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God Only Knows What I’d Be Without The Beach Boys

Today I bought my first Beach Boys album: Pet Sounds. For the past year or so, Ben Shive and I have been having an ongoing conversation about the virtues of the seminal 80’s new wave band The Talking Heads (and have been threatening to make time to watch their classic concert film together, “Stop Making Sense,” but to no avail – yet).  During one of our conversations where we were comparing notes on artists and bands that have meant something to us, he extolled the virtues of The Beach Boys and even made me a sampler to help whet my appetite (which I misplaced hours after he gave it to me…)

Even though I knew I was “supposed” to be a Beach Boys fan, I never got it.   I favored the Beatles and in fact I disliked the sunny and sprightly fare of the Beach Boys and for years dismissed it as music-lite with all of it’s doo-wops and aaahs sounding too quaint and Californian for me to take seriously.  As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve met enough people I respect – like Ben – who have a deep love for the Beach Boys and speak of them in reverential tones using words like “genius” and “revolutionary”. For those like me whose exposure to the Beach Boys was limited  to their odes to surf culture and Rhonda, you may be as perplexed as I was.

But I was starting to suspect that there was more to this supergroup than I was accounting for and that I should give them another chance. So when they came across my radar the other night when I happened to catch their song “God Only Knows” playing over the opening credits to HBO’s “Big Love” – a series about polygamy – it caught my attention and with one song I became a fan. I downloaded Pet Sounds from iTunes that very moment.  I laugh at what an unlikely catalyst (a tv show about polygamy that was playing in the background!) finally pushed me into the Beach Boys camp, but sometimes you just have to the moment, however it presents itself, lead you.  And so here I am, late to the party, but finding myself a beach boys fan at last.  On my flight today, I’ve already listened to the album all the way through 4 times, and so here I am writing about it.

I’m no expert on the subject, so rather than me try to get up to speed, I thought I’d invite you to eavesdrop on a conversation I’ll have with Ben about why this music represents so much more than just a day at the beach.

JG:  Why did you think I would and should enjoy the beach boys?

BS: First of all, thanks for doing this. I’ve been working on an essay called “How to Smile; the fine art of loving Brian Wilson” for some time now, but it’s been difficult to finish, so this seems like a less daunting opportunity for me to vent about my love for the Beach Boys.

Second, I want to make a distinction between Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys. Pet Sounds is a Beach Boys record, but barely. It’s really Brian Wilson’s record. It marks the moment when Brian broke from the stifling “cars, girls, and surfing” gimmick that the band was notorious for and set out to make a great record. The CD I gave you (thanks for losing that, by the way) had highlights from Pet Sounds as well as some gems from the original 1967 Smile sessions. So, though I hope you like the Beach Boys’ earlier recordings (“Don’t Worry Baby” is one of my favorite songs ever), it’s Pet Sounds that I was hoping you’d really dig in to.

That said, I actually wasn’t sure that you’d like Pet Sounds. It’s an odd record and can be pretty tough to get a handle on. I think of you as an avid listener, though, so I knew your curiosity would eventually lead you there and I wanted the credit for turning you on to it. Then you’d owe me. That’s how I operate.

JG:  I love how you used my love of music for your own gain.  But before we talk about what I owe you (and I do owe you), let me just say that this little interview doesn’t let you off the hook for writing “How To Smile.”  I can’t wait to read that and hope you’ll finish it.  But on to the next question:

I’ve always loved the Beatles – their sense of melody and chord structure that always sounds surprising and yet inevitable – and I’ve also loved most music that was influenced by the Beatles as well as most Brit-rock/pop in general.  But upon listening to Pet Sounds, which I remember being referred to as America’s Beatles, I was surprised to hear that much of the music I love right now, including Brit-pop like Keane and even neo-folkies like Sufjan Stevens (who has hinted that his next album may be about the beach boy’s own California), seems to my ear to have more in common with the Beach Boys’ melodic and musical sensibilities perhaps than they do with the Beatles.

The Beatles have left a big musical footprint.  What do you think the Beach Boys’ legacy is and what kind of influence have they had on popular music in general and your own music in particular.

BS: Well, I think Brian Wilson’s melodies are pretty well unmatched in pop music. They have this breathtaking, transcendent quality and they effortlessly pull these mind-blowing chord progressions around with them. For example, “Wonderful,” one of the songs from Smile (I’ll say more about Smile in a minute), changes keys THREE TIMES over the course of its eight bar form. But you don’t even notice the modulations because the melody moves so gracefully through them. And “God Only Knows,” which you mentioned earlier, has these moments of counterpoint (multiple melodies happening at the same time) that are just euphoric. So I think a great melody writer–like a Rufus Wainwright, or an Elliot Smith–simply has to stand in awe of Brian Wilson.

As for influencing my music, I think you can hear the blatant Beach Boys reference on “Do You Remember.” “Nothing For The Ache” is probably the closest thing to a Pet Sounds song on the album. But I actually didn’t REALLY get into Pet Sounds or Smile until after I had finished writing for The Ill-Tempered Klavier. Since then I’ve been kind of obsessed and have learned a handful of Brian’s more serious songs on the piano. I wish I could convey to you the amazement I felt as I figured out those chord progressions and learned to sing the melodies. Cason Cooley (producer for Derek Webb, Jill Phillips, etc.) walked by me when I was learning “Surf’s Up” (a particularly complex Smile song) and he saw me throw my hands up involuntarily when I figured out this one really amazing bit of the chord progression. So the songs I’m writing now are definitely reaching for the kind of inventiveness I find in Brian’s melodies.

