Monday, May 21, 2012

Beach Boys 6: Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds is one of those albums that’s regularly shown up on “best-ever” lists for the last twenty years or so, and not always with evidence to back it up. Consequently people are of two minds about it—either it’s a masterpiece or it’s overrated. Much of the praise has been since its heralded CD debut in 1990, and many who bought it based on the hype might not have understood what the big deal was. Also, in a time when we’d been brainwashed into thinking CDs were the greatest technology ever, Pet Sounds was pointedly released in monophonic sound, just as its creator only ever heard it.
What we have here is a choral symphony for high school marching band with guitars. Brian is essentially a modern classical composer, and those are his predominant instruments of choice. It sounded just “Beach Boys” enough like what came before to sell a few copies when it came out, but not a lot. The label didn’t know what to do with it, and the band was confused but went on the road with it anyway. It was huge in England, spurring at least Paul McCartney to get the Beatles to push the envelope even further. (Which was only fair, since Brian said that Pet Sounds was inspired by the leaps and strides he’d heard on Rubber Soul—the American version, mind you.)
Okay, you say, so it’s a cultural touchstone, but what about the tunes? Most of them really are classics. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” opens side one with a fairly adult sentiment, and the themes of commitment and maturity continue for most of the side. “You Still Believe In Me” slows it down some, then it’s back up for “That’s Not Me”. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, like many of the songs here, could pass as classical music with the way it’s structured. “I’m Waiting For The Day” satisfies the pop crowd, and the side ends with the daring “Let’s Go Away For Awhile”, an instrumental that sounds like “please stand by” music on first listen but emerges as a hypnotic track that’s impossible to hum.
The rest of the album has more concessions for the beach crowd, starting with “Sloop John B”, which seems out place for the era (except for the eyebrow-raising line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”). “God Only Knows” seems simple enough until you pay attention to the lyrics; also this was the first pop song to mention God in the title. “I Know There’s An Answer” and “Here Today” never did it for me, but try not being floored by “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, a three-minute anthem for any sensitive types who have ever felt remotely out of place. The title track is a catchy instrumental (and one you can actually hum) and is followed by the regretful “Caroline No”, an elegy for lost innocence.
That recap may not satisfy anyone, whether they’ve heard the album or not. Ultimately, Pet Sounds is a personal experience, more so than most albums. Luckily for the uninitiated, it’s easy enough to find. Since its first CD release, with three bonus tracks, it’s been reissued a variety of ways. Most notable was the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, a textbook lesson on how to record a classic album, complete with first-time-ever stereo mixes, rehearsal takes, music-only and vocals-only mixes and other trivia. That was the gold standard for 20 years, until yet another anniversary release repackaged the contents in a different order, added a whopping three further studio outtakes, and various live performances of the songs from as early as 1966 and as late as 1993. Oh, and a 5.1 surround mixes on Blu-ray. And another book.
For pretty cheap you can get a single CD with both stereo and mono mixes, or shell out more for a deluxe edition. But no matter the dressing, it’s up to you if the songs speak to you. If you’ve read this far, chances are they might.

The Beach Boys Pet Sounds (1966)—
1990 CD reissue: same as 1966, plus 3 extra tracks
1997 The Pet Sounds Sessions box set: same as 1990, plus 59 extra tracks
1999 CD reissue: same as 1966, plus 14 extra tracks
2006 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1999, plus DVD
2016 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1997, plus 14 extra tracks (and Blu-ray)


  1. "...Many who bought it based on the hype might not have understood what the big deal was."

    Exactly how it was with me Wardo. Rolling Stone mag told me it was amazing so I bought the initial CD release in 1990.

    It didn't take. At least not initially.

    Today, it's one of the albums I adore most.

  2. At first I didn't like it much either. Then I listened again after experiencing more of life and relationships, and recognized its genius.
    And don't forget the Pet Sounds Sessions box, especially the vocals only mixes. The most amazing vocals in rock music!

  3. Sloop kicks off side 2? Careless piece of journalism.

  4. My gosh, what a horrible mistake. Good thing I'm not a journalist, but a blogger. I'd have my pay docked, except that I don't get paid.

  5. This and Imagine should be 5
    Congratulations for your blog...again