The Beach Boys, "Pet Sounds" Cover

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

Capitol, 1966

I’m not going to be able to really contribute anything substantial to the endless array of fawning verbiage that has accompanied this particular album (my fellow San Diegans, did you know the photo on the album cover was shot at the World Famous San Diego Zoo?!) Hmmm… As far as I’m concerned, “Pet Sounds” can only be understood simply on the merits of its artistic integrity and historical context. Yes, I am one of the legion of record nerds that simply adore this pop masterpiece, but I’m not fool enough to think that anyone who has never listened to this will heed my recommendation and put a set of headphones on, listen to a mono version and declare themselves a convert. I’ve known many people, including myself when I was a kid, that can’t/ couldn’t stand the mere sound of ANY Beach Boys, think they’re milquetoast inoffensive soft cheeseballs that happen to sing like choirboys.

But there’s a reason this is generally considered a masterpiece by pop art fiends. Famously, Brian Wilson, the uber-talented bass player and main songwriter, really a pop prodigy, was so impressed by The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” where they began to veer from the simple pop calculus of songs about girls and love, and explored various emotional and psychological interiority, that he had to top them with his next album which he claimed would be his “teenage symphonies to God.” (As a pretty hardcore Beatles fan in adolescence, especially in the throes of the conspicuous consumption of psychedelics, of course I gave this a chance, as dubious as I was. Before, Beach Boys was like The Four Freshmen, square shit my pops liked when he was young.) Wilson was in peak form as a composer writing and arranging for some of the best session musicians in the music business, the group of fabulously talented, very professional and very accomplished musicians who had created Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound,” The Wrecking Crew. With those musicians he was able to weave more complexity into a new batch of songs that had more dynamics, rich strings and brass, new “Pet Sounds,” with the elaborate layered harmonies the Boys had made their name on. And alas, Brian’s voice singing the lead vocal on all of these tracks, these teenage symphonies, with their lyrics of adolescent confusion and spiritual investigation sounding totally strong and nakedly vulnerable at the same time.

Yeah, all the cliches about this album are cliches for a reason. It wasn’t even a great success when it was first released, that appreciation took years as the sales of this record were quite poor compared to their earlier mega-hit singles. Yet the appreciation was inevitable, the way I feel when I see a Van Gogh painting; there’s just too much unassailable beauty here, too much heart putting itself on the line. I still know people who have listened to the whole thing and still don’t like it, sometimes something is just not YOUR thing, but I’ve never met anyone who has and doesn’t respect it and understand why it is beloved.

For me it is one of the “Rosetta stones” of pop music, it helps one understand some fundamental architecture of the pop music continuum, it leaves traces and its imprimatur into various avenues, tunnels, and thoroughfares to other important works of pop music or rock and roll.

So sure, I don’t have much new to say about why this is considered a masterpiece, but it is. Thousands of other great records bearing its influence are part of the proof. No words or lack thereof can change that.

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