Pet Soundings

Pet Soundings

A Music Essay by David Daniel

Let me confess right up front. When the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album dropped fifty-eight years ago this month I was one of the naysayers.

In the early and mid-1960s you bought albums (such an exotic concept today!) based upon the appeal of singles that duked it out for position on AM radio playlists. In greater Boston that meant WMEX for rock ‘n’ roll, and for R&B there was WILD. FM stations—where the show “hosts” (not “DJs”) would speak in intimate tones and spin longer cuts and even entire album sides—were still a couple years away.

The initial single from Pet Sounds, “Caroline, No,” released several months ahead of the album, failed to strike sparks, prompting Capitol Records execs to worry. To their corporate ears (and checkbooks) the album was more a Brian Wilson solo venture, not extracted from the rich vein of SoCal ore the band had up till then mined with stunning success. Short of deep-sixing the entire LP project they rushed out as a second single, “Sloop John B,” which caught a bit of the old magic, reaching #3 on the Billboard charts, and the album followed.

I remember standing at the record racks in TV & stereo department of Gilchrist’s in Quincy, holding Pet Sounds. Decisions that involved spending the $2.99 on the $1.25-an-hour pay of a burger flipper required sober reflection. I considered the song listing—“That’s Not Me,” “I Know There’s an Answer,” “Here Today.” Nothing jumped out at me. True, “Sloop” was a good singalong on the travel bus to away basketball games, but it was a retool of a traditional song, not an original. And that photograph on the album sleeve. No surfboards, no street rods, no wahines in bikinis. Where were the bros in baggies and bleached hair? Instead you had five guys in cardigans, wearing “are-you-sure-these-things-won’t-bite?” expressions as they fed goats in a petting zoo. If this was supposed to lure the legions of fans living in Dubuque and Altoona and Syracuse looking to conjure a California vibe and hungry for the promise of fun, fun, fun, it was a bust. For me, the album had missed its moment. I left my wallet in my pocket.

Turns out I wasn’t alone. By 1966 the Beach Boys had enjoyed amazing success and stood second only to the Beatles in record sales (which may be news to Slim Whitman and Harmonica Willy fans); however, unlike their earlier LPs, Pet Sounds’ reviews were mixed and sales were off. Maybe, as music journalist Johnny Morgan opined, fans “wanted to dance, not sit in the dark listening to bicycle bells and dog barks.” So, yeah, no . . . I wasn’t an early adopter of Pet Sounds, and like something glimpsed in the rearview it faded from my life.

It didn’t reappear until several decades later, after I’d been to college, served in the army, had a writing and teaching career. I came upon a used copy (I still had a turntable), bought it and really listened for the first time. Among the heroes and villains on the disc there were none of the rock-steady teenage dudes of “I Get Around” and “Be True to Your School.” There was no curl-shooting hodad ready to spirit away pretty girl in his woodie; no gearhead revving hell out of his badass 409. In short, the album offered no manifestations of teenage cool that, back in the day, in my own lack of same, I had been expecting.

The characters of Pet Sounds are older, loners past the hormonal wash of adolescence and now vulnerable and uncertain about their lives. These are seekers in an uncertain world. Beach life, hot cars, burger stands, surfboards? Get real, man. Even the up-tempo songs have a plaintive note. So what changed? Where did this music come from?

Anyone who has seen Love & Mercy or read any of the countless articles and books about “America’s Band” will have some idea. Brian, his mind long tweaked by father issues, acid trips (an experience he described as “spiritual”), and the demands of his own ambition and early success, finally cracks. From 1962 to ’65 the Beach Boys had been delivering three albums a year, much of the load falling on him. Now he abandons touring to concentrate on writing and producing. Bands in those days often were more performing seals than creative artists. Albums were a mishmash of unconnected songs bundled around a hit single or two. Even for the Beatles it wasn’t until Rubber Soul (’65), and for Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited (’65), that the notion of “concept,” or album as art, took form. In the Beach Boys’ case it was Pet Sounds.

