Though I’m sure someone could make the case for either REVOLVER or SGT. PEPPER’s being the first prog album, I’ve always turned to PET SOUNDS by the Beach Boys. I’m sure there’s a bit of the American in me that desires this to be so, so I can’t completely claim to be unbiased. I know English proggers–understandably–think of Prog as one of their many national gifts to the world, somewhere above the Magna Carta. And, it is! Still, it’s conceivable that it came about in California but then was perfected by the English. Maybe. Maybe not.
As Brian Wilson has noted, he found his own inspiration for the album in RUBBER SOUL by the Beatles. Is it possible the influence went both directions across the Atlantic? Most certainly.
Regardless, PET SOUNDS is fifty years old. And, what an extraordinary achievement it is. Though one might regard it somewhat probably as a Brian Wilson solo album, it came out under the name of the Beach Boys, and it carries with it many of the trademark Beach Boy sounds and touches.
From the opening few seconds of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” it’s plain that this isn’t going to be an ordinary pop song. Yes, it’s sweet and there’s a bubble gum element to it, but it also offers the first real Wall of Sound in pop music, something that was found much more typically in jazz or classical music.
“We could be married. . .”
As the album moves into track two, “You Still Believe in Me,” the music becomes a bit more minimal, and yet there’s a fine folk quality to this pop song. The lyrics are deeply confessional and apologetic, an explanation for sin in the search for redemption. Whether it’s a lyric to a girl friend or to God remains unclear, giving a mystery worthy of any of the best of Simon and Garfunkel. The use of strings to offer a melancholic tone is excellent as well.
“I try hard to be more of what you want me to be. . .”
Another song almost completely out of place in the sunny and wonderful idyllic beaches of California. The guitar and the bass reach the level of the extraordinary with this third track, as does the minimalist keyboards. As if to reflect their own reach for fame, this song by the Beach Boys waxes nostalgic about more innocent days, days before individual choices had isolated the singer away from what he truly lived.
“I’m a little bit scared. . .”
The melancholy and angst continues in track four, “Don’t Talk,” as the singer expresses the one moment of pure beauty in holding a loved one, intimately sharing touch and compassion and thought. It is, however, fleeting, one moment of intense goodness compared to a billion uncomfortable ones.
“Listen, listen, listen. . .”
Track five, “I’m Waiting for the Day,” lifts a bit in the spirit of the music, but the lyrics continue to be introspective, looking to a loved one to help heal wounds, knowing that such a gesture might ultimately be unrequited. The refrain of the song is about as McCarthy-esque as the Beach Boys get, but this is Brian Wilson as Paul McCarthy, not straight imitation of McCarthy. It’s unclear if the ending of the song indicates that the lover continues to love or finally gives up on his torn girlfriend.
“I kissed your lips, and your face looked sad. . . ”
Track six, “Let’s Go Away for a While,” begins with some tasteful jazz percussion and cinematic strings, becoming somewhat Latin around the first minute mark. An instrumental.
“Sloop John B” is one of the most famous tracks from the album, even if not its most representative. This is the poppiest of the songs, and, not surprisingly, it did very well for the Beach Boys in terms of making money. Even as a kid in the late 1970s, I couldn’t turn to a Kansas radio station without hearing this song everywhere. And, yet, couched in upbeat pop, the lyrics deal with disturbances of the peace, and the conflict between an out of control individual and the law.
“Let me go home. . .”
Track eight, “God Only Knows,” is one of the greatest songs ever written. A pop masterpiece of stratospheric proportions. Unlike the rest of the album, this is a true love song, a recognition of the mystery of grace in every good relationship.
“The world could show nothing to me. . .”
Track nine, “I Know There’s an Answer,” might very well be the purest PET SOUNDS song on the album. That is, it embodies every bit of the best of this album–existential lyrics, playful folk melodies, obscure instruments and woodwinds, and walls of sound.
“I had to find it by myself. . .”
“Here Today” is a love song, or, at least, an infatuation song about the beginnings of love. Yet, it’s a warning, too, as love does change the persons involved almost completely. And, it could easily be fleeting. in fact, in this song, it is, and it turns out this is one boyfriend warning the next about what she is capable of doing to him. The middle part of the song includes a really interesting bass and keyboard staccato.
“Right now, you think she’s perfection. . .”
“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is exactly like what the title suggests–a lost young man, trying to find his way in the world. Again, a somewhat upbeat tune with dreadfully introspective and self-contemptuous lyrics.
“But what goes on. . .”
Another instrumental, “Pet Sounds,” revels in Latin beats and Caribbean jazz, sounding more appropriate for a Pink Panther or James Bond movie. Indeed, this might well have been titled, “Henry Mancini writes a Beach Boys song.” Again, about as far from standard pop fare as one can imagine.
Accompanied by a hollowed out percussion, “Caroline No” is a dreamy and ethereal song, bordering on the psychedelic. It’s impossible for me to listen to this song and not think about how much Mark Hollis must’ve been influenced by it. Parts of it are already anticipating post-rock.
“Could I ever find in you again?”
The last few seconds of the song are a swirl of animal sounds, a train signal, and a train.
Whether it was first or not probably doesn’t matter, but it certainly laid the foundation for much that was great to come: SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR; COLOUR OF SPRING; SKYLARKING; and SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER.
PET SOUNDS is an extraordinary achievement by any measure.