Trapped In The Pet Sounds

It’s difficult to reconsider the classics. Forty years after damaging the pop music paradigm, The Beach BoysPet Sounds has been dissected, bisected and trisected every which way by musicians and critics alike only so that they could all come to one conclusion:

It’s important.

Brian Wilson, after hearing The BeatlesRubber Soul, caught a whiff of change and decided that he wanted to do more than sing about surfing. So, while the rest of The Beach Boys were touring, Wilson slaved away at his piano, borrowed some ideas and musicians from Phil Specter (yeah, the weirdo that just got away with murder) and then put his group through hell while getting the notes just right. After the album’s release, it inspired The Beatles to come up with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and thus the 60s REALLY began.

Probably more remarkable than the fact that a “teenage”-friendly pop act like The Beach Boys managed to deepen their relevance is that Wilson, then 23, knew how to make a record that would matter. Cultural shifts in social consciousness and thinking were altering the perceptions of pop music and how it was represented back then. Groups that at one point had been relished with schmaltz or suffocated by their press-friendly allure were in sudden need to be taken seriously and, as a result, LPs were growing into conceptual masterpieces as opposed to DJ-ready hit collections. To The Beach Boys’ advantage, it was luck that they had a genius like Wilson to help them bridge the gap between where they were and where Pet Sounds ultimately took them. It’s the same luck that allowed The Beatles to make influential advancements as the Lennon/McCartney/Martin powerhouse took hold of the vine that would pull them out of the Beatlemania quicksand.

In terms of the album itself, the rather joyous tonality of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the balladry of “God Only Knows” don’t necessarily coincide with the social awareness vibe of the decade. It’s interesting then that this vibe DIDN’T affect the album’s lyrical content (at least in terms of mood) and only the steps Pet Sounds took musically. It’s like The Beach Boys were trying to capture “Fun Fun Fun,” but on terms that the mind-expansion crowd could possibly relate to or “expand” with. That being the case, when Brian Wilson sings “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” it’s a statement that we can take to heart.

Pop groups trying to grow, commercial stars transitioning into artists. It’s not an odd concept and it’s been done time and time again as genres evolve and perceptions grow or falter. Pet Sounds is interesting though in that, as it relates today, it’s technologically ahead of its time and truly a testament to commercial viability giving way to love of music. So, let’s look at it not for the music’s sake, but for its producer, its technique and the group that put it together.

The Beach Boys and The Beatles did not have the means to replicate albums like Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper on stage, so the studio became an important place for them to grow artistically. As the concept of the studio has grown, ANY producer now can come up with something like Pet Sounds, though not because of any innate musical sensibility. All it takes these days is equipment, some kind of know-how and maybe an ear. Granted the use of musicians isn’t completely obsolete at this point, but the days of analog are more or less over and producers, in every quote unquote sense of the word, seem to be the music-makers these days.

As it’s come to be known throughout the last 15 to 20 years of electronic audio advancement, and the onset of digitization, it’s easy to regurgitate the same bile and splash it on the most disposable of artists. It’s how the industry stays alive, even as the tangibility of records slowly gives way to the impersonal MP3. Pop acts trying to make artistic strides, are easily led to believe in a NAME as opposed to a TECHNIQUE or QUALITY because THAT’S what makes all the difference. THAT’S what adds the air of “breaking the mold” or “expanding a sound.”

Case in point, Justin Timberlake’s work with Timbaland has brought some artistic cred to his otherwise bubblegum-stuck reputation. Granted it’s a step or two above N’Sync, but Timberlake’s move wouldn’t necessarily qualify as risky and it certainly hasn’t had any effect on his record sales. Kanye West, for all his self-admiration and crybaby outbursts, is widely considered to be top-notch despite being really only “able.” By and large, Kanye’s peers consist of wannabe beat-makers that pro-tool Casio percussion into something seemingly professional, so naturally he stands out. There’s no denying that Kanye can make a hit record, but would he be up to arranging something as complex as Pet Sounds with the ample technology available to him that wasn’t even considerable forty years ago?

And, like I said, this isn’t to say that pop music has failed over the last forty years to make an impact, or that mainstream groups haven’t put out amazing records since Pet Sounds. I’m sticking very closely to the MTV hit-machines to make my point but only because The Beach Boys probably would’ve been considered an MTV band. “Surfin’ USA” would’ve been a hit for the small screen had video television been as dominant in the 60s and the idea that something “artistic” could emerge from such a group seems ridiculous these days. Green Day sold American Idiot as this enlightening concept record, but every song I heard sounded very “Green Day” to me. They didn’t expand on their sound or try anything new aside from shifting their focus from pot to politics. R Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet” was an embarrassingly conceived and executed bunch of bullshit that was billed as this revolutionary R&B concept, but it was the same song he puts on every album, complete with unimaginative backdrop and unnecessary storyline.

For the sake of the mainstream, I would like to hear an artist say, “It’s a new sound” and mean what they say. As much as I wreck on the mainstream, it’s important. As much as I wreck on pop music, it’s important. It’s indicative of our world. It essentially dictates how we feel and where we are. It makes us ask ourselves, “Are we going anywhere?” And if pop music is making creative advancements, then there’s a possibility that our lives are being enriched somehow and that maybe we’re thinking differently.

Brian Wilson presented ears with possibilities and imagination. Pet Sounds remains a monument to artistic growth and how social climate affects vision. That’s why it’s important and that’s why it still means something. Technology will never replace talent. Leave music to the visionaries and stop wasting our time.

Letters From A Tapehead


alanm said…
excellent article...I had no idea that The Beatles got the idea for Sgt. Pepper's from Pet Sounds.
Drew Smith said…
Very insightful stuff - while the Green Days and Kanyes of the world are making modern and often interesting music, I agree that it's not so much the musical engineering feat of "Pet Sounds" and "Sgt. Pepper".
Sean Caldwell said…
To AlanM:

I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

I really didn't know the extent of influence that PET SOUNDS has on SGT. PEPPER till I did some research on the album. According to some documentary footage of Brian Wilson, for a stretch of time they were competing.

To Drew Smith:

When it comes down to it, the true accomplishments of PET SOUNDS or SGT. PEPPER owe a lot to their respective producers and their abilities to stretch the technology to lengths unimaginable at the time. It was all hands-on and decisions had to be made before recording even began in most instances.

I really wasn't trying to state that Pop music hasn't contributed any greats over the last four decades, just that technology has slowed down the creative process by making things a little too easy.

But, just an opinion. Glad you enjoyed the article.

Letters From A Tapehead
Drew Smith said…
Right - clearly there have been greats in the alternative/rock/pop music field (see OK Computer, The Stone Roses debut, and further back, any mid-70's Zeppelin), but it's just common sense that if a piece of work takes substantially more effort than another, the quality of the work will oftentimes be greater.

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