From his earliest music, Brian Wilson’s world was a reverse telescoping: California > my family > my town and school > my room . . . experiences he managed to universalize for listeners. With Pet Sounds the inward gazing achieves its apotheosis. While there’s never mention of larger externals—political assassinations, civil rights fights, war in Vietnam (leave all that to Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, Marvin Gaye)—Wilson’s self-contained realm is not a peaceful one. The ground for the new work was already there in embryo in songs of adolescent introspection like “In My Room” (’63) and “When I Grow Up to be a Man” (’64), and expanded later in songs like “Til I Die” (’71) and “Sail On, Sailor” (’72), but here was an entire LP about isolation and loneliness, of feeling cut off, (“my friends when I told them said that’s not me…”), of a guy’s willingness to take it on the chin for his failings as a romantic partner. Pet Sounds plays like a threat assessment of the encroachment of GROWING UP.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is an annunciatory opener—but dealing with getting married!? “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” is a fine slow-dancer, but gone is the wistful ingenuousness of earlier songs (like “All Summer Long”—“Remember when you spilled coke all over your blouse…”: was there ever a more high-minded line? That belongs in the dictionary under Songs of Innocence, alongside the Everly Brothers’ “Only trouble is, gee whiz … I’m dreaming my life away”).

On Pet Sounds even a tender ballad like “Caroline, No” is an aching meditation on mutability and time. This ain’t the little (surfer) girl we once knew. “Who took that look away?/ I remember how you used to say / You’d never change, but that’s not true.” And the “change” theme continues on “Here Today” (i.e. gone tomorrow) and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” Wilson later revealed that he did most of the singing on Pet Sounds because he needed to directly voice how he felt inside. And on two songs—“Let’s Go Away for A While” and the album’s title track—the music is so expressive no lyrics are needed.

The Beach Boys band members were ever only adequate musicians, never virtuosos. The virtuosity came in the form of Wilson’s writing, arrangements, and production. The sophisticated orchestrations and layering of voices, which elevate even the sometimes-anodyne lyrics, seem to rise from his hearing them in his head (possibly an ironic benefit of his being partly deaf in one ear?). While the band was on a world tour, Brian was at work at home, so aside from their singing, the others are largely absent on Pet Sounds, their instrumental duties having been handled by the top-tier session pros.

With adolescence and young adulthood such a locus for his music, it’s fair to wonder if Brian Wilson’s imagination ever got out of high school (I’m pretty sure mine never did). At the point of developing Pet Sounds, when he’d have been 23 (an age when John Keats was writing some of his finest poems), did Brian reckon himself at a crossroads? Attend to his own inner pulse or go on fulfilling the demands of fans who (like me) expected the old familiar. In this regard I was little different than Mike Love whose initial reaction to the album was supposedly, “Don’t fuck with the formula, Brian!”

But 1966 was a good year for fucking with formulas. Along with Pet Sounds (in May) there was Sounds of Silence (Jan.), Blonde on Blonde (Feb.), Aftermath (June), Revolver (Aug.) and Buffalo Springfield (Oct.), each in its own way revolutionary. Where Pet Sounds was a marked departure from the Beach Boys’ fare I was so connected to, is in thematics, orchestrations, harmonics, and technical innovations. It’s in the oddball choices, like the use in “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” of the theremin, an electronic instrument associated with scary movies (and which would shortly gain monster prominence on “Good Vibrations”). With the album’s layering of voices, ethereal instrumentation, tempo changes, choral effects there are times when it seems as if the music is going to collapse into cacophony, but it doesn’t. Wilson is in masterful control and the record is a sonic feast (great to enjoy with headphones).

