1966: Pet Sounds at 50

1966 Pet Sounds at 50

God Only Knows what would have happened without this LP…

The first of Jokerside’s tributes to the mighty cornerstone of pop culture that was 1966. It’s May 1966 and the arrival of the first of two particular musical landmarks that heralded the start of something new. It didn’t have long to prove itself… The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, released 50 years ago today.

 “1966”. IT SOUNDS GREAT. IT’S ALSO SOAKED IN FIVE DECADES OF HAILING ITS ACHIEVEMENTS. Their importance is obvious, but almost impossible to calculate within the confines of a standard year. I mean, 1967 was good, 1965 rather enjoyable…. Of course, 1966 sits in history now, a year of change amid a decade of cultural expansion. But if you were to pick out one year from that decade that pipped the others, that pulled everything together and set a new direction from the morass of creativity it’s the one satisfyingly named ’66.

Coming of age

Culture was ready to explode..

I once wrote of 1963, the year that launched James Bond on America, Doctor Who on British TV and the Beatles on the world, that’s there’s no coincidence it fell 18 years after the end of the Second World War. Culture was ready to explode, and as the last of the war children came of age it was impossible to contain the cultural blast that forged that remain with us today. And by that same logic we’re now 50 years on from the year that marked the 21st birthday of the first of the baby boomers.

The 50th anniversary birthdays marked this year are almost too many to remember, from film to music and that’s ignoring other defining events in the UK alone, from England hosting and winning the World Cup to elections and the opening of Longleat Safari Park. It was truly a cultural explosion, with a lasting impression that can be heard at any time of the day in 2016, often catching us by surprise. So sometimes it’s good to be overwhelmed by just a small slice of it…

To name four long players that 1966 brought us, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and of course The Beatles’ Revolver and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Singles released that year included Paint it Black, California Dreamin’, Uptight (Everything’s Alright), Strangers in the Night, You Don’t have to Say You Love Me, Wild Thing, Summer in the City, Sunny, You Can’t Hurry Love, Last Train to Clarksville, Mellow Yellow, Sugar Town… Other songs recorded but not necessarily released included A Well Respected Man, Bang Bang, Born Free, Eight Miles High, Friday on my Mind, Hey Joe, I’m a Believer, I Can’t Let Go, It Takes Two, Mame, Mission:Impossible, No Milk Today, Rain, Shape of Things, Solitary Mind, Spoonful, This Old Heart of Mine and… The Batman TV theme. It was the year that the Jimi Hendrix Experience formed and, er, don’t tell DJ Johnnie Walker, the Bay City Rollers emerged.

There wasn’t a simple zeitgeist or trend, one stand-out song that defined a summer. It truly was a cultural explosion, unprecedented since the years of stark warfare or when the Renaissance or Enlightenment had a good day. And that small smattering, although too big for this blog, sums up the diverse forces at work. There have been culturally defining years since, in Britain it’s particularly easy to see what 2012 was lacking and see the range that 1997’s Cool Britannia couldn’t quite muster. But in 1966, the shackles didn’t so much loosen and drop so many years on from that generation-defining conflict, but were thrown to the moon as new conflicts arrived amid new methods of thinking. It was the well-earned age of cultural landmarks, and it threw up the most unexpected casualties without borders.

Petting zoo

A fascinating slice of mid-sixties rivalry…

And high among them sits Pet Sounds. Considered a high-point, one of the greatest and hailed diffusions of drug inspiration, biography and auteurship into popular music. It’s both a personal album for Brian Wilson, and a legacy wracked with lawsuit over ownership, where one of its most famous songs is a traditional piece, some classics were hidden as B-Sides. And one of the Beach Boys’ worst performing albums on release, only in retrospect shining as a crucial marker in pop culture as well as a fascinating slice of mid-sixties rivalry. In America, The Beach Boys were the harmonising family, Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love and Al Jardine with Bruce Johnston. In Liverpool, The Beatles were four mates. For most of the British, both had an attractively exotic difference to what had gone before. Behind the scenes both groups were working at a level no one anticipated.

