these new songs weren't a radical departure from some of the deeper, more introspective and mature songs on earlier albums, it was nonetheless the first time that songs of this nature would make up an entire album. Still, Brian Wilson believed so firmly in the project that he managed to convince the remaining members to have faith in the new material. The individual singers did their best to perform up to Brian Wilson's expectations, but the ensuing recordings of the vocals proved to be somewhat of a trial. Al Jardine called the experience "exquisite torture". Mike Love later said: "We worked and worked on the harmonies and, if there was the slightest little hint of a sharp or a flat, it wouldn't go on. We would do it over again until it was right. Brian was going for every subtle nuance that you could conceivably think of. Every voice had to be right, every voice and its resonance and tonality had to be right..." The end result was some of the most gorgeous lead vocals and harmonies ever recorded. And the melodies - some of which had very ambitious and unusual chord progressions - were no less intriguing, each composition treated with the same painstaking attention to detail as the vocals.
The charmingly naive and youthful Wouldn't It Be Nice opens the album and is widely recognized as one of The Beach Boys' highly beloved signature songs. Composed, arranged and produced by Brian Wilson, he also sang lead vocals – except for the bridge, sung by Mike Love. In Brian Wilson’s own words, it expresses the frustrations of youth, what you can't have, what you really want, and how you have to wait for it. You Still Believe In Me offers a glimpse into Brian Wilson's tortured psyche, his lack of self-confidence and his constant feelings of inadequacy ("I try hard to be strong / But sometimes I fail myself / And after all I've promised myself / So faithfully / You Still Believe in me / I wanna cry"). The timbre of the piano intro is very distinctive and unique, and it’s this type of inventiveness that puts the individual songs on Pet Sounds in a class of their own. Tony Asher elaborates: "One of us had to get inside the piano to pluck the strings, while the other guy had to be at the keyboard pushing the notes, so that they would ring." Unlike all of the remaining songs, That's Not Me actually features The Beach Boys playing the instruments. The lyrics deal with the contradictory feelings that arise, when you put too much emphasis on your own dreams and ambitions, only to realize how much you also need love in your life ("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”).
The gentle Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) pays tribute to the power of silence – the fact that sometimes words just aren't needed ("I can hear so much in your sighs / And I can see so much in your eyes / There are words we both could say / But don't talk, put your head on my shoulder."). It was a subject matter that was close to Brian Wilson's heart; he expressed himself by way of his music, but he was never a particularly verbal person and found it difficult to express his feelings even through song lyrics. At one point Brian Wilson sings "Listen, listen, listen", upon which a bass line simulates the beating of a heart. Brian Wilson: "One of the sweetest songs I ever sang. I have to say I'm proud of it. The innocence of youth in my voice, of being young and childlike – I think that's what people liked." I'm Waiting For The Day is a spirited if lyrically wistful song about wanting someone you can't have since that person is still emotionally unavailable because of a broken heart ("He hurt you then, but that's all done / I guess I'm saying you're the only one / I'm waiting for the day when you can love again").
A great example of Brian Wilson’s painstaking perfectionism is his immaculate vocal arrangement on this track. Dissatisfied with his band members' performances, he chose to sing the lead vocal himself and all of the harmonies. The tranquil Let's Go Away for Awhile is one of two instrumentals on the album, a warm and dreamy composition that perfectly captures the essence of daydreaming. It's a testament to Brian Wilson's talent as an arranger that he manages to make such an intricate arrangement sound this simple and unassuming. Brian Wilson: "It's the most satisfying piece of music I've ever made. I applied a certain set of dynamics through the arrangement and the mixing and got a full musical extension of what I'd planned during the earliest stages of the theme. I think the chord changes are very special. I used a lot of musicians on the track - twelve violins, piano, four saxes, oboe, vibes, a guitar with a coke bottle on the strings for a semi-steel guitar effect. Also, I used two basses and percussion." Sloop John B is the only song on Pet Sounds not written or co-written by Brian Wilson. The original recording was by The Kingston Trio, but since then this version has become a signature Beach Boys song, included on numerous compilations. With lead vocals by Brian Wilson and Mike Love (Brian Wilson sang the first and third verses, while Mike Love sang the second verse), the single reached No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Chart.
