Monday, November 27, 2017

Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" - Hits of '67

The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds forever changed the landscape of rock music in America and Britain alike. Brian Wilson's meticulously complex and bizarre arrangements elevated the three-minute radio tune to an art form it had yet to experience (but through the filler-free resplendence of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul or maybe Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited). Though Brian began the concept for his coming of age drama early in early 1965, before the Beatles’ LP was released, Rubber Soul was the catalyst of its brilliance. "Rubber Soul blew my mind," Wilson said. "When I heard Rubber Soul, I said, 'That's it. That's all. That's all folks.' I said, 'I'm going to make an album that's really good, I mean really challenge me.' I mean, I love that fucking album, I cherish that album."

Pet Sounds started with a panic attack. In December 1964, while on a flight to Houston to start yet another Beach Boys tour, Brian Wilson collapsed in the plane's aisle and began sobbing. He had to return to California, where he (partially) recovered and realized that he could no longer tour. "Listen, I'm going to have to quit the touring group. But it's going to be well worth it, because I'm going to write you some good songs." Nondescript as hell, and blatantly unreassuring.  The other "Boys" just looked at each other. Throughout '65, while the rest of the band toured, Brian labored over the new project. He arranged, composed, and produced the tracks and conducted an army of L.A.'s best studio musicians (known as The Wrecking Crew). From square one, Wilson's infatuation with vocal groups like The Four Freshmen and The Lettermen defined The Beach Boys' sound, and early in his career, Brian began hanging about Phil Spector's Goldstar Studios, watching and studying his idol. Spector knew how to orchestrate, arrange and produce that great wall of sound; Wilson took those ideas and made them his own. He'd also take a bevvy of Spector's hit-making musicians. At the age of 23, Brian Wilson had complete control over Pet Sounds, a feat that would all but elude The Beatles. 

Halfway through the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson met Tony Asher working at a recording studio in L.A. Asher was a young lyricist and copywriter who had been worked on advertising jingles. Wilson played him some of the music he'd been recording and gave him a cassette of the backing track for a piece tentatively titled "In My Childhood." Within days, the two were collaborating.  Although the tune had lyrics, Wilson refused to show them to Asher. The result of Asher's tryout was eventually re-titled "You Still Believe in Me," and the success of the piece convinced Wilson that Asher was the wordsmith he'd been looking for. Said Asher later in the sessions, "We were trying to do something that would sound sort of like a harpsicord but a little more ethereal than that. I am plucking the strings by leaning inside the piano and Brian is holding down the notes on the keyboard so they will ring when I pluck them. I plucked the strings with paper clips, hairpins, bobby pins, until Brian got the sound he wanted.

Still, the real impetus of Pet Sounds' immensity was that day in January 1966, the 16th to be exact, when at the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood Wilson heard an early pressing of Rubber Soul. Six days later, once again at Capitol Records, Brian revamped "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" into an instrumental dream reminiscent of Burt Bacharach. The touring Beach Boys returned in February to find Wilson over budget (not to mention overweight) and anti-surf – the old Brian Wilson gone. None of the Beach Boys but Al Jardine knew he’d been gone long before; knew that only the Brian standing before them could have written "California Girls." After listening to the instrumental track of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,”Jardine turned to Mike Love and said, "And you don’t want to be a part of that?" 

In March of that year it took a full week to record the vocal track for "Wouldn’t It Be Nice." Brian was so demanding that Mike Love took to calling him "Dog Ears" because he could "hear things humans could not." Love joked that they'd have to re-record a take in case any of the members had "an impure thought.”

Nonetheless, Brian's arrangements on Pet Sounds are so musically complex and meticulous, meaning can be derived at a remarkably technical level, as music critic Jim Fusilli does here: "'You Still Believe in Me'" begins in B major, a key rarely used in pop, and remains in B major. The G# major chord below the first, and only, time the word 'love' is invoked in the song is particularly striking; on the second pass, the G# major chord hits below the word 'fail.' In a rare example of the bassist emphasizing the root in a Brian Wilson arrangement, Carol Kaye hits the G# in both instances. It's as if Brian wanted there to be no confusion for the listener: in his mind, at least in this song, love equals failure." Oh my fucking God, for real? Is it truly that complex? Excuse my expletives but this is a masterpiece here and I don’t have the right adjectives for this caliber work – am I gushing? OMFinG! Aside from the dogs in Brian’s solo piece "Caroline, No" (that’s Brian’s dogs, Banana and Louie), there are Coke cans, vibraphones, Theremins bicycle horns, the plucked strings of a piano, accordions, timpani and water jugs. Dark Side of the Moon my ass, this was seven years earlier!

Without the support of Capitol Records it deserved (they had such little faith in the album that they nearly simultaneously released a greatest hits album), Pet Sounds was, on Beach Boy terms, a failure, only reaching No. 8 on the Billboard charts, but the album was hugely popular in the UK. Before its release there, touring Beach Boy Bruce Johnston took two copies with him to London and managed — through Beach Boys fanatic Keith Moon (!) — to arrange a meeting with John Lennon and Paul McCartney to play it for them. They listened to it once through, paused, and immediately asked to hear the album again. Shortly afterward, the two began to work on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Game on. Pepper was the Beatles' attempt to equal Pet Sounds.

Interesting that the song that would have thrown Capitol fully behind the project, "Good Vibrations," was left off the album. Brian thought it "needed more work." "He wanted to call the song 'Good Vibes,'" Asher said. "And I remember when he began to play this little riff, which he said he had been working on, he was saying something like, you know, 'Good, good vibes, I get good vibes,' or something like that. And I kept saying to him, 'You know, it really ought to be vibrations.' And he said, 'Yeah, but that's not what people say.'"

Later that year, Wilson took the same musicians from the Pet Sounds sessions back into the studio — sometimes for 10 minutes, sometimes for six hours, sometimes to work on the overall song, and sometimes to rework one tiny section over and over and over again. To these musicians, it was clear that this wasn't going to be your average rock single.
"You would sit with a music stand, blank piece of paper, and you'd wait until Brian got around to giving you your notes, because he knew exactly what he wanted," harmonica player Tommy Morgan says. "He knew every note in his head."

Musician after musician said the same thing time and again, with the same sense of wonder. He knew the bass lines he wanted. He knew the organ sound, what stops to pull on the organ. He would use the studio and get that idea from his head onto tape, and he'd do it by recording it in bits and pieces, getting different sounds from three different studios. It was a revolutionary idea for making records. "That wasn't your normal rock 'n' roll. I mean, it wasn't 'Help Me, Rhonda' and it wasn't 'Surfin' U.S.A.,' " bassist Carol Kay says. "You were part of a symphony." There were as many as 18 recording dates, and in the end, Brian had to piece together a song from a stack of tapes three and a half feet high. Then, after months working in isolation, Wilson was ready to play his miniature symphony for his brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike and Al Jardine. Brian remembers the first time The Beach Boys heard it. "They were very blown out. They were most blown out," he says. "They said, 'Goddamn, how can you possibly do this, Brian?' I said, 'Something got inside of me.' I said, 'I had to do something,' you know, 'I got it going.' They go, 'Well, it's fantastic.' And so they sang really good just to show me how much they liked it. They sang for me."