I was just watching the trailer for Pixar’s upcoming Toy Story 4, and playing on the soundtrack was a song that I always find deeply moving, God Only Knows. I was inspired to dig into the back catalogue and revisit a Beach Boys retrospective I wrote a few years ago, before this blog began, thinking maybe it should see the light of day, to the extent that an appearance on this blog could qualify as an exposure to daylight (it’s also been posted for a while in the virtually unvisited Songs of the Day archive section). I used to write these things just for the fun of it, and circulated them to a few friends, who maybe didn’t read them. When I wrote this one, I was really warming to the process – hence the length. Writing can be a ball, when you care about the subject!
Let’s dial it back to 1966, the year when I think modern pop music reached a high water mark that it isn’t likely ever to hit again. By fate or happy coincidence, 1966 is the year that Kathy was born, and she had the idea one year that for her birthday, I should make a mixed tape of the songs from 1966 that I felt were most worthy. Despite being very selective, I ended up with four hours of digital audio tape and plenty more to add when I ran out of steam.
That magic year, pop was in a ferment. Dylan, the Who, the Stones, the Kinks, the Byrds, all the great Motown artists, and of course the Beatles, were duking it out for chart supremacy in a glorious game of one-upmanship that was pushing pop-rock far beyond anything anyone would have believed possible only a couple of years earlier. Superficially, the most unlikely entrant in these sweepstakes were the Beach Boys, whose innocent pre-British Invasion anthems to surfers, fast cars and pretty girls, so huge back before 1964, now seemed hopelessly quaint. Except, in 1966 the Beach Boys weren’t making songs about surfing and fast cars any more, and there are ways and ways of writing about pretty girls.
Conventional wisdom, which I think is sound enough, has the two Beatle giants looking in different directions for their toughest rivals at this juncture. Lennon, of course, was obsessed with Bob Dylan. Songs like You’ve Got To hide Your Love Away and Norwegian Wood were obvious attempts to match Dylan at his own game, as John’s work became ever more confessional and self-absorbed. McCartney admired Dylan, but for him the natural competitor was the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, in whom he recognized a prodigious melodic talent rivalling his own, a similar flair for innovative bass playing, and an uncanny knack for clever song structures employing key changes, unexpected shifts in tempo, and innovative production techniques. For Paul, Brian Wilson was the guy to beat.
Wilson, predictably, felt the same way about McCartney, and when, in the last month of 1965, the Beatles threw down the gauntlet with the epochal album Rubber Soul, he ditched the surfboard, parked the Little Deuce Coupe, and vowed to do them one better. Apparently he even held prayer sessions in the studio, asking the Almighty for the inspiration to make an album better than Rubber Soul.
An old cliché has it that God indeed hears every prayer, it’s just that quite often the answer is “no”. Well, OK, but not this time.
Throughout the first half of 1966 Brian laboured in the studio to produce his masterwork, and it bears remembering here that unlike anyone in the Beatles, he had to be a one man show. He was the gifted one; the other Beach Boys were barely useful as part-time session musicians at this point, while Brian, heavily influenced by the “wall of sound” production techniques pioneered by Phil Spector earlier in the decade, filled the role of composer, arranger, producer, and player – in effect he had to be John, Paul, Geoff Emerick and George Martin all at once. It was, actually, a hell of a mental strain for him, at a time when he desperately needed a respite – for poor Brian was in the midst of a mental breakdown that had begun as early as 1964. His problems had their roots in an abusive relationship with his father, drug use (Brian believes LSD affects his mind to this day), filial relations, and so on, and having his sense of self-worth challenged by these English guys wasn’t doing anything to help. Luckily for us he persevered, and in May of 1966, Brian having pushed himself to the limit, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds.
