Monday, 19 December 2016

The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" (1966)

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The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" (1966)

Wouldn't It Be Nice?/You Still Believe In Me/That's Not Me/Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shadow)/I'm Waiting For The Day/Let's Go Away For A While//Sloop John B/God Only Knows/I Know There's An Answer/Here Today/I Just Wasn't Made For These Times/Pet Sounds/Caroline, No

"It's time to get Bingo and Max The Singing Dog really wailing!"

I have a confession to make, dear readers. Despite being as big a Beach Boy fan as any of you, I've never actually liked 'Pet Sounds' that much. *Pause* Well, we seem to be OK there so far, I expected the roof to fall in or some raging fans to attack me or something. Let's try a little bit more: Indeed, that album put me off for years because if the wretched 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' was meant to be the best the band could muster then they didn't sound like a band I wanted to collect.*Intermission* Well there's a surprise - I mean even people who hate The Beach Boys have been saying such OTT things about this album I thought the world would evaporate or we'd all become transformed into animals in the San Diego Zoo for daring to say something different. Let's try a little bit more: The best things about Beach Boys albums are generally the harmonies - and there aren't many on this record, which is generally a Brian Wilson solo record. The other best thing are the melodies and that's only partly true of this record where so many nice ideas just get swamped. Brian Wilson's genius for combining odd instruments together is heard a lot across this album, but more often it's used in a sickly lush and overly romantic way that ends up sounding annoyingly soft and artificial, like a bad 1940s movie rather than a great mid-1960s record. *Suspension* Hmm I'm warming up now, let's throw a few more things in there: Plus the one thing that everybody says is so great about this album is that it tells a whole 'story' of love from joyous beginning to sad ending - but The Beach Boys had already done that better on 'Today', plus 'Pet Sounds' includes everything in a 'jumbled' order so you can't really trace the story properly (in my view the tracks should run 1, 3, 4, 8, 5, 10, 9, 2, 11, 13) and what the hell do the two instrumentals and 'Sloop John B' mean in that context or are we meant to expect a romance in a sail-ship? *Hiatus*: I'm really getting into the groove now: 'Pet Sounds' is a case of the Emperor's new clothes - we keep being told by everyone how great it is and yet it's nothing more than a poor repeat of what's gone before it in reference to 'Today' and a far worse version of 'Smile' to come.

Alright, that's a little unfair and I know it's unfair. There are some amazing moments on 'Pet Sounds' to be found scattered throughout the record and I know it. The album is also home to one of all the all-time Beach Boys classics in 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times', a song that's impressively (and suitably) ahead of its times and 'God Only Knows' and the lesser known 'Don't Talk' are both gorgeous sighing romantic ballads any album would be proud to include. More than enough big names in the music business (Paul McCartney among them) have called this their favourite album and they know far more than I ever will. The moments when The Beach Boys do sing all together is glorious and few people used an orchestra like Brian when he was using it well. This is a record that sounds unlike any other ever made - honest, open, nakedly emotional - and that alone earns it several bonus points. The album's true hero too is all too often ignored though: it's not any of the Beach Boys (not even Brian!) but lyricist Tony Asher who despite having never written a song in his life (his trade was writing slogans for advertisements) has the rare ability to put the in-expressible into words. The lyrics throughout this album are phenomenal and already give this album more stars than most but, here's the thing (to my ears at least) the words don't belong with these songs or the production and Tony Asher might have been better off with a musician who wasn't quite so...cloying, while Brian was always better off with a writer who could think rather than feel.

The disconnect between the two is just too much for me as yet another heart-tugging violin dripping with artificial sentimentality arrives in view to 'tell' us how to feel and yet another performance ends up sounding way too sophisticated and grand for the very lonely, simple, vulnerable song hiding inside it. Orchestras have to be treated with care in rock and roll and here, as with the equally regarded Moody Blues album 'Days Of Future Passed' (which is also far worse than its reputation suggests), it's used badly. This record doesn't rock. This record doesn't even roll. Instead it sits there in a bath of its own tears, relegating the bits that could make it both rock and roll (the harmonies, the guitar and the drums) as a sideshow. The orchestra makes it too false to tug at my heart strings, much as I might admire parts of it and love this album when I read it rather than hear it. I would happily listen to every other Beach Boys album on repeat for hours (well, maybe not 'Still Crusin' or 'LA Light' but, you know, most of them) and yet I struggle to make it to the end of 'Pet Sounds' in one sitting because I'm just not moved by it or have any true emotional connection to it. My rather grouchy review this week is not because I hate 'Pet Sounds' (if nobody knew about it and it remained 'that weird album from 1966 that didn't sell' I'd be defending it - that's the nature of my 'job'), but because I'm tired of watching everybody call this their 'favourite album from the 1960s' simply through peer pressure when it's not even close to being the best Beach Boys album of the 1960s (even if I can't have 'Smile' I'd take 'All Summer Long' 'Today' 'Wild Honey' 'Friends' and '20/20' over this one). So many people only own this album and don't bother with the rest and still call themselves Beach Boys fans when they're missing out on so much brilliance that really does pull at the heart strings and take you to a place that's moving and gorgeous and wonderful. 'Pet Sounds' just sits there, banging two coke cans together and calling it art.

I'll explain what I mean because most of you probably disagree judging by the endless round of 'Classic albums' dedicated to this one LP: the way I see it the main issue for a Beach Boys fan is this. Brian is an intellectual instinctive writer. Goodness knows there's a lot of emotion running through The Beach Boys' catalogue, but by and large it's secondary to the thought process and Brian's musical curiosity: What instrument goes here with what? What are kids today really thinking? How am I going to fit enough space in the middle of this song to fit the whole band into it? Brian's head (at least for most of the 1960s) is the ultimate problem-solver as, Gemini Horse that he is, he works out a problem and solves it before most people have even realised there is one yet through hard work, observation and thought. Most Beach Boys albums are like this and they're spectacular: even when Brian is poorly his charm and innocence as he describes his thought processes (rather than his feelings) on his 'househusband' songs are what makes those works so special. However Brian is, by and large, unsure of emotions and tends to either use outside writers or feel worried about revealing so much of himself on his own songs. He feels out of sorts when his cousin Mike and his dad Murry start getting angry, by his own admission he struggled to express his emotion to his teenage sweetheart Marilyn and can only really translate his feelings through the language of someone else via the medium of music. In short, emotions are things other people understand and know how to deal with - for Brian, a lot of the time, they're a source of confusion and sorrow. Every other collaborator Brian every worked with, from Gary Usher and Roger Christian through to Van Dyke Parks and even his own cousin Mike, knew how to tap into Brian's character and use emotion as one part of an overall essence in a song that's primarily about chicks, cars or - in Van Dyke's case - the disintegration of society as America tries to come to terms with her heritage displacing native settlers. 
Feelings are there, but they're part of the mix, lost in the stereo, usually there thanks to other people (though Brian, as a singer, does emote as well and believably as anyone). 'Pet Sounds' puts feelings right up front and centre - and Brian's unsure what to make of feelings (even if many of the songs were written after chats with Tony Asher about hopes and fears) so he slathers them with an orchestra because that's how feelings sound to him (mushy and overpowering, right?) and crosses his fingers (or at least, that's what it sounds like to me). People have assumed that 'Pet Sounds' is the 'real' Brian, but I'm not convinced it is: 'Smile' is the real Brian, full of disconnected loops of thoughts and puns and segmented ideas that somehow roll into one moving whole that wouldn't sound anything on paper if any other writer was to join the dots (Indeed that's why no one else ever joined the dots of 'Smile' - only Brian could evermake that album). By contrast all of 'Pet Sounds' is already there on paper if you read the lyric sheet - too often the album itself comes over as slightly inferior window dressing. Or maybe it's just me: you see my feelings don't come in neat piles, with an orchestra attached and a piccolo solo. They sound more like a Who concept album on high volume, messy swirling and chaotic and difficult as that is I would hate to lice in the intellectualised world of 'Pet Sounds' my whole life. 'Pet Sounds' is by contrast a cosy world where the only people who really get hurt are the isolated, alienated protagonist on 'Times' and the mournful cry at the end of 'Caroline, No'. Maybe it's my problem - but I can't write reviews from anyone else's point of view, so I'm left with the feeling that too much of 'Pet Sounds' is underwhelming and all but the very best of that doesn't actually move me at all the way Brian and co usually can. If I was there in 1966 I'd actually agree with Mike Love not to mess with the formula - not because The Beach Boys should have stayed the same doing what they always did (they clearly couldn't be doing that and wearing striped shirts in 1966 and they were always about improving themselves, long before The Beatles turned up to give them competition) but because this sounds like just a 'wrong' path to me. And it's not the audience who couldn't keep up, it's the band.

