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Reflections on a Half-Century of “Pet Sounds”

A mentor once told me that the only thing that separates the waning childhood of high school seniorism and the latent adulthood of college freshmanism was “one single, crazy summer”. For me personally, the soundtrack to that crazy summer, and the following year away from home, was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I honestly don’t recall listening to much else during that time, and when I listen to it now, I’m immediately transported back to then & there. I was introduced to the album by my best friend and songwriting partner Scott Kennedy. Back in those days, Scott and I endeavored to make our own Pet Sounds-like masterpiece, spending countless hours in our makeshift home studios amped up on deli iced teas and the sounds of a Fender Bass through spring reverb. How could we not want to make one for ourselves? Even though many years had passed since its genesis (at this point, Pet Sounds was only 35 years old…) we immediately identified with the essence and sentiment of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s miniature symphonic songs, painted landscapes of the ever-approaching horizon of growing up. It’s a testament to a familiar feeling amidst maturing, when one learns the answers to questions that have probably not yet been asked out loud. It’s arguably never been topped. Much is made of the influence of Pet Sounds on Sgt. Pepper, and while we should be grateful for that, it bears acknowledgement that Pet Sounds is truly a remarkable achievement in its own right. Nowadays, when I listen to it, I am struck more than anything by its unabashed sincerity - its uncompromising directness - which (despite the staggering harmonic and orchestrational complexity that sets it apart from its contemporaries in pop music) makes for such a beautiful and yes, *simple* expression. Perhaps it is this odd incongruity that prevented it from truly catching on when it was first released in ‘66.

It’s hard to isolate an example of my favorite Pet Sounds moment - the vocal arrangement of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”; the harmonic changes in “Caroline, No”; - heck, how about the *entirety* of “God Only Knows” (which I listened to so many times with my Sony Discman set on “repeat” that, to this day, if I hear it on the radio I feel cheated that it’s only played once thru). I suppose everything I love about Pet Sounds is encapsulated in an instrumental break in “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, when Brian sings “take my hand, and listen to my heartbeat… listen, listen, listen…” and instead of a rhythmic pulse, a string quartet swells into the texture, playing gnarly romantic twists-and-turns that could be lifted straight from the slow movement of a Schumann quartet (1:30 in the video below).

I hear this moment, juxtaposed against Hammond organ, electric guitars, upright bass and suspended cymbal and the composer/songwriter part of my brain thinks to itself “….just, how….”. Brian Wilson asks the anonymous beloved, and thus the listener, to put ears to the conch shell of his soul, and what’s heard is not the pounding of the surf, but a slow-churning maelstrom of emotional undertow. Don’t talk, come close, close your eyes and be still.

It took a special kind of courage on the part of Brian and the band that is unfathomable - perhaps the only way to understand it is to recall the mythological journey of Brian’s ambitious follow-up project, SMiLE: After Pet Sounds’ tepid welcome from the listening community, and the subsequent blockbuster success of “Good Vibrations” (and concurrent pressure to live up to it), what would it take for Brian to make the proverbial “next step”? What would this music sound like? Scott and I used to speculate on these things endlessly, wondering if we would live long enough to ever hear those rumored masterpieces, long vaulted away; songs that were said to outdo Pet Sounds by those few who were in the studio sessions and heard them. Spoiler alert: we did. Ten years later, all that SMiLE stuff was released, and it was fascinating, and weird, and lovely, and powerful, and grandiose, and I personally dig it... ... but it’s not Pet Sounds.

So, happy 50th Birthday, Pet Sounds. We’re now as far away from your birth as you were to Holst’s Planets on the day you appeared. Fifty years seems like an awful long time, until I hit “play” and hear that opening guitar lick and realize there’s no expiration date on emotional honesty. Here’s hoping that, in these days when pop music tends to celebrate at the altars of irony, immediacy, and artificial personae, someone out there will sit down in a studio, take a deep breath and truly open the doors to the confessional of sincerity, inviting us all in too. You know, it seems the more I talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it…

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