Graham Reid | | 3 min read
There are two reasons to be excited about the 50th anniversary box set of the Beach Boys' classic album Pet Sounds being released next week (June 17).
The first is that it exists at all – a whopping 104 tracks across the five CD version which includes mono and stereo mixes, instrumental backing tracks and live versions – and we can hear how the mind of its creator Brian Wilson worked in the studio.
The second reason to be excited is there aren't a dozen versions of Sloop John B.
These days Pet Sounds is considered one of the great albums of the rock era, but it had a ho-hum reception on release in May '66. It just scraped into the US top 10 and was one of their few albums not to go gold on release (although went to number two in Britain).
At the time most rock writers (of whom there were very few) were indifferent about it.
In fact, eight years after its release Stephen Davis writing in Rolling Stone went to great lengths to describe it as the first rock record to be a concept album (the vagaries of love and relationships was the theme, aside from Sloop John B). He belatedly hailed it as soulful, lovely and “by far the best album Brian has yet delivered”.
It was as if he was being an apologist for the oversights at the time, because by then Pet Sounds was recognised as a glittering star in the cosmos.
In retrospect we can see Pet Sounds was the album which made the Beatles up their game. Paul McCartney has frequently said God Only Knows is his favourite song (the single got to number two in Britain but only 39 in the States) and the Beatles -- after the step-change of Revolver -- responded with the even more elaborate Sgt Pepper.
Yet Pet Sounds had been 23-year old Brian Wilson's response to the Beatles' Rubber Soul when he realised it was possible to make “a whole album of good stuff”.
But where Sgt Pepper has dated and remains embalmed in era of hippie psychedelia, Pet Sounds – by being more poppy, soulful and heartfelt – is fresh today and its innovations (layering of vocals, orchestration, sonic effects from theremin, bicycle bells and so on) opened the door on how to create pop in the studio.
These days Pet Sounds frequently tops best-albums-ever lists -- as it did this year in Uncut magazine's 200 Greatest Albums of All Time list -- or at worst is in the top five. (Although perversely Q magazine in 2003 had it as a lowly 99 out of the their top 100).
Its purity of emotion, gorgeous vocal effects and symphonic qualities remain timeless.
And so do the sentiments of maturing love (That's Not Me), the warmth of companionship (Don't Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder) and how it can wither as people grow apart on Caroline No: “Where did your long hair go, where is the girl I used to know, where it that happy glow . . . who took that look away . . .?”
Instrumental pieces like the beautiful and subtle Let's Go Away For a While and the surfer-dream title track – courageous inclusions from a band whose vocal harmonies were their signature – stand as the equal of songs like I Know There's an Answer which sounds like Wilson's transition from pop writer to masterful creator.
Wilson didn't leave the slightly sickly pop sentiments of love songs behind (Here Today) but he put them in a new context where the ideas were more thoughtful (I Just Wasn't Made For These Times) and elevated them.
The expansive sets – various iterations from a straight mono re-release through vinyl to the massive box set – confirm Brian Wilson's genius, and also that of the Wrecking Crew musicians he used on these sessions which lasted four months.
Of course the big box is only for obsessives – count me in – and most people would be happy with the mono reissue, and let's say clearly there have been a few mono and stereo reissues of this album (with extra tracks, some included on The Big Box) in the past couple of decades.
Of course you can live without a seven minute stop-start run through of Wouldn't It Be Nice with Wilson interrupting until the musicians were on the money.
If you were ever curious about how genius works – and it's not luck but often trial-error, a rethink and another go at it – then Pet Sounds is the album which is worth pulling apart to listen to the details.
And, as they say, God is in the details . . .
After this Brian Wilson had his emotional meltdown and his next project SMiLE – which he described as “a teenage symphony to God” – never happened in the way he envisioned.
But for Pet Sounds his vision was intact.
They call it genius.