In the past Beach Boys records have used instrumentation as colour and extra complexity to impress fans and peers alike so they go 'ooh, this sounds good!' 'Today' is the perfect example of how to use an orchestra in rock and roll - it stays in the background until sweeping the characters up in string-laden warm arms or sobbing alongside them right at the point when it's supposed to, when the narrators of [106] 'Kiss Me Baby' realise that their petty fight is really small fry compared to the huge overwhelming feeling in their hearts and when Dennis Wilson, of all people, reveals that behind his stud muffin exterior lies a romantic crooner looking for the perfect soulmate [108] 'In The Back Of My Mind'. The orchestra is hidden, subconscious and slightly dangerous, because it's not thinking, it's being. You always feel as if the still-teenagers-no-honest Beach Boys are doing their best to run away from the very adult lushness and responsibility kicking and screaming at their door but that it will catch up with them in the end. On 'Pet Sounds' there's no break from the orchestra, which makes it feel rather like an uncomfortable job interview for being an adult: do you have what it takes to cope with a world this crazy? Well, no. No, I don't. That's why I'm listening to a band who till now have been all about surf and turf (well, turf covered in girls and cars anyway). Though rock and roll instruments - the sound of teenagers, even on an album half a century old - do play across this album, they're subservient to the 'adult' instruments: a ukulele part here, a tambourine there, a flute or piccolo solo everywhere. The orchestra dictates everything and like many orchestras when allowed off the leash it seeps everywhere, with messy emotion getting in the way of all the fun and hugeness relegating the humble things the band are trying to say to a tiny corner in the bottom of the audio screen. These are, at heart, tiny songs about feeling small, lonely, misunderstood and wondering whether you're going to stay with your girlfriend for the rest of your life and grow old together or whether something's going to go wrong because you've already rowed three times this week and you're not even married yet (The Beach Boys had already done this theme far better on  'When I Grow Up To Be A Man' incidentally). They're hopes, dreams and fears - they're meant to sound small and under-nourished and a little powerless. But the use of so much orchestra, so many session musicians and so much flipping Phil Spector-style echo (which Brian never did truly learn how to use, though he admired it greatly) everything sounds massive when it should just sound small. This album would be beautiful if remixed one day to sound just that, small and humble, the way the songs feel like they ought to be. Instead it feels grandiose and large and unwieldy. No wonder this album took so many years to be celebrated as a 'classic': the whole sound is off-putting (at least to me) and it takes a whole before the true greatness of the record shines through.

Tony Asher is responsible for a majority of that greatness. His ability to understand the insecurities of every teenager and early twenty-something and to make these songs sound remarkably un-patronising once you're past that age should have made him one of the single most respected lyricists of his age. It's a tragedy that the only musical gig he could get after the 'failure' of this album was writing songs for The Partridge Family TV Show (I kid you not). As has been said before many times there's a whole story across this album and he captures every plot point brilliantly (even if they're in the wrong order). There's the impatient youngster of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?', the young idealist of 'That's Not Me', the loved-up romantic of 'Don't Talk', the blissful how-did-I-ever-live-without-you? of 'God Only Knows', the first fight of 'I'm Waiting For The Day', the angry 'Here Today', the suddenly grown adult of 'I Know There's An Answer', the all-gone-wrong-can't-believe-you're-still-with-me narrator of 'You Still Believe Me', the misunderstood where-did-everybody-go? recluse of 'I Wasn't Made For These Times' and ultimately the parting of 'Caroline No' when innocence is long gone. I can see why so many people love this album because everyone's gone through at least one of these stages and most of us have been through them all, multiple times. Goodness knows where the sleepy holiday of 'Let's Go Away For A While', the James Bond themed title track and the sea-sick 'Sloop John  B' fit in though. And yet the genius of 'Pet Sounds' is that it all 'reads' real enough for us to think that no one has ever been through them before and the narrator is talking only to us. 'Pet Sounds' is an album that's had it's heart broken so many times and yet it's still split between the usual Beach Boys dichotomy of hope and depression that represents a realist's view of romance and yet also why the high points of living are still important enough to go through the low points for. The album title even implies that it's all part of our animal instinct, some primal desire that makes us fall in and out of love that human beings just can't help (although in reality the title was Mike Love's indignation at being forced to make yet another take and complaining that his cousin 'must have the ears of a dog' because it sounded ok to him two hours ago and he wants to go home!) Tony nobly said once that he was just the 'messenger' for Brian's music, but that's unfair - no other collaborator got Brian to open up quite so readily about his feelings and though history has recorded this album as being pure Brian, I'm willing to bet that there's actually more of Tony Asher on here. Had 'Pet Sounds' been a book of poetry it would have been first class.

