With Pet Sounds through the Pandemic
BY JOBST LIEBRECHT · PUBLISHED 25 OCTOBER 2021 · UPDATED 3 NOVEMBER 2021
With Pet Sounds through the Pandemic
A eulogy by Jobst Liebrecht
I guess each and every one of us found our own way of getting through the pandemic. This was mine: Several times a week I would get in my car and drive to the woods to go jogging. Each time, I would listen to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.
One of the many wonders of this music that it will pick you up no matter your mood. The thirteen song titles that the twenty-three-year-old Brian Wilson came up with in a few weeks’ time in early 1966 in a creative frenzy, recorded in the studio with outstanding creative musicians, overlaid with the choral singing of his Beach Boys, and later finished off with the solo voice and lyrics—each of these titles is a masterpiece in its own right, a precious stone, a jewel, and in such a lyrically and formally cohesive and succinct form that the only comparison that comes to mind is Anton Webern.
So, I took regularly to the woods and searched for a means by which to address the feelings that were plaguing me in the pandemic. Feelings of failure and depression, but also of yearning for a euphoric awakening, for youth. Pet Sounds was reliably there for me—youthful momentum preserved, even as it is dashed against some of life’s burdens, which it then overcomes by means of suddenly found talents and, of course, youthful flair—indeed, here is only success.
The first track on the album, “Wouldn´t It Be Nice,” starts things off, and right off the top: a twelve-string mandolin patched directly into the tape recorder via the input jack in the control room—enigmatic, vaguely oriental in sound, then suddenly a boom from timpani and bass drum together and off we go, in a lower key: two accordions on top of each other and Glen Campbell and Barney Kessel on electric guitar. One can listen to this over and over, and each and every time it conveys the same adolescent joy, forever preserved. This euphoric love song, however, is framed in the subjunctive, and by the time we reach the middle section, “You know, it seems the more we talk about it, the more it hurts to live without it,” we are already entering this so very much Brian Wilson gray zone of anguish that diffuses the music like a Mozart mélange. The triple bellow shakes of the accordions play a suitably mysterious role here. Repeatedly they cast the flicker of their emotional heart tremors over the chords, the remnants of an evening serenade, tearful trembling eyes wet with tears. Luckily there are still the guys—including the later discredited “bad boy” of the Beach Boys, Mike Love, who is allowed to end the song with a shout of “Good night baby, sleep tight, baby.”
The second track, “You Still Believe in Me,” begins obliquely with a vocal melody that is also plucked directly on the strings of the piano, making it sound like a sitar. When the band comes in, are they… swaying? Or is this a tender rumba? We are in B major, not C. It is a song of adoration contritely addressed to the singer’s wife, who stays by his side even though he keeps screwing things up. Very gradually a certain tingle of irritation, I would call it, begins, punctuated by various noise-making devices such as bicycle bells and car horns happily making merry. The idyll is somehow insanely exaggerated. This song, which begins so innocently, becomes even better and more durable, the more often you listen to it. The unshakable devotion and constancy promised his wife seems to radiate, becoming ever more steadfast and indestructible. And then it stops… on a low accordion note… before starting up once more, as if it might then go on forever. Throughout one hears in all its glory the role of the bass player, Carol Kaye—her sound, her precision, and her timing on the Pet Sounds album.
I wasn’t just looking for something to keep me company while jogging in the woods, I was looking for an anchor, something to hold on to, something that was just as it was meant to be, something simply right.
That, for me, was the Pet Sounds album, in all its orchestrated glory. Beginning with this wonderful bass line, voluminous but focused by the use of a pick, which provides the foundation. Carol Kaye intuitively understands Wilson’s musical ideas—his “feels”—and enriches every curve of this roller coaster of sounds with ideas. Which of the two, for example, came up with the idea of the bass guitar playing so often in the highest register? But the bass line is just the beginning. On the drums we have sheer, exceptional talent: renowned session drummer Hal Blaine, who grew up musically in dives, supper clubs(,) and on the road and gives the band an almost vulgar, rakish drive (he also coined the name of the elite group of LA session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew), assisted by percussionists such as Frank Capp and Terry Melcher, with their own ideas. Then, of course, the musically sophisticated keyboard players Larry Knetchel, Al de Lory and Don Randi—who could do it all: organ, harpsichord, piano and who are largely responsible for the fact that this music all of a sudden sounds so “artsy” and literate. The amazing guitarists, the accordionists, trumpets and saxophones, the woodwinds—they are right there on every number. And there is always something on the chart for them, because Mr. Wilson was a fan of the so-called “wall of sound”: a multiplicity of sound events that jumps right out, letting you discover something new with every listen.
