And now back to our regularly scheduled presentation on Radio Friendly.
Welcome back to After the Hype. This week I’ve ditched the modern music of the twenty-tens and travelled back to the swinging sixties when communism was the scariest word to mention to a middle-class white man and free love reigned supreme. It was an era of experimentation; in fashion, lifestyle and music. Artists began to shift from what was considered the norm thanks to the rise of rock and roll the decade earlier. The world knew of Elvis, now it was time to take what Elvis made popular and mix it with a cocktail of uppers, downers, screamers and laughers and see what came out the other side. The result were bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground and The Beach Boys to name a few. All bands started out with humble beginnings, hell the first Beatles album is pretty much a covers album, but they evolved to become some of the biggest bands the world has ever known. And yes, to evolve, these bands dipped their finger in the magic baggy a couple times, but it gave birth to some of the best albums ever created. Or so every music publication online says. Enter The Beach Boys’ magnum opus, their 1966 album Pet Sounds, frequently listed as the best album of all time. The best.
To understand this album, I found that I needed to understand the time of its release and how it fell in line with other Beach Boys albums. Before Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys were a surf band playing early rock and roll songs. The band were distinguishable because of their multi layered vocal harmonies and catchy song composition, showcased in songs such as Surfin’ USA, Surfin’ Safari and Surfer Girl. Fun fact, none of The Beach Boys could surf, but they say by adding the word into the title of their songs, they were able to portray themselves as the laid-back surfer dudes and persuade girls into sleeping with them. I lie, I’m sure some of them could surf. The fame the band received from having so many surf related tracks was tremendous, and I doubt it could be recreated today. In saying that, The Beach Boys were pumping out albums left, right and centre, as well as an intensive touring schedule which became too much for the lead member Brian Wilson. Wilson is also credited as the band’s composer and producer, who eventually had a panic attack on tour due to the stress. He withdrew from touring to focus on song writing, production, and starting a healthy relationship with psychedelic drugs. And so, Pet Sounds was born.
Pet Sounds is the first album in The Beach Boys’ transition into more experimental and psychedelic melodies and arrangements. But it’s hailed as the best album of all time because of its song writing, composition and obscure production techniques for its time. Wilson has stated in the past that he wanted to mimic what The Beatles did with their album Rubber Soul, often considered to be one of the best Beatles records. Rubber Soul doesn’t have the big hits we’ve come to know from the band, but it’s a fantastic record from start to finish with experimental song writing and more importantly, no filler tracks. Wilson wanted to mimic to an extent, having every song stand on its own and as well as work harmoniously as an album, but to also improve and innovate with the album’s production.
Every man and his dog know the opening song to Pet Sounds, Wouldn’t It Be Nice. It’s often hard to listen to what would have been innovative at the time, when you’ve heard the song littered throughout pop-culture for the past fifty years, but there is a larger musical landscape in the track that wasn’t seen in earlier Beach Boys music. It’s almost orchestral as deep horns bellow behind the pitch perfect vocal harmonies. The large sound continues onto You Still Believe In Me which opens with a vocal line mimicking the piano melody. The sound echoes as if it’s recorded in a cathedral, but I also found it extremely annoying to listen to for the first few times. Pet Sounds’ obscure instrumentation is also featured on this song as bicycle bells are played towards the end of the song. The thick sound is amplified further with rich harmonies that give the song a royal atmosphere, even though Wilson’s lyrics are quite bleak.
Pet Sounds is often hailed as more of a Brian Wilson record than a Beach Boys record, and I’d have to agree. His lyrics are personal throughout the record, and it’s only if you understand the story surrounding the album that you get any satisfaction from them. Of course, there’s God Only Knows, the song everyone’s mum likes. Even though I’ve heard it countless times, and I’m reminded of it every Christmas when Love Actually is on TV, it is a beautiful song. In a time where all the sounds and production techniques Wilson used can now be replicated on a laptop, it’s impressive to hear and understand his innovative ideas were all captured live in the studio. From the subtle strings that lay underneath the instrumentation, to the flutter of keys that float in and out of each verse, to the impressive harmonies and interweaving vocal melodies; it’s a timeless song that stands on its own, something that Wilson wanted to achieve.
I also think there are duds on the album. If every track was on the same level as God Only Knows, then I’d call it the best album of all time. But there are songs, like That’s Not Me and Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) that lack in comparison. Both songs have elements that I like, but they don’t appear until half way through the song. I don’t really want to listen to a boring first half to then hear the ten seconds that I like later. And usually the elements I like are when the full band is singing, when I can hear the interweaving composition that I am expecting from Pet Sounds. The album also has filler instrumental tracks that are technical and impressive in their composition but ruin the flow of the album.
Tracks like Sloop John B and I Know There’s An Answer are memorable, the first being one of The Beach Boys’ most famous singles that doesn’t have the word surf in it. I feel that much of the magic of the album comes from the story of the album and how it was created. The making of the album is much more interesting than the album itself, and people get caught up in that instead of the music. There’s no doubting that this is a fantastic album, the harmonies from the band members are great, the arrangement of the tracks is impressive, and the production still holds up to this day, but I think the album is severely over-hyped and overrated. Wilson’s song writing is very personal, more personal than in any other Beach Boys’ record, and if you aren’t invested in The Beach Boys mythos, or the Wilson mythos for that matter, then much of what he is saying will be overlooked. Yes, you can throw your personal experiences into his lyrics, as many people do with God Only Knows, but I don’t think Pet Sounds should be listed as the greatest album of all time.
Pet Sounds is not worth the hype.
My time with The Beach Boys has been fun though, I’ve enjoyed listening to their music. I think I like Smiley Smile more though (the album after Pet Sounds). It’s weird as fuck.
After the Hype is a weekly series where I listen to an album after the hype dies down and give my general thoughts, sometimes a little whinge. It’s ok to disagree.