“God Only Knows.” “Sloop John B.” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” These are the songs of Pet Sounds that chronicled the 23-year-old’s transition into adulthood with grand orchestrations and technical wizardry in the style of an auteur. The album’s 50th anniversary this year is being celebrated with shows including Brian Wilson’s tour to Massey Hall on July 4.
JazzFM91 celebrates the anniversary with a multimedia examination of the album under the guidance of music executive, producer and educator Jeff Levenson in a Thursday show at the Isabel Bader Theatre. With music, pictures and video of behind-the-scenes events, Levenson explores the album’s creation and its continued popularity.
What makes Pet Sounds so great?
Brian Wilson had the musical chops to transform the complicated feelings of early adulthood into a shared, universal cry. He was in transition. Much of what he created serves as a coming-of-age cri de coeur. Every generation seems to discover it.
From a production point of view, it utilized fully the L.A. musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, the studio guys who helped create the sound of early ’60s rock ’n’ roll. Brian grouped instruments rarely used in pop records (eg. flutes, french horns, harmonicas, multiple basses), then used them as canvases for his introspections and self-examination.
In terms of production, were there particularly difficult orchestrations, tapings, mixing on the technical side?
Pet Sounds was done before the age of digital technology. New sounds had to be created rather than summoned through a programmed keystroke. Most of Pet Sounds was done with a 4-track recorder, which meant that Brian needed to plan his use of overdubs, an important consideration. The Beach Boys were a vocal group boasting complex and advanced arrangements. Sections of recorded material — imagined like scenes in a movie — needed to be assembled into a linear narrative. Wilson used the prevailing technology of his era: razor blades and wax pencils.
Creatively, was this the high point of the Beach Boys?
Pet Sounds is certainly a high point for Brian Wilson. He had been working towards this album with sophisticated compositions and studio work. He was developing as an auteur. From one perspective, Pet Sounds was the starting point that culminated with the pioneering Good Vibrations, followed by the legendary Smile project, abandoned at the time then completed 37 years later. Brian was creative, adventurous, fertile, leading the way for all pop conceptualizers and producers.
What are some of your behind-the-scenes insights?
The familial pressures are most telling here. (Brothers Dennis and Carl and cousin Mike Love were in the band.) Up until Pet Sounds, Brian had been a hit-making machine, churning out winning radio hits that launched the Beach Boys from modest suburbanites to international rock stars. Brian Wilson was the goose that laid golden eggs, until he embarked on a more personal (and less commercial) project in Pet Sounds. The pressures from within his family certainly contributed to his questioning and sense of isolation.
Was everyone aware at the time that they were making something special?
I think everyone knew it was different; the band and the musicians in the Wrecking Crew. Support among group members was sketchy. Pet Sounds was not the sound of the Beach Boys. The players in the Wrecking Crew sensed a watershed moment in rock. This 24 year-old wunderkind, Brian Wilson, was making truly new music, which introduced dissension within the group.
The BBC did a multiple-singer tribute to their music channel using “God Only Knows,” in which Brian Wilson took part. It is the one Brian Wilson song to enter the Great American Songbook, meaning it has become a pop standard. I’ve heard Elvis Costello do it; the Manhattan Transfer too. It is well suited to interpretation. Paul McCartney referred to it as the greatest pop song ever written.
In historical terms, Pet Sounds signifies the moment when rock music grew up, as if we had achieved a turning point in our understanding of the genre’s possibilities. Rock music was young then; Pet Sounds helped moved it through maturation. In personal terms, I was drawn to the idea of artist as agent of recognition. Brian Wilson identified the most human of feelings and channelled them into music, a resourceful response to the discomforts of growth. In sociological terms, the Beach Boys were modernists fulfilling the westward expansion of America. They were pioneers reflecting and projecting a mythic destination called California.