Technically sophisticated and melodically complicated, God Only Knows was an instant classic and Brian Wilson's undisputed stroke of genius. All of 23 musicians participated in the sessions, playing an eclectic selection of instruments ranging from drums, guitars, percussion, string bass, electric bass, danelectro bass, piano, organ, accordion, clarinet and bass clarinet, flute, harpsichord, French horns, baritone saxophone, and violin to viola and cello. Brian Wilson: "The idea summarized everything I was trying to express in a single song." Brian Wilson double-tracked Carl Wilson's extraordinary lead vocal to create a fuller and richer sound. Brian Wilson: "Well, I thought I was gonna do it. But when we completed creating the song, I said my brother Carl will probably be able to impart the message better than I could, so I sacrificed that one." Carl Wilson, who had only sung lead vocal on one song, Girl Don’t Tell Me off the 1965 album Summer Days (And Summer Nights), felt privileged to be given the opportunity to sing one of the greatest songs ever written. Carl Wilson: "I was honored to be able to sing that one. It is so beautifully written, it sings itself. I was really grateful to be the one to sing that song. I felt extremely lucky." I Know There's An Answer opens with a spirited intro consisting of bouncy keyboard licks, tambourine and deep sax, that instantly brings out the song's character and charm. Mike Love and Al Jardine sing lead vocals on the verses, and Brian Wilson sings lead on the choruses. As arranger he puts a bass harmonica and a banjo (among other instruments) to interesting use.
As the title implies, Here Today describes the fleeting/"here today, gone tomorrow" nature of love ("Right now you think that she's perfection / This time is really an exception / Well, you know I hate to be a downer / But I'm the guy she left before you found her"). Mike Love delivers a subtle lead vocal that suits the elegant structure and inventive arrangement of the song. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times is an eloquent rumination on the feelings associated with being different from everyone else and trying to find like-minded people with whom you can make a genuine connection ("I keep looking for a place to fit / Where I can speak my mind / I've been trying hard to find / People that I won't leave behind"). A big part of the reason for Brian Wilson’s frustrations was the limitations inflicted on his musical visions by other musicians, not least his own band ("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."). Brian Wilson: “All my friends thought I was crazy to do Pet Sounds." Among the musical instruments adorning this track is a keyboard-controlled variation on the theremin called a tannerin (also used on the seminal single Good Vibrations). Pet Sounds, the breezy and summery title track and the second of two instrumentals, was originally titled "Run James Run", since Brian Wilson imagined it as the theme of a James Bond movie. But as atmospheric as it is, it doesn’t really sound like one, though – it’s too mellow and devoid of drama for that – and has more in common with concurrent works by the likes of Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Juan Garcia Esquivel, pioneers of the Exotica genre (a fusion of the sounds and styles of Polynesia, Africa and South America plus the traditional string & horn arrangements of Instrumental Pop).
Caroline, No is an exquisite, mournful ballad. Tambourine, harpsichord, bass flutes and, of all things, an empty water bottle producing the unique sound effect that opens this track, comprise the light instrumentation, and the reverb-drenched production lends a distinct atmosphere to this composition, one of Brian Wilson’s very finest songwriting efforts and another instant classic. His melancholic lead vocal beautifully conveys the song’s emotional content, feelings of loss and regret (“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?”). This song ranks among Brian Wilson’s most memorable compositions. Brian Wilson: "Caroline, No" was my favorite on the album, the prettiest ballad I've ever sung. Awfully pretty song. The melody and the chords were like Glenn Miller...a Glenn Miller-type bridge. The fade-out was like a 1944 kind of record. Listen for the flutes in the fadeout." Released as a solo Brian Wilson single (presumably because he was the only Beach Boy appearing on the track), it reached a respectable No. 32 on the U.S. Chart.
A long line of musicians have expressed their admiration for Pet Sounds, most notably The Beatles, who were great admirers of Brian Wilson and his music, especially Paul McCartney: “I love the album so much. I figure no one is educated musically ‘til they’ve heard that album. I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried.” Pet Sounds is one of the most influential albums of all time. Its superior blend of intricate, gorgeous harmonies, adventurous instrumentation, ambitious arrangements and creative production, is an impressive achievement and still an inspiration to many artists to this day.