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Reading the Jukebox 

A new book examines the myth and making of the Beach Boys' album, Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys released their 12th album, Pet Sounds, on May 16, 1966. A few months later, my parents loaded the family onto the Queen Mary and we shipped off to England for a year where my father would be teaching, and we kids would be enrolled in English schools. It was a wild time to be in England. In that one year, The Beatles' Rubber Soul and Revolver and The Rolling Stones' Aftermath all hit number one in the charts. Brian Wilson's songs became my anchor--my lifeline, even, to my American identity. While I was making tons of new "mates," bopping into London's Carnaby Street on weekends, I still missed my old friends. My English school, filled with prefects enforcing tons of antiquated school rules--remember the '60s British film If....--required uniforms and strict order. I was "Yank" from day one. Beach Boy Brian Wilson's melancholy anthems of "aloneness" and longing were often my private soundtrack during this year abroad.

Writing for his British publisher, Kingsley Abbott captures the impact of Pet Sounds on and beyond musical England. Digging as a journalist for fresh facts and details "Good Vibrations," recorded during the same sessions, included over 50 cut-and-spliced tape edits) and with a fan's unabashed feelings for his subject, Abbott delivers quite a treasure trove. Dozens of interviews are woven into the text. Granted, quite a few sound like testimonials, musicians and producers sounding as awe-struck as the reporter. Pet Sounds affected everyone in some way. When the album came out, The Beach Boys weren't exactly considered the coolest band on the planet. It wasn't until Paul McCartney publicly admitted how much Pet Sounds affected The Beatles' production of Sgt. Pepper that scores of closet Brian fans lined up in print to declare Pet Sounds a masterpiece.

Me, I was already over that edge. That year in England there were concerts and tours criss-crossing the island: Jimi Hendrix was being "discovered" before being welcomed back to the states as a star; Stevie Winwood was a skinny keyboard player for the Spencer Davis Group; Eric Clapton was jamming over at Eel Pie Island studios. I went to lots of shows but I was also compiling my Beach Boys scrapbook.

All the music magazines came out on the same day. My brother and I would walk down to the newsstand and pick up our weekly New Music Express, Melody Maker, and Disc and Music Echo. I saved all the Beach Boys clippings. There were quite a few. They had two sold-out tours, ending as headliners in the NME Poll Winners' concert. They topped The Beatles.

My Beach Boys scrapbook got pretty thick--full of clippings and a sometime homesick teenage boy's musings. I got this idea to send it to Brian. Somehow, I dug up Derek Taylor's Sunset Boulevard address. At the time, he was their (and The Beatles) publicist. I sent it off, from London to Los Angeles. Weeks went by. And then, returning home from school one day, I found a package from California. The Beach Boys had all signed it: Brian had even written, "much appreciated," along with a nice note from Derek Taylor. This was 1967.

Kingsley Abbott writes an impassioned history of those times. There have been several stellar Beach Boys biographies: boxed set mini-journals and album jacket epiphanies. Abbott culls all the best tidbits from them (and credits the authors for their work).

The Beach Boys' timeline up to Pet Sounds is well known. Unlike the early Capitol Records bios, we now know more about how the Wilsons' father abused (and stole songwriting credits from) his sons; how Dennis was the only one who surfed; how Brian was deaf in one ear; how Charlie Manson and Dennis wrote, recorded and hung out together; how Brian's favorite song and record producer were "Be My Baby" and Phil Spector.

Two of the best sources for Abbott were lyricist/songwriter Tony Asher and Carol Kaye. Carol Kaye was the bass player, at $101.68 per hour, for the Pet Sounds sessions. That fee quote was just one of dozens of little facts dropped in there from one of the hundreds of documents biographer Abbott had access to and shared in his book. Kaye describes the sessions extensively, focusing especially on Brian's vision and ability to communicate his wishes for the different instruments. They watched and listened to him closely, knowing these creative moments weren't just a day job.

"You have to understand, not every time would the studio musicians go into the booth to listen to the music, but we all went into the booth to hear what Brian was doing with his music," Kaye recalls.

Asher describes how Brian called him up out of the blue, explaining that he was behind schedule on a record that was due (to Capitol) and saying that he could use some help with songwriting. For the next several years, he and Brian churned out hit ballad after hit ballad, moving away forever from the surf-car formula that characterized the group's early work. Beach Boy Mike Love, Wilson's previous writing partner, never recovered.

"Uh oh ... Mike's gonna be real surprised," Brian told Asher after they finished "Caroline No" and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." (The duo also wrote the band's romantic classic, "God Only Knows.")

In recording the vocals, Brian sang the lead first and then drilled the rest of the band on the six-part harmonies. He often dropped his lead, sang backup, and did many, many takes. The rest of the band grew weary but stuck with it. Brian was so confident and excited at the direction the album was taking--"deeper into the realms of self-examination and self-discovery"--that he and his younger brother, Carl, sometimes prayed together, prayers that Brian had scribbled during the recording session.

But outside writers, outside musicians, and the strict regimen in the studio put off some of the other Beach Boys. After all, they were the "band" that had to go out and tour and play the material. Mike balked at attending all the vocal sessions, but Brian, for once, wouldn't compromise. Then the lawsuits began over writing credits within the band.

Beach Boy Bruce Johnston tells Abbott, "Pet Sounds was the solo album that Brian shared with us." The next year, Brian started having his well-documented mental problems. A few years later his brother, Dennis, would drown. His other brother, Carl, would die of cancer. Derek Taylor would pass away. It was as if Jimi Hendrix's whispered omen on Are You Experienced?--"you'll never hear surf music again"--proved prophetic. The Beach Boys became an oldies band. The lowest point (in my fandom) was when they played a Fourth of July concert produced by arch-conservative James Watt. Years went by, as labels released one compilation after another of the Beach Boys' hits.

Abbott devotes the last chapters of his book to Brian's gradual re-emergence in the '90s, the Pet Sounds box set, and successful Pet Sounds tour in 2000.

That tour had a pleasant postscript for me, too. From his Web site, Wilson test released a short run, live double CD on his own BriMel label. On it, he does a great tongue-in-cheek cover of the Barenaked Ladies' song "Brian Wilson" singing, "And if you want to find me, I'll be out in my sandbox, wondering where the hell all the love has gone." The show--and recording--got critical raves. But you had to order it online, which I eagerly did. It arrived in five days. I loved it and sent it on to my brother, a musician in Santa Fe. Then I ordered a second copy for myself.

Well, it never came; "virtual" California had let me down. Finally, I e-mailed the void--not sounding upset, just curious. Five days later, a second set arrived, with an apology from the shippers, obviously fans just like me.

But this set had been previously opened. On the cover of the CD, Brian Wilson had signed his name. EndBlock

  • A new book discusses the making of "the greatest album of the 20th century," The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds."

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