Brian Wilson’s experiences with drugs and alcohol wouldn’t always be “spiritual”—would at times spiral out of control. And there was his mental illness. Pet Sounds would be (in this listener’s revised view) the band’s high-water mark. There were some popular and critically-hailed albums to come—the post-modern Surf’s Up (’71); and Endless Summer (’74), a two-platter serving of nostalgia—but the long-promised (and catastrophe-stalked) “teen symphony” Smile when it finally came, forty years late, was a head-scratcher that fell far short of its hype. By then brothers Dennis and Carl were gone, and the Beach Boys had settled into autoplay as a durable nostalgia machine. The “America’s Band” moniker—like being inducted into the R&R Hall of fame—was a gorgon’s kiss.

Maybe it was true as Brian had sung on Pet Sounds, he “just wasn’t made for these times.” In January of this year he lost his devoted wife Melinda; and the current news tells us he is now under guardianship as his dementia has worsened.

Enough. These are just one fan’s notes and oversimplified opinions. God only knows that musically I’m a slow study. It was years, for example, before I learned that Dick Dale, “King of the Surf Guitar,” was born Richard Anthony Monsour and grew up in the Lebanese section of Quincy Point, a mile from my home turf. But then, I didn’t need to know that, because aside from some noodling by Carl (like on “Miserlou,” an old Eastern Mediterranean folksong popularized in the U.S. by Dale) the Beach Boys were never really a surf band anyhow. Their musical inspiration was—go figure—the Four Freshmen.

Looking back across nearly six decades I think wouldn’t it be nice if my first reaction wasn’t to shy back from Pet Sounds but instead to embrace it. But I didn’t. I wasn’t looking for depth, I wanted sensation, a beat, the known. Ensnared in my own small world, I considered the album out of its time, when instead it is timeless.


14 Responses to Pet Soundings

  1. Joshua Shapiro says:

    I have listened to, read about, and played along to Pet Sounds for years. For me, it is not just the Beach Boys’ high water mark; it is pop music’s high water mark. Paul McCartney is ‘on record’ saying his favorite song ever is God Only Knows. Maybe mine too. As for Mr. Daniel’s essay, it is easily the best appreciation/homage of this masterpiece album I’ve read.

  2. Jason Trask says:

    Another great article by David Daniel. I am always happy to read about the Beach Boys, especially from him. Though I was taken by several of the songs on the album immediately (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” “God Only Knows”), It took me quite a while to see the beauty of it as an album.

  3. byron hoot says:

    As Sam Johnson said, ” The purpose of art is to delight and instruct.”
    Exactly what this fine essay does.
    I don’t get tired of reading what Dave Daniel writes. As Whitman wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes. ”
    The very reason Daniel writes, the very reason I continue to read him.

  4. Jim Provencher says:

    A masterful trace of the coming of age journey for both listener and artist alike, where Songs of Innocence ripen into the Songs of Experience. The Concept Album becomes the vehicle that provides the means of escape: So long formulaic,
    Pop Identity, Hello aesthetic Declaration of Independence. An archetypal rite of passage….

  5. william c. crawford says:

    Daniel is spot on about the Boys’ layering of voices and timeless harmonies. A quintessential rock ‘n roll signature to be sure. He seems to think their instrumental skills are less refined. In truth, they were their own perfect California sidemen. Their singing was so good that it tended to dwarf their instrumentation. However, these guys played multiple instruments producing fabulous understated background for fabulous vocals.
    I remember Scottie, DJ, and Bill backing Elvis in his early days. No one much ever mentions them now but they were some of the greatest sidemen ever. Same for Boys’ playing; they were good enough to do instrumentals which were well receive at their concerts. A jam at Brian’s pad would knock your socks off! The first three notes of many of their songs elevates my blood pressure instantly. Wouldn’t it be nice …?!

  6. Tim Coats says:

    I always enjoy and learn something from Dave Daniel’s reviews even when the subject isn’t of particular interest. As a kid, I liked hearing Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys along with other “artists” on the radio in the car with friends, but that’s all. Now, fine, insightful reviews like this one, bring their world to life for me and make sense of it — part of a never-ending graduate school.