JG: I was mostly only exposed to the seemingly trivial songs of teenage love and frivolity by the Beach Boys, but as I listen to them now–though those elements are still present–I also hear a melancholy and depth that I didn’t notice before.  I also hear a self-awareness as well as a firm grasp on the human condition in these songs all deceptively couched in these gorgeous and bright melodies.  What in your mind is the strength of Brian Wilson’s lyric writing?

BS: Well, Brian wasn’t really confident as a lyricist on his own. He collaborated with a jingle writer named Tony Asher to write Pet Sounds. But his soul really shines through the songs. Pet Sounds captures this youthful idealism that Brian felt, and there could hardly be a better voice to convey that kind of emotion. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Don’t Talk,” and “I’m Waiting For The Day” all portray the purity and optimism of young love, while “Caroline No” laments the loss of those same qualities. “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” (my second favorite song on the record), and “I Know There’s An Answer,” seem to be about Brian’s frustration with all the negative and cynical people surrounding him, presumably his father and his own bandmates.

People often use the word “spiritual” when they talk about Wilson’s writing. He certainly thought of it that way. He called Smile a “teenage symphony to God,” and hoped that people would someday pray to his songs. And I think Brian may have been very “spiritual,” but in an eastern sense of the word, having more to do with personal enlightenment and much less to do with peace with God by grace through faith. So as a Christian I’m not really bowled over by a sense of spirituality in Brian’s writing. He does, however, pour out his heart and soul on Pet Sounds, and I think that’s very beautiful.

JG: Many call Pet Sounds the greatest rock record of its era (some go so far as to say ever).  What do you think it is about this record that has earned it this status?

BS: Well, I think the gorgeous melodies and Brian’s soul coming through in the lyrics are at the center of it, as I’ve said. But also, the sound is so unique. It’s really the first and only animal of its species–so singular that it can be hard to get a hold of at first. I think that people initially relate to new music by making correlations to something more familiar. When I first heard the Weepies, for example, I compared them to Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin. Those correlations seem kind of vulgar to me now, but they helped me get my foot in the door until I could understand the music on its own terms. But it’s really difficult to do that with Pet Sounds, because it simply doesn’t sound like anything else. To my knowledge, nobody has ever really emulated the sound of it well. Maybe nobody can or maybe nobody wants to! It’s truly strange-sounding music. The rhythms are unconventional, with barely a hint of the standard rock and roll backbeat. There’s more harpsichord than piano and as much bass harmonica as electric guitar. It’s definitely a kitchen sink record, complete with bass clarinet, people beating on water bottles, and a theremin solo (tannerin actually, just in case there are any nerds reading). I’d say the arrangements don’t have the same kind of poise and refinement as George Martin’s work (“Eleanor Rigby,” for example). Rather, they’re beautifully ungraceful and exuberant, like an awkward teenager. Like Brian Wilson! And of course, the Beach Boys’ harmonies are truly amazing on this record. By the way, you can buy a version of the album with just the vocals soloed and drool.

I think there might be a bit of “I know something you don’t know” snobbery in calling Pet Sounds the greatest album of all time, but you can’t blame people for being a bit indignant that it’s so generally unknown. When the album released in ’66 (I think) it was hailed by critics but shunned by Beach Boys fans. Heck, it was shunned by the Beach Boys! It never sold well. I read somewhere that it still hasn’t gone gold, though I’m not sure if that’s true any longer. I think if Brian had finished Smile, the intended follow-up album, the Beach Boys might have been recognized as the Beatles’ worthy opponents and Pet Sounds would have taken hold retroactively. But when Smile was shelved in mid-production due to Brian’s illness, the window closed and the Boys all but vanished. So maybe people are probably overcompensating for its obscurity by calling it the greatest album ever, and maybe I’m not sure it’s the greatest album ever, but it certainly deserves a little reverence. You gotta give it that.

JG: What’s your favorite beach boys song and why?

BS: Am I allowed to not have a favorite? Let me give you six, in chronological order.

Don’t Worry Baby God Only Knows (from Pet Sounds) I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (from Pet Sounds) Surf’s Up (from Smile) Wonderful (from Smile) Cabinessence (from Smile)

Note: You can hear all the Smile songs I’ve mentioned here on the second disc of the Good Vibrations box set (tracks 18 through 28). And speaking of Smile: as I said, I’m working on an essay about the album, and it’s mostly a guide to help people appreciate the drama surrounding it and to know how to approach the available recordings. All I’ll say about it here is that I advise you not to listen to the 2004 release of Smile until you’ve heard the original recordings, if at all. The 2004 release was “finished” and re-recorded by Brian and his current touring band, and I like it but I don’t love it. Smile will always be an unfinished album, in my opinion. No offense to his band, either. Those guys are insanely talented and I think the way they support him is a beautiful story in itself.

Well, Jason, thanks again for doing this. It’s been fun and I hope I’ve said something that’ll help you appreciate what’s great about this music.


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