Thematically the theme of this record is loss and illusion, specifically about the moment when partners try to mix their different lives together in a marriage (did we mention Brian had been married a year when he started this album? The timing being almost exactly coinciding with his breakdown, which was as much about the marriage as the workload). On most of the tracks the narrator is either waiting for his first love to be old enough to marry or pining over her when his second love doesn't work out and every track comes with twinges of melancholy about the fact that things didn't happen the way he always dreamed of growing up. 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' is as much about 'gee I wish my illusions were real' as 'I wish I was older'. 'Don't Talk' has Brian still living inside his head and imagining the perfect love - the 'words we both could say' aren't needed, both because the feelings are strong enough on their own and perhaps (unspoken) because the moment the couple find out they have different visions of the future their illusion is shattered. 'Caroline, No' is the moment when it all goes wrong - when Brian realises that asking someone to stay the same as they were on their wedding day is not practical or possible or remotely fair, inspired by Marilyn's hairdresser messing up her usual hairdo and cutting it short to cover up the mess - Brian didn't like it and wanted her to stay the same forever! However on the other side of the coin both 'God Only Knows' and 'You Still Believe Me' show that love isn't doomed to failure or a fleeting illusion - that belief, trust and support can be the making of someone and offer stability in a world that's full of confusion. It's certainly a journey this album, which is why the passing train at the end of the record (while Brian's own dogs Banana and Louie, who sound very like our own Bingo and Max but less drunk, bark their heads off at it) is so apt: life is fleeting and though we can bark at change and 'progress' all we like, there's nothing we can do about it. No wonder this album only became such big news later: you weren't meant to say things like this or think about growing older in the 1960s; only The Kinks were doing anything similar and 'Village Green Preservation Society' won't be here for another two years yet. People are wrong if they think that 'Pet Sounds' is all about love though as many of the best tracks don't mention it all. 'That's Not Me' and 'I Know There's An Answer' are about growing up and thinking for yourself, even if it ends in the foggy isolationism of 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times'. If ever there was an instruction manual for coping with the obstacles of life then it would read like 'Pet Sounds', which is a warm arm around the shoulder and a comforting 'been there, done that, gone to the zoo and got the T-shirt' bit of recognition from authors to listener. If it had stayed like this then I could so see why 'Pet Sounds' is as loved as it is: few albums are as brave or as open about how tough life really is or how many things you have to learn rather than be taught. Truly 'Pet Sounds' is a phenomenal work in the psychological sense even if it isn't always musically.
The Emperor's New Clothes and cold shoulder I have with this album isn't with the songs at all but the way they're put onto record. I bought the pricey 'Pet Sounds Sessions' box set when it came out in the hope of discovering more about why people loved this album so much - and I admit the vocal-only mixes are superb and came close to changing my mind with all the extraneous noise removed. 

But I still can't get past the backing. Heard on their own these tracks are just lots of ideas being thrown together and Brian's usual ability to make music out of the most unusual combinations deserts him. The band are clearly thirty takes past their best on almost all the finished versions, however disciplined they are and I'd much prefer The Beach Boys themselves to have made this raw and honest record, however sloppy. The rhythm on this album is hopeless - that's what comes of having the drums drowned out by multiple percussionists and that banged can of coke of doom (on the start of 'Caroline, No' if you were wondering). There are too many 'false' moments that get in the way of the music's true heart as Brian compensates for not being able to 'feel' by 'overthinking' (to be fair, I do the same a lot) by using too much emotion even when it's obviously false: there's a sax solo on 'Caroline, No' that's so insincere it just causes the emotional interest in the song to plummet, while I haven't listen to the butchered false grins of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' in years the sheer artificiality hurts my ears so much the first time and the 'I wanna cry' break on 'You Believe In Me' is the most intellectual sob in the history of music, even hitting all the notes in the scale bang on in order instead of letting fly with real feeling. In case you're wondering what I mean, have a listen to the flop single [132] 'The Little Girl I Once Knew' written by Brian alone and released between the far sillier [131] 'Barbara Ann' and [144] 'Sloop John B'. As a song it's virtually the same as 'Caroline, No' though not as heartfelt  or intelligent. But it gets me everytime in a way little on this album does: the innocence of the vocals, the sudden jerky full stops that interrupt the flow and the carnival atmosphere played on just rock and roll instruments: it sounds like a teenager trying not to grow up. 'Pet Sounds', though written to largely the same demographic, is an adult pretending to be a teen.

Though 'Pet Sounds' is an emotional album at the core, the performances really aren't - they're inhibited and afraid to let go, which is unusual for rock and roll and especially for 1960s Beach Boys. Even the harmonica - one of the greatest and most soulful instruments in rock and roll - is used to sound like the most obvious soundtrack-to-a-silent-movie-punchline rather than delivering the blues. Ironically the one instrument that's perfectly cast across the whole of the album is the other-worldly theremin of 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times' - because, unusual as the sound is, that's exactly what the narrator is feeling, isolated and misunderstood; by contrast I can guarantee that most teenagers don't yearn to marry their girlfriends in future adult life to the sound of a xylophone as they do on 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' The famous line is that, as a producer, Brian was teaching classical musicians 'to play like rock musicians' but that's not true - instead he taught rock musicians to be classical musicians and that's what my ears can't handle. 'Pet Sounds' reads like an emotional investment, but it comes over like an opportunity to show off. Even Brian's knack for writing gorgeous melodies has largely deserted him, with only the pure beauty of 'God Only Knows' and the throbbing intimacy of 'Don't Talk' up to his highest standard. Everything else is a saxophone solo or an extra take away from greatness and all the excitement and energy has left the room. Even The Beach Boys themselves, usually enough of a source of energy by themselves, only get into these songs sporadically - Mike's gutsy vocal on 'That's Not Me' is impressive considering his mixed feelings about these sessions while Carl is so perfectly cast on the shy but triumphant 'God Only Knows' you wonder why it took so long to cast him (Brian was all set to sing the song at first and reportedly all the band were 'auditioned' for it) and Brian's own adult sigh is lovely on the original of 'Caroline, No' (pointlessly speeded up on the suggestion of dad Murry to make Brian sound 'younger' - that's so not the point of the song at all!) That's it though, in terms of band appearances, with even Brian sounding less than his normal stellar self. The rest of the time they've been told to sing this section so many times they've forgotten what this album means.

Some listeners - probably you - actually like that sort of  thing, in which case fine; you don't need me to tell you what you can or can't like and you can dismiss this review as grumpy witterings from someone whose lost the plot or never heard what you hear. That's fine: I'll content myself with loving 'LA Light Album' in a way that no others fans seem to get or going to my grave telling you why 'Trans' is Neil Young's greatest LP not his worst, honest. Maybe you've discovered something buried in this album I haven't found yet and that's ok: if I ever find it I'll be sure to update this review and tell you. But for me music has to be real or there's no point making it: I love lush and beautiful as much as the next reviewer but that only works when the songs have to be done that way; when the narrator's so head over heels he can't think straight (as per 'Don't Talk') - trying to make an impatient teenager or someone determined to make their own way in the world calls for The Beach Boys as rockstars, not classicists. Strange as it may sound I'm not alone either: I've, rather nervously, asked a few of my fellow reviewer friends their opinion on this album and a few of them have reviewed it before me and I think all of them agree with me, if not always for the same reasons. 'Pet Sounds' is an album that the average casual music fan likes a lot. But if you're enough of a mad passionate record collector to not only buy up most of The Beach Boys albums but also buy this book/read this article online then statistically it seems you're more likely to feel a bit left out when it comes to this album which seems to be for 'other' people who can't hear the beauty in the more raw and ragged songs and can see past the spit and polish. Interestingly, responses seem to be the other way round for this record's sort-of sequel 'Smile' (a much more intellectual and therefore suitably grandiose album that feels a lot more 'real' despite coming from the head rather than the heart): if you're a true blue record collector you love it; if you're a casual music fan you'll wonder why it had to be cobbled together from so many different itty bits and why it sounds so odd. There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to any of this (and I do know a couple of people who love both - and some people who hate everything The Beach Boys ever made, poor souls), but I've noticed this 'Sounds v Smile' gene come into play lots of times and its fascinating to watch and ponder about for hours and hours (I would get out more honest but I'm, uhh, 'waiting for the day').