  7. Bill Griffiths says:

    I was down the UFO rabbit hole when I took a break to read another of Dave Daniel’s articles and now he’s got me listening to Pet Sounds again, just ahead of summer. UFOs be damned. What I love most about Dave’s writing, are the details his memory summons up from his own life that makes me feel the nostalgic textures of my own youth. Suddenly I was back in boarding school with my parents visiting and we were about ready to have a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner–but before doing so we popped into the music store in Lynchburg Va and my parents bought me Pet Sounds for my October birthday. I did like it immediately but I didn’t come to fully appreciate the genius of it until later. I put it in that rarefied air of supremely individualistic albums with the likes of Astral Weeks, Blue, Sgt Pepper’s, and even Marvin Gaye’s (DC’s own) Here, My Dear. I’m always struck as well by the nonchalance with which Dave Daniel weaves in info he’s garnered over the years, and maybe even garnered as he’s writing the article. Sprezzaturra is the renaissance term for this I believe. It took years of unfolding to realize who Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew were who put Brian Wilson’s ideas into music we hear. And although I too wonder if Brian Wilson’s emotional life ever outgrew high school, I was blown away when I realized Tony Asher wrote many of the lyrics for the album. Maybe all of them, I really don’t know. But how did Brian Wilson synthesize those lyrics so seamlessly that most of us figured they were his own. Every time I hear Pet Sounds it inspires me. And every time I read one of Dave Daniel’s articles, he inspires me. Thank you, Dave.

  8. Ron Koltnow says:

    I too came late to Pet Sounds. It never occurred to me that the thematic changes would devastate the BB’s fan base. I knew the album was a sonic departure but never thought of what a radical break it had been. Thanks for a great think piece.

  9. Jerry Bisantz says:

    As usual, excellent observations, David. I, too, took years to fully appreciate the amazing genius of this album. I truly believe that “ Caroline, No” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I have ever heard. It still spends a lot of time on my turntable. That, and “ Retrospective “ by Buffalo Springfield never gets old. I put “ Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” way up on high, too! See you at the book launch at LaLa !

  10. Chaz Scoggins says:

    I’ll be honest. I’m 76 and still have never listened to the album. Maybe it’s time I should. Loved your line “wahines in bikinis,” Dave.

  11. Ed DeJesus says:

    Dave’s entertaining reminiscence of the Left Coast Boys and his in-depth take on Brian Wilson’s masterful influential album is ‘Right On.’ Pet Sounds was listed on Rolling Stone’s all-time Top 500 albums (2003, 2012 & 2020 recurring surveys compiled by musicians, critics, and industry figures) at # 2, crediting it as influencing Sgt Pepper’s # 1. In a revised survey in 2023, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was moved from #6 to # 1, but Pet Sounds retained # 2. Abbey Road Locked at #5 is my personal all-time favorite.

    As a product of the ‘60s, I won’t get into my pet peeves about their rankings and numerous head-scratchers.

    BTW, Pet Sound’s sales didn’t crack Billboard’s all-time Top 100 list.

    I enjoyed Dave Daniel’s colorfully candid evolving views, especially the agonizing and prudent decision the burger-flipper made to pass on Pet Sounds. In ‘74, my wife and I opened a record store. I kept my ($7k/year) tech job to pay our housing expenses and the store’s rent and fund the inventory we had to judiciously select/restock weekly. We had to carry Billboard’s Hot 100 albums, top ‘45s, 8-tracks, and cassettes, but couldn’t afford every (pop, rock, country, soul, blues, and jazz) album.

    To understand how daunting that was then, our LP racks were arranged: Aerosmith, Allman Bros, America, Bad Company, Beach Boys, Beatles, Bee Gees, Birds, Bowie, Boston, Buffalo Springfield, Chicago, Clapton, Cocker, Creedence, CSNY, Doobie Brothers, Doors, Dylan, Eagles, Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, Four Tops, Foreigner etc. (that’s only A-F)

    So, we’d have one album plus their best-of LP, e.g. (Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s Greatest Hit, Pet Sounds, Endless Summer, Elvis’s Greatest Hits, etc.). The Fab Four was the exception; we carried (Introducing The Beatles, Meet the Beatles, Help, Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, Mystery Tour, White Album, Abby Road, and Let It Be.) We’d gladly special order anything else.

