Heavy Petting

Released in June 1966, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was regarded at the time of its appearance as a commercial disappointment. As author Timothy White reports in The Nearest Faraway Place, his detailed 1994 biography of the band, representatives of Capitol Records, the group's label, were frankly baffled by the LP and did little to push it to the public. A single, the exquisite "Caroline, No," was sent to radio in March under the name of Brian Wilson, the only Beach Boy who was actually on it, but because Wilson's name recognition was practically nil, stations ignored it in droves; it fell well short of the Billboard Top 20. As a result, the firm demanded that "Sloop John B," a reworked folk song completed the preceding year, be issued as the Boys' next single and included on Pet Sounds, even though it had nothing to do with the themes Wilson explored on the album. A third single, "Wouldn't It Be Nice," was sent into the marketplace three months after the full-length from which it sprang hit stores, but this timing did more for the sales of Best of the Beach Boys, a new record rushed out by Capitol, than it did for Pet Sounds.

Brian responded to Pet's middling performance by sinking into a depression that served as a harbinger for his subsequent mental collapse. But in the years that followed, Pet Sounds enjoyed a critical revival. After Paul McCartney announced that the album was a tremendous influence on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which frequently tops polls to determine the finest rock album of all time, reviewers took another look at Wilson's masterwork and acknowledged its greatness. But Pet Sounds remains little-known by members of the general public, who think of the Beach Boys, if they think of them at all anymore, as purveyors of giddy tunes about surfing and girls, not as the men behind one of the most beautiful recordings ever made.

The Pet Sounds Sessions, recently launched by EMI-Capitol, aims to change that by demonstrating in exhaustive detail exactly why these thirteen songs are so tremendously affecting. But even though much of the music on it is striking (how could it not be?), the collection is remarkable for another reason. To put it bluntly, Sessions is arguably the most bizarre, most excessive boxed set in existence. Never before to my knowledge has so much space--in this case, four separate discs containing a total of more than four hours' worth of music, and two booklets, one a jaw-dropping 126 pages long--been devoted to the lionizing of an album that runs its course in a little over 36 minutes. There's such a glut of words and music here that most people who buy it will never get to all of it. And yet, as illogical as it might seem, there's something undeniably exciting about having so much stuff gathered under one umbrella. In a certain sense, Pet Sounds was an act of inspired madness; it's appropriate, then, that The Pet Sounds Sessions is just as insane.

Of course, boxed sets are not a new phenomenon. Beginning decades ago, during a period when vinyl was the undisputed format of choice, numerous companies (many associated with publications such as Reader's Digest and Time, others affiliated with organizations like the Smithsonian Institution) issued encyclopedic compilations designed as primers for specific genres; jazz and folk were frequent subjects. Major labels participated in the compilation game, too: For instance, Atlantic Records issued a distillation of its rhythm-and-blues library that was available either volume by volume or in a massive bundle. These overgrown albums subsequently gave rise to works that concentrated upon individual artists, and they were marketed to affluent baby boomers for whom the pop market was not merely evidence of passing youth, but a legitimate art form deserving of anointment. While Bear Family and other European imprints concentrated on lovingly assembling the recordings of forgotten figures of historical import, U.S. imprints generally saluted performers who had already been enshrined in the pantheon of musical greats. Typical of the latter approach were 1985's Biograph, a five-platter Bob Dylan retrospective that featured eighteen previously unissued tunes, and 1986's Live/ 1975-1985, a gargantuan project meant to establish Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as the greatest live act of its generation.

That large numbers of consumers were willing to shell out for these sets was a revelation to domestic music executives. Suddenly they saw the discards, alternate takes, unused concert tapes and assorted miscellanea taking up space in their vaults not as a burden but as found money. This revelation led to a literal avalanche of boxes devoted to entertainers of virtually every stripe: huge stars, cult favorites and more. At the same time, an aesthetic developed among set collectors--one that demanded posh packaging, extravagant booklets jammed with rare photographs, precise discographies, critical essays and appreciations, and plenty of new or remastered material.

On the surface, this doctrine is more than defensible. After all, the majority of those who purchase boxed sets are already followers of the groups in question and likely own a considerable percentage of their creative output; therefore, stuffing releases with obscurities rather than reorganizing a well-known oeuvre in order to provide context seems to impart additional value. But there's a rub. Most unreleased songs went unreleased for a reason: They weren't as good as what got out. For every lost treasure, there are a hundred rejects that are curiosities at best, time-wasters at worst. Hence, it's become all too common for boxed sets, the most expensive items in your neighborhood CD store, to be demonstrably inferior to other, far less pricey products by the same artist and, in some extreme cases, all but unlistenable. To put it another way, they're often seen but not heard.