In all my haste to explain why the likes of 'Sloop John B' doesn't rock my boat, I haven't really explained about how this album came about and why. Brian was so inspired by The Beatles' 'Rubber Soul' that he set out to write an album that would match it with 'absolutely no filler'. That doesn't seem quite true of either LP ('Rubber Soul' included the 'Help!' outtake 'Wait' because the band couldn't think of anything better and I'm not that convinced by Ringo co-write 'What Goes On' either'; similarly the very definition of 'filler' on Beach Boys albums are instrumentals and though more technically proficient this album's two instrumentals are just as much filler as [26] 'Stoked' and [46] 'Boogie Woodie'; outtake 'Trombone Dixie' sounds better than either to my ears) however it got Brian thinking, which was all that mattered. Brian was, by this point, around a year after his plane-orientated 'nervous breakdown' that saw him quit the touring band and concentrate on making music in the studio (his 'replacement' Bruce Johnston joins the studio band here too and makes his second real appearance on the coda of 'God Only Knows', which is about as important an introduction as you can get in any band's catalogue). Brian knew that he wanted to make the next Beach Boys album a shade deeper, after 'filler' albums 'Summer Nights' and especially 'Party' (an album made in three days to make up for the many months Brian had gone overboard making this one how he wanted it), but he knew his cousin probably couldn't help him (to be fair once he got going Mike Love was as adult and emotional a writer as anyone, but not back in 1966 when he was writing lyrics in a hurry before going out looking for girls he wasn't). Brian kept an eye out for a lyricist, while tinkering with three instrumentals (the two made the album and 'Trombone Dixie') and the new single 'Sloop John B'.

Always curious to meet other musicians his age and used to staying behind working when most sensible people were in bed, Brian met Tony Asher one morning overseeing the recording of some new jingles and invited him in to have a listen to his playbacks for the day. Though Tony wrote the music for the jingles really (the words weren't up to much), Brian was struck by his intelligence and thoughtfulness and discovered they had a mutual pal in Loren Schwartz (one of many Wilson party hangers-on in this period). Brian asked Tony if he fancied writing songs deeper than usual Beach Boys hits - no big deal, if they didn't work out, they could bin them! At first Brian considered writing an album of autobiography and started with a song known as 'In My Childhood' (a backing track was recording in readyness before the lyric was changed - which is why there's a bicycle horn at the end of the 'second' version 'You Still Believe In Me!') However Brian felt the song didn't quite work and probably feared Mike Love's ridicule ('Whose gonna be interested in your life story, huh?!') Which is where the decision to make this an 'everyman' album came in. Both Asher and Wilson were recently married and big thinkers, arguably over-thinkers, and both admitted to the other their worries about whether they'd made the right decision, whether they'd fallen for the right girl and whether they would always be happy the way they wanted to be. Slowly these conversations drifted, as they so often did with Brian, into piano 'feels' while Tony tried to feed in bits of their mutual conversations into words (I don't know about you but I'd love to hear the songwriting demos one day if they still exist - a hesitant, faltering, primitive version of 'Pet Sounds' seems like just the way to hear it without the orchestra and complexity!) Selling these songs to the other Beach Boys was more of a struggle though. Contrast to general opinion Mike Love didn't tell his cousin to get lost or refuse to sing on the album (aside from 'Hang On To Your Ego', which he refused to sing on as a 'drugs' lyric - it got changed to 'I Know There's An Answer') and actually gave Brian more praise that he probably had in his life up until that point (while Dennis and Carl, particularly, adored it), but Mike did explain his worry that their teenage audience wouldn't 'dig' it and there was general murmurings that perhaps this record should be a solo work. For a while it was, with a 'test' single of 'Caroline No' (with the vocals-less 'Let's Go Away For A While' on the back) released under Brian's name. When this flopped Capitol and the rest of the band insisted: this was beach Boys or nothing (even so, only 'Smile' and 'Beach Boys Love You' feature quite so many Brian Wilson lead vocals; Mike was reportedly hurt that he wasn't asked to sing more, while Dennis and Al barely featured at all except for the odd background vocal).

Actually it was very nearly nothing. Capitol weren't that keen on the album either and predicted an early death, with-holding most of their usual promotional money and insisting on an album cover at the zoo to appeal to younger fans (which didn't help sales either - they all saw the goats and said 'are you kidding me?!') and releasing a 'greatest hits' set mere weeks after 'Pet Sounds' came out to kill off sales. Capitol pushed for the title too, named after Mike's suggestion, even though Brian and Tony didn't like it - actually it's rather fitting if you take it as either a subversive play on man being a typical primordial beast with animalist urges but also the intelligence to be confused by what he feels and hears; the fact that it's also a (probably unintended) pun on 'heavy petting, music-to-make-out-to' which is what this album is all about under the air of respectability on the surface, also makes it highly apt. Carl's spot-on comment of the time: 'Well, you sure couldn't call it 'Shut Down Volume Three!' American fans were confused and were starting to drop The Beach Boys a little bit anyway (though next release 'Good Vibrations' won most of them over again) and most of the world followed suit, except in Britain where Bruce Johnston stopped off on a solo publicity tour, leant copies to every pirate radio station he could find and The Beatles came out in favour of it (with help from press officer Derek Taylor who plugged it to all his friends too). As a result the album did quite well in the UK, but lousy elsewhere and became a bit of a cult album amongst fans - not that respected, not that revered, but never openly hated either. It was 'Good Vibrations' that had people dancing and with jaws stuck open with astonishment; by contrast 'Pet Sounds' was only ever cool because it was Paul McCartney's favourite album and he was sport enough to say so even at the time. Even an after-the-fact coupling of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' and 'God Only Knows' did relatively poorly the first time round, peaking at a US high of #8 (the same as overlooked 1965 single  'Dance Dance Dance' for comparison's sake and far below made-in-a-minute 'Barbara Ann').

So when did this album start appearing at the top of '1000001 classic albums you must hear before you die even though you'll die earlier by going bankrupt collecting all these obscure records and going without food and heating to pay for them and finding out most of them simply appeal to the lowest common denominator anyway' lists? In 1979 and the peak of the new wave movement, oddly enough. Rolling Stone Magazine were doing one of their usual end-of-an-era polls and ran a typical column on people's best albums, with each of the reviewers given space to plug their favourites. Dave Marsh went to town on the album (the 1972 re-issue was reviewed quite positively in the same magazine, even if it was called 'dated'), people suddenly sat up and listened, looked out the album for themselves and slowly the album edged it's way towards to the top of the listings. There was a point in the 1990s when every rock documentary made some mention of 'Pet Sounds' and people fell over themselves to call it their 'favourite' ev-uh record and thus the cult became the mainstream and Brian proved that he really wasn't made for his times after all, but for about thirty years or so hence.

