It’s been a while since I’ve written about a record & this time, I have a good one for you. I’m really excited to tell you about it, but first:
J.S. Bach- The Complete Brandenburg Concertos (Vanguard): This is my favorite collection of Baroque pieces. I found it, in its entirety for $1 at Turn it Up!, in Northampton, MA. I had to grab it.
Bruce Springsteen- Born in the USA (Columbia): This one was given to me by a friend, Andrew. He had an extra copy sitting around & decided to help me beef up my collection.
Eric Clapton- 461 Ocean Boulevard (RSO): I found this one for about $3 at Turn it Up!. It’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t heard it on vinyl as of yet.
Crosby, Stills & Nash- Daylight Again (Atlantic): Yet another good record found cheaply in Northampton.
Stephen Kellogg- Blunderstone Rookery (Elm City [Universal]): It’s here. I’ve played it & it’ll be reviewing it next.
Simon & Garfunkel- Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (Columbia): I ordered this last week. It’s a 1966 copy from Columbia. I have the tracking number & it’s en route.
Simon & Garfunkel- Wednesday Morning, 3AM (Columbia): I ordered this one on February 18th. It has yet to be shipped.
Now for the main event:
The Beach Boys- Pet Sounds:
Here’s a little history leading up to the release of Pet Sounds:
The Beach Boys released their first studio record on Capitol Records in 1962. Brian Wilson & his cousin, Mike Love, co-wrote most of their early material, which consisted of summertime rock ‘n’ roll songs. They had great success, but even so, Wilson felt uncomfortable. While the rest of the band were content being pop stars, he had other plans for his music. Those plans started to become a reality after suffering a small nervous breakdown in December, 1964. Being a writer, arranger, producer & performer at the same time had taken its toll, & by January, 1965, Wilson had quit playing live. Now, there was time to devote all his energy towards songwriting.
That same year, he heard an album which blew him away: Rubber Soul. The Beatles eighth Capitol release impressed Wilson so much, it inspired him to make something he thought would be better. The end result was Pet Sounds.
Unfortunately, by the time the album was released, in May of 1966, The Beach Boys were typecast as the summertime band that sang songs about California & cars. That, paired with Wilson’s father’s usurping managerial control of the band & insistence that Wilson pander to his audience, caused the album’s sales to be mediocre, at best. Reviews were mixed to negative.
Not all ways lost, though. The record was noticed by one group of people. The music community was quick to swipe up Pet Sounds & listen. Back then, the music industry was a very different thing, in the way the executives ran it, but in the artist who were part of it. Today, the top 40 is filled with “artists” who have no staying power, making the professional musician job turnover higher than it’s ever been. The stars only interact with each other when they promote a tour or album release & most of the songwriting is done by people hired to write & arrange for them.
In the 1960s, things were different. Yes, there were musicians who didn’t have staying power. Yes, record companies were money grubbing & ruthless, but the majority of professional musicians had camaraderie. People like John Lennon, Bob Dylan & Brian Wilson were friends. Their social lives were intertwined. Successes were helped & encouraged by bouncing ideas off of each other & giving constructive criticism. Songwriting rivalries were there, but they were almost always friendly. It’s been widely documented that The Beatles & The Rolling Stones used to actually work together to set release dates so that each of them could have their own successful time on the charts. They supported each other & it was a wonderful thing.
I say all that because Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds was received with open arms by successful & striving musicians alike. Wilson learned his technique of layering instruments from his friend, producer, Phil Spector, who dubbed the method the “wall of sound.” Also incorporated, were sounds which hadn’t been used in rock music, such as the bass harmonica & even Coca Cola cans (You can see the gigantic size of the album’s personnel list here). These elements were recognized as innovative by contemporary musicians & inspired many subsequent records, including he legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with Paul McCartney going as far as to say, “I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard [Pet Sounds].”
This is why I wanted to hear it on vinyl. I needed to listen to it the way my musical heroes did.
Pet Sounds’ cover art is pretty simple; it’s the band at the San Diego Zoo, feeding goats. It was supposed to be a play on the album title, & there really isn’t much else to say about it.
I own Pet Sounds in mono. It’s a re-release, & like most reissues, the record itself was pressed on 180 gram vinyl. People claim it sounds better that regular 120 gram, but that’s debatable. However, one thing that is certain, is that thicker records are more durable & less prone to warping. So I guess you could say that in the long run, there will be an impact on the sound.
Brian Wilson has said that Pet Sounds is a record that you can’t just listen to in passing. He says that the best way to experience the album is to put it on the turntable, put on headphones & shut off the lights. That way the listener experiences nothing but the pure sound of the record. I didn’t quite listen to it like that, though I plan to, but I did listen from start to finish. I also have the album on my computer, & even through nice speakers, the quality isn’t even remotely as good.
The difference between laying it on a turntable versus a computer is like night & day. Pet Sounds is jam packed with sound, & Wilson intended every bit of it to be heard. Much of this is lost during the compression of an .mp3, but once the needle drops, every sound, from the standard electric guitar, to bicycle bells becomes unbelievably clear.
I’d listened to the album a million times before I bought the Vinyl, & while I knew it was ground-breaking, its lack of luster through computer speakers or .ear buds made it sound ordinary. When I made the switch, I can finally say, I get it. I now know what Wilson’s vision was & I understand completely. That, combined with an understanding of the times in which it was released, gave me a musical epiphany. It was the first time this has happened to me so suddenly & with such force. I finally was able to listen to it the way all my musical heroes did & I am unbelievably humbled to be able to say it affected me the same way.
John Lennon & Paul McCartney are widely considered to be the 2 main musical geniuses of the Twentieth Century. I truly believe that the 1960s saw a third musical genius in Brian Wilson. Without any shadow of a doubt, his intricate & beautiful mind was right on par with Lennon’s & McCartney’s. Unfortunately, because of the lack of his band’s support & because his mental state was so fragile, he couldn’t keep up. Wilson eventually had a much more serious nervous breakdown & withdrew to the confines of his bedroom. I truly believe that if he had been given the support he needed, he would have created a much larger catalog of records, many of which would have been held in the highest regard. If things had gone perfectly, Pet Sounds would have been viewed in the same light as Rubber Soul is for The Beatles: a record considered to be the initial departure from the band’s rock ‘n’ roll roots, to something more artful. Thankfully, with age, the recordhas received the recognition it deserves from the general public, earning the title of second greatest album of all time from Rolling Stone.
Hindsight is 20/20, right?
At any rate, Pet Sounds is a wonderful masterpiece, especially when it’s played on vinyl. If you want to hear one of the albums that changed music as we know it, then this is definitely one you need to pick up.