So an idea for a new blog project came into my head a few weeks ago in the back of a taxi on the way home after a few too many drinks. The idea is simple; pick 10 albums that have had some kind of impact on me and that mean a lot to me and wax lyrical about them. I then drunkenly got back and wrote a rough list with an indecipherable file name “Two Big Albums – The List” which doesn’t even make sense (and has been rightly removed). After a few adjustments, I think the list is pretty indicative of not just my current music tastes, but also nods to albums I really enjoyed at points earlier in my life.
There are a lot of albums that garner a lot of praise that don’t really live up to the hype surrounding them. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band is a great album but you can end up feeling a little let down when you hear that it’s the greatest album of all time as that adds a high amount of expectation. The same can be said of Radiohead’s O.K Computer or Nirvana’s Nevermind which are both landmark albums for their respective bands and almost define the eras in which they were released. That being said, it doesn’t mean that a young fresh pair of ears now is going to enjoy them as much as someone did for the first time when they were released.
One of the few albums to supersede this is Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys which is a release that still garners new fans and appreciators nearly 50 years after it’s initial release. And for good reason, too.
I think a lot of people remember the Beach Boys for making 60s American pop music that harkens images of young American teenagers hanging out/dancing at the beach with their friends listening to the radio and having a generally neat time. Songs like Surfin’ USA and Fun, Fun, Fun are indicative of that reputation. All of this makes Pet Sounds a more intriguing and astounding listen as it really gives you a perspective of what people expected from the group with everyone of their albums and singles. They wanted sunny and upbeat songs about having a good time, not downbeat pop songs about failed romances.
After Brian Wilson was inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and it’s arrangements, he quit touring with the band and dedicated himself to making “the greatest rock album ever made”…Which is something many musicians have declared and not too many have succeeded. After several months of writing, arranging, re-edits and remixing, Pet Sounds was finally released on 16 May 1965.
I was 15 or 16 when I first listened to Pet Sounds when I was in a phase where I was trying to improve my historical musical knowledge and listen to those albums considered the greatest. It was almost lost on me a few songs notwithstanding (God Only Knows, Hang Onto Your Ego) as I didn’t really grasp what the album was. I think this was probably a case of having a generally uneducated view of song-making, arrangements and a true appreciation for craftsmanship when it comes to music.
When I turned 19, my love of this album began to grow and grow. The harmonies were suddenly startling and I started to hear things beyond the music you hear when you casually listen. I began to hear the bike bells, horns, whistles, mandolins and flutes. Even though it’s an album made up of 3 minute pop songs, the arrangements Brian Wilson put together (all in his own head) were incredibly rich. One of my favourite songs on the whole album is “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and it’s one of the best examples of Wilson’s natural gift for music arrangements and it has a beautiful string section providing the accompaniment for Brian’s delicate vocals (the only vocalist on the entire song)
The vocal harmonies are still, in my opinion, unrivalled by modern music. Take a song like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” at the end of the second verse when Brian sings
Happy times together we’ve been spending
I wish that every kiss was never ending
You have 5 people on the backing vocals simply harmonising at the end of every line. And whilst this doesn’t seem like something that would directly impact the song as it’s nothing significant on the surface, it really adds something to your listening pleasure and provides.
Maybe the most revered and well known Beach Boys songs and the potential centrepiece for this album is of course “God Only Knows”. I don’t usually quote Paul McCartney as I find him awfully schmaltzy in his interviews, but his quote about this song is pretty dead on
“God Only Knows’ is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian. I’ve actually performed it with him and I’m afraid to say that during the sound check I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian.”
It’s one of the few genuinely perfect pop songs that, whilst it has been covered various times by many great artists, can never be imitated or improved. It’s one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard bar none even if it’s made more appearances in popular culture than songs from Moby’s “Play”.
The album is not without some kind of controversy. There is one track that I have some form of discomfort with listening to; I Know There’s an Answer. The reason for this is because of a very famous spat during the recording process as a result of Brian Wilson’s lyrics for the song “Hang Onto Your Ego” had some clear allusions to LSD usage and hanging onto your ego mid-trip. Mike Love (who’s name is incredibly ironic) really objected to the undertones of the song to the point where the song was changed to “I Know There’s an Answer” with Love on the lead vocals instead of Brian. All of which unfortunately results in a song that pales in comparison to the original song (which was later available of re-releases). Fun bit of trivia, Pixies frontman Frank Black had a cover version of the song on his fairly incredible debut solo album.
A sign of a classic album that breaks it out from merely being a ”good’ album is that it never loses you at any point. You don’t want to finish listening to an album feeling like you have gone through some form of an ordeal. “Pet Sounds” is album that’s a treat for me to revisit as I can now I can put it on, sit down and I know that from the opening chords of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” right to the sombre and heartbreaking “Caroline, No”, I will sit in amazement at one of the true high points of musics ever recorded.
On an end note for this little piece on Pet Sounds, it also spawned an excellent remix album in 2007 by Bullion entitled “Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee” which was his effort to chop the album up and remix it in the vein of the late, great J Dilla (subtle hint: there will be much discussed about him in a few posts time). It was a sublime mixture of Wilson and Dilla’s individual geniuses and it really really worked. It’s well worth sourcing out even if you aren’t familiar with the source material.