    Our top-selling album in ’74 was Wings’ “Band on the Run,” which we featured in a free-standing display. One day, we overheard a small boy flipping through the albums ask his big brother, “Who are the Beatles?” we chuckled when the puzzled young teen looked in the packed Beatles section and replied, “Oh… Paul McCartney’s old band.”

    I knew we wouldn’t get rich, but we had music and stereo equipment at wholesale. And for five years, we had Fun, Fun, Fun—’til Daddy took the store away so Mommy could start our family.

    Incidentally, Dave’s scene standing in Gilchrist’s record dept—and then mention of Wilson’s well-documented struggles with depression, drugs, and dependence on Dr. Landy (his shrink)—reminded me of The Barenaked Ladies, fabulous pulsating tribute, “Brian Wilson.” (Wilson actually covered it a Capella in a 2000 tour). Here are some of the BNL lyrics.

    Drove downtown in the rain
    Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night
    Just to check out the late-night record shop
    Call it impulsive, call it compulsive
    Call it insane…
    ‘Cause right now I’m lying in bed
    Just like Brian Wilson did …
    It’s a matter of instinct
    It’s a matter of conditioning and a matter of fact
    You can call me Pavlov’s Dog…
    Dr. Landy tell me you’re not just a pedagogue
    And if you want to find me
    I’ll be out in the sandbox
    wondering where the hell all the love has gone
    I’m playing my guitar and building
    Castles in the sun, oh oh oh
    And singing “Fun, Fun, Fun”
    Lying in bed
    Just like Brian Wilson did

    The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, said, “Sgt Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.” Wilson said Rubber Soul was the best of all time, and that was what he had in mind with Pet Sounds.

    I’ve always been a helpless romantic, and I felt that Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice ” and “God Only Knows” were inspired by Lennon/McCartney’s love songs. Music is my muse. I’ve written three novels and a dozen short stories, in which I routinely insert songs to help set a scene, a time era, an emotion, or a flashback.

    God only knows when I’ll hear back from the publisher who has my latest novel. Ironically, the protagonist channels Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” in the closing chapter.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if it got published and was worthy enough to be reviewed by Dave Daniel?

  12. Harold "Pi" Pugh says:

    Leave it to Dave to draw me back into my teenage self, just out of high school, trying to figure out who I was or would become.

    Music has always been a huge part of my life beginning listening to the latest 45’s my older sister would bring home each Saturday after a bus ride to Quincy Square. Joe Smith, Arnie Woo Woo Ginsberg as well as the DJ’s who regularly broadcast from a trailer at Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach created my original playlist.

    As I evolved and a life of responsibility, parenting, etc took over, my musical tastes also evolved, but somehow the Beach Boys stayed along for my ride.

    Thanks, Dave, for hitting the reset button to send me back to Spotify to re-listen to Pet Sounds (50th anniversary edition) while reading your essay as well as the reader comments (with headphones, of course)!

    I think the recent sad news about Brian Wilson’s health decline and loss of his wife obligate me to take the time to listen and embrace what he and those harmonious voices have done for me over these past years. BTW, I recall one of our Boy Scout patrol meetings in 1962 being immersed in the California dream created by the “Surfin’ Safari” debut album.

    Extra credit option:

    I have several suggestions for those of you who have been inspired to experience more Beach Boys by Dave’s essay.

    Listen to the entire (5 CD) “Made in California” (2013) album.

    Watch the brand new 2 hour Beach Boys documentary on Disney Plus.

    Finish up by meeting the studio musicians behind the Beach Boy recording sessions (especially Pet Sounds) by watching “The Wrecking Crew” (2008) on Amazon Prime.

    Thanks, Dave.

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