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Pet Sounds Or Favorite Sounds: Brian Wilson’s Genius By Mike Nessing and Iman Lababedi

Mike Nessing and Iman Lababedi discuss the Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds.

IL: Is Pet Sounds Brian WIlsons greatest moment. You’d think so but what about All Summer Long? Summer Days (And Summer Nights)? Geez, Smiley Smile? Surfs Up???? The Beach Boys Love You????? But then you turn to Pet SoundsSurf’s Up isn’t consistent enough and Smiley Smile is too weird…

MN:Well, the prevailing feeling is that Pet Sounds is one of the great records of pop, not just the Beach Boys. Smile sessions, even in their unfinished state are still Wilson’s sonic triumph. They remain unreleased, unfortunately. Smiley Smile is weird, but it’s important. This is Wilson firing his last salvo at the record industry for sabotaging Pet Sounds and at his own band for condemning his vision. A passive aggressive “fuck you” if you will.

IL: The Beach Boys came back off tour and Wilson had written most of Pet Sounds and they hated it…was the music essentially recorded before they added their vocals?

MN: Nothing was going on in the Beach Boys studio that wasn’t going on with bands like Mamas and papas, Revere and the Raiders, Early Byrds. The musicians out in California were on ALL the sessions. If you were in CA and were making a pop record, these were the people you called up. Much like the house band at Motown. The difference was in the songwriting. Wilson’s ability to write for different instruments much like a classical composer would was unique. Then to convey these parts to the musicians without actually being able to write out charts(without some help) forced him to communicate on a more emotional level. Like telling the string musicians in his famous quote. “You have to make it CRY….it’s not SAD enough.” For most of these musicians, they would go to a session, play their bit and leave. During a Beach Boys session with Brian Wilson, it was very much a collaboration with lots of overtime and ideas by musicians that were actually used on the final product. Can you imagine Spector even so much as fielding a suggestion from a lowly musician? Listen to the attached and see how a musician simply riffing off a melody becomes a key component of “I’m Waiting For The Day” This entire track is simply majestic.

Absolutely. The Beach Boys were a vocal band. Carl and Al could lay down an occasional guitar track. Dennis drummed on things like “Be True To Your School”. However,studio musicians were used almost exclusively prior to and by this point. They would still work on things like “That’s Not Me”, but by now sessions like that were the exception and not the norm.( You know that don’t you?)

So much of this could be perceived as a knee-jerk reaction to having less control. They didn’t hate it as much as they resented being cut out of the recording process. Mike Love certainly resented being cut out of the songwriting process. Brian was moving on with the wind at his back,accompanied by a resume second only to Lennon/McCartney. He had loftier ambitions than what these collaborators could provide. He could also sense that the competition were upping their game, so he had to as well.

IL: Something else: it is like there were two beach Boys bands -one the studio based pop-art Phil Spector sound obsessed Brian Wilson and the other the Al Jardine lead, summer is for fun concert band . So on top of everything else, Wilson was cracking up, refusing to tour and refusing to write music that could be replicated live. I know you’ve listened much more extensively to the backing takes on the “Complete Pet Sounds” – what do you make of them?

IL: Step back a bit and look at “Summer Days (And Summer Nights)” the last studio album before Pet Sounds -are you telling me that was a session musician creation and not a band effort. Even the most complex of songs, say “Let Him run Wild” -with the multi tracking harmonies that gave Marshall Crenshaw his career, sounds to me more like a studio than a session creation. Don’t you feel that Pet Sounds was something new, that Pet Sounds was the start of a Beach Boys future derailed by drugs?