Track 3, “That’s Not Me,” starts out half surf song, with a not quite breaking youthful voice, making it the closest to the garage band sound that characterized the Beach Boys at the beginning of their career. In fact, the bards were all on the instruments themselves on this song. Underlying it all, an almost surreal-sounding Hammond organ, with slightly psychedelic guitar inserts thrown in every now and then, and the lolloping of the bass drum when the band sings about setting off for the city, about the search for oneself. The more you hear this song, the more you pick up on its ever varying changes in harmony, not to mention the consummately mixed overdub of the vocals.
The pandemic often left us in an unresolvable emotional state of mind. It beset us with grief and hopelessness, leaving us at times without words.
Track 4, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written, comes to the rescue. While the first three numbers on Pet Sounds are characterized by youthful impetus and lively exchanges—not necessarily carefree, but certainly lively—and eager discussions of the problems and difficulties that arise in life, the album moves to another level entirely with “Don’t Talk.” And quite suddenly, too, with the appearance of the heavy minor seventh chords in the bass and organ—exactly which doesn’t really matter, because it’s all there in the very first chord. Then the timorous, persuasive words of comfort: Say nothing, just lay your head on my shoulder—my solace, “listen to my heart beat.” And just as the chords are feeling their way along, the strings make their appearance —the Sid Sharp Players. Wilson strove to convey to the musicians, first on paper then by singing their individual parts, the harmonies he had worked out in his head. The strings enter and then after “listen, listen, listen,” the vocalist falls silent and we listen spellbound, as the stringed instruments speak to us—sing to us—as only strings can. It’s an old-fashioned espressivo in the Jewish East-European violin tradition—to my ear, the way the strings are meant to sound, if we let them. It is the most beautiful string passage in all of popular music. No unnecessary set dressing, no bath of sound, only the greatest symbolism, as with Mahler. And then the heart beat from the low timpani comes in. All in perfect balance, entering, resting and resuming at just the right moment.
The fifth track, “I’m Waiting for the Day,” sweeps away the silence with a solid syncopated timpani and bass drum beat that kicks off something of a rock atmosphere for the first time. It is all the more astonishing when English horn and lyric flute in turn reveal a much more plaintive atmosphere, before we are immediately grabbed once more by the scat singing. This flip-flopping of the unresolved contradiction between soulful ballad and rock number continues throughout the entire song. In the end, even the coda of the string quartet is duly trampled by the percussion.
How many times during the pandemic were we left with nothing but such helplessness? I’ve lost count.
Track no. 6, “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” [sic] is pure instrumental and much esteemed—not only by its composer. It is the perfect abstract pop number. Not even the lyrics remained, as the composer chose to leave them out. And as for the non-existent melody, Wilson’s only response, triumphantly, was “try to hum it!” It was left in the pure form of one of his feels—for Wilson always the basis of any composition. When you hear it for the first time, though sublimely fascinating, you still want to think: well, okay, a jazz band is playing a few notes and strangely captivating harmonies in a cool and relaxed way, and then the strings come along. But if you listen further, this is where the comparison with Anton Webern constantly comes to mind. Because extremely condensed events are happening here. They are based on the utmost discretion and reduction. They bring to the recording tape expression in its most highly condensed form—the poetry of the Viennese Modernists was once compared to the newly invented bouillon soup cube, but perhaps the more appropriate comparison here is with Andy Warhol’s can of condensed tomato soup. Though it must be mentioned that a Coke bottle was also directly involved, as a sound distorter on the electric guitar.
Helplessness is often due to a lack of solutions. But then, suddenly, solutions in the pandemic came along, means were found. On a personal level, it is the running in the woods that often brings me respite and resolution.
