The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

In the early 1960’s, the California Dream was with fun, sun, and pretty girls.  Surfboards and Fast Cars was a way of life that teenagers dreamed of, and the Beach Boys where the living image of that dream. Capitalizing off of this California dream, their new brand of “rock ‘n’ roll” captivated the hearts of the youth across the nation. Band member Brian Wilson, wrote their songs, and produced their music.

Just like any great musician before him, Brian Wilson developed his sound by emulating the great artist around him. He studied their production technique’s, their orchestration, and reversed engineered their music. He discovered the secret of their sound and used it to augment his own. Notable influences on Brian Wilson Include:

  • The Four Freshmen – The source of his quartet style vocal harmonies.
  • Chuck Berry – Brian Wilson used the rhythm, chord progression and melody as a foundation for the Beach Boy Hit Song: Surfin USA.
  • Chuck Berry’s influence can also be heard on the song “Fun, Fun, Fun” where the intro features Chuck Berry’s guitar solo as played on “Johnny B Good”.
  • Phil Spector – When Brian Wilson heard the Ronnettes on the radio singing “Be My Baby”, “he concluded that it was the greatest song he had ever heard” (Howard, 2004,pgs56-57). He bought 10 copies of the album, and meticulously studied the production. This was Phil Spector’s famed “Wall of sound.” What Brian learned from Phil became the basis of the production techniques he used on Pet Sounds.
  • The Beatles – When Brian heard the “Rubber Soul” album; it was a defining moment for him. He stated, “When I first heard it, I flipped.” Brian said “I want to make an album like that” (source: http://www.bradelliott.com/writings/ps.html.) It challenged Brian to make a great cohesive, album instead of a compilation of singles.

 

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This astute attention to detail caused the Beach Boys to become one of the greatest rock ‘n’roll bands in America. After Brian Wilson recorded the “Pet Album”, he was recognized as one of the most influential producers in America.

The Pet Album was Brian Wilson’s Thesis Project. The “Rubber Soul” Album, by the Beatles, challenged Brian to take his music beyond simple pop singles. He wanted to make a mature cohesive album, that spoke about love, life, and spirituality. Prior to this, he only made songs about material things, like cars, surfboards, and having a good time. He took his mastery of productions techniques, learned by studying people like Phil Spector, and pushed them to another level. Brian created his own unique sound. He became a musical vanguard, mixing together unconventional sounds to make unique sonic textures.

For example, he made of an organ and a piano play the same part on “I know there’s an Answer. He used 2 accordions to formulate the rhythmic backdrop on “wouldn’t it be nice”. Across the whole album, he used a “Bass Harmonica”, cycles bells, and whistles, custom guitars, and experimented with striking the guitar string with different objects to get different sounds. He blended saxophones, clarinets, flutes, organs and pianos’ to synthesize new timbers for his production. He also pioneered the concept of the studio as an instrument, and recorded at different studios for different parts of the song to get different “sounds.” Brian frequently recorded each vocal track twice, singing the same part dry. Today we call that “Double tracking.” Unknowingly, Brian Wilson laid the foundation for modern day cut and past recording techniques using Digital Audio Workstations like Pro Tools. This is what set Pet Sounds apart from the other groups of the 1960’s.

 

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Prior to Pet Album, most pop albums of the 1960’s where produced using “conventional” instrumentation, and production techniques. Rock music used a Bass, Guitar, a Piano, and a Drum set. Each of these instruments had a predictable sound that didn’t very much from artist to artist. Brian Wilson changed that. He used anything that fit his imagination. He produced rock songs with Orchestra instruments like the Timpani, country instruments like the Banjo, and or strange instruments like the Bass Harmonica. If he couldn’t find the sound he wanted, then he tried to create it.

When I first heard the “Pet Album” I did not hear anything special. I thought that it was “too clean”, overproduced, and a little boring. My modern ears where raised on synthesizers that can produce any sound imaginable. So hearing the strange sonic creations of Brian Wilson did not amaze me. It wasn’t until I studied the session sheets, and listened to the tracking sessions that I began to understand the significance of his creation. Now I understand the mastery presented on this album, and actually hear his sonic. At first listen, I did not realize I was hearing a bass harmonica, or a piano organ. I did not even wonder at how the sound was made, because I am accustomed to hearing non-conventional sounds.

The influence of Brian Wilson on American Music is evidenced by own subconscious.  My large iTunes collection has over 11,000 tracks, and not one Beach Boys song. I have never seen a Beach Boy Album, and I don’t know anybody that owns one. Yet as I studied their music, I knew and could single along with all of their hit songs. I grew up on his music, and did not even realize it was there. I am happy that I read about him. His story is the growth, the rise, and the fall of a musical prodigy. Brian Wilson is essential to the history of American Music.

 

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