Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Pet Sounds" Revisited

Last weekend I finally got see the new movie Love & Mercy about the life and times of Brian Wilson, founder of The Beach Boys. The movie was amazing, and the actors in the key roles- John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano- were simply brilliant. Brian's story is very complex, and they tell it well. Please go see it if you have the opportunity- I will be seeing it again soon. I have been completely immersed in The Beach Boys music ever since. There was a fair portion of the film dedicated (and my listening this week) to the time Brian spent in the studio making his masterpiece, Pet Sounds. I have written of the significance of that album in this space before. Inspired by the movie, I do so again today.

On May 16, 1966, the world of music changed forever. The Beach Boys, known for their breezy anthems about California girls, surfing and hot rods, released an album that no one was quite prepared for or would ever forget. Pet Sounds was a whole new type of popular music. Brian Wilson had written rich orchestrations using instruments no one had heard in a pop song before, and his new collaborator Tony Asher wrote lyrics that captured the hearts of young people everywhere. The album is in the top 5 of most every "greatest albums of all-time" list ever made, and produced several songs that teenagers in 2014 still know today. The Beatles were often quick to point out that there would have been a very different Sergeant Pepper without the influences of and the creative gauntlet thrown down by Pet SoundsPaul McCartney said this in a 1990 interview:

"It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian's writing. I love the album so much. I've just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life---I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs. I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. It's that kind of an album for me." 

I first heard the album years after its release when I started collecting Beach Boys vinyls in the mid 1970s. I too was simply stunned at the majesty of the music and the passion of the lyrics. It was immediately one of those rare albums that I could never listen to just a few songs at a time. The album was ONE masterpiece that told ONE story, and needed to be heard as such. Time passed and I replaced the vinyl with a CD. And then more time passed and the CD was borrowed and never returned. The Beach Boys box set contains a number of the songs, but not the entire project, and I had been missing Pet Sounds and longing to listen to it with my then 18 year old son Will when Santa delivered a new copy. In the 18 months since that time not only have I been listening to it  over and over and over, but Will purchased it on vinyl and loves it almost as much as I do. It takes me back, not just musically, but to so many lost relationships and moments of heartbreak and discovery. No matter who you are or what era you have grown up in, Pet Sounds is the soundtrack of young love. Many of you know Wouldn't It Be Nice and God Only Knows (called by McCartney the greatest song ever written). but those are far from the only gems on the album. Here's the song list and a few of my thoughts with selected lyrics:

* Wouldn't It Be Nice ~ This song totally captures that feeling that you have when you are young and in love that everything would be better if you could go ahead and be together forever. "You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it...but let's talk about it...wouldn't it be nice?"
You Still Believe In Me ~ An unbelievably beautiful melody and lyrics that remind us that true love always seeks to be unconditional. "And after all I've done to you how can it it be that you still believe in me?"
That's Not Me ~ A song about striking out on your own seeking to make it big only to discover "I could try to be big in the eyes of the world but what matters to me is what I could be to just one girl..." Who hasn't felt that way? When you are young and in love there is often nothing else that seems to matter.
Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) ~ Another ultimate expression of young, passionate love that knows nothing of struggle or issues... "I can hear so much in your sighs, and I can see so much in your eyes. There are words we both could say...but don't talk, put your head on my shoulder. Don't talk close your eyes and be still. Don't talk, take my hand and listen to my heart beat..." Wow. Just wow.
I'm Waiting For the Day ~ The girl he loves has been hurt, and is not ready to move into a new relationship. But the songwriter will wait. Just as we all did at some point in time. "He hurt you then but that's all gone, I guess I'm saying you're the only one. I'm waiting for the day when you can love again."
Let's Go Away For Awhile ~ A beautiful instrumental piece.
Sloop John B ~ Brian's arrangement of an old Caribbean folk song is pure genius. While lyrically a bit out of step with rest of the album (which is not a surprise as it was a single done months before the rest of the project) the orchestrations and harmonies set the bar very high for the rest of the songs that followed. I once owned an album called Stack ' O ' Tracks that contained Beach Boys songs without the vocals. This song was the highlight- unbelievably complex and strikingly beautiful.
God Only Knows ~ The first non-religious song ever played on the radio with "God" in the title, it is the essence of young love. "I may not always love you, but as long as there are stars above you, you'll never need to need to doubt it. I'll  make you so sure about it... If you should ever leave me, though life would still go on, believe me. The world could show nothing to me, so what good would living do me? God only knows what I'd be without you."
* I Know There's An Answer ~ A song about discovering truth and dealing with know-it-alls. Originally titled Hang On To Your Ego. "I know there's an answer. I know now but I have to find it by myself."
Here Today ~ One of my very favorites among an album of favorites! It captures the excitement and drama of new young love - "It starts with just a little glance now, right way you're thinking 'bout romance know you ought to take it slower, but you just can't wait to get to know her.  A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing" - but with this very practical reminder- "but if you're not careful think of all the pain it can bring. It makes your heart feel sad, it makes you feel so bad, it makes your days go wrong, it makes your nights so long, you've got to keep in mind love is here today and it's gone tomorrow. It's here and gone so fast."
I Just Wasn't Made For These Times ~ One of the hardest parts of being a teenager- whether in the 1960s or today- is fitting in. Who among hasn't felt like we just weren't made for the times we live in? "Sometimes I feel very sad..."
Pet Sounds ~ Brian at his instrumental best.
Caroline No ~ "Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know? How could you lose that happy glow? Oh Caroline, no." The album ends with young love dying. Because so often that's what young love does, leaving one party -or both- hurt and longing with unanswerable questions- "Break my heart, I want to go and cry. It's so sad to watch a sweet thing die. Oh Caroline, why?" And wondering if you'll ever be able to feel that way again.

Although at age 55 it is often hard to remember, I was once a teenager and a young adult. I also spent 28 years of my life working with teenagers as a youth pastor. There are few things that impact the lives of that age group more than the search for acceptance and love, and the heartbreak that often accompanies that search. If you've "forgotten" what it was like to feel the agony and the ecstasy of those days and those relationships, Pet Sounds can take you there. Over and over again. And that is a memory that will never go out of style.

"Enjoy every sandwich."


  1. I plan on seeing the movie very soon, thanks for the recommendation! Pet Sounds is an absolute masterpiece - some of the most brilliant songwriting ever on full display. I only wish I'd discovered it during my teen years when I felt so many of those raw emotions, rather than in college when I had a better handle on who I was and who God made me to be. It really does take you back and flood you with feelings you haven't felt in a long time. And yeah, like Lay's potato chips - I can't stop at just one! I have to give it a full listen. The replay value is off the charts, and you won't find many better albums for a road trip - or better albums, period! Great post.

  2. Thanks Drew. You'll love the film- Paul Dano is simply remarkable as "Pet Sounds" era Brian. And you are sooo right about road trips! Appreciate you stopping by, bro!

  3. Anonymous7/31/2015

    Just seeing this post. Wonderfully written, - Clayton Redding (UK)


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