The Beach Boys had formed as a garage band in 1961, before 1964 found them taking a sharp turn away from the beach and straight towards the peak of Pet Sounds. Across the Atlantic, Beatlemania had flooded the world in the early sixties, and after taking a similar if not more of a sea change turn through 1965’s Rubber Soul, 1966 would see the UK’s premier band reach their own turning point as the Fab Four gave up live touring and released the seminal Revolver. What’s perhaps so staggering is that while Revolver was the Beatle’s seventh core LP release in four or so years, Pet Sounds was the Beach Boys’ 11th studio album. 11th. And each of their albums spurred the other group on. In America, the one-time Surfing USA band was locked in Atlantic one-upmanship that would brew the first spark of revolutionary change.

Paul McCartney has hailed Pet Sounds as the best album he’s ever heard. But The Beach Boys by their own admission were jealous of the Beatles and leveraged this as the spark of inspiration to take them to the next level. To achieve this, Wilson had quit the touring group to remain in the studio and up the quality of the Beach Boys’ output in 1965. A seminal moment in pop history came in the December of that year when he heard Rubber Soul. As Wilson described it, an LP that “went together like no album ever made before”. It’s worth remembering that the American release of Rubber Soul was remixed into a more unifying folk album. But still, the influence and inspiration for Pet Sounds was set. Although, as Wilson was dislocated from the touring members of his group this new direction could never be plain sailing even if the step represented by Pet Sounds wasn’t totally alien to the themes of their previous LP Today!

Conceptually speaking

Pet Sounds traverses the gamut of a relationship on a downward arc, as the songs, each with a crisis of their own…

Pet Sounds is not an obvious concept album, indeed, intoxicating listening experiences have seldom been so confounding and introspective. Wilson has termed it a “production concept album” – where songs sit both unified and remote. And as it’s a concept arc tracing Wilson’s own perception of his private and public life, he’s best placed to analyse it. Pet Sounds’ ambitions are great. There’s the lush soundscape, vocal trails, laid musically by Wilson from lyrics by Tony Asher, and with all sort of eclectic additions, musical or otherwise. It wasn’t us the Beatles in their sites; the crew of the early 1966 recording were looking to out strip Motown and Phil Spector as well. It may be the first album to feature a theremin-style instrument, but it’s Banana and Louie, Brian Wilson’s dogs get the last word at the end of No, Caroline (intriguingly released as Wilson’s first solo single before the group was credited with a further two singles – things were complicated).

Pet Sounds traverses the gamut of a relationship on a downward arc, as the songs, each with a crisis of their own, take in a breath-taking array of genres through jazz, classical and latin, forgoing rock and its blues roots for long stretches – but replacing that with something equally fulfilling and entirely fitting the limits of the four track bill. It’s sad, tipping to loss more than love. That’s something the Beatles never reached for in any of their definitive LPs. But it’s an immensely rewarding 36 minutes for it. And all the more considering the album cover shot in San Diego zoo, which Asher thought, along with the album’s name, trivialised the content.

Track by track

Wouldn’t It Be Nice has the sharp shock, mixing from the ice cream cart, ethereal opening bars with one crash of percussion to a stomping key change stolen, possibly for the first time, from jazz and classical composition. A call to arms, where childish ambition and dreaming turns to a single indication that something is happening. A meticulously recorded wall of sound, with harmonies overdubbed to precise specification.

You Still Believe in Me find lovers still buckling under the pressure and questioning, this time in a what Wilson termed a “spiritual” choral set-up where Wilson takes “Soprano” backed by an improvised, pinging, harpsichord and unexpected car horns.

That’s Not Me where spreading drug dependency allowed Wilson to take a good, harsh look at himself. Profoundly, keeps clear of the classical and orchestrated stylings throughout the rest of the album. “I once had a dream, so I packed up and split for the city…” A fading refrain. Chilling.

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) – a throbbing heartbeat, one of a number of tracks that feature Wilson alone.

