The Wrecking [History] Crew

Proper blog post tomorrow, but I just wanted to rant:

One of the most annoying things in the world is the way the fantasies spread by Carol Kaye are destroying music business history. For years people claimed — because of Kaye and a few others — that the Beach Boys never played on any of their records, and the Wrecking Crew did everything. In fact the only albums where the Wrecking Crew played the majority of the instruments were Summer Days and Pet Sounds.

Similarly, I *keep* seeing people saying that the Wrecking Crew played on the Monkees’ hits. No, they didn’t.  Looking at their famous hits, The Candy Store Prophets played on Last Train To Clarksville, She, I’m Not Your Stepping Stone, Valleri and Words. New York musicians whose names we don’t know played on I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. And the Monkees themselves (sometimes augmented, but as the core of the band, and never by the Wrecking Crew) played on Daydream Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Goin’ Down and Randy Scouse Git.

Here, for the record, is every Monkees song on any of their studio albums or singles that featured mainly Wrecking Crew members (from a list of hundreds of songs) :

Papa Gene’s Blues
Sweet Young Thing
I Don’t Think You Know Me (first version) — not released til the 90s, but I’m being generous here
Mary Mary
The Kind Of Girl I Could Love
The Day We Fall In Love
Dream World
We Were Made For Each Other
The Poster
I Won’t Be The Same Without Her
Someday Man
A Man Without A Dream

I may have missed one or two, as I just scanned through the sessionographies, but that’s the lot.

The Wrecking Crew played on many, many great records. But no matter how often Carol Kaye chooses to lie through her teeth, they didn’t play on the Motown hits, they didn’t play on Light My Fire by the Doors, and they didn’t play on any of the significant Monkees records. They also played on far fewer Beach Boys records than people think.

Monkee Music 1: The Monkees

A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book Monkee Music, available as paperback, hardback, PDF, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK) and ePub (all DRM-free).

The Monkees’ first album was put together very quickly, in anticipation of the band’s TV debut. For the pilot of the TV show, several songs by Screen Gems writers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart had been recorded by Boyce & Hart’s band The Candy Store Prophets, as the four band members hadn’t yet been cast. As a reward, after sessions with legendary producer Snuff Garret (who wanted Davy Jones to be sole lead vocalist) had broken down, Boyce and Hart were allowed to supervise the initial batch of sessions for the show and the first album (albeit with assistance from the more experienced Jack Keller on early sessions).

In fact, so much material was needed for the show that songs originally recorded during these sessions, but put aside or only used on the TV, would turn up (sometimes in rerecorded form) for the rest of the band’s career. Sometimes two sessions would be going on at once, with Michael Nesmith (who was allowed to write and produce two tracks on the album) running one session in one part of town while Boyce and Hart were running another elsewhere.

Surprisingly enough, the finished product is a rather good album of its type. While nowhere near as musically interesting as the results once the band took control of their own career, there’s still some great pop music mixed in with the filler.

Theme From The Monkees

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

Or “Hey hey, we’re the Candy Store Prophets”, as with the exception of Dolenz’s vocals this track, like much of The Monkees, was performed by Boyce and Hart’s band (Gerry McGee on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass and Billy Lewis on drums), with augmentation from a couple of session musicians – percussionist Gene Estes (a talented jazz vibraphone player, here reduced to hitting a tambourine on the off-beat, though he may also provide the finger-snaps) and guitarists Wayne Erwin and Louie Shelton. This group of musicians (with Hart on occasional keyboards and Boyce on backing vocals) would provide almost all the backing for the album.

While harmonically simple (staying for the most part in the key of Am in the verses apart from one V-of-V chord, and staying entirely in C for the choruses, and not using any chord more complex than a 7th), like most Boyce and Hart songs, the track is full of musical ideas. Starting with the famous ‘falling’ drum sound, the verse then combines Larry Taylor’s strutting bassline with fingersnapping and hi-hat to create an impressive air of swaggering cool, before going into the famous chorus.