MN: studio/session, not sure what you mean by the difference. These are 4 track recordings for the most part. If you listen to what I’ve previously attached, you’ll hear that the backing track was created by an entire group of studio musicians in a room , all playing at the same time. Background vocals were cut live by the band to a second track, and then you’d have one track for the lead vocal, and one track for embellishments. Most of Summer Days was cut by studio musicians. There may be one or two songs that are exceptions, id have to check.The drums would usually be the giveaway. Pretty easy to distinguish between Hal Blaine and Dennis Wilson. Those harmonies are not multi-tracked. Those are sung LIVE by the band all at once into one microphone. All you have to do is look at the photos of the band in the studio from that era to see that. Additionally we have the bootlegs of the sessions where they can all be heard clowning around and arguing.

The whole drug thing being the reason for the derailment was a bit of a red herring. Brian was already a manic depressive BEFORE he smoked his first joint, or dropped his first tab of acid. Plus it certainly was not recognized or treated in the manner or fashion that it is today. Of course, it certainly didn’t help.
I would not cite Pet Sounds as the then future of the band. You would have to choose “California Girls” which was the first song Brian created after he quit the road.

IL: California Girls is on Summer days of course… K, I myself could listen to Hal Baines and Dennis Wilson playing for years and not tell the difference but then I don’t have your ears. Who was writing the lyrics on these songs? Was it Van Parks? At first I felt “God Only Knows” is so strong it overpowers the album, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came into its own only after Warren Beatty used it in the movie Shampoo…

MN: Don’t sell yourself short Iman. Im sure you could tell the difference between an elite Drummer and a fair one. Did you know he was from Hartford? (Blaine).
The lyrics for Pet Sounds were written by Tony Asher, who was an advertis
ing exec in CA at the time. I forget how they hooked up, i’ll have to check.
Brian did give him rough guidelines on the tunes though. He would basically tell him what he wanted to convey. Yes, the record does take several listens to reveal it’s beauty. It does not come out and grab you right away.

(You should go to Wikipedia or something and look up “The Wrecking Crew” You will be amazed at how many songs these studio cats worked on. The simple fact that the bass player on all these songs is a woman will be a revelation to you if you didnt know that already. )

IL: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is puppy domesticity, not unlike Graham Nash’s “Our House”, “God Only Know’s” a suggests an insecurities that can’t define itself only in relationship to the almighty, “Caroline, No” an end of the summer song (the cover shows the Boys far from a summer day in sweaters and jackets),… none of these songs seem quite in step with swinging London or the birth of psychedelia: there is a disconnected anxiety here….

MN: Well. he was viewed as a trend setter by this time, and not a follower. Plus he had his own history to try to live down. He could see the musical landscape changing and know that “Hang Ten Daddy” and “Fun Fun Fun” were dead topics. He was desperate to move on from that. Then there was his Dad. Even though he fired him as their manager, he still cast a long shadow. And we all want to please our parents, don’t we? The band was resistant to change as well. On many levels, can you blame them? If I was Mike Love, travelling all over the world and getting laid by a different chick every night a part of me would be against “fucking with the formula” which is exactly what he accused Brian of doing.

IL: “Wouldn’t it be Nice” is a perfect beach Boys song – a sorta wink at the sexual revolution because it sure doesn’t seem as the what being suggested is marriage. The harmonies are perfect and the mod is very upbeat -its like a fake out or a feint: stuff like ‘hang on to your ego” and “Caroline, No” -those summer is gone stuff, is a million miles away at this time. It sounds like a hit song, an instantly accessible rock pop cheer of good will…

MN: Well, the record is a song cycle of sorts. As you come of age, you’re filled with hope and exuberance. As time goes by and you grow up you keep chasing what you had. The train at the end is most certainly a metaphor for something that you lost and can never get back again. The songs on Side 2 lead up to that. WIBN represents the hopefulness and newness of meeting someone and wanting to be with them all the time. “Caroline, No” is the opposite of that. As BW says in that excellent Don Was doc, “the girl hardens , she hardens”. Did you know that the lead instruments in WIBN are two accordions?

