by Mike Love
We were all milling about the hallway just outside Studio 3 at Western Recorders. From the interior of the booth, the speakers were giving off the incongruous sound of a train passing into the distance. That's how the album ended -- the train passing, the clanging of a bell at a railroad crossing, and a dog barking. Brian was unsure what to call the as-yet untitled album. So with the sound of the dogs barking echoing in my ears, I said, "What about Pet Sounds?"
"Sloop John B" had already been released as a single when in May of '66 Bruce Johnston took a trip to England. He had with him an acetate of the newly-completed album. Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, and a big Beach Boys fan, brought John Lennon and Paul McCartney by Bruce's room. They stayed up for several hours listening to this most elaborate effort to date from "America's Band" -- The Beach Boys. A little over a year after the release of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys were voted the #1 group in England. (The Beatles were #2 and the Rolling Stones #3 in the readers' poll of the British music magazine New Music Express.)
"Good Vibrations," which I co-wrote with Brian, was the most avant-garde single The Beach Boys had ever created. The single should have, and probably would have been, included on Pet Sounds were it not for the tendency Brian had to try many variations of certain songs. In the case of "Good Vibrations," this modus operandi reached legendary proportions. "Good Vibrations" cost more to record than any single had up until that time. For that matter, Pet Sounds was probably the most expensive album -- with all the numerous vocal sessions, not to mention the many tracking sessions which included the best musicians in the West Coast recording industry. This creative achievement was mind-blowing when weighed against the previous album, The Beach Boys' Party!, from which "Barbara Ann" was chosen as a single by Capitol promo man Al Coury and went to #1 or #2, depending on what chart you read.
Another incredible thing was the fact that Brian had been absent from the touring group for about a year. Although Brian was a great singer and good bass player, he never was too comfortable with one-nighters and the road. The adulation of the fans did not satisfy him. In fact, his being away from his home environment and the studio caused him more pain than pleasure. So it was with great regret that the rest of the group continued touring without him. Glen Campbell took the sting out of it with his great talent and tremendous sense of humor, keeping us in stitches for six months or so before Bruce joined Carl, Dennis, Alan and myself, and became a permanent member of the group in '65. Actually, "California Girls" was the first single Bruce sang on with us after going to school on The Beach Boys as one of The Rip Chords, along with Terry Melcher. They did very well with a Beach Boys clone called "Hey Little Cobra."
At any rate, Brian from '65 to '66 and into '67 was primarily responsible for the greatest creative explosion of any group ever when measured for sheer innovation. Before Pet Sounds, the standard procedure of a record company was to pack an album with 10 or 12 songs, often hastily recorded, to accompany a single. Often, the follow-up single was quite derivative or similar to the hit that preceded it. The Beach Boys, with Brian writing and producing, changed all that. Pet Sounds has been referred to as the first "concept album."
We had been going out on imaginative limbs since '62, with changes in tempos and subject matter, and with experimentation and inventive use of instrumentation. One could, in retrospect, hear IT coming. IT arrived in full force with Pet Sounds. In '65, just one year before, the opening bars of "California Girls" sounded absolutely symphonic.
The use of this type of instrumentation was so distinctly different from the drum-bass-guitar-and-piano rhythm tracks that were the rock 'n roll sound accompanying our voices 'til then.
The interviews accompanying this Pet Sounds release are self-explanatory, detailed and revealing. What was not covered was the care, and the lengths that were gone to, to make the vocals on Pet Sounds as flawless as they could possibly be. I remember one session in particular at the CBS Records Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The song was "Wouldn't It Be Nice." The instrumental tracks had been recorded. The group was back from touring and we were assembled around the microphones. I was almost always on a separate microphone because when I wasn't singing lead, I would do the bass part. I loved singing bass and had done so before we were a professional group, just singing with Brian and a couple of friends or relatives, among them my sister Maureen, my aunt Audree Wilson and various school chums of Brian's. But since I had no volume to speak of in that range, and the others -- Brian, Carl and Alan along with Bruce -- were singing in full voice or falsetto, it always necessitated an extra microphone for me.
