It is fifty years since Brian Wilson famously set the young Paul McCartney’s hair on end with the release of Pet Sounds. It was a remarkable, almost impossible achievement – the musical equivalent of you or me writing a maths equation that might get Professor Stephen Hawkins to up his game. A sequence of music that showed pop music could be more than just disposable hit 45s, but which also contained solid gold tunes in abundance.
We know the result was Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and thousands of articles about how Brian Wilson tried to follow up the album by placing his piano in a sandbox, with predictable results.
The story of Pet Sounds and The Beach Boys doesn’t start there though. The story begins in 1961, and the moment that two of the gentlemen onstage tonight – Al Jardine and Brian Wilson – first became friends.
Alan Jardine was nineteen when he called into a storefront recording shop called Guild Music – run by a Mr and Mrs Morgan – as an auditioning aspiring folk singer.
They turned him down.
A few months later Al turned up again with a new folk group, The Pendletones, named after a manufacturer of shirts, which he so-named in the hope he might at least get some free clothes.
He wasn’t to know another band had already tried that one on. But The Pendletones featured a few names we are now familiar with. The first was Brian Wilson.
Alan had met Brian at college and suggested they sing together, as was the fashion. They met the next day, with Al bringing with him a football player with a deep bass voice but who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
This guy has been resigned to history. The Pete Best of The Beach Boys if you will.
Brian suggested his brothers Carl and Dennis should join instead. And his cousin Mike.
The Pendletones were born.
But they were turned down by Mr and Mrs Morgan again.
“You need an angle” said the Morgans, “Something to set you apart from the others”.
“Have you heard about the new surfing craze?” piped up Dennis.
And as it happened, Brian Wilson and Mike Love had indeed heard of the craze. And had already begun to write a song called “Surfin’”.
What are the chances…?
Thinking on their feet, the boys promised the Morgans they would finish the song, and in return the Morgans promised they could record it if it was good enough.
The Wilson’s parents were away for the weekend. The boys spent all their food money on renting instruments and finished the song. When the Wilsons returned home to see all their money having been invested in equipment rather than groceries they hit the roof.
Right until the moment when the boys all rushed to their instruments and played their parents the song they had written.
Remarkably, instead of telling them to stop playing, Murray Wilson liked the sound they were making and rather liked the idea of his boys being in a band.
Try to imagine if that would have worked with your parents…
It’s amazing when you think about it. Had their parents been around to stop them spending all their money on guitars and microphones instead of food….
That first song was recorded in an hour, a distributor suggested the name “Beach Boys” (having rejected “The Surfers”, “The Lifeguards” and – mercifully – “The Beach Bums”), and the single sold fifty thousand copies, reaching number 75 in the Billboard charts.
The follow up, “Surfin’ Safari” sold 900,000 copies and yet didn’t even reach the top ten.
(Man, they sold a lot of records in those days….)
The rest is history.
So what about now? What does Brian Wilson and Al Jardine have to offer a cynical, seen-it-all-before world fifty-odd years later? After all, nothing is ever going to be able to capture the spark of those earliest rock n roll days.
The answer is this:
Hearing Pet Sounds played live by this twelve strong band allows the audience a glimpse into its intricacies. When you play the LP at home it conjures an invisible soundscape. Seeing the band in front of you is like opening the back of a Swiss watch and marvelling at how it all works.
It’s the little moments… The theremin in “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, the car horn on “You Still Believe In Me”.
In the latter is the sweetness in “young” Matthew Jardine’s voice (yup, that’s Al’s son) every bit as ethereal as Wilson’s voice is on album. The interplay with Jardine’s voice with that of the now older, lower register of Brian Wilson brings focus to Wilson’s lyric – the incredulity that, despite all his faults “you still believe in me”.
“That’s Not Me” is driven by the presence of a 12 string Rickenbacker guitar, less noticeable on the album. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” is likewise highlighted by the presence of xylophone, replacing the album’s string arrangements, and it is at this point you realise why there are twelve musicians up on stage – a number that appears overkill when the show kicks off with “California Girls” and “Little Deuce Coupe”. This is a complex and rich album.
For the instrumental “Let’s Go Away For A While” Wilson charmingly feels he has to explain there’s no words to this one. He’s almost apologetic about Pet Sounds as a whole, introducing it as an artistic album rather than one that “rocks”, a quality that after fifty years can scarcely have passed anyone in the audience by.
“God Only Knows” perhaps predictably gets the biggest response of the evening. What a great song to have in the middle of your set!
However “I Know There’s An Answer” has lovely trumpet and the prettiest guitar sequence.
Only the temporary halt of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” mid-song to allow Wilson to be given a pill for heartburn reminds us of his mortality. That, and the fact we are celebrating fifty years since the release of this album. “Caroline, No” wraps things up (of course) beautifully.
The rest of the concert features a remarkable selection of tunes – Good Vibrations, Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann, Surfin’ USA, Fun, Fun, Fun: each one topping the one before it.
But the real joy is hearing that artistic statement of Pet Sounds. A decent cover band might knock out some of those early Beach Boys tunes, but there’s no-one who can quite manage the full Pet Sounds.
Whilst we may never experience those halcyon days when everybody had a surf board, this tour allows those of us who were too young the first time to see what all the fuss was about.
Brian Wilson is on tour, accompanied by founding member Al Jardine, performing Pet Sounds live for the last time, including an October date at the Royal Albert Hall. New memoirs by Mike Love and Brian Wilson will be published this autumn.
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