The track is very blatantly “inspired” by the Dave Clark Five’s Catch Us If You Can, down to starting with a single throbbing bass note and “Here [we/they] come…” but is far more meticulously constructed, and a much more memorable record.

The one weak spot of the track is the way it shifts gears out of the chorus into the second verse, which doesn’t quite come off, but then the track really kicks off in the second chorus, with the key change up a tone for “We’re just trying to be friendly…”

The guitar solo – surprisingly late in the track, after the third chorus – is a pastiche of George Harrison’s Chet Atkins imitations, and the whole thing then builds to a powerful climax with a repeat of the second chorus with its key change.

Lyrically, the song is a perfect introduction to TV show for which it was the theme, though I’m not too keen on the line “we’re the young generation and we’ve got something to say”, which seems slightly patronising – especially since at the time the band members were prevented from saying anything even slightly controversial.

Saturday’s Child

Writer: David Gates

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

Astonishingly for something written by the man who would go on to form Bread, one of the softest of all AOR bands, Saturday’s Child is close to heavy metal, especially in the mono mix (which is a much more powerful track than the comparatively weak stereo version). The lumbering bottom-string guitar riff and throbbing bass part could almost be Deep Purple or early Black Sabbath, though Dolenz’s soft, faintly sinister vocal is as far from that style as you can get – Dolenz at his best being one of the most controlled vocalists in the business, and heavy metal vocals being all about (perceived) loss of control.

Interestingly, this track was originally recorded with Peter Tork on lead vocals, and while he’s officially not on the finished track, one of the double-tracked backing vocal parts singing the chorus countermelody does sound an awful lot like him.

I Wanna Be Free

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

And from Saturday’s Child we go to Sunday Morning… this track in its finished version bears quite an astonishing resemblance to the later Velvet Underground song, both harmonically and in the general shape of its melody and its feel.

Which makes it all the more surprising that while the finished version is a gentle ballad based around some lovely, sparse acoustic guitars, harpsichord and a string quartet, earlier that day the same song had been recorded in a totally different arrangement owing far more to Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, with Dolenz and Jones singing the verses in unison and Dolenz, rather than Jones, taking the middle eight. (This faster version is available on various compilations and as a bonus track on the Deluxe Edition of The Monkees, as well as being featured in the TV show).

Truth be told, the fast, Hammond-led version that was originally attempted suited the lyrics far better than the version finally released on the album, because the lyrics are anything but romantic. The protagonist of the song is quite possibly one of the most unpleasant in any song, insisting on utter devotion from his girlfriend (“say you’ll always be my friend, babe/We can make it to the end, babe”), but on utter freedom from all commitments himself (“doing all those things without any strings to tie me down”). His girlfriend is not even allowed to say that she loves him – just that she likes him – but is to give him total freedom.

That said, this unpleasant – frankly almost psychopathic – lyric is backed by one of the most beautiful arrangements on any Monkees record, nicely understated rather than over-lush, and Jones’ wistful vocal almost sells the song.

Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Steve Venet

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

A quick knock-off track that probably took about as long to write as it does to listen to, this seems to have been written with the rough aim of trying to write something that sounded like the Beatles’ more country-flavoured songs like Another Girl, though the harmonica part and “hey hey hey hey” vocal line sound more reminiscent of the Rolling Stones.

The vaguely train-like rhythm (and “I’m gonna catch me the fastest train” lyric) suggest that this was essentially a failed attempt at writing Last Train To Clarksville, which would be recorded two days later. However, on its own merits this is a perfectly pleasant country-blues number.

Papa Gene’s Blues

Writer: Michael Nesmith

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Peter Tork (guitar)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

If this sounds very different from the rest of the album up to this point, it’s because rather than being a Boyce/Hart production with an augmented Candy Store Prophets, this is a Nesmith production with members of the Wrecking Crew [FOOTNOTE: A term for the group of session musicians who played on most LA-based hit records in the 1960s, including drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon, guitarist Glen Campbell and others. Note that Carol Kaye, a bass player who was often part of the Wrecking Crew, has claimed to have played on many Monkees hits. However, Ms