I’m Waiting for the Day changes pace, packing in multiple influences around a jazz structure. Another crash of a beginning that wakes everyone up for what’s ostensibly a love poem as Wilson consoles a heart-broken girl.

Let’s Go Away for a While is not only one of Brian Wilson’s favourite instrumentals, but one he’s suggested may have been a subconscious attempt compose like Burt Bacharach.

Sloop John B is a brilliant appropriation of the Caribbean staple, and the safest of the sessions thought the record label as rushed out as a lead single two months before Pet Sounds, landing three and two in the US and UK charts respectively.

God Only Knows One of the album’s two definitive side-openers and yet relegated to a B-side of the former in the USA. Hugely complex and instantly involving, it’s the song Paul McCartney said stopped him in his tracks. For the BBC, the natural successor to Perfect Day.

I Know There’s an Answer, that was Hang on to your Ego, the barely discussed full-pelting arrival of LSD concerns into proceedings. What’s a clear message about the delineation of ‘Us ‘and ‘Them’ is certainly not as clear as it appears. Ever more fascinating in hindsight.

Here Today is a stompingly catchy, brass propelled, baroque-influenced song that probably marks the end of the relationship.

I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times could be a lament, even before Pet Sounds had ushered in a new dawn. But it’s also an acknowledgement that really something modern had arrived.

Pet Sounds is an instrumental accomplished by Brian Wilson and session musicians without any of the other Boys. The result is a wonderfully unexpected piece bossa nova, that even more unexpectedly lent its name to the defining LP.

Caroline, No the lilting nostalgic romance, again solely featuring Wilson and adding the most credence to Pet Sounds being a solo work. A biographical and a purpose-built “tear jerker”, Asher’s touch is clear lyrically and quite probably musically. All the way up to the end of the affair, the rush of the train coda and the barks of Wilson’s dogs.

Cost of arms

Two months later the comparable Revolver would appear and overshadow Pet Sounds…

An astonishing album in many ways. But It was to be a short arms raise, of which the cost and consequences were innocence, some sense and some health. While the rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles was to all our benefits, and friendly at worst, its consequences were more serious. The Beatles released Revolver three months after Pet Sounds, spurred in their own way by the Beach Boys recording and that album has outshone it ever since.

When Wilson attempted to repeat the trick of Pet Sounds, a chance hearing of Strawberry Fields Forever, a key part of the Beatles’ transformation alongside Revolver closer Tomorrow Never Knows, combined with excessive drug use (Wilson had relied on LSD and Marijuana to ‘calm down’ during the Pet Sounds session) was enough for him to cease production of what would have been, and would later be in various versions, Smile. Things had always been quick, but now they had got very serious. The Beatles embraced the concept album template set down by Pet Sounds, both enhancing the theatricality and abandoning it as the four members assumed roles in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But just as Strawberry Fields and its double A-Side mate Penny Lane necessarily sat distinct from the Sgt Peppers album that was to follow it, just as the phenomenal B-side Rain had before the release of Revolver, so Pet Sounds threw up its own missing link in Good Vibrations. Perhaps Good Vibrations was the real parting shot from the Beach Boys; initiated during the Pet Sounds sessions, but held and considered for Smile, it surfaced in October 1966. It remains one of their finest and best known moments. Seeds of discord were shattering through the system that the Beach Boys had specifically created to empower them to the next level. Such discord was yet to filter through the Beatles. It’s one of pop’s marvellous idiosyncrasies that two months later, the comparable Revolver would appear and overshadow Pet Sounds. Upon release the Beach Boy’s finest hour was met with a middling reception critically and commercially in the United States. But across the Atlantic, the press took it to heart and the public landed it a spot in the UK top 10 for six months.

Fortunately, time has subsequently allowed those two albums to sit on a level playing field. Five decades on, the sheer weight of songs and albums influenced by Pet Sounds may even outweigh the output of 1966 itself.

Coming this August – 1966: Revolver at 50

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