Is 'Pet Sounds' really that good though? Really? I mean it's clearly too good and made with too much love and attention to wallow in the back of people's record racks un-played for all those years and the UK record sales are closer to what this album deserves than the US sales, but the best album of all time? (Give or take usual suspects 'Sgt Peppers' 'Revolver' 'Astral Weeks' 'Dark Side Of The Moon' or 'OK Computer' depending which poll you're using). Hardly. The mood that comes across is so often entirely different to the mood you're meant to be feeling, with music and especially production going in such a different direction to the lyrics that's it more confusing than anything else. There are some tracks, such as 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' and the two instrumentals which are just irritating, like a hyperactive toddler grasping at your sleeve and wanting you to feel what they're feeling, without the joy or beauty they're obviously intended to have and which The Beach Boys usually provide in the 1960s. Even the greatest moments, like the two true superlative compositions 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times' and 'God Only Knows', somehow feel as if they should be something more - or less, being too pretty by half. A bit more rock, a few more rough edges and a chance to hear The Beach Boys harmonies front and centre instead of being drowned out by a tuba would have helped this record's standing in my eyes (and ears) no end. And yet there is undeniably something compelling about 'Pet Sounds' even to me: the songs' sharp directness, the utopian longing for something that everyone in this album knows can never be fulfilled ut which doesn't stop them looking for it in vain anyway and the bittersweet nature of being a teenager with so much of your life to come ahead of you, good and bad. So, yes, there is in short, a lot to love in this album. I can see why it appeals to so many. I can see why Brian worked so hard on making his vision come true. And I can see why such an unusual sounding album had to wait so long before getting the respect it deserved (and then some, on top). I know now, but I had to find it by myself rather than simply take it for granted from my peers. I still prefer 'Smile' though.  

Most of the time I love my 'job'. Instead of keeping all this stuff in my head where these thoughts are always playing, I get to bore other people with it by putting things on paper. On occasion though I have a real issue with something one of my 'pet' bands release - normally that's ok because everyone else is confused by them too (what was Neil Young thinking on 'Greendale' or The Rolling Stones on 'Black and Blue'?) but every so often I come across a song that I hate which everyone else seems to live. I'm afraid 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' is one of my real bogey tracks. This is where the 'falseness' I've been describing really comes into play the most and it's utterly depressing because the old-look Beach Boys would have handled it so well. The opening surf guitar lick is an obvious nod to the past, but the band of 1964 or 1965 would never have allowed it to have been played so badly or drenched in such Spector-echoey repetitiveness. And then there's the drums: they don't whallop, just thump, as if Hal Blaine has just woken up out of a deep sleep. The Beach Boys harmonies are all over the place and drowned out by the sea of piano, accordions, basses and percussion. Brian's lead vocal is his most shrill and unpleasant until the 'Dr Landy' years in 1980s (when any old vocal will do if it gets Brian's therapist a paycheck). Even the attempt to go all symphonic falls flat because, unlike the gorgeous opening to 'California Girls', this isn't an opening or a peek into what the essence  of the song really is behind the mask but a whole load of noise that's running out of control and is simply too big. There is a great song in here, touching on the old Beach Boys themes of love and fear and impatience, as the narrator longs to grow older so he can be an adult, get married and be 'happy' even though you can tell from the restless energy and the unusual minor key switch near the end of the verse (dispelled by the yell of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' dream every time) that he already knows that growing up doesn't work that way. Tony Asher's lyric is as spot on as teenage worry gets, but Brian's melody doesn't suit this song: it's full of wide sweeping languid notes that don't match this song's impatience and restless energy but have been sped up to sound like it anyway. Almost all Beach Boys songs are crafted with love and care, but this one hasn't been in terms of composition and in terms of arrangement has been over-crafted to the point where all the joy has been sucked out of everything. And joy is meant to be the whole point of this song which is crying out to be fleet of foot but instead sounds as if it has the world on its shoulders. Wouldn't it be nice if this song was, you know, as nice as everyone says it was?

'You Still Believe Me' somehow manages to become the best mix of melody and lyric on the album, even though the melody and backing track were recorded around a completely different song and despite the fact that this was the first piece Brian and Tony ever wrote together. Originally the song was 'In My Childhood' and came complete with bicycle bells o the fade (which, unusually, were left in the final mix down of the song where they make for an odd yet atmospheric coda). You can hear a lot of The Beatles' 'In My Life' in the melody - and we know that 'Rubber Soul' (it's parent album) was Brian's starting point for this project. However, just as John Lennon started out trying to write a different song entirely and only wrote his lyric after a late night snooze in which all his abandoned ideas coalesced into something more universal, so 'Believe' turns into a song that's less about Brian and more about the people he relies on in his life. Brian knew he wasn't perfect husband material - he worked hard in those days, had big parties with lots of his doping friends (whom his wife hated) and already considered himself a little bit odd after a childhood spent with poor hearing and abusive parenting. Though everyone always calls 'Pet Sounds' an album of honesty, this is the really honest moment in which he speak-sings to Marilyn that 'I'm very aware you've been patient with me' and that he tries to do his best, he really does, 'but somehow I fail myself'. In the single best arrangement touch on the album Brian hums along to a plucked piano (that took forever to get right according to the outtakes!) like a bank of angels and then sings solo, fragile and alone, until a stunning Beach Boys chorus enters on the 'still believe in me' chorus line. Brian's not as alone as he thinks he is and the result is terrific. However even here the arrangement is so big it's cloying: this should be a simple and vulnerable little song and instead it's covered in a fog of harpsichords, oboes and bicycle bells. Plus Brian's very musical howl of pain (followed by Mike's echo) is everything that's 'wrong' with this album - this should be so real it hurts and instead everything has been tidied and sorted into a musical scale. Brian should have believed in the capacity of his real feelings to move other people instead, but that said there's no denying the beauty of Tony Asher's lyric which is sensitive without being cloying.

'That's Not Me' is the closest thing to a rocker on the album. It's an extension of the lonely fragile narrator we've already heard in a few Brian Wilson songs by now ('Don't Worry Baby' 'In My Room') who feels out of place in world too matcho and dog-eat-dog for him. It's also about finding your place in the world and realising that you've bitten off more than you can chew - the narrator is homesick and over-ambitious, realising that he's only trying to please his 'girl' and the world's too big a place for him. However interestingly Brian hands this lyric over to Mike to sing and it actually works really well - Love mastered double-tracking quicker than the rest of the band and he attacks this song with the same bravado as on this album's polar opposite 'I Get Around', hinting that it's all 'bluff'. Even the rhythm recalls 'I Get Around', so it's a shame that yet again the band overcook what should have been a relatively straightforward simple song and plaster it with echoey surf guitars, bass rumbles, a Hammond organ that's at least ten years out of date and a complicated tambourine part that's just distracting. For all that though this song works well too, with a magical moment in the middle when Brian takes over for a line 'Pete Townshend in The Who' style on the line 'you needed my love and I know that I left at the wrong time' and later 'I'm glad that we went now we're that much more sure that we're ready', like a Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder ('When you wish upon a surfer girl' remember) telling what he 'really thinks'. Plus a second magical moment when this staccato, aggressive, punchy song finally lets go on the long held notes on the word 'dreaaaaaaaam', as if this is the one thing to hold on to that isn't falling apart. Again, remix this song with half the instruments missing and I'm a huge fan but the finished product? Bah - it's lost all the emotion again! Given that all the band were actually involved in playing this one (with Brian on bass) new boy Bruce was nominated to 'direct' the session from the control room floor!