“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. 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 love the orchestra, the arrangements … it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century … but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways … I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence … it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines … and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines. ‘God Only Knows’ is a big favourite of mine … very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. On ‘You Still Believe in Me,’ I love that melody – that kills me … that’s my favourite, I think … it’s so beautiful right at the end … comes surging back in these multi-coloured harmonies … sends shivers up my spine.”
Have a listen to this Pet Sounds sampler:
Wouldn’t it Be Nice
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
The sheer song craft in evidence here is staggering, as is the sophistication of the production and arrangements – and notice the prominent bass lines, so much like McCartney’s work. Of the above, I’ve always thought that God Only Knows resides in a class of its own. McCartney has at various times called it the most perfect and beautiful song he’s ever heard, and it’s certainly one of the very few of the era that forces you to reach for the very zenith of Paul’s output when trying to find its equal. The key changes; the French horn; the staccato drumming at the end; that oddly affecting “clip clop” rhythm; the surpassing beauty of the closing lines, with its intertwined melodies; this is beyond a mere love song, and into something that exalts the finest qualities of the human spirit.
Crushing for Brian, then, that Pet Sounds didn’t sell. It just wasn’t the Beach Boys that people had come to expect, and peaked at number 10 on the Billboard charts – not bad, but for the love of God, the Beatles could get to number 10 with the sound of a flushing toilet. Always psychologically fragile, Brian was now teetering on the edge of full-blown psychiatric chaos, his masterpiece scorned – or was he wrong about that? Perhaps it wasn’t that good after all? The public had amply proved that it could grow along with its favourite artists, and surely if the masses were tin-eared philistines unwilling to let their idols break out of pre-conceived boxes, Rubber Soul would not have sold in its millions. What had he done wrong? What more could he do? He couldn’t have imagined that decades hence, no list of the ten best albums ever made would dare to omit Pet Sounds, and he also seems not to have registered a congratulatory telegram that McCartney took the trouble to send him upon the album’s release.
Meanwhile, the Beatles were busy on their own masterwork, and in August of 1966 issued Revolver, often cited today as their greatest album, and another perennial on the “ten best of all time” lists. Nobody as gifted as Brian could have failed to recognize his own kind in songs like For No One, and Here There and Everywhere, and then there was Eleanor Rigby, with its gritty string octet, written not in a key but in a more primitive “mode” barely ever heard since medieval times, except in the hymns that Paul must have absorbed in his days as a choir boy. And those lyrics! Horribly sad yet not the least bit sentimental. How it must have stung when Eleanor Rigby was released as a single to become a global hit, proving beyond doubt that the public was prepared to buy something unconventional that shattered previous expectations, provided it was good enough.
Moreover, Revolver ended with a song like nobody had ever heard before, John’s inspiration but also containing sounds, courtesy of Paul, that had never been heard outside of the narrow circles of the 20th century avant-garde. Tomorrow Never Knows hit everyone like a bucket of ice water. Everything about it bespoke utter mastery of the recording studio, its vocals drenched in electronic distortion, almost buried in a sound-scape awash in backwards tape loops sounding like deranged seagulls, and the oppressive droning of drums and sitars, while John quoted liberally from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Just two years earlier it had been “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Now here was Lennon, sounding like a drugged mystic shouting from some fog-shrouded mountain top, intoning that the day could yet come “when ignorance and hate might mourn the dead”.
And Revolver, naturally, sold in its millions.
Fine. Brian wasn’t done yet. He retreated to the studio – to several different California studios, actually, each picked to give particular parts of the song their own ambience – and laboured on what was surely, to that point, and maybe not just to that point, the greatest pop single ever released.
It took months to put this pocket symphony together, layering harmonies on top of multiple instrumental tracks, splicing together disparate segments into a cohesive whole, adding multiple overdubs and studio effects, until the thing was polished to a staggering degree of fineness. Good Vibrations, released at the end of 1966, upped the ante yet again, and to this day, you’ll struggle to find anything more rich, textured, melodic and inventive. I love the way it just launches right in, no pre-amble, just “Aaah – I love the colourful clothes she wears” (perhaps an echo of “Aaah – look at all the lonely people”?). That weird science fiction sounding instrument is a Theremin, a spooky electronic device that you play without touching – you move your hands around it, disturbing an electro-magnetic field. The cello is a masterstroke, as is the complete change in tempo in the middle eight, and that church-like organ, like he’s worshiping this girl.
