Comic strip characters rarely die, but Andy, the wisecracking AIDS patient in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" strip, endured a long deathwatch this spring. And in his final moments, he scrawled these words on a scrap of paper: "Brian Wilson is God!" His doctor understood immediately: "Oh, he must have heard the 'Pet Sounds' CD."
The compact-disc release of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" has been so eagerly awaited for so long that last year people were paying $30 for the Japanese version, just so they could get in a few extra months of aural pleasure. The U.S. version was finally released by Capitol Records in May, and no rock-and-roll album has ever benefited more from the clarity and range of digital technology.
If Brian Wilson's music doesn't inspire the epiphany Andy experienced, it should at least inspire a reaction similar to Paul McCartney's: "I love the album so much I've just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life -- I figure no one is educated musically till they've heard that album." McCartney has also credited "Pet Sounds" as the inspiration for the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper." When he first heard it, he recalls, "I just thought, 'Oh, dear me. This is the album of all time. What are we gonna do?' "
"Pet Sounds," released on May 16, 1966, was the musical peak of the Beach Boys' career, and many critics agree with McCartney that it was the musical peak of rock-and-roll as well. The 10 songs and two instrumentals (plus one single, "Sloop John B," left over from the spring) were composed, arranged, produced and mostly sung by Wilson. The lyrics (mostly written by Wilson and Tony Asher) described a young man passing from adolescence into adulthood, with all the anticipation, doubt and conflict such a passage entails. Together, the music, lyrics and production created an autobiography that captures coming-of-age as well as any American artwork in any medium.
To appreciate the album's enduring reputation, just listen to "God Only Knows," a Top 40 tune itself and the flip side of the Top 10 single "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Right from the introduction, you can tell this is no ordinary rock-and-roll song. A French horn plays a slow, lyrical line against a bleating accordion, and they are soon joined by an unusual rhythm section: a plucked upright bass, shaken sleigh bells and the wooden cups used to make the clip-clop sound of a horse's hooves.
Brian's kid brother Carl sings the opening verse in a high, high tenor, aching with a strange mixture of romantic loyalty and fear of loss that sets up the chorus: "God only knows what I'd be without you." After the second chorus, the rhythm shifts to a nervous pattern that has a bass, cello and harpsichord jumping in unison. The rhythm then returns to the earlier swooning feel as the Beach Boys sing three different counterpointed harmonies in wordless, sighing vowels.
After a third verse, it all comes together for a dizzying finale that combines the elegant French horn, the jingling sleigh bells, the jumpy rhythm, the three-part counterpointed harmony and the intense feelings of joy and fear that only a new love can produce. With its odd combinations of instruments and its suitelike movements, "God Only Knows" was a landmark rock-and-roll song, and the CD version makes it much easier to pick out the individual elements than ever before.
The song is also a good example of why Brian Wilson titled the album as he did. He believed the sound of each instrument or each combination of instruments has a distinctive personality. Some of those sounds (sleigh bells, say, or French horn) were his favorites, and he wanted to make an album that collected all his "pet sounds." (Of course, the title also had a jokey, secondary meaning: Wilson's two dogs, Banana and Louie, can be heard barking at the end of "Caroline No.")
The centerpiece of a Capitol Records project to release its entire Beach Boys catalogue on CD, the new "Pet Sounds" includes three previously unreleased bonus tracks: some exquisite a cappella singing intended for "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," "Hang on to Your Ego" (the original lyrics for "I Know There's an Answer"), and an instrumental called "Trombone Dixie." It's being issued in mono, because Wilson (who is deaf in one ear) mixed it that way.
Mark Linnet has done a clean but faithful remix, and Beach Boys biographer David Leaf has assembled the 24-page booklet that includes session data, rare photos, track-by-track discussion and new essays by Wilson and Leaf. The other Beach Boys albums are being released as "two-fers," two albums on the same CD plus bonus tracks. The two-fers also benefit from Linnet's sympathetic mixes and Leaf's booklets. Four two-fers have already been released, and four more are still to come. After years of mistreating one of the most important catalogues in rock-and-roll history, Capitol is now setting a high standard for how to reissue such classics.
When Brian Wilson grew up in an L.A. suburb in the late '50s and early '60s, he had the usual teenage enthusiasms for doo-wop vocals and Chuck Berry guitar, but he also had an unusual taste for the jazz harmony singing of the Four Freshmen. When he started producing the Beach Boys' surf-and-car records, Wilson imitated another hero, Phil Spector, the producer who massed instruments into his famous "wall of sound." But where Spector was working with simple, three-chord songs, Wilson applied the same techniques to songs with six, seven or more chords, with the modulation and counterpoint of the Four Freshmen and their mentor Stan Kenton.