Thankfully emotion comes into play nicely on the stunning 'Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)', the one pure romantic nugget on this album that deserves the lush arrangement Brian gives it here (in fact the song is even prettier without the lyric and just the strings and is the highlight of the 'Pet Sounds Session' set). Two Brians, using slightly dodgy double-tracking, asks his girl simply to lean back on his shoulder and enjoy the moment. Depending on how you read this song this is either two lovers so telepathic they don't need voices to communicate with or Brian's narrator is so lost in the fog of what might be in their future lives to come that he doesn't want to find out what she's 'really' like and ruin the moment - for as long as she stays silent he can dream that they're a perfect match. Either way this lyric is so simple it's profound and one of the best on the album, nicely matching this song's long drawn out sobs. The moment when a swooning Brian urges his girl to listen to his heartbeat as if it's the most profound thing in the world is beautiful and builds up to what should be a terrific climax - and yet the song's biggest problem is that we don't get a percussive heartbeat at all, but a full lush arrival of the strings which overpower the song completely. How much better would it have been if Hal Blaine's drums had slowly burst into life right on cue? Brian's a touch shrill too and really should have re-done both vocals over again (indeed I'm amazed he didn't given his perfectionist tendencies on so much of the rest of the record). That's the performance though - as a song this is faultless. Listen, listen, listen! The track released under the name 'Unreleased Background Vocals' on most CD re-issues of the album is actual Brian's multiple vocal demo for this song so the session musicians could hear the 'feel' he wanted.

Tony didn't write the lyric for 'I'm Waiting For The Day' - this song was a last minute addition written to a Mike Love lyric to try and calm the singer down a bit (and a re-write of a song copyrighted as long ago as February 1964!) In a way you can tell - Mike tries hard to write in the album 'style' and very nearly gets away with it, but you can kind of tell that this song's tale of jealousy, split and reunion isn't as autobiography as some of the others on the album. Brian sings it in a very odd manner too, as if he's trying to hide his emotions even though this song is arguably as emotive as any on the record, as if keeping his distance (oddly enough I've thought that for years but only now discovered that Brian agrees with me and says it's the one vocal on the album he didn't like. I doubt we agree on much else on this album, though!) Once more the orchestra gets firmly in the way, with a Mantovani-style arrangement that tries to be lush and romantic, even when the lyric is actually quite realistic and brutal by this album's standards, about the narrator and his lover working out whether they can forgive the other for straying or not. By contrast just listen to how much punchier the song is after the false ending when a bunch of 'dooby doo aaaahs' and a real live rock band (well, organ drums and bass anyway) start playing and Brian actually starts having fun on the vocals, perhaps reflecting what he's secretly thinking ('You didn't think I could sit around and let him take you!' he screams, in comparison to the slow keeping-it-together tone of the rest of the track). If only this bit had come earlier I'd really like this song, but this is not a track born for piccolos and flutes, it needs to be harder and angrier for the 'trick' of Brian 'pretending' to be a nice guy and covering up his real feelings to work.

Oh dear. Suddenly the orchestra gets a whole track to itself and 'Let's Go Away For A While' sounds to my ears like an attempt by Brian to match what his father was up to the jazz lounge album 'The Many Moods Of Murray Wilson'. The thing is though, Murray spent his life listening to these types of records - Brian's just an interested outsider, curious as to what bits fit together to make up those sounds but without any real instinctive feel for the genre. So instead we get 'The Beach Boys jazz party album' in miniature, complete with a surf guitar that doesn't fit at all and more raucous percussion. The 'idea' behind this song was that the lovers were 'stressed' and needed a vacation and dreamed of taking one together and just doing nothing - whether they actually go or not, at least they thought about it was the idea. It was also an in-joke, as early in the songwriting partnership Tony leant Brian an album by hip comedian John Brent titled 'How To Speak Hip' in which one of the lines was ';if everyone went away for a while then we'd have world peace!' That's a nice concept, but this instrumental only really says as much in the title not in the music, where this piece could really be about anything without any feelings of travel or relaxation (or maybe I've just been on the wrong sorts of holidays?!) The entire performance was recycled on Neil Young's film and soundtrack 'Journey Thru The Past' in 1972, weirdly. Oh and interestingly, despite Brian never mentioning any lyrics and indeed calling this his 'favourite instrumental' of all the ones on all The Beach Boys sessions, Capitol timesheets that came to light in 1995 proved that a session to add vocals to this track was booked during the last day - which became the day of mixing instead. No one knows what the lyrics would have sounded like!

Meanwhile, over on side two, the whole concept has gone to pot. Capitol insisted that latest single 'Sloop John B' be on the album even though it really shouldn't be here at all - or indeed part of The Beach Boys discography. A traditional song much covered by everybody, it's too obvious a choice for a band who were always trying to do something different with each single and another backward step to 'cover' songs to follow 'Barbara Ann' (even if Brian still got a credit for 'arranging' a traditional song). To be fair the arrangement is what - nearly - saves the song, as the band's harmonies criss-cross to exciting effect and Brian throws lots of extra in verse by verse to keep the song entertaining till near the end. But once again the song doesn't rock the way it should: this is a song that should have the band themselves for and aft, not port and starboard and this time an even simpler tale of homesickness on the high seas creaks under the weight of too many instruments, with the flat flutes particularly sour. Al Jardine was the one who recommended the song to Brian, having been trying to steer the band in a more folk-rock direction for a while and says he was shocked when he heard the backing track which wasn't at all what he expected (along with the two instrumentals 'Sloop John' was the first Beach Boys song to be recorded in this elaborate orchestral way). Al also expected, perhaps naively, to be the Beach Boy to sing it and the track would have suited his slightly sour voice more than the falsetto Brian gives the track here - actually the elder Wilson 'auditioned' most of the band to see whose vocal would work best before cheekily nominating himself for most of the song - I bet that went down well with Mike! Outakes on the 'Pet Sounds' set feature a rather moody vocal from Carl and Brian singing all the way through, even the verse Mike gets on the final product. The finished version sounds better, but in context of the sterling work The Beach Boys had been releasing on 45 rpm single across the past few years this track seems like a step backwards in any version, with the band drowning rather than swimming when it came to inspiration.

Thankfully 'God Only Knows' is there to take the pain away. 'God Only Knows' is always there to take the pain away. Underneath all the controversies (this was the first song to use the word 'God' in a lyric and in a few countries received a radio ban), underneath another largely superfluous and fussy arrangement, underneath an often audibly nervous Carl Wilson singing only his second lead on a Beach Boys song, lies perfection. Some say this is the loveliest suicide note ever written (in one sense it sounds as if the narrator isn't just imaging the worst, the worst has happened - 'the world could show nothing to me so what good would living do me?'); others that it's actually a goodbye' song (what other romantic love song starts off with the line 'I may not always love you'?); others still that this is a song more at face value and, like 'You Still Believe In Me' a song of gratitude for love and support. The warmest moment on 'Pet Sounds' by a country mile, it's the track that makes the rest of the album 'work' - without this expression of what true love means what would be the point about worrying over when love starts, when it ends or what we have to do with our lives to be in a position to have it at all? It's also the least cluttered of the orchestra songs here and therefore the most immediate - though even then Brian had to be urged to pare back his ideas for the tune (early versions features Brian's wife and sisters in law The Honeys and a full Beach Boy chorus plus 23 musicians and a noisy tag, the latter included on the 'Pet Sounds Sessions' set; the final version features 16 and just Brian and Bruce singing along with Carl. Sometimes the best things really do come in the smallest packages.