Which brings us back to The Pet Sounds Sessions. It's so sweeping a document that it's difficult to summarize, let alone grasp in its entirety. But a content analysis of the project allows one to at least sense its width and breadth. The first disc is Pet Sounds in monaural form, complete with its original cover art (a dopey photo of Brian, his brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, his cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine feeding animals at a petting zoo). It's followed by a CD that begins with versions of the Pet Sounds ditties in stereo. The rest of the second disc and all of the third are dominated by backing tracks played by musicians-for-hire under Brian's supervision. (Many of these cuts appear in a variety of guises; tracks 25-28 are dubbed "'You Still Believe in Me' Intro-Session," "'You Still Believe in Me' Intro-Master Take," "'You Still Believe in Me' Highlights From Tracking Date" and "'You Still Believe in Me' Stereo Backing Track.") And the fourth disc presents harmony-only versions of the songs under the title "Stack-O-Vocals" and random throwaways: a radio spot in which Love invites fans to check out "Caroline, No," "God Only Knows" with a saxophone solo, and so on.

But that's not the half of it. The initial Sessions booklet kicks off with a preface attributed to Brian; several pieces by Beach Boys expert David Leaf, including an "introduction" and a "perspective"; a "disc by disc" rundown; "song-by-song notes"; chart information (much of it penned by biographer White); data about specific sessions; info about mixing and mastering; complete lyrics; and, perhaps best of all, reprints of five Doonesbury comic strips from 1990 in which Garry Trudeau uses Pet Sounds to ease one of his characters, AIDS-stricken Andy, on his way to heaven. Booklet number two, called The Making of Pet Sounds, is even more astoundingly multitudinous. It contains interviews with most of the Pet Sounds principals--Brian, Mike, Al, lyricist Tony Asher--and some interested observers, like McCartney. But also heard from are oodles of studio players ranging from the fairly prominent, such as guitarist Barney Kessel, drummer Hal Blaine and engineer Bruce Botnick, to the utterly uncelebrated: percussionists Julius Wechter and Frank Capp, bassists Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman and Lyle Ritz, pianists Don Randi, Larry Knechtel and Al del Lory, and on and on and on. (One of the more intriguing truths about Pet Sounds is that Brian is the only Beach Boy who played an instrument on it; his four comrades were relegated to singing only.) Some of these individuals may never before have spoken to the press about the birth of the album, and given the huge number of sessions a lot of them have done over the years, the biggest surprise is that they remember it at all.

After digesting Sessions, the memories of purchasers may not be as sharp. Odds are good that they won't be able to recall the differences between some of the alternate takes and the ones that eventually made their way to the finished long-player--and neither will they be sufficiently charmed by the occasional snippets of chatter by Brian on disc three to sit through it again. In fact, the only auxiliary efforts that demand repeated spins are the "Stack-O-Vocals" ventures, which are so pristine, so pure, so sublime that they stand tall even without the rich music with which they are usually paired. In this regard, the set is comparable to laser discs in which a film is supplemented by production stills, designer's sketches and blueprints, Q&As with actors, producers and the like, and a narrative track that allows the director to describe the action scene by scene: No matter how intriguing the extras are, it's more fun to simply watch the movie. But Sessions takes the concept a step further. Imagine a coffee-table art book complete with scraps of canvas, the scent of paint and a few stray brushes shoved into its jacket and you'll have the idea.

But if any pop album is worthy of such attention, Pet Sounds is. As White notes in Faraway Place, Brian, after being wowed by the Beatles' Rubber Soul, set out to make a record that was "a complete statement" and decided to use as its subject his own romantic life, which was marked by mood swings more severe than most of his partners could brave. He felt unable to articulate these ideas lyrically in a way that did justice to the music that gushed from him like water from a geyser, and so he turned to Asher (who, strangely enough, made his living writing ad copy for firms like Mattel) to translate his feelings for him. Asher did so with extraordinary sensitivity, allowing Brian to pour his entire self into each syllable. Brian worked similar miracles with the instrumentation, which is an ingenuous, and ingenious, blend of the classical (cello and timpani are prominent) and the casual ("I Know There's an Answer" sports both banjo and kazoo).

A legitimate savant, Brian had all the musical knowledge he would ever need but didn't allow it to make him self-conscious. Thus, the emotions that he displays are undiluted and completely unprotected. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" conjures up a world too perfect to survive the onslaught of a reality that's represented by "Here Today," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and a covey of other songs that follow it. When Brian sings, "God only knows what I'd do without you" (in "God Only Knows"), there's no question that he expects the relationship to fail and is already quaking at the thought of the solitude and emptiness that this breakup will visit upon him. "Caroline, No," which concludes the disc, confirms this interpretation. Throughout it, Brian wallows in the understanding that the love of his life has left him and she's never coming back. It ends with the sound of a train rolling into the distance, a dog barking impotently in its wake.

The argument can and no doubt will be made that the mass of other material that's part of the new box actually diminishes moments like this one, and there's no question that such a danger exists: If brevity is the soul of wit, Sessions is its opposite. But for this listener, at least, the worst-case scenario did not come to pass. Despite Capitol's fiddling and the lack of support offered by some of Brian's closest fellows (Love declared Asher's lyrics to be "offensive" and "nauseating," and limited his participation accordingly), Pet Sounds emerged as the complete statement for which its creator had been shooting, and it stands today as his finest achievement. Moreover, that won't change no matter how thoroughly historical revisionists attempt to gild its lily. The album deserves a monument, and for all its ridiculous overabundance, The Pet Sounds Sessions makes a pretty good one.


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