The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

There’s an argument to be made that the Beach Boys are the Great American Band. But as much as I love the Beach Boys, I’m not entirely comfortable making that argument. I figure there are really just two elements to the title: quality and influence. Now, the influence is considerable. But I have to attribute that mostly to Brian Wilson, as the influence stems from the production techniques and instrumental and vocal arrangements. Yes, the Beach Boys sang those harmonies, but I feel like we’re really talking about the contributions of one guy here. And as for quality, well . . . The band had four distinct phases: a) the early period of radio hits and very uneven albums with a lot of filler (not unusual for the time, though); b) the very short “genius” period of Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” and the overexamined Smile effort; c) the organic retrenchment of the Brothers Records era, with mixed results, into the mid-70s; and d) the oldies act time, post-Endless Summer. This isn’t a perfect framework, but the point is that the Beach Boys enjoyed no era of sustained greatness, even though they made excellent or at least very good music during most phases of their existence (though this is before you make accommodations for the contributions of VanDyke Parks and Tony Asher). So, very influential (with an asterisk) but with a spotty record of sustained quality.

What I Think of This Album

The truth is I don’t love this album the way some people do. I respect it and am awed by it, and there are certainly individual tracks that speak to me, but overall, it takes too much work to really enjoy. It’s like brussel sprouts; great, but only when you put in the effort.

I basically split this album in two. There are the songs that I enjoy on a gut level:  “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “I’m Waiting for the Day,” “Sloop John B,” “I Know There’s an Answer,” and “Here Today.” These songs are incontrovertibly wonderful. Then there are the tracks that you just have to sit and listen to and try to figure out what is going on. Some, frankly, aren’t worth it.

The title track is pure self-indulgence – percussion on Coca-Cola cans, so what? – none of these sounds are in the service of an actual song. Similarly, Wilson is said to have bragged about “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” that it was unhummable. But that’s not a laudable attribute in a song. That said, I am not sure Wilson was interested in songs, per se. This album is about production techniques, instrumental and vocal arrangements, genre mixing, and ultimately, control. This is much more a Brian Wilson solo album than a Beach Boys album, and Wilson pretty much did what he wanted. And his achievement is stunning.

First, Wilson incorporated into his songs instruments and sounds either rarely used in rock (e.g., cello, timpani, french horn) or not used at all (e.g., bicycle bells, dog barks, bottles). Second, the way he recorded these instruments – building off of Phil Spector’s techniques – created new sounds, and he did it using only three tracks of a four track recorder. Third, he figured out these complex instrumental arrangements in his head, with no formal training, and despite being deaf in one ear. Fourth, he similarly arranged the vocal harmonies, devoting six tracks of an eight track recorder to them, and relentlessly drilling the other Beach Boys into perfect performances, teaching each of them their lines individually. Fifth, his songwriting went beyond the bounds of conventional rock, incorporating unusual chord voicings, multiple key changes, and obtuse melodic paths. Sixth, the album became – arguably – a launching pad for prog rock, orchestral rock, psychedelia, the idea of the musician as auteur, and elevated the importance of the studio (not to diminish the work of Spector or other predecessors) and the producer.

I’m not going to go into each song here, but just listen to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (that opening drum hit is majestic) or “Sloop John B” (the acapella dropout) or “God Only Knows” (the rounds at the end should go on forever), and if you like what you hear, then spend more time with the other songs.

My 1990 reissue adds three bonus tracks, including “Hold On to Your Ego” (which is just “I Know There’s an Answer” with different lyrics) and the goofy “Trombone Dixie.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“This is the worst trip / I’ve ever been on.” Look, how do you pick between masterpieces like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”? You don’t – you go for the one good joke on the album.

Release Date

May, 1966 (original); 1990 (reissue)

The Cover Art

The worst thing I can say about it is that it’s silly. Also, farm animals are not pets, so that doesn’t really make any sense. I am not a fan of band photos as cover art, but at least this is staged in a non-traditional fashion. I do like how the band name and album title flow together visually and I like the green banner; I am agnostic on the songs being listed on the front. Note that Mike Love is the only band member not feeding a goat, because Mike Love sucks and probably hates animals (and the goats probably hate him back, as they should, because Mike Love sucks). Dennis Wilson, meanwhile, appears to be feeding an imaginary goat (though he is feeding a real goat with his other hand).

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