In the summer of 2017 I found myself backstage waiting to interview Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Yes, you read that right. Even as I write those words it seemed faintly ridiculous, but it is all true.
I was producing a documentary on the legendary Pop Art artist Sir Peter Blake and we had brought Peter to meet his old mate Brian as part of the programme.
Only as has been well documented in recent years, Brian is a little ‘vague’ in person now and his memory is fragile to say the least. Still, it was Brain flipping Wilson!
Once we had what we wanted, we went into the auditorium to watch is band run through the sound check. They performed song after song from his 1966 album ‘Pet Sounds’.
This album was a distinct move on from the ‘surf and cars’ albums The Beach Boys had written and performed previously. This one was Brian searching for meaning to his life has he matured and began to experience ‘grown up ‘ issues. It was deeper, more intense.
He has said he wanted the album to ‘artistic and loving’ and that was the remit as he began to collaborate on the songs with lyricist Tony Asher.
He had the famous ‘Wrecking Crew’ session musicians lay down the music for the tracks (Wilson just loved their work on the Phil Spector ‘Wall of Sound.) Among the usual instrumentation of bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums, he would also have making an appearance among many others a harp, a bass harmonica, an harpsichord, a Theremin, cow bells, flutes, strings and of course a toy horn and a dog barking. More of him later…
Carol Kaye, legendary bass player sensed in the studio that ‘Wilson was about to explode creatively’ so bursting with ideas was he.
Then when the rest of the Beach Boys returned from the tour of Japan that they were on at the time of him writing it, they laid down the multilayered vocal harmonies they were famed for, on top of the ready and waiting songs.
Brian drove the guys crazy in the studio though. He could hear what they couldn’t, sounds that were in his head, that they struggled to reach. Band member Mike Love eventually called him ‘dog ears’ as only Brian could hear certain noises, as is the case with dogs.
Wilson said ‘I wasn’t a slave driver, I just told people what I wanted.’
Brian had been inspired to write the subject matter featured on the album by the ‘Rubber Soul’ album by The Beatles. He saw it as a challenge and one he embraced hungrily.
There are many standout musical moments on the album of course. I will dip my toe into the ones that I have always loved and leave a few for you to discover yourself, as if by some miracle you do not know or own a copy of this album already.
It opens with the instantly recognisable intro sound to the song ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’ Contained in the lyric is the message of wouldn’t be great to be older and settle down with the one you love, get married young and do what you want from a young age. Brian has commented that this was one of his happiest songs ever, and he gets no argument from me on that.
With ‘You Still Believe In Me’ Brian has explained this is a study of his inner child. He knows it is time to grow up, but in some ways he just isn’t ready for that yet. The elongated line ‘I Want To Cry’ gets me every time, just beautiful.
‘Sloop John B’ was brought the Beach Boys table by Al Jardine who admired the song greatly. It was an originally a Bahamian folk song. Brian then completely de-constructs the song, to the point that many think it is one of his original compositions.
Next up ‘God Only Knows’. When writing the acknowledgements in my 2004 book ‘The Fashion of Football’ I dedicated this song to my wife Lou and its lyrics perfectly capture how I feel about her.
It is said that this masterpiece of composing took only an hour to write. Carl Wilson on lead vocal does an outstanding job. Genius at work on many levels.
The line ‘I know so many people who think they can do it alone’ opens up the song ‘I Know There’s An Answer’ which appears to be Brian saying that others around him that they were very quick to make judgments on him and his work. He diplomatically found it best to keep what he was thinking to himself. An anti ego song? It might just be.
Wilson’s quest to fit in, when in reality he felt very much the outsider, is the basis of the song ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.’ It is well documented Brian had his issues mentally and certain lines in this highlight the struggle he was perhaps undergoing on a daily basis.
‘Each time things start to happen again, I think I’ve got something good going for myself, but what goes wrong?’
And finally ‘Caroline No’ The story of unrequited love from Brian for a girl called Carol at his high school. He said he knew he couldn’t have her, so he wrote a song about her instead. He has since revealed that in fact she did ring him, once the song was released.
The dog barking at the end of this track is said to have inspired Mike Love to think of the title for the album.
‘Pet Sounds’ Geddit?
Band mate Bruce Johnston went to London shortly after the recording and spent a lot of time being shown round by Keith Moon. On one occasion John Lennon and Paul McCartney visited Bruce’s hotel room and they listened to a vinyl recording of the album before release, through the night.
‘Pet Sounds blew me out of the water’ McCartney later said. ‘No one is educated musically until they have heard that album.’
Pet Sounds went on to inspire The Beatles to record ‘Sgt. Peppers’ and it’s hard to think of a finer compliment than that.
The Mumper of SE5