The Beach Boys were Brian Wilson’s baby – he wrote or co-wrote most of the songs and produced most of the band’s groundbreaking and heartbreakingly beautiful music that we revere today, from the deceptively simple “Warmth of the Sun,” “Surfer Girl,” “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and “Don’t Worry Baby” to the sublime bittersweet song-cycle “Pet Sounds” (1966) where Brian set out to one-up The Beatles after hearing their “Rubber Soul” in late 1965. At the time, he said to then-wife, “Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!”
Front-man Mike Love’s reaction after hearing some of the “Pet Sounds” songs Wilson had crafted with lyricist Tony Asher has been well documented. He allegedly told Wilson, “Don’t f*** with the formula, Brian.” Love wanted more songs about girls, cars and surfing, while Brian was writing music for the soul. At that point, two versions of The Beach Boys had existed for well over a year. One (starring Love) hit the road and played the hits, while the other (Brian) stayed home to write, record and produce Beach Boys material with a group of trained, versatile, “first call” session musicians who referred to themselves as “The Wrecking Crew.”
Wilson’s confidence as a songwriter, arranger and producer lead him to seek new ways to buck pop music convention while at the same time, helping pop advance as an art form. He wanted the new music to be embraced by existing Beach Boys fans while also reaching new fans who may have written the group off as a bunch of surf-music crooners or striped shirt-wearing squares.
“Pet Sounds” is bursting with melodies and counter-melodies – songs within songs, densely arranged with unusually juxtaposed instrumentation including accordions, bicycle bells, bass harmonicas, French horns, violas, cellos – even train sounds and Wilson’s barking dogs, Banana and Louie. Truly, these were all “pet sounds” of Wilson, and his drive and enthusiasm sparked the seasoned LA session players to sometimes play beyond what they thought possible.
Often, the musicians were confused when Brian asked them to contribute to sections of songs that didn’t immediately seem to make musical sense. Wilson usually heard the arrangements in his head long before the rest of The Beach Boys would ever add vocals to the music created in their absence.
When it was released in May 1966, “Pet Sounds” received a mixed reception. In the United Kingdom, the record enjoyed rapturous acclaim, while at home the reaction was decidedly less warm, possibly due in part to Capitol Records’ mediocre promotion of a record they didn’t know how to sell.
In later years, Brian’s brother, the late Carl Wilson, said that Capitol actually tried to talk Brian out of going through with “Pet Sounds” – so different was it from anything The Beach Boys had issued to date. “Can you imagine that album not coming into being?” he asked. “It was a glorious album in our ears, but the record company gave it a real lukewarm reception. That really worried Brian. It really bothered him. He’d put his heart and soul on the line.”
In the end, Brian won. “Pet Sounds” is now considered a pop-rock milestone. Capitol Records acknowledged that fact when they issued “The Pet Sounds Sessions” – a 1996 boxed set of alternate versions and session highlights. The record has since been released in more incarnations than any other Beach Boys album.
“Pet Sounds” (in its later stereo mix) has just been reissued by audiophile label Mobile Fidelity as a high-definition Super Audio CD-hybrid. Playable on conventional CD players, it also features a layer of high resolution audio when played on SACD players. The sound quality is stunning.
When the band hits the Waterfront Concerts stage on June 22, they’ll play at least four songs from “Pet Sounds.”
After this 50th anniversary tour, there may be a version of The Beach Boys out there, but I think it’s safe to say that Brian will not be part of it. After nearly 20 years of bad blood and lawsuits, this tour (and the new Beach Boys album, which he produced) is a chance for him to close the book on the band in a healthy way. After it’s over, he’ll probably go back to being a father (he and wife Melinda have five adopted children) and resuming his solo career with the group who has backed him since the 90s.
That’s why you should be there when Brian Wilson joins the band when they come to town on June 22 – it will never happen again.
Tickets for The Beach Boys’ June 22 concert on the Bangor Waterfront can be purchased in person at Mark’s Music in Brewer, charge by phone at 1-800-745-3000 or online at www.WaterfrontConcerts.com.