Oh look, another homage to Pet Sounds. A 40th anniversary edition, with a CD that includes the stereo and mono versions of the album, along with a DVD of hagiographic documentaries extolling the importance and excellence of this particular piece of work. Great. Let us pray.
In some circles, when the Beach Boys are brought up people are quick to chime in, 'Fuck Mike Love,â?� referring to the stubborn, money-focused role Love has played in the Beach Boys' saga. To that imprecation, may I kindly add, 'Fuck Pet Sounds. And fuck Brian Wilson while you're at it.â?�
The notion that Pet Sounds is somehow solely responsible for the maturation of rock & roll in the '60s is absurd. Dylan's infamous Newport Folk Festival appearance ' the one after which Joni Mitchell said, 'The American folk song has grown upâ?� ' happened a year beforehand, as did Highway 61 Revisited, an album that drew a bright line between disposable pop music and the more potential-rich adventureland of 'rock.â?� (It's also worth noting that Blonde on Blonde, the double album on which Dylan planted himself firmly on the 'rockâ?� side of that line, was released on the same day ' May 16, 1966 ' as Pet Sounds.)
Also, from late 1965: the Beatles' Rubber Soul. Rubber Soul was a statement of intent as direct as that of Highway 61, except rather than just exploding rock music's lyrical and structural limitations, the Beatles were very forthright in their intent to move rock/pop instrumentation beyond the simple guitar/bass/drums setup. Though deeply inspired by the visceral thrill of '50s R&B music and the simple joy of a catchy hook, the group took the bold step of deciding that, rather than simply repeating themselves for the sake of continued success, why not use that success to push things forward? Able to experiment and utilize the studio itself as an additional instrument, the Beatles joyfully crossed that bright line that Dylan had drawn, using tape manipulation, exotic instrumentation and a general sense of 'Let's see how far we can take it.â?� Help!, the group's previous album, took four days to record. Rubber Soul took a month. (Their next album, the far more experimental Revolver, took three months.)
Paul McCartney has gone on record praising Pet Sounds, and although the album's May 1966 release occurred in the middle of the sessions for Revolver, it's clear that with or without Brian Wilson's efforts, the Beatles ' and Dylan and rock music in general ' were already determined to move past the hits-and-filler notion of pop music albums. The tenor of the times demanded it.
Wilson, in fact, has admitted that it was Rubber Soul that inspired him to elevate the follow-up to Beach Boys Party! into something more than a throwaway album. At best, Wilson and Pet Sounds were third in the First Great Album of the '60s horse race.
Pet Sounds didn't sell well in the U.S. upon its release, although it spawned a handful of hit singles. The boldest and most indulgent song, 'Good Vibrations,â?� was held off the album so Wilson could 'finishâ?� it (a process that took more than 90 hours of tape and most of 1966). The 13 tracks that do comprise the album are somewhat monochromatic, keying off the conflict inherent in combining a swinging studio band, the Boys' endlessly irritating harmonies and a series of ever-more-bloated arrangements. The hits ' 'Wouldn't It Be Nice,â?� 'Sloop John B,â?� 'Caroline Noâ?� ' are, with the exception of the latter, cloying and a bit pedestrian. The remainder of the album has the soulless, saccharine sheen of what passed as 'adult instrumental popâ?� in the mid-'60s, ratcheted up to absurdly self-indulgent levels. On the whole, the album sounds less like the (r)evolution of rock than it does the apex of easy listening. Yes, Brian Wilson knew how to use a studio, but so did Esquivel.
Why, then, the decades of unanimous assertion that the album was ' after Sgt. Pepper ' the most influential and important album of the decade? Simply put: Brian Wilson's mental problems. The 'storyâ?� behind Pet Sounds ' a pop star follows up a debilitating anxiety attack with a work of focused genius ' is a glorious rock parable. That Pet Sounds was then followed by the laborious insanity of the abandoned Smile album (and another bout of Wilson psychosis) makes the story even better. People love their rock stars nutty, and Wilson certainly fit the bill. Dylan was kind of an asshole and the Beatles were just goddamned adorable, so why not let the crazy guy whose dad beat the hearing out of him have the glory of being the 'influentialâ?� one? What does it matter if the story is better than the actual music? What does it matter if rock music would have likely progressed along the same course without Pet Sounds? What does it matter if Pet Sounds is more legendary than listenable?