IL: I did not -you have fantastic ears. When I said about the box set I doubted I could hear the difference I was being honest. I simply don’t have your sense of sound. WIBN has a sort of sullied innocence -the album has a sort of sullied innocence. Am I right? Was Brian dropping acid 24/7 at this time? The sound isn’t psychedelic the way Surf’s Up could sound…

MN: This was probably more of a marijuana period for Brian. He did say he wrote “Caroline,No” in 20 minutes after smoking some grass. As far as drumming goes, you mentioned “Let Him Run Wild”. Can you hear how it swings? Especially on the chorus. Dennis could never do something like that. You are spot on about the sullied innocence. This is a coming of age song cycle, and very much a concept album. Not so much a story, but all songs stitched together by one unified theme. Very much like Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours”.

IL: One quick question: which song does Brian use the electrotheramin in? Anyway, the very next song and it’s all over: this is saying goodbye to your audience en masse. “You Still Believe In Me” seems to just ache with a hope, how can they sound such completely lost -when you listen to it and think of what you know of Brian, it’s hard to believe he didn’t write the lyric… the entire song leads you to a line that makes you wonder if “I wanna cry” -four part harmony?- dragged thru the entire bar… is he crying with happiness or sorrow? It sounds like sorrow…though there are words it is almost unspeakable, it’s beyond language and reaches somewhere else with the sound… have you heard the alternate version on the Pet Sounds sessions.

MN: I just Was’nt Made For These Times” is the tune with the theremin-type sound. That’s my favorite track, probably. The lyrics do cut pretty close to the bone on the whole album. Asher did a really good job of understanding the mindset. There were reportedly lots of discussions between the two where each song was thoroughly discussed. Happiness or sorrow is a good question, who’s to say? An “alternate version ” on the sessions box doesn’t immediately come to mind, id have to check.

IL: send it when I get home… my fave is i think the fourth, “Don’t talk Put Your head on My Shoulder” his “listen, listen…” is one of the most perfect directions ever given to an audience. And you’re right it is a little potty—

MN:that one is beautiful too “potty”?? izzat a typo? do you mean poetry?

IL: as in marijuany!!! To another topic: i think of any album you can mention Pet Sounds improves by not having two sides to it, it works better as one long, interrelated, sound!!!

MN: I’ve always viewed “sloop JohnB” as kind of a break from the proceedings-like an intermission. You could almost make the argument that it does’nt belong. It was probably included because of it’s hit potential.But the whole album certainly works as one complete unified piece. That’s why it’s so revered.

IL: Pet Sounds is an autumn album and that is strange in itself considering the Beach Boys were such a summer band. It is so melancholic that even when it’s up, except for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” it isn’t that up (even on “nice” , yes, it would be nice if it was happening but it isn’t). At the onset of the summer love there is an air of hopelessness about Pet Sounds. Compare it to Rubber Soul -another autumn album (released Autumn compared to the follow-ups summer) and both of them are twenty-somethings battling through some real disillusionment. The Beatles would find the answer in Eastern Religion and Brain Wilson in acid trips and TM before entirely losing the plot. Listening to “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” you can almost see Wilson’s ego imploding
. I feel the same way about a song like “Pennyroyal tea” by Cobain -particularly the MTV unplugged version. Wilson comes across like such a beautiful loser you could’ve imagined suicide as the outcome…

MN: Well , despite having three singles from the record reach the top forty, Pet Sounds was considered a failure by the band and the record company. Instead of promoting the album, Capitol records instead put out a “Best Of” compilation in direct competition with it! The band was eager to poke at the scraps, and hoped that Brian would come to his senses and write more commercial stuff. But Wilson had an ace up his sleeve. A song called “Good Vibrations” was tabled from the Pet Sounds sessions, to be worked on at a later date. This song would reach number 1 worldwide, and with the wind at his back again, Brian would dive head first into his next album project, tentatively titled, “Dumb Angel”. Brian was riding the crest of a giant wave. However, the undertow of that wave would prove too powerful in the end.

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