Friday, May 27, 2011

Perfect Sounds

I’ve been an unabashed Beatles fan since I was twelve. To me, it’s simply a given that they were the single most prolific, creative, and deservedly popular musical entity of the past fifty-five years—the rock era. Their music and chemistry straddle generations—my ‘tween and teen-aged kids love the Beatles’ songs and movies as much as I did when I was their ages, maybe more. The very first song my nine-year-old loaded onto his iPod was “Octopus’s Garden.”

Their eclectic range—particularly when one bears in mind the fact that their entire recorded output was produced in about a seven-year span—is staggering. From the buoyant, irresistible sound of their early period, through their more reflective and challenging middle years, to their final, experimental, more expansive phase, it’s almost impossible to make the blanket statement, “I don’t like the Beatles’ music.” There’s too wide a range of styles to not find at least one album—one song—that appeals to you. In fact, I tend to get a trifle defensive when people make claims of musical superiority regarding perceived challengers to the throne, like, say, the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys. And I like the Rolling Stones—but, more or less (as Mick Jagger once described them) as a complement to the Fabs.

Not so much the Beach Boys. A few of their singles have resonated with me to varying degrees over the years, like “Help Me Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations,” the anthemic car song “I Get Around,” and its flipside, the transcendent “Don’t Worry Baby,” but for the most part I find their catalog singularly irritating.  The early “surfin’” tunes, which feature Mike Love at his fingernails scraping the chalkboard shrillest, “Fun Fun Fun,” Beach Boys’ Party, the obscenely over-played “California Girls,” that annoying, repetitive song from that annoying, obnoxious movie, Cocktail, all send tremors of nausea rumbling through me.

And yet, the Beach Boys made one of my favorite albums, Pet Sounds.

Oddly enough, I didn’t discover Pet Sounds until I was in my thirties. But immediately upon hearing it, some mystic chord of collective unconscious memory was struck, bringing forth a wave of inexplicable, bittersweet . . . call it nostalgia, for lack of a better word, a conduit back in time to my teenage years. Somehow, the burgeoning musical genius of Brian Wilson, shut up in his room somewhere in California (and the poetic genius of ad man/lyricist Tony Asher, wherever he was), creating the preeminent musical expression of ‘60s teenage angst, longing, love, and dreams, reached out across two and a half decades and moved me. 

It doesn’t possess the scope of, or cut as wide a swath of sophistication as Rubber Soul (Wilson’s creative impetus for making Pet Sounds) or Revolver, the best back-to-back rock LP releases ever—I'm speaking of the UK versions, not the US bastardizations; though it was the US RS that inspired Wilsonbut it is more focused and may very well be the finest pop album ever, encompassing all the youthful hopes and fears of the pre-psychedelic, more innocent early-to-mid 1960s—before they became The Sixties. It’s an inward-looking, male version of the Ronettes, taken to the next level.

Rock “groups”—which is what bands were called in the 1960s—all began life in search of a new “sound” that would attract the attention of DJs and the hearts and minds of a newly affluent generation of teenagers and adolescents who were growing up in the economically sound post-World War II era. Pet Sounds, like the best of everything the Beatles had to offer, sounded like nothing ever had before. It wasn’t a big hit by Beach Boys standards upon its initial release, reaching number 10 on Billboard’s album charts, but its very existence was enough to drive the creatively competitive Paul McCartney to drive the Beatles to produce Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band*, by consensus the ultimate ‘60s concept album. For me, it’s Pet Sounds.

* Paul would eventually pay tribute to his second-favorite album in 1971, in the "Long Haired Lady"/"The Back Seat of My Car" song sequence that closes Ram.

The mutual admiration society meets in 2002.

Strictly speaking of course, PS isn't really a Beach Boys album. It's Brian Wilson's vision, his sweat and toil and tears, his babywith an emphatic nod to his backing band on PS, the Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector's house band on all those classic Wall of Sound singles he produced in the early '60s, immediate ancestors of PS. Sadly, with the storied and agonizing demise of PS's follow-up, Smile, and Brian's ensuing drug-induced recession into near oblivion, the Boys soon became not much more than a glorified oldies band, a shadow of which they remain to this day. 

Like most pop culture entities—movies, TV shows, songs, and LPsPet Sounds is of its time. I’m sure older baby boomers who were in their teens when it was first released certainly have a stronger bond with it than I do (I was seven, and, as mentioned, was oblivious to it—though not to the Beatles, who were ubiquitous). Yet, like all entities that ultimately come to be considered classics, I imagine it continues to resonate with others who weren’t of that era, just as Casablanca and "Sing, Sing, Sing" do with many who weren't yet born when those American icons were released.

I’ll leave it to the experts and musicologists to dissect each song and examine its intricacies, subtleties, and influences (which has been done ad infinitum). The best I can do to champion Pet Sounds is merely attempt to relate the effect it has had, as a whole (and Pet Sounds must be swallowed whole), on me. Besides, I don’t want to destroy the magic, or the state of near-bliss that is summoned up when I listen to this masterpiece, by putting it under a microscope. 

For what it’s worth, Pet Sounds made the number two spot in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. Number one? What else—Sgt. Pepper

© Jon Oye, 2011

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