This week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Music podcasts and publications everywhere were blowing up my social media feeds with their own take on the album and praising Brian Wilson’s genius. Every music critic and journalist offered their analysis and historical retrospectives of Wilson’s mental breakdown and his retreat into the studio to compose what is arguably the band’s masterpiece. Naturally, I spent my time this week playing this album on repeat and engaging in every nuance within every groove. Everyone was talking about it, so it only felt natural to be a part of this global listening party. However, what could I say that hasn’t already been said about this album? Perhaps the best way is to talk about my personal journey with the Beach Boys.
In general, I do not like the Beach Boys. There is no arguing against the fact they were the biggest band from the U.S. fighting against the British Invasion of the mid-1960s. They put out album after album and chart-topping single after single creating their niche as American good ol’ boys who love girls, cars, and surfing. In a world where radio was dominated by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys were able to grab their own sizable piece of the pie.
The problem is that I just cannot relate to that sound and what they are singing about. Their take on surf rock, for me, is hokey at best. I really enjoy surf music. I dig the obscure tracks and novelty records from bands like the Centurions, Dick Dale, and the Ventures. I also have an affinity for the various bands that later blended punk, surf, and rockabilly like the Cramps. Despite that, the Beach Boys were just so bland and boring to me. They almost felt too clean; too quintessentially American to me. There was just no connection.
As I got older and learned more about contemporary popular music, by disinterest in the Beach Boys only continued to grow. I became really big into Chuck Berry while in college. For me, he was the real “King of Rock & Roll.” He certainly could do more than Elvis. I had found that a lot of Beach Boys tunes directly lifted riffs from Chuck Berry tunes. Now, I’m not so naïve. I know other bands like the Beatles did this, and that most bands from that era also stole from earlier blues musicians. However, this only continued to reaffirm why I just couldn’t give a shit about the Beach Boys.
That being said, Pet Sounds is a perfect record; and there are very few that can earn that distinction. There is a reason why the whole world was celebrating the anniversary of this record’s release. Pet Sounds is richly-textured experience that is complicated and layered from every single aspect of it’s production. Wilson suffered a mental breakdown on an airplane after thinking another band member was going to steal his wife. During this time, the band was on tour. Wilson encouraged the band to go tour without him while he started worked on their next album.
Wilson gathered a group of sidemen known as the Wrecking Crew to serve as the studio musicians during the Pet Sounds sessions. During this time, Wilson was exploring new ways to use instruments and how space can affect the sound. Microphone placement and the physical arrangement within the room were meticulously organized to achieve the sound Wilson had in his mind. He also explored ways to achieve certain sounds from instruments that were unique and experimental such as playing a piano by directly plucking it’s strings. The tapestry of sound Wilson created was complex and reminiscent of complicated orchestral pieces.
Every song on the album is absolutely perfect. From singles such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “God Only Knows,” one of the finest American recordings ever produced, Pet Sounds presents a perfect listening experience that serves as a testament to the level of genius that can be achieved in pop music. A signature track for me is “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” a melodic song about love falling apart. It is beautiful and heart breaking. The whole album is an emotionally exposed retrospective of a man trying to find peace within himself.
Brian Wilson is touring this year and playing the entire album at shows to commemorate the album’s 50th anniversary. He will be playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. I’m going to do my best to go and see him play. Despite me generally not liking the Beach Boys, I can admit that they made something truly special and I would love to see the composer behind it all perform the album in its entirety. I could always leave when he finishes the album and before he moves onto his hit parade of “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls.”