Perfect sequencing has this track at the heart of the album too where it belongs (even if it makes 'Sloop John B' sound even more flippant). Like those other great AAA love songs 'The Air That I Breathe' and 'Maybe I'm Amazed' (a McCartney song clearly influenced by his favourite ever song on his favourite ever album), this song manages to be simple yet profound and personal yet universal, as Brian again salutes Marilyn for standing by him no matter what. Thankfully, unlike 'You Still Believe In Me', the romance goes both ways, with Brian (via Carl) telling her that regarding their love 'you'll never need to doubt it - I'll make you so sure about it'. Though 'God' is only mentioned in passing and never specified (it's an expression, not a religious message) this song does have a certain spirituality to it and the feeling that something bigger than the couple is at work and guiding them. Brian's single best melody on the album is equally inspired, having so much fun exploring every nook and cranny of the chord structure he's given himself that it's a delight as the song balances being rooted and supportive but also footloose and fancy free. In short, 'God Only Knows' has everything and considering his nerves a not-yet-twenty-year-old Carl Wilson makes his brother proud on a song that could have been tailor made to his soft romantic tones. God only knows where this album, The Beach Boys career and music in general would be without it. One of the album highlights by a country mile.
While Brian struggled with some of the other arrangements on 'Pet Sounds', he was luckier with the songs which tended to fall into place quite naturally. All except 'I Know There's An Answer' which took a while to get right. One of the things Brian talked about with Tony was his growing interest in soft drugs - the sort of things every musician was taking in 1966, though in The Beach Boys Brian was on his own (he should have formed a club with Hollie Graham Nash!) The first draft for this lyric, named 'Hang On To Your Ego' and sung begrudgingly by an angry Mike Love (who hated all drugs), was pure drug taking chatter - the title came from the idea of holding on to yourself so you didn't 'drown' in LSD-fuelled thoughts of collective consciousness (which is kinda what happened to Syd Barrett and in many ways what happened to Brian a year later, fuelling undiagnosed schizophrenia according to his doctors: the original draft of this song ended with the lament '...But I know you're going to lose the fight' which seems poignant in retrospect). Though Tony wasn't a drug taker either he picked up on Brian's drug parlance well - too well for Mike who demanded a second go and feared not just poor sales but copycat drug overdoses from fans. Even though what people miss is that at its heart 'Ego' is an anti-drug song: Brian can see so much creativity but people go too far, 'they trip through the day and waste all their thoughts at night' while speaking to anyone on drugs he finds them 'defensive'. It's as if he got Tony to write this original lyric from his cousin or even his wife's point of view. The second lyric is superior anyway, fitting in less with the way Brian was living his life and more about this album's everyman figure, trying to fit in and discovering that growing up isn't what he thought it would be like. Brian keeps the complaints that people pretend to be nice 'but inside are so uptight' but moves on to talk about 'safety zones' and instead of hanging on to his ego the narrator 'knows' there's a right way of living but it's not the way his elders and peers tell him it is. Instead of being taught Brian has to 'learn' how to live life his way - which is in itself a pretty sneaky way of getting his comments on a drug lifestyle past the censor to those that 'know' anyway. Once again, though, the backing track lets the song down - this should be sharp-edged and punchy, liable to crack at any moment - and instead it's a sleepy lagoon of percussion that rub all the hard edges away and more strings, plucked this time. Only the harmonicas capture the ear and only then because they make such an odd sound, more like a croaking frog as they jump on this song and shake it to pieces en masse. I know there's a great song in here somewhere, but it's on the lyric sheet and in the combination of Mike's churlish scowl and Brian's adamant falsetto - not the backing.

'Here Today' is perhaps the weakest song here. No classic album should come with the rhyming couplet 'You know I hate to be a downer, but I'm the guy she left before you found her!' and the backing is even sillier than usual, with Carol Kaye's usual exquisite bass playing reduced to a wobble and far too much keyboard banging on all at the same time. It's kind of a psychedelic 'She Loves You' this song but with larger emotional stakes as the third party isn't the narrator's friend but his exes' new lover. Talking out loud about where all the hope and innocence of the first side went wrong, this should be the turning point on 'Pet Sounds', but instead it just comes over as just another anti-love song. The chorus about impermanence is sung in such a rigid way it misses the point completely - this is a song that should be always changing but the closest we get to that is the paranoid instrumental section in which for once on this album nothing much happens (it's based on a Bach fugue, apparently - Brian's in rock and roll, the world's greatest musical art form, he shouldn't be pitching his ideas so 'low'!) The 'twist' in this song is that the narrator clearly still things for the lover who spurned him and wronged him and he's deeply jealous at watching another man go through what he once went through, 'remembering things like they were'. But that isn't clear on this song - instead it's a loose thread left dangling that isn't really picked up on and is easily Tony's weakest lyric for the album (he admitted later that it was his one lyric for the album he 'couldn't identify with' and that Brian didn't like his original lyric, condensing it down to a much simpler idea). At least this short song is over with quickly though, here and gone so fast. 'Caroline, No' served the love-gone-wrong theme perfectly well on it's own - we don't need a second track making the same point so clumsily and we certainly don't need it at this stage in the album where it sounds so out of place. This is also the scene of perhaps the biggest engineering disaster on any Beach Boys record - no, not the famous coughing this time but a very noisy discussion between Bruce Johnstone and a teen magazine photographer that plays throughout the instrumental break - or at least it is on the original mono, it got taken out of the stereo mix (to be fair it's more interesting than what the organ's playing!)

'Pet Sounds' was once voted quite highly on a poll of 'albums guaranteed to make you cry'. Notwithstanding the fact that The Spice Girls is what makes me cry the most (in pain!), the one track on this album that gets to me every time without fail is 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times'. For once the lyric, melody and arrangement are all perfectly in alignment and saying the same thing: this is the sound of someone on their own, but trapped in a world that isn't taking any notice (just as Brian's double-tracked vocal sleepwalks his way through a mammoth every changing landscape of sounds that don't take any heed of what he's up to at all - listen to the backing track sometime, it comes across as an entirely different song). Lyrically too this is the bravest song on the album by some margin: all the love songs, though deeper than the usual Beach Boys teenage romances, are still identifiable but this song is something different. Brian (via Tony)'s narrator is alone, a pioneer, longing to find someone who cares as often, thinks as deeply and sees and hears as he does. Even though Brian was hugely popular ain 1966 and went to more parties than the Royal Family, he still cut a lonely figure by most accounts, always searching for the collaborator who knew what he was feeling and thinking (Van Dyke Parks was still the closest he came to finding his own mixture of thoughts and feels), with the rest of the band staying at the same point in their journey and the his new wife just wanting him home, not exploring the inside of his head and the outside world in equal measure. Brian's composure, held throughout the rest of this album, breaks on his single best 'Pet Sounds' vocal as at last he commits to the music and breaks your heart with the words 'sometimes I feel very sad'. The lyric is kind of prophetic too: in 1966 everything Brian had touched turned to gold (with the exception of forgotten singles 'Ten Little Indians' and 'The Little Girl I Once Knew' - even so The Beach Boys never spent longer outside the top five than three months up until the end of 1966) and yet here he complains that everything he puts together, sooner or later, falls apart. He gets the inspiration to 'change things around, to make the world a happier and more beautiful place - but all gets is puzzled looks from 'fair weather friends'. As if to prove the point, three Brians sing lead on this song as if there's no one else up to the job and the hard-to-hear lyric sung near the end ('Can't find anything to put my heart and soul into' and 'People don't wanna hear where I'm at!') is the perfect contrast, effectively the sound of Brian arguing with himself. Melodically too this lovely lilting song is the perfect vehicle for such a lyric: it's like a long sigh, stretching even Brian's powerful lungs almost to breaking point. The use of the theremin (months before the even more lauded solo on 'Good Vibrations') is also perfect: of course the solo should come from a pioneering sound that had never been heard before (except on Hammer Horror films) - it's other-worldly bleary-eyes is perfectly cast for the role and the instrument was never better used by anybody than here, a ghost in a world that works to a different sound. Of course, typically, this gorgeous song is the one on the album that most fans claim not to like - I guess as a reviewer too I just wasn't made for these times. Whatever anyone else says, it's a fantastic song and one of The Beach Boys' all-time best moments.