As early as 1964, you can hear Wilson's rapidly evolving sophistication in singles such as "Don't Worry Baby," "Warmth of the Sun" and "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)." On Dec. 23, 1964, however, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown from the pressure of nonstop songwriting, producing and touring. He worked out a deal with the other Beach Boys that he would stay home in L.A. and work on the records while they toured without him (his first replacement was Glen Campbell, who was soon supplanted by Bruce Johnston). It didn't matter much if they were around anyway, because Wilson was already using professional studio musicians (many of them Spector's) to execute his productions.
At the end of 1965, the Beatles released "Rubber Soul," the first rock-and-roll album that wasn't a collection of singles and filler but rather one on which each song was as fully developed as every other. "It was definitely a challenge for me," Wilson writes in his new liner notes for the "Pet Sounds" CD. "I definitely felt the need to compete with the Beatles." While the other Beach Boys were on tour in Japan, Wilson wrote, arranged and recorded all the tracks and most of the lead vocals. He hired Tony Asher, an L.A. advertising copywriter, to edit and rewrite his lyrics. When Wilson's band mates returned, they heard an almost complete album, lacking only their voices.
What they heard were songs such as "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," a guitarless ballad that features Wilson singing in a devotional high tenor about the romantic moment when words fail. A string quartet plays the minor seventh chords at close intervals, while the timpani boom and a fat electric bass drifts from the expected root note to create harmonic tensions within the lush sound. When Wilson sings in an intimate hush, "Don't talk; take my hand and listen to my heartbeat. Listen! Listen! Listen!" the music demands that you pay close attention to its throbbing pulse.
Most pop music unifies its lyric, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices to communicate one simple emotion as powerfully as possible. This approach can be quite satisfying, but it can't reflect the complications and conflicts of real-life adult emotions. The challenge for the pop songwriter is to mirror life's conflicts and still deliver the satisfying resolution pop music requires. Bob Dylan did it by introducing irony into rock-and-roll lyrics, and Wilson's introduction of nonstandard harmonies and timbres proved just as revolutionary.
When critics and musicians talk about "Pet Sounds," they usually refer to the innovations and complexity of the composition and production. When Wilson himself talks about "Pet Sounds," though, he talks about its tremendous feeling. "I experimented with sounds that would make the listener feel loved," he writes in the liner notes. "I needed to get this one album out to my fans and the public from my heart and soul. I was in a loving mood for a few months and it found its way to recorded tape."
Many rock-and-roll albums since "Pet Sounds" have pioneered sophisticated musical approaches, but no other album has so successfully married technique with feeling. When Wilson sings "You Still Believe in Me," you can hear his anxiety rise with the unorthodox chord progression as he confesses, "I can't help how I act when you're not here with me." And you can hear his astonished relief that his girlfriend still believes in him when the melody comes cascading down again and again on the glorious coda.
One of Wilson's most autobiographical songs on "Pet Sounds" is "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," which reflects the resistance he got from Capitol Records on the project. The company (as well as some band members) wasn't too happy with Wilson's departure from the tried-and-true Beach Boys formulas. "Every time I get the inspiration to go change things around," Wilson sings in the song, "no one wants to help to look for places where new things might be found."
Capitol and the Beach Boys were even less happy when Wilson took his sonic experiments a step further in a project tentatively called the "Smile" album. It was never finished -- though pieces such as "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up" and "Cabinessence" were eventually released -- because Wilson finally wearied of fighting his record company and band mates (and his own drug and emotional problems). Bootlegged tapes of the uncompleted "Smile" tracks indicate that it could have been a staggering work, a rock-and-roll song cycle with the continuity and depth of a symphony.
Brian Wilson was only 23 when he created "Pet Sounds." He has recorded some fine songs since then, but he never again completed a project as ambitious and as successful. It was a special time when his optimism, talent and work habits coalesced. It was a transitory moment of innocence that he is already looking back on in the album's final and best song, "Caroline No." The percussion has a distant, echoing quality, and Wilson plays the longing, heartbreaking chords on a harpsichord as he sings to an old girlfriend: "Who took that look away? I remember how you used to say you'd never change, but that's not true."
Wilson never made another "Pet Sounds," but neither has anyone else in the succeeding 24 years. Hearing it now on CD reminds one not only of just how far rock-and-roll can be stretched, but also how special that moment is when adolescence turns into adulthood. "Could I ever find in you again," he sings on "Caroline No," "things that made me love you so much then? Could we ever bring them back once they have gone? Oh, Caroline, no." The song ends with the sound of a dog barking as it chases a train roaring by. Wilson and his fans have as much chance of re-creating the innocence of 1966 as that dog has of catching that train, but they will never forget how it felt, thanks to the CD version of "Pet Sounds."