Pet Sounds in 2016

Music of the dying generation

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  1. Music

Written by Arran Goerge

2016 will definitely be a year we look back to, tumultuous at the start and disheartening in its conclusion. With icons dying every other day, it seems like the world of music has been at a wake for the last year, and just when everyone starts to pack up and go home someone rushes in and tells us that another person is dead. This year has become so linked with death, I fear every time I see a musician in the mini Facebook headlines, every song link posted is a cause for concern, and every mention could be the obituary for one our heroes.

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With 2016’s penchant for death, it seems only fitting that we take a look back to one of the major musical achievements made exactly 50 years ago this year, Pet Sounds; and to give a mention to the greatness and joy we as fans have found in the music of the dying generation, hopefully before it’s too late.

When I used to think of ‘The Beach Boys’ as a concept, I used to think what most other people my age thought about them: 60’s boyband with a few surfing songs aimed at a young white audience in America, basically a Californian pastiche of The early Beatles. However, as any music fan of this generation finds out when they are stoned and looking through “Rolling Stones: 500 Greatest Albums” list in an attempt to find the perfect immersive experience, there is something unexpected hiding around the top spot of all of these lists.

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For many people, the idea that The Beach Boys or ‘Pet Sounds’ isn’t on permanent display in the pantheon of musical greatness is a cause for outrage, but I’m sure many young people share my first presumptive thought of the Beach Boys and don’t want to stray down that road. No-one is brought up in the U.K ever dreaming about a sunny American ideal that died out 50 years ago. The aesthetics and ideals of this era appears only to millennials as a backdrop to The Doors biopic or as a fleeting glance in ‘Mad Men’. From the outside it seems as though it lived a short exciting life of bikini’s, beaches, surfboards, sunshine and suburban teenagers. I always assumed it was the romanticisation of that era that gave The Beach Boys their place in history.

However, just a little bit further down the beach staring at the last of the driftwood bonfire was Brian Wilson, he was watching the last of the party leave and was fearful his legacy to the world would be singing about the beach, cars and girls. He had listened to ‘Rubber Soul’ by The Beatles and was adamant to create something just as special. Unfortunately for him however, there was a slight dampener on his dream. The Beach Boys’ place in the music industry of the mid-sixties was as a commercial hit making band, not unlike the Beatles were just a few years earlier. Wilson had probed at a more explorative sound on 1964’s ‘All Summer Long’ with xylophones and piccolos; expansion of their iconic sound was also apparent on The Beach Boys’ ‘Christmas Album’ of that same year, with the inclusion of a 41-piece orchestra.

However, with The Beatles dropping the astounding ‘Rubber Soul’ and creating a much more complete and coherent album than their peers, the thought that The Beach Boys were to do the same thing was something that divided the band, management and record company.

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Wilson recorded all of the tracks first, allowing for the rest of the band to turn up and sing his melodies over them. But after the instrumentals were heard by the rest of band for the very first time, there was friction and fierce opposition to the peculiar and bizarre arrangements which were recorded. There was also a dispute over the nature of the lyrics, with many opposing there sombre and reflective nature. Although this may sound narrow minded and limiting upon reflection, it is important to remember the Beach Boys’ audience and their expectations. A comparison to an artist working today may be a 2015 One Direction dropping a reflective and sonically experimental album, needless to say it was a big risk for everyone invested in The Beach Boys at that time, thereby making it a brave and controversial decision.

Prior to the recording of the album Wilson suffered a panic attack while he was on an aeroplane, just two hours after performing with the group on the American television show ‘Shindig!’. This lead to a temporary retirement from performing live, and a more focused and creative attempt at writing in the studio; it was also around this time that Wilson began experimenting with psychedelic drugs such as LSD. Only a week after taking his first acid trip, Wilson started to experience auditory hallucinations which have stayed with him his entire life. Those auditory hallucinations eventually made their way onto ‘Pet Sounds’ in the form of dogs barking, trains rushing by, plastic jugs and sleigh bells.

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Regardless, it is the albums overall impact that is staggering, there is scarcely another singular album that has had such a profound impact on the way music is recorded and written. ‘Pet Sounds’ gave us Art Rock, it echoed classical forms and new-classical ideas such as Klangfarbenmelodie and expressive timbre. It’s overall dreamy sound has went on to influence dream-pop, 90’s indie, 70’s Prog, Stoner rock and even Vapourware.

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It was Wilson’s bravery to follow the ideas that he had in an attempt to create something that many believed wouldn’t work, or just weren’t talented enough to attempt. The albums more mature and questioning nature makes it a perfect evolution to the naivety and endless optimism of the Beach Boys earlier work, like a confessional conversation over cigarettes at the end of a party. The lyricist Tony Asher worked closely with Wilson on the conception of the songs and Asher’s evocative lyrics work perfectly with Wilson’s melodies, especially on the most tender ballads such as the butter melting ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’. Therein lies the true essential beauty of ‘Pet Sounds’, the use of expression.

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Has there ever been a more beautiful melody than ‘God Only Knows’? The last segment of which sounds like tsunamis of vocal harmony crashing into each other each existing only to advance the emotion of the subject, leaving any sense of ego behind. There is so much to be learned and enjoyed from this album, the richness of the textures, the precision of The Wrecking Crew as backing band, the harmonies, the exploration of timbre and non-rock music instrumentation.

It would be an understatement to say that the world would be at a loss without Pet Sounds, the landscape of music today would be nowhere near as varied as it is, and the inspiration that has been mined from this album still protrudes contemporary music. James Blake for example, is a very Wilson like figure, maybe in a much more modern sense, but the use of intertwining and complex backing vocals over contemplative and expressive lyrics and melodies finds its true beginnings in ‘Pet Sounds’.

If you are still not convinced, try watching the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy”. Admittedly it is not a great film, but the central story of Wilson and the Beach Boys recording this album and the toll it took on its creator is a story that is fascinating, saddening and hopeful. If all else fails just light a candle and listen to the full album in the dark on headphones, just like Brian Wilson intended it to be heard.

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