Unfortunately the 'Pet Sounds' title track is one of the worst. Originally titled 'Run James Run', Brian toyed with sending it into the producer of the James Bond franchise, but decided better of it - just as well because it would have been one of the weirdest, weakest Bond themes. What it sounds like is one of The Beach Boys' early surfing guitar instrumentals injected with LSD, only instead of Carl's excellent work we get session-man Jerry Cole who just isn't up to the job or loose enough over a typically dull 'Pet Sounds' backing of horns, strings and so much percussion it's hard to tell where the main beats of this track actually are. Brian says he wanted to make a film score the way Henry Mancini (who worked on the Bond themes) would sound if he worked with Phil Spector, but the end result is pure Beach Boys filler, with a boogie woogie riff that isn't that appealing played over a backing that sounds as if it couldn't care less. Easily the worst thing on the album, even 'Trombone Dixie' would have been preferable over this one - at least that had a proper tune! This is also the first of two consecutive songs to feature Hal Blaine hitting coca-cola cans for a percussive effect, but it's an effect that works much better on...

Lost love lament 'Caroline, No'. Brian was, as we've already seen, a nervy husband - unsure if he was marrying too young, or to the right girl and his insecurities only grew worse as his music and his drugs tool him further away from Marilyn. As it happens their love was strong enough to take not only these differences but Brian's future collapse too and the pair remain married right up until the 1990s. However Brian didn't know that then and back in 1966 feared that he could already see the cracks in their partnership. Matters came to a head when Marilyn's hairdresser made a mistake and cut her hair short and badly - the couple were obsessed with each other's hairdoes (Marilyn always says that's what first attracted her about Brian back when she was just another Beach Boys fan) and agreed to keep the same ones their whole life through. When the mistake happened Marilyn didn't think much of it (she wanted to grow it back anyway) but in his fragile state of mind it devastated Brian who saw it as a 'sign' that the woman he married wouldn't always stay the same person. 'Marilyn' became 'Caroline' to keep the song less personal, although it's still close enough to the original to make it clear how personal this song is with its lines of betrayal and bitterness. For the second time on the album Brian talks about crying and he sounds more like he means it this time - but the curse of 'Pet Sounds' rears its head again as the most artificial instrument (the saxophone) plays its most artificial solo in rock and roll history straight after this line. Only Brian's held caterwaul at the end (on a painful extended cry of 'nooooo!') sets the song right again, before the backing band sadly play out, coca-cola cans at the ready, as time ticks down to the inevitable. Brian was desperate for his wife to hear his hard work and kept 'Pet Sounds' from her until the album was mixed and finished and they stayed up all night listening to it over and over. Though she adored 'Don't Talk' and 'God Only Knows' (the two songs most obviously written for her) she cried through this track as she heard for probably the first time all the thoughts that had been running through Brian's head that he hadn't expressed to her directly. In a way 'Caroline, No' is a cruel way to end this record. Yes it makes sense that the arc of a relationship described on the record should end in failure, but this isn't a record that even began to tell its plot in order and it feels ugly this song, as if Pet Sounds' ultimate message is telling us not to bother because love will always fall apart in the end. Despite what we said earlier about 'God Only Knows; being the heart of the record, that song belongs here, even if 'Caroline, No' itself gets the perfect ending with Brian's own dogs barking at the bad 'vibrations' (seriously, that was what Brian was getting at - his mother Audree had been telling him about how dogs only bark at certain people they distrust and how they'd suddenly started doing it to someone she knew so he must have 'changed'; this is where 'Good Vibrations' comes from too) and a train rushing past, running on to a new destination to start the same journey all over again, though perhaps with less innocence than was heard on 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' Famously this song was sped up on the advice of father Murray who thought Brian sounded too old and this song too sad (this was said to be the only comment he made on an album Brian had been eager to play him). Not for the last time Wilson senior was wrong and Brian should have found the answer by himself - the original speed mix (included on the 'Sessions' box set) is so much more moving somehow, even if the pitch isn't that different and the two mixes only have a few seconds difference.

Overall, then, 'Pet Sounds' has some truly brilliant ideas and a couple of the best songs The Beach Boys ever released. However I have the same problem with it that I do whenever I hear some casual fan pronounce 'Sgt Peppers' as the best album The Beatles ever made and they dismiss all the other ones that are actually better. The truth is 'Pet Sounds' catches a general public mood like no other Beach Boys record. There are no references to surfers or cars and there's none of the charming but fan-only insights into the narrow world of Brian Wilson in bed which happens later. People assume too, I think, that just because something has an orchestra slapped on it then it must be 'art', but actually the orchestra is what gets in the way of this album and the thing that makes it truly dated and not as timeless as people call it (in the same way 'Sgt Peppers' is just that shade too summer of love to make much of an impact post 1967, though clearly at the time the album was the perfect mirror of the times). They say that anyone whose loved and lost can identify with 'Pet Sounds', but actually I feel far more emotional resonance with 'The Beach Boys Today' than I do with this record - there not every song worked but those that were meant to be emotional absolutely moved me in lyric, melody and form. Here there's always something working against this album, an over-laden arrangement or a clumsy couplet or a weak (by Beach Boys standard) melody that means 'Pet Sounds' is always pulled back to earth before it can soar (maybe that's why it's set in a zoo?) I don't hate this record by any means but I must confess I still don't understand it or see inside it the things that so many other people are said to see. For all of the talk of this record's ambitions it's still just a bunch of love songs and only really comes together when those love songs comes from the head not the 23-piece orchestra; equally for all the talk of elaborate complex arrangements Brian had done far better than this on past Beach Boys records - not just 'Today' but parts of 'All Summer Long' 'Summer Nights!!!' and 'Shut Down Volume Two' as well (horn drenched 'Our Car Club' is way more complex than anything here). In his haste to make this revealing Brian also sang way too much of this album himself - the record really comes alive when Mike and especially Carl get involved too and make this less of a personal record and more of a universal one. Frankly any record without much Beach Boys harmony presence is a bad record in my book, even one made with as much love and care as this one. This record isn't terrible by any means, but 'Pet Sounds' is a lot nearer to being the worst Beach Boys album than the best one in my book, without the band's usual lopsided charm, goofy humour, big hearted ballads or funky rock and roll songs to keep it upright. Most of you - maybe all of you - will probably disagree with me and hey, that's OK. Albums mean different things to different people - and though I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that fans don't always agree with my esoteric choices neither of us has to be 'right' and this isn't a competition. Whatever gets you through the night is alright, even if it's a 20 piece orchestra playing poor James Bond themes. But the one message that comes through from this album co clearly and strongly is that we should be thinking for ourselves and being true to what we believe or 'that's not me' - and 'Pet Sounds', I'm afraid, isn't me at al. Now 'Smile' on the other hand...

Other Beach Boys reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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