Pet Sounds : It’s Not Rock ‘n’ Roll, But We Like It

What, in this most sophisticated of ages, constitutes the ingredients of rock music? The classification often seems arbitrary, the category omnivorous. Without getting too Thomas Frank on your asses, rock seems to work similar to the concept of the “art” film, or pornography: It’s all in the marketing. The wholesaler will take whatever venues he can get his product into. Michael Bolton dons a leather jacket for his appearance at the Trump Taj Mahal, and he’s acceptable to three more radio formats and maybe even a couple more markets. If it cashes in on teenage petulance, it rocks.

But to credit mere credit is too schematic. For those who sink deeply into our cold white hearts may also be honored with the rock sobriquet. All sorts of oddballs, losers and savants have courted fiscal failure at their career of choice but have managed to enter the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon despite creating music that has more in common with iconoclastic composers like, say, Harry Partch or Sonny Okusuns. Why? Because we like them. Captain Beefheart got under the skin of the right 2,000 people, and we rewarded him. The Shaggs are considered rock ‘n’ roll because they so desperately wanted to be.

The lesson? Fly the freak flag high, and you get a membership pin. Nothing wrong with that-but some freaks weren’t mere crazy foxes, like the aforementioned Captain Beefheart. The Beach Boys were a gaggle of weirdos, even for the 1960′s, and they got rich off of it. I can explain away Iggy Pop with his overwrought Oedipus complex, and the Fugs with a truckload of LSD saturated on blotters made from the Pentagon Papers. But a window into the delirium of one of the most wholesomely imaged pop groups ever might well transmit that insanity like a virus, and the much-delayed issuing of the Beach Boys’ The Pet Sounds Sessions (Capitol) as a four-CD box set illustrates a type of aberration that transmits from creator to fan.

The delay certainly suits head Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s methods, which the box grandly documents. Mr. Wilson took forever to put the LP together, roughly most of 1966-this shortly after a period in which the Beatles released Revolver and Rubber Soul , as well as filming Help! There are no fewer than three versions of the complete LP in the box, including a pointless stereo version. (Mr. Wilson is deaf in one ear. Why would he mix in stereo?) The hagiographic liner notes compare the mix to a 3-D version of a painting by Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso-every work of genius transformed into a Magic Eye gimmick. The rest of the set is taken up by studio chatter, run-throughs, backing and vocal tracks. A passive-aggressiveness marches through it: On one hand, Capitol doubts its salability and keeps it off the market; on the other, the label constantly attempts to justify its importance by hailing every burp and burble emanating from the recording booth.

That approach properly mirrors Mr. Wilson’s mindset at the time. The obsessive repetition of the music reflects the monomania of Brian’s rapidly decaying (or expanding, take your pick) mental state, as well as the listeners’ fetish for a penetrating truth in music. I must admit that, as a music geek, listening to Mr. Wilson hold myriad consultations on when to beep the bicycle horn in “You Still Believe in Me” carries a portentous thrill. But what’s wondrous is that Mr. Wilson stresses the narrative importance of it-the conjuring of childhood. The occasionally inane youth rallies of the Beach Boys’ earlier work had been taken seriously by Mr. Wilson as well; he pondered the philosophical implications of the surfer life, which, fearful of the sea, he had no interest in. Little wonder he shut himself away, refusing to tour after 1964. Mr. Wilson’s childhood was a nightmare, his young adulthood a road trip that eventually led to a nervous breakdown. By their mid-20′s, all the Beach Boys except Dennis Wilson, who had made a pact with the devil, or at with least Charles Manson, looked 10 years older than they should have. Mr. Wilson thought about the California surf ‘n’ turf. What he arrived at was a nostalgia for his awful youth.

And the lyrics weren’t even his! That’s the genius of arranging: Meaning arrives from context. Or more importantly, mood. The distinction is important, for although Mr. Wilson has long been coronated by the rock orthodoxy-and the Beach Boys now make their living regurgitating paeans to rock ‘n’ roll, summertime, the bombing of Iraq, etc.-you can’t really call Pet Sounds a rock album. This, along with its quality, created its special place in rock history; there was no category for its fans to place it in. (Needless to say, it was a disappointing seller on initial release.) But placed within the Easy Listening genre-i.e., elevator music-it becomes a historically grounded, if incredibly ambitious, release. Teenagers were so busy sneering at their parent’s music that they neglected to notice that both Mr. Wilson and the Beatles took heavily from it, as did their inspiration, Phil Spector. The Bacharach-echoing instrumental “Let’s Go Away for a While” would stand out during lounge night at Bar d’O.

Fact is, many of Mr. Wilson’s (and, for that matter, George Martin’s) innovations had already been touched upon and explored by incidental music and Muzak arrangers almost a decade before. Pet Sounds is drenched in accordion, for God’s sake, just like The Lawrence Welk Show . Lyricist Tony Asher was an ad man-who better understands teenagers? Scorers of TV commercials punch a time clock, but Mr. Wilson took a preening belief in oneself, balanced by an effervescent self-hatred, from jazz “conductors” such as Stan Kenton. He even described “Caroline, No” as containing a “Glenn Miller-type bridge.”

What’s more, many of Phil Spector’s musicians played on Pet Sounds -drummer Hal Blaine, keyboardist Larry Knechtel-and they would later play on most of the Fifth Dimension’s studio dates, where they shared a purposive kick. Listen to the recent Fifth Dimension compilation on Arista if you don’t believe me. Pet Sounds also sports the marimba of Julius Wechter, who played with Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and the Baja Marimba Band. The list goes on.

Pet Sounds is such an awe-inspiring touchstone because the Beach Boys were the first major rock group to look music trends firmly in the eye and declare that rock really didn’t matter . Rock is supposed to be about, you know, fucking, and Brian Wilson was recording a song (“I Know There’s an Answer”) that was originally entitled “Get Rid of Your Libido.” His genius-in addition to the beauty of his music, of course-was the way in which he brought youth culture into this equation, as well as a pathological innocence and yearning. And perhaps this is what separates rock from the “other” musics it supposedly supplanted-a narcissistic belief in its own “specialness” that often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, the Beach Boys continued to give lip service to the genre, just as Elvis Presley did when “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was spewing out of his mouth, but at the crossroads of the mid-60′s, Brian Wilson had to choose between two primary influences-Chuck Berry or the Lettermen-and took the latter pathway into immortality. God only knows where esthetic liberation is going to come from these days; look at all the 30-year-olds who become misty-eyed over Grease .

Commercial demands pretty much killed Mr. Wilson’s self-image and then his genius (he worked on destroying his mind on his own). “Caroline, No,” which he once described as a song about an innocent young girl growing up to be a “bitch,” could have been sung to himself. When Neil Diamond recorded “Sweet Caroline” in 1969, he turned her into a whore. And when the Beach Boys returned to rock, led by Mike Love’s truculent force, it was with “Do It Again,” the saddest song in rock history and their last hit before the castrated “Kokomo.” The song starts with a Kraftwerkian blip-beat, only to devolve into a slurred Berry-esque hymn to return once more to the thousand-year Reich of the Beach. Nobody meant it, of course, but by that point, the Beach Boys weren’t quite sure, outside of an echoey ping, in which direction their libidos were fleeing. Perhaps Mr. Manson had a better idea.