In all, something like 80 hours of recordings were distilled down to make the record, over a span of seven months and at a cost that was ten times the price of a contemporary top-of-the-line Cadillac. It was, without doubt, worth every minute and every penny.
The title came from something some relative had told Brian about a pet dog, that it seemed to sense people’s good or bad intentions as if they were putting out vibrations that only it could sense. From this point on, the idea of good vibes and bad vibes became part of the popular lexicon, because at last, blessedly, Good Vibrations was a massive hit. Said Brian, much later: “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It’s hard to say that one song is the top floor of the building you’re trying to build … but nothing’s higher than ‘Good Vibrations.’”
Across the Atlantic, McCartney sat up straight and realized the gauntlet had been thrown down yet again. He was quite enjoying this trans-Atlantic tennis match, and knew nothing of the terrible mental strain that afflicted his sad, suffering peer in America. For Paul, this was a friendly (if intense) competition, good for both of them; for Brian, it must have seemed more akin to blood sport. The role of his rivalry with the Beatles in Brian’s mental breakdown has perhaps been overstated over the years, and Lord knows, he had enough other problems to account for everything that was going wrong inside his head, yet it’s hard not to believe that being one-upped repeatedly, and with apparent ease, was contributing to his woes. Seen in that light, the release, only a few months later, of the mind-bogglingly brilliant double A-Side single Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever – perhaps the only single ever released that could plausibly be considered better than Good Vibrations – must have seemed less like a friendly riposte than a snide kick in the pants. Those fucking Beatles had done it again. It’s been reported that when Brian first heard Strawberry Fields Forever coming out of his dashboard radio, he had to pull over, then broke down, crying, and said “They got there first.”
In a fever, Brian returned to the studio to work on something to surpass Pet Sounds and race back in front of the Beatles, a project called Smile that absorbed him to the point of unhealthy obsession. While he was hammering away at that, God help him, Paul paid him a personal visit in California and, by various accounts, either played live on a piano, or from copies of master tapes, a few cuts from the soon to be released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wilson’s recollection is that Paul performed a piano rendition of She’s Leaving Home, and that Brian, almost inevitably, found it so beautiful that he cried – it was, after all, his kind of song. Apparently, after Brian had heard what was coming, Paul playfully said something like “You’d better hurry up!”, or so the story goes.
To the extent the account is more than apocryphal, it bears remembering that it would never have occurred to Paul that Brian was dying inside, his Smile project in danger of being eclipsed even before he could finish it. Paul, we know, was more than eager to see what Brian would do next, and whatever he said, he would have meant Brian to take it in a more jovial spirit, like the guy across the net saying “You’re serve!”. Paul adored Brian, more, probably, than Brian could ever have believed, just as Brian probably never believed that the way Paul saw it, the Beatles had never managed to one-up Brian at all.
In June, 1967, Sgt. Pepper was released to a universal and utterly unprecedented chorus of rapturous acclaim. Meanwhile, Brian finally succumbed to his demons, and the Beach Boys began a long artistic decline from which they never recovered. Sgt. Pepper didn’t do Brian in, any more than Revolver did, but as always, it couldn’t have done him much good, either, to watch the Beatles bathing in praise and global success while his Smile project laid in pieces on the floor.
If only George Martin could have told him then what he said many years later to an interviewer: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.“
Decades later, when Brian was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, it was Paul who did the honours, with considerable grace and honest affection. I suspect that McCartney feels keenly to this day how much of a loss it is that we never really got to hear what Brian was going to do next.