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Off the Beaten Tracks: The Beach Boys come of age

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WHILE their early hit songs about surfing and girls have their charm, the Beach Boys don’t really interest me until 1966. That was when Pet Sounds changed the face of pop music. With the group’s 11th studio LP, Brian Wilson set out to create the ‘greatest album ever made’. And while I wouldn’t go quite that far, what with Blood on the TracksHejira and Late for the Sky to contend with, it remains an outstanding achievement and certainly one of the best LPs of the Sixties.

The Beach Boys were formed in Hawthorne, California, in 1961. The original line-up was Brian Wilson, his kid brothers Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love and a friend, Al Jardine. Their stunning vocal harmonies soon singled them out from the pop pack. Brian was the undoubted leader, composer, producer and arranger. The Wilsons’ dictatorial father Murry managed the band. They started out as The Pendletones – after the Pendleton, a popular woollen shirt at the time – but were renamed the Beach Boys on signing to a local record label, Candix. They were snapped up by Capitol Records when Candix went bankrupt.

In January 1963 Surfin’ USA became their first top ten single. There were many more as America went crazy for surf songs. But then came the British Invasion, led by the Beatles, who were also on Capitol and were perceived by Murry Wilson to get all the executives’ attention. He frequently barged into the label’s offices demanding justice for his boys.     

It was in January 1965 that Brian Wilson retired from touring to concentrate on composing and making more ambitious records than hitherto. He was replaced in the live act by Bruce Johnston on vocals, bass and keyboards. In the late summer Capitol demanded that Wilson come up with some more ‘product’ in time for the Christmas market. His response was to dash off Beach Boys Party!, recorded ‘live’ in the studio and featuring mainly cover versions. In December that year Brian heard the Beatles album Rubber Soul and accepted it as a challenge. ‘I saw that every cut was very artistically interesting and stimulating,’ he said. ‘I immediately went to work on the songs for Pet Sounds.’ He was particularly impressed by the work of Paul McCartney, his almost exact transatlantic contemporary (McCartney was born on June 18, 1942, Wilson two days later).

The fact that no songs from Rubber Soul were released as singles in the US convinced Wilson that the 45rpm format was outdated and from now on the album would be king. He teamed up with Tony Asher, a British jingle writer, who provided most of the lyrics for songs which Brian would set to ambitious arrangements, using the studio as an instrument in the same way as Phil Spector did with his ‘wall of sound’. Asher would later say: ‘The general tenor of the lyrics was always his and the actual choice of words was usually mine. I was really just his interpreter.’ Although Pet Sounds went out under the Beach Boys banner, it is to all intents a Brian Wilson solo album. The rest of the band returned from a tour to find the songs all written. To paraphrase Wodehouse, if not disgruntled they were not totally gruntled, but they played on the record anyway.

Track one is Wouldn’t It Be Nice? If you’ve never heard it, you must have been living on Alpha Centauri. The rock journalist Nick Kent wrote that it begins with ‘limpid harps imitating teenage heartstrings in a tug of love’ followed by ‘growling horns and harmonies so complex they seemed to have more in common with a Catholic Mass than any cocktail-lounge acappella doo wop’. Ahem. Nick Kent: never knowingly underwritten.

You Still Believe in Me comes next. Wilson would describe it thirty years later as a ‘little boys’ choir-type song with me doing the soprano. Very, very spiritual’. Looking for a harpsichord sound in the introductory few seconds, Brian encouraged Asher to lean inside a piano and pluck the strings while he held down the appropriate keys. ‘I plucked the strings with paper clips, hairpins, bobby pins and several other things until Brian got the sound he wanted.’

That’s Not Me, the nearest thing on the album to a straightforward rock song, sees Brian sharing the vocals with Mike Love. Carl and Dennis play guitar and drums.

Don’t Talk is one of three tracks where Brian is the only Beach Boy featured. The line ‘listen to my heart beat, listen, listen, listen’ with its accompanying bass line is his favourite moment on the entire record. He said: ‘I felt very deeply about that line. One of the sweetest songs I ever sang. I have to say I’m proud of it. The innocence of youth in my voice, of being young and childlike.’

I’m Waiting for the Day is a heavily orchestrated song addressed to a girl who’s had her heart broken. Brian was underwhelmed by his vocal performance, saying: ‘Vocally, I thought I sounded a little bit weird in my head. That’s the one cut off the album I didn’t really like that much. But, you know, it’s okay, it’s not a case of liking or not liking it; it was an appropriate song, a very, very positive song. I just didn’t like my voice on that particular song.’

The instrumental Let’s Go Away for a While features at least 25 session musicians but not a single Beach Boy. It’s followed by Sloop John B, a cover of the Bahamian folk song The John B Sails. The first single to be taken from the album, it reached No 2 in the UK, No 3 in the US and No 1 in several other countries.

Side Two kicks off with God Only Knows, generally accepted as one of the greatest songs ever written.

Released as a single in the UK, backed with Good Vibrations, it again reached No 2. In the US, with the A- and B-sides switched, it went to No 8. Of God Only Knows, Asher declared: ‘This is the one song that I thought would be a hit record because it was so incredibly beautiful. I was concerned that maybe the lyrics weren’t up to the same level as the music; how many love songs start off with the line, “I may not always love you”? I liked that twist, and fought to start the song that way. It is, to me, one of the great songs of our time. I mean the great songs. Not because I wrote the lyrics, but because it is an amazing piece of music that we were able to write a very compelling lyric to. It’s the simplicity the inference that “I am who I am because of you” – that makes it very personal and tender.’

I Know There’s An Answer was inspired by Wilson’s experiences with LSD, which seriously messed up his mind. Here Today features an orchestral passage which was influenced by J S Bach. A psychedelic song about depression, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times features what is said to be the first appearance in popular music of the theremin. 

The title track is another instrumental which Wilson had hoped would be a James Bond theme tune, originally named Run, James, Run. And finally we have the lovely Caroline, No, which concludes with the sound of Brian’s dogs Louie and Banana barking at a passing train.

Wilson would later write: ‘I really fulfilled a dream with this album. Just before we did God Only Knows, Carl and I had prayer sessions asking the Lord for guidance and maximum love vibes. It was the first time anyone had ever used the word “God” in a commercial song . . . at least that is what we were told. During the production I dreamt I had a halo over my head. This might have meant that the angels were watching over Pet Sounds.’

While the Americans were slow to realise the quality of the album, over here it was instantly declared a masterpiece and it was in the LP charts for six months, peaking at No 2. Wilson’s heart must have been warmed by this quote from Paul McCartney: ‘No one is educated musically until they’ve heard Pet Sounds. It is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways.’

Beatle producer George Martin added: ‘Without Pet Sounds, Sgt Pepper wouldn’t have happened. Pepper was an attempt to emulate Pet Sounds.’

In its 2012 poll 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine put Pet Sounds at No 2, one ahead of the Beatles’ Revolver and one behind Sgt Pepper.

So how could Brian Wilson follow that? More next week.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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