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Interview:
Brian Wilson celebrates 50 years of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds"
 

By GARY GRAFF
Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" album was a shock to the group`s fans in 1966, and to the music world in general.

And to the rest of the Beach Boys for that matter.

Co-founder Al Jardine clearly recalls being on tour in Japan while Beach Boys chief creative force Brian Wilson -- who had retired from touring due to fatigue and emotional issues -- was working on songs for the album back in Los Angeles, mostly at United Western Recorders. When the other group members returned and listened to what he`d come up with, they were practically speechless.

"It was a paradigm shift, in every which way," Jardine, 74 -- who's on the road with Wilson this year playing "Pet Sounds" in its entirety -- says by phone from his home in California. "We came back and there was a giant shift, and it became apparent that (the album) was going to take some time to sink in. We were basically a rock 'n' roll band with some great hits, and we were doing pretty well, so this took time to digest.

"And ultimately it paid off huge dividends."

No kidding. Though its No. 10 peak on the Billboard 200 chart was considered disappointing at the time -- though it did spawn the Top 10 singles "Sloop John B" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" -- "Pet Sounds" had during the past 50 years ranked as one of the most impactful and greatest albums of all time. It's No. 2 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, while U.K. outlets such as New Musical Express, Mojo, Uncut and the Times rank it No. 1.

The Beatles are among the myriad artists citing "Pet Sounds" as a favorite and a creative influence -- in their case towards "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" the following year. Composer Philip Glass in 2007 saluted it as "one of the defining moments of its time" and praised "its willingness to abandon formula in favor of structural innovation." In many ways "Pet Sounds" -- perhaps along with Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde On Blonde" -- can be seen as the launch pad for the album era, a cohesive and conceptual body of work rather than just some established hit singles -- 10 Top 10 entries to that point for the Beach Boys -- and filler tracks.

"I wanted to make the greatest rock album ever made," Wilson, 74, said last year. In his new book "I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir," meanwhile, he writes, "I kept thinking about what kinds of songs I should be making, and whether there were any limits to how a pop song could sound. I couldn't really think of any limits. I knew I had to explore the sound more. I had to go further in that direction, bring more orchestration and different kinds of arrangements into our music."

Wilson and the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew accomplished that with a variety of adventurous melodic structures, untraditional harmonies and fresh sounds and instrumentation -- including the Electro-Theremin that would be even more prominent in the "Pet Sounds" follow-up single "Good Vibrations," which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

"It was such a departure from anything that we'd ever done," notes Wilson's cousin and Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love, who also published a memoir this year, "Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy." "It was Brian Wilson at his most creative, I think, and unique." But Love adds that even though the Beach Boys were considered a hit singles band at the time, even those songs demonstrated the kind of creative ambition that led to "Pet Sounds."

"There's so many singles that have been done by groups, and then they'll follow it up with singles that sound so similar," Love, 75, explains. "The thing about the Beach Boys singles is we were never that way. We would do a different tempo, a different lead singer, a different subject matter, a whole different type of arrangement. So we were used to doing things that were not just the formula."

Nevertheless, notes Jardine, "Pet Sounds" "was a struggle. Those weren't easy concepts for us. We were presented with some music that was very complicated for us to digest. But having said that, some classics were on that album."

Executives at Capitol Records, the Beach Boys' label, initially balked at "Pet Sounds," fearing it lacked enough singles as well as the commercial signatures of the group's previous hits. Even the band was unsure; Wilson writes that, "The guys didn't always get what was happening...It was a totally new bag of sound for us -- or anybody else, for that matter." But Love bristles at the conventional wisdom that he led opposition to the daring new approach.

"I supposedly said, 'Don't (mess) with the formula,' and it's assumed a love of its own," Love says now. "It's nothing I ever said. With respect to 'Pet Sounds,' I named the album. We worked very hard on the vocals. I wrote a coupel of lyrics for the album, and Brian and I both took it to Capitol Records and played it for them. I was very supportive of the 'Pet Sounds' album, always."

Love and his Beach Boys have been celebrating "Pet Sounds'" 50th anniversary this year as well Wilson and his band -- which claims to be the final performance of the album in its entirety. An episode of the "Classic Albums" home video series came out this year dedicated to the project as well. The Beach Boys were never able to replicate its artistic achievement -- Wilson's attempt with the even more adventurous "SMiLE" crashed and burned and wouldn't be released until 2011. But any number of other albums -- from "Sgt. Pepper's" to the Who's "Sell Out" and Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" -- took their cue from what Wilson and company did 50 years ago and which still resonates today.

"It's kind of like an annuity," Jardine says. "People love it. We love it. 'Pet Sounds' is a great album, it's that simple. And you hear that greatness every time we play any of it."

Brian Wilson: Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin

8 p.m. Sept. 30.

The Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit.

Tickets are $29.95-$125.

Call 313-471-6611 or visit olympiaentertainment.com.

Web Site: www.olympiaentertainment.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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