The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
Only one of The Beach Boys could actually surf but it wasn't Brian Wilson. In fact, it was his brother Dennis who, similarly, was the only member of The Beach Boys to get close to living the life of a beach-bum in the sixties. It was also Dennis who suggested to Brian Wilson that they might want to write a song about surfing, which looked like it was going burst into the popular press in 1961. But it was Brian who wrote the song and it was Brian who kept on writing Surfin' USA, Surfin' Safari and Surfer Girl.
Yet, it was also Brian who, on Surfer Girl's accompanying album, wrote In My Room, which was a moment away from the beach in which Brian told of hiding in his bedroom to escape his abusive father. In My Room was a world away from the candystripe shirts of the band's image and when The Beach Boys reached their ninth album, Beach Boys Party - a 'live' and informal album that was actually recorded in the studio - hindsight can impress on the listener the sight of Brian seated amongst the giggling girls in the studio and thinking, "Alright...you've had your fun but things have gotta change in his band." At the age of 23, Brian Wilson had had enough of pretending to hang out on the beach, was physically sick from playing live and knew he looked stupid wearing a candystriped shirt. Most of all, he'd had enough of being some gimmick when The Beatles had just released Rubber Soul to acclaim from fans and critics alike and knew that if he had to go back to Beach Boys Party, he'd still be wearing candystripe and singing I'm Bugged at My Old Man until the day he died.
Having met him once before, Wilson called advertising executive Tony Asher and, with the latter taking a break from his job, the two of them saw out 1965 at Wilson's place sitting around a piano trying to get close to who Brian Wilson was. What Asher found was a man stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood but having not left the innocence of youth behind him. Wilson could spend hours on the latest proto-hippie philosophy or talking about some girl he'd seen walking in a park the day before but always came away disappointed as whatever guru or aspiring actress took up his time and made off with his money. As Asher got closer to Wilson, Pet Sounds began to take shape, with most of its thirteen songs taking one regret or another, eloquently written by Asher against Wilson's already breathtaking music. So, Wouldn't It Be Nice respun the old story of 'we're too young to get married but are still in love', Caroline, No described the disappointment on seeing an optimistic and innocent young girl grow into a bitter woman and That's Not Me saw the character voiced by Wilson faking everything to fit in but in doing so, realised that it only made his life worse.
Yet, if Pet Sounds is lyrically heartbreaking, it is musically uplifting. When Wilson sings, "I wanna cry" in You Still Believe In Me, his voice soars towards Heaven. When, in Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder), Wilson's character has an argument with his girlfriend and neither of them find the words to say sorry, he urges her to "Come close, close your eyes and be still / Don't talk, take my hand and listen to my heart beat" whilst behind him the bass guitar matches the beat of his heart. Behind the words of every song, as Wilson stands heartbroken, there are complex harmonies, rhythms and melodies, none of which are ever difficult. I'm Waiting for The Day, for example, ebbs-and-flows around rhythms and melodies that are constantly changing but each moment is full of such invention that even as the years pass between one's first and most recent listen, it continues to reveal a little bit more of itself.
Of course, Brian Wilson knew The Beach Boys were no longer capable of recording the music he was then hearing as only the best - Phil Spector's Wreckin' Crew - would suffice. Brian knew that Spector wasn't required, nor Spector's arranger Jack Nietzsche - both would only obscure the messages between Brian's head and the hands of the performers - so he simply brought in the Wreckin' Crew and jumped between studios to get not only the best sound but also access to the best instruments. As a result, Pet Sounds is so terribly sad but has the immediate impact of the very best pop music and with such a rich, deep soundtrack that even Phil Spector, who Brian Wilson competed with throughout the sixties, would have fallen in love with this album.
Disappointingly though, Pet Sounds was not without its detractors, notably those closest to Brian. According to Nick Kent's profile of Brian Wilson for the NME in 1975, both Mike Love and Murray Wilson, Brian's father, were disparaging of the new direction in which Brian was taking the band. Beyond comments attributed to Mike Love that, "...it sure sounds different to the old stuff", Murray could see all too clearly that his control of the band and of Brian had slipped away. All he could do was to predict Pet Sounds' eventual commercial failure from the sidelines but Brian, hopping around studios both day and night, heard these words fade into silence. Sadly, Murray was proved right - Pet Sounds sold significantly less than Capitol expected although the UK embraced it like no Beach Boys album before it - yet the year of its release was also the year that pop's greatest ever single - Phil Spector's production of River Deep, Mountain High - bombed so maybe it was simply a bad year for visionary pop. Not that Brian Wilson seemed to really care though, as he was then producing Good Vibrations and planning Heroes And Villains, both of which were to prepare the way for Smile, the album that he hoped would forever see The Beach Boys as the greatest pop act of them all.
Nothing really needs to be said of what happened to Brian Wilson from that point on as quite enough has been written about it already with a kind of ghoulish fascination. One sees a parallel with Icarus, with Brian Wilson flying so high and so close to the sun that it was impossible for his short flight to last forever. It is entirely apt, therefore, for Pet Sounds to end with the sound of a departing train - it disappears into the distance not only as does one's youth but also Brian Wilson's astonishingly sudden rise to greatness.
Pet Sounds has a reputation of being one of the all-time great albums and, for once, it's a reputation fully deserved. Should it catch you at the right moment, Pet Sounds is capable of taking you on an unforgettable trip into the big, big soul of a genius whose all-too-frail spirit broke when in trying to cope with the sounds in his head and a world in which he needed reminding that, whatever else happened, there was still love out there to be found.