Anyhow, I'll never forget just how much a slave driver Brian was when he produced the session. We did upwards of 30 takes on just one section of backgrounds for "Wouldn't It Be Nice." About the 20th take, frustrated by what seemed the zillionth attempt to get the sound he was looking for. I started calling Brian "dog ears" (with affection).
They say dogs can hear sounds that humans cannot and I swear Brian must have been part canine because he was reaching for something intangible, imperceptible to most, and all but impossible to execute. Consequently, if one gives Pet Sounds or "Good Vibrations" a listen, we can safely say with some degree of confidence that the vocal performances are as close to perfect as humanly possible. The standard of vocal quality combined with the brilliant arrangements and tracking amounted to a phenomenal effort. This has been rewarded some 30-plus years after in polls placing Pet Sounds as the #1 album of all time and "Good Vibrations" as the #1 Single.
Pet Sounds wasn't always received so warmly. I remember Brian and I going to a meeting with Karl Engemann, who was assigned to The Beach Boys by Capitol Records as AE-113 man. Karl, one of the nicest men ever in the record business, somewhat sheepishly told us, "Guys, this album is great but couldn't we get you to do something more like that other stuff?" It was understandable coming from a company which had distributed an unprecedented string of commercial hits from us. For them to go from "Surfin' USA," "Help Me Rhonda," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "I Get Around" and "California Girls," amongst others to "God Only Knows," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "You Still Believe In Me," etc., was just too much of a stretch. Capitol wasn't the only area of resistance. I remember Cousin Brucie telling me at least a decade later that when he first heard "Good Vibrations" he hated it. He was the #1 DJ in New York City and was partly responsible for making "I Get Around," "Surfin' USA" and "Help Me Rhonda" #1 in New York. Eventually, Bruce Morrow said he got to like "Vibes"--but it had to grow on him.
These changes, the musical equivalent of pushing the envelope, are what has contributed to The Beach Boys' place in history. Brian in the '60s was so brilliant and versatile musically, it was a constant source of inspiration and pleasure to be called upon to come up with the lyrics to so many great songs, such as "I Know There's An Answer."
I was aware that Brian was beginning to experiment with LSD and other psychedelics, and I prevailed upon him to accept my words for the song and title change from "Hang On To Your Ego" to "I Know There's An Answer." The prevailing drug jargon at the time had it that doses of LSD would shatter your ego, as if that were a positive thing.
Brian was already fragile emotionally, having suffered a breakdown in '64. For his ego to be shattered by the possible influence of drugs combined with increasing self-imposed pressures was just too much. Brian's drive, determination and innovation is what led McCartney to praise Pet Sounds so highly. I remember Paul years ago at the making of a TV Special (produced by Lorne Michaels and with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in a hilarious sketch) in which they filmed a birthday party at Carl's house in Malibu. Paul leaned over to Brian and said, "This morning I was drivin' along, Pet Sounds playin' in my car, and tears streamin' from me eyes. When are you gonna give us another Pet Sounds, Brian?"
Well, maybe he will and maybe he won't ever give us another Pet Sounds, Paul. But you can be assured that you had a part in its creation along with the rest of The Beach Boys. The artistic competition The Beatles provided only spurred ourselves and others onto new musical heights. Sometimes in the midst of endless attempts to make the vocal parts perfect during the making of Pet Sounds, we would get tired and frustrated. But over 30 years later to have Pet Sounds rated by some as the #1 album of all time, we must admit to being proud of our efforts.
Yet there is nothing new under the sun, they say, and all music evolves from what has come before. So whether it's the Kingston Trio from whom we first heard "Sloop John B" or the Four Freshmen who inspired us and gave us a goal to strive for when it came to harmonies or Phil Spector and his multi-track recording style which influenced Brian's recording techniques (his all-time favorite Spector song being "Be My Baby") or the great R&B/doo wop groups of the '50s and '60s, all these influences and more were the very fertile soil in which the seeds of Pet Sounds grew. Brian, for certain, was the master gardener. Without him, the fruits of our efforts would never have been so distinctive or prolific.
Little did we know when we first recorded songs about surfing that one day we would be riding the waves of an endless summer in a musical eternity.