God Only Knows

The genius of Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds,” and how it drove him nuts.

In the weirdly insular world of rock criticism, there’s an axiom that’s as constant as the Northern Star and as inevitable as a scuffed pair of Doc Martens at a Green Day show: If you’re looking for the moment 20th century popular music ceased being mere dance music and became serious art, then you start with The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The Beatles, some would have us believe, inaugurated that mythical era known as “The 60s” with the band’s creative use of exotic tape loops and odd instrumentation that resulted in a syrupy tribute to its hometown of Liverpool.

Popular music, we youngsters were continually informed as we thrashed our way through records by The Clash and R.E.M., was never the same after “Pepper’s” 1967 release. And, in the eyes of some purists, it never scaled such rare heights again.

There’s just one problem with that misty-eyed world view: It isn’t true.

The trail that led to “Pepper” had been blazed a year earlier in 1966, when The Beach Boys, hitherto known for their wistful tributes to sun, sand, surf, cars, and pretty girls, released their artistic tour de force, “Pet Sounds.”

Although an acknowledged classic — “Pet Sounds” consistently ranks at or near the top of many all-time-best album lists — it is also a sad reminder of the fragility of brilliance.

God Only Knows” from the album “Pet Sounds

The album’s architect, chief Beach Boy Brian Wilson, was driven mad in his efforts to record its 1967 follow-up, “Smile,” descending into a years-long haze of drug abuse and erratic behavior.

The songwriter went into seclusion, rarely rousing from bed, and only then to gorge himself at the refrigerator. He once famously had a sandbox built in his living room and placed his piano in the middle of it — all in an effort to channel the feeling of the sea while composing.

Wilson also spent years under the questionable care of psychotherapist Eugene Landy, who exerted control over almost every aspect of the deeply troubled singer’s life, until he was finally freed of the therapist at the turn of the 1990s by his younger brother Carl Wilson.

By the end of the decade Wilson had returned to performing and recording, but it was not until 2004 that “Smile,” a record that he described as his “teenage symphony to God,” was finally completed and released.

So what is it about “Pet Sounds” that makes it such an extraordinary achievement?

For openers, it is largely the recorded vision of one man — Wilson — where “Pepper” reflected the artistic collaboration of four supremely talented musicians. In 13 tracks that clocked in just at an amazingly economical 33:13, Wilson — with a leg-up from lyricist Tony Asher — perfectly captured in “Pet Sounds” that awkward transition from childhood to adulthood, even as he pushed the boundaries of what could be sonically accomplished within the confines of a three-minute pop-song.

Working largely by himself at Los Angeles’ United Western Recorders and three other studios, Wilson, employing producer Phil Spector’s famed “Wrecking Crew” studio band, took the established mold of the pop song and broke it over his knee.

There was, for instance, nary a guitar solo in evidence; the harmonies weren’t shouted “yeah, yeah, yeahs,” but were, rather, earnestly sung “oohs” and “ahhs” that borrowed from one of Wilson’s musical touchstones, The Four Freshmen.

Strings, horns, and hand-percussion foreign to the pop charts abounded, and one can imagine that the record sounded entirely alien to a listening public then fully in the thrall of the first British Invasion.

Wilson also overcame the technical limitations of the time to create his richly symphonic songs. Working solely with four- and eight-track recorders, he meticulously layered sound upon sound, ever struggling against the degradation in sonic quality that comes from cramming too much music onto a single track of tape.

These days, the songs that make up “Pet Sounds” have become an indelible part of the western musical landscape — to the point where some of its songs have become musical wallpaper. The aching “God Only Knows,” for instance, was a key sonic landmark in the 2003 romantic comedy “Love Actually.” And is there anyone who can’t him a few bars to the set-opening “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”?

But it’s hard to overstate just how revolutionary “Pet Sounds” was in its time. It was such a break from The Beach Boys’ norm, in fact, that Wilson’s band-mate Mike Love accused the songwriter of killing the golden goose by not producing another “Help Me Rhonda” or “California Girls.”

The record-buying public reacted with similar confusion. The single “Sloop John B” charted at a respectable No. 3 in the U.S. and No. 2 in Great Britain, while “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” peaked at No. 8 in the singles chart, but it was not until 2000 — 34 years after its initial release — that the record received Gold and Platinum sales certification.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice” from the album “Pet Sounds

Seeing Wilson perform these days is a bittersweet experience. Ravaged by his time in the wilderness, the sexagenarian songwriter no longer possesses the angelic voice that propelled “I’m Waiting for the Day.” He spends his performances seated behind an unused piano, throwing shapes with his hands — trying, one suspects, to reconnect with the magic of his youth.

But in those moments, Wilson is still capable of moments of transcendence. A 2004 reading of “God Only Knows” at the Keswick Theatre near Philadelphia brought this writer to tears and reduced a roomful of jaded rock fans to silence.

One has to wonder what Wilson would have gone on to achieve had he not been derailed by the recording of “Smile” and the years of spiritual and chemical fog that attended it. Viewed through the prism of 40 years, “Pet Sounds” might well have ended up being Wilson’s “Revolver” — the record that set the stage for the ground The Beatles were to break with “Pepper.”

If he’d stayed intact, it’s tempting to think that Wilson would have produced a string of records that held their own with “Pepper” and the one truly great Beatles record, “Abbey Road,” thus upending the established rock order.

And that’s the chimera of brilliance — it strikes so rarely, and it’s nearly impossible to hold onto for very long.

Article © 2009 by John L. Micek