Track 7, “Sloop John B.,” has something to do with this. This one truly big hit from Pet Sounds, which everyone knows, takes me back to the room in my parents’ house where I grew up. I see in front of me the bright orange portable record player that I listened to after school every day without fail, the Beach Boys’ hits already cued up on the turntable. The album’s “monophonic sound,” favored by Wilson, who was deaf in one ear, shaped my perception of sound in a way that I am only now becoming more and more aware of. The same goes for the nasally focused, yet sweet and pure vocal sound of the choral arrangements, whose secrets and tricks I can perhaps account for today, but to which I succumbed at the time without any idea why. Yes, for many years I would occasionally pull out a Beach Boys CD, almost coyly, to reconnect with this basic sonic experience of my youth. In this respect, “Sloop John B.” suited me perfectly. Having grown up in the port city of Hamburg, I used to love this song because it’s basically a SHANTY. Unlike the other songs on Pet Sounds, it is an “original,” a song that existed and has been sung in many versions already a century earlier. It has been claimed by some that the song was an unfortunate misfit on Pet Sounds, included there only at the request of the record company. I don’t share this opinion. The Beach Boys had sung it under its folk song title “The John B. Sails” for years long before fame found them. And indeed, this song can be played wonderfully on the guitar, sitting around the campfire so to speak, as I once did myself many times. Here, however, it comes in the magnificent guise of an elaborate Brian Wilson arrangement and thus was a formative experience for the beginning of the Pet Sounds compositions. After his friend Al Jardine proposed the familiar song, Wilson, although initially skeptical about its folksy character, went on to create such a masterpiece of instrumentation that the other members of the band reverently gave him a free hand to continue, so to speak. With a combination of ringing orchestrion ensemble sound and euphoric shanty choir harmonies, Wilson takes the catchy and readily singable melody to heights where Stravinsky says hello. In particular, I am always fascinated by the continuous crescendo that Wilson has built under the strophic song that remains the same—and above all by the fantastic bass voice that, so to speak, gets the old ship sailing. Last but not least, there is a beautifully clear A-flat major that is glorious to hear in the song.
With “God Only Knows,” track 8, we come to the heart of the Pet Sounds album. Legend has it that it was written in three quarters of an hour; described by no less an authority than Paul McCartney as the “best song of all time,” it offers us a singular mixture of intimacy, lightness and even a shared religious experience. The song opens with a melody on the French horn, an unfamiliar if not to say unknown instrument in pop music circles in those days. This melody is immediately underlaid with a quirkily cheerful “clip-clop” percussion for which Hal Blaine played around on plastic canisters. The sleigh bells were played by lyricist Tony Asher himself. Harpsichord and strings also come into play.
Even as with the Beatles, pop music here was setting out, pushing its way forward into the realm of the classical, trying to absorb the entire spectrum of music. This expanded spectrum is then reassembled, multiplied, and blended together. The result can be a case of severe irritation—or pure delight, for example, when in the middle of the gentle ballad, the ensemble suddenly plays a brisk four-bar syncopated march-like bridge reminiscent of Stravinsky. Another of these timeless stylistic devices is the CANON. It was used by Wilson a number of times as the culmination of a song, as here, for example, in “God Only Knows,” in a particularly enchanting way (perhaps only surpassed by the concluding canon of his later song “Surf’s Up”). An interesting secondary aspect that sheds light on the historical momentum of this song is the fact that it was initially boycotted by a few (mostly southern) radio stations in America because of concerns about the use of the word God in the track title. The opening words, “I may not always love you,” were likewise not felt to be appropriate for the opening of a conjugal love song.
If there was anything I strove for during this pandemic, it was to achieve a sense of serenity that would allow me to endure the sudden standstill in my external life. I tried my best to disregard my own disquiet, desires, and worries.
Track 9, “I Know There’s an Answer” ( in its original form “Hang On To Your Ego,” which Mike Love refused to sing), invokes exactly this letting go of one’s own ego, even as it also expresses a certain driving discontent foreshadowing the tumultuous events of 1968. Carried by the energetic, almost whipping rhythm of the tambourines, in the lower depths, especially in the middle of the song, one can hear the gruff low sounds, not of a saxophone, but of a strange, unique instrument, the bass harmonica. Accompanied by a ukulele and honkytonk piano, with timpani and bass drum repeatedly setting deep counter accents, the harmonica exudes an incomparably rebellious mood.
It would be a fair question to ask why I listened to so little classical music during the pandemic. Unforgettable for me the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle before the first lockdown and the exuberantly animated and therefore that much more claustrophobic performance of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia on television. Such music—and with it we are not too far off topic—seemed to fit the situation. On the other hand, the dejected celebration of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, as happened last autumn before the third lockdown with the same orchestra, seemed to me an inappropriate response to the times. Listening to performances of the Kurt Weill Symphonies from Sweden under HK Gruber in the middle of the lockdown, on the other hand, suited me just fine. I felt that we were facing a tragically difficult but thoroughly modern situation ahead of us. In the traditional classical orchestral concert I found no answers. Perhaps in a personal dialogue at the piano, but not in the on-screen orchestra hall. And I had a symbiotic feeling for the situation in which Brian Wilson created Pet Sounds back in the 60’s. At that time, too, an outwardly stable and prosperous society suddenly found itself facing both internal and external crises, as represented by the Vietnam War. The received wisdom of the church, the law, and other institutions was no longer sufficient. What initially appeared as something like a personal adolescent crisis went much deeper in the case of a sensitive and emotionally frail artist like Wilson; it became an existential threat. It pulled him down. But here in Pet Sounds he was still on top.
The tenth track, “Here Today,” the symphonic celebration of love’s comings and goings, brings it all together: the fat organ and sax sounds; the astonishingly lively and virtuoso playing of Carol Kaye, who weaves garlands with her bass; the euphoric falsetto of Brian Wilson in the prime of his voice; a wonderfully out-of-tune old piano; the entire session-like mood of choral singing; and the seemingly improvised instrumental interludes, complete with call outs—all this comes together to suddenly form a cloud, as the Berliner says.
In contrast, in track 11, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” the feeling of being an utter misfit in the world is developed and sustained in a deeply moving way. If you’re wondering how such feelings of Weltschmerz can possibly work in music, you just have to listen carefully: it is through the almost hymn-like, self-assured tone with which the melody begins, before its diversion into distant keys, that then defiantly rises up in protest, achieving a refrain of sorts: “sometimes I feel very sad,” before sinking back in resignation. Pervasively artificial throughout, the entire arrangement is a perfect example of the “wall of sound.” Complex chord progressions reflecting a confused emotional state are played by organ, harpsichord and saxophone; the internal unease is articulated in the reverberative percussive rhythm played on two Coke cans; now and again a flute provides a calming effect; fully detached from its fundamental purpose, the bass guitar plinks and plunks about in the upper spaces, so to speak. For the melody, Brian Wilson also prominently introduces the Theremin to pop music, allowing it to serve here as an example of radical individuality, “air from another planet” (Schönberg, String Quartet No. 2, op. 10), so to speak. Definitely the piece de résistance of the Pet Sounds album.
In a sense, a certain form of passive resistance is what the pandemic was all about. It forced me to passively yield to what was initially an uncontrollable event. We were left with nothing but our patience—to endure the restrictions, the cancellations, the missed opportunities. Patience in being left to our own devices, in the Munchausian feeling of having to pull ourselves alone out of the swamp. Good for those who not only stayed fit, but also managed to keep their cool.
For this there was track 12, “Pet Sounds.” This strictly instrumental track was actually intended as the title music for a James Bond film under its initial working title “Run, James, Run.” In a wonderfully offbeat way, it reflects Brian Wilson’s enthusiasm for Gershwin, Burt Bacharach, and Henry Mancini. Against an easy-going, cheerful Latin American percussion, a skewed electric guitar plucks out a short melody over and over again as an idée fixe, like Bond snapping his cuffs straight with the briefest of gestures. Likewise (matchlessly) askew, the entrances of the drum solos, the swung rhythms of the strings, the brass band breaks.
The final track, “Caroline, No,” is one of Wilson’s most personal song compositions. The almost playfully joking observation made to a girlfriend: “where did your long hair go?” suddenly widens out into an existential black hole, a symbol of the transience of life and also love. The ethereal vocal and harpsichord lines and sweetly voluptuous chords are counterpointed by a reverberant ostinato percussion, which, as if emblematic of Trapattoni’s legendary “bottle empty” quote, was in fact achieved by striking an empty plastic water bottle. “No” is the last word sung on the album. It is an ambiguously open-ended “no.” At first glance, it recalls a sympathetic “oh, no” in response to misfortune, loss, everything that goes wrong in life. But then also a remonstrative “no” in the sense of “you can’t do it—I won’t allow it” as a clear objection, an insistence on one’s own opinion, one’s own memory, of something different, something more beautiful.
I think that in each of those senses, the music of Pet Sounds was my own personal “no,” my own daily counterbalance, to the pandemic situation.
But it doesn’t stop with “Caroline, No.” To the thirteen songs on the album, Wilson added two small additional tracks as a ghostly aftertaste: the strains of a passing freight train and its horn (sounds) followed by two dogs barking vigorously (pets). As if to sign off on a better tomorrow.
(Jobst Liebrecht, October 2021)
Behind the Sounds is a wonderfully instructive YouTube video on the recording sessions for almost every track on the Pet Sounds album.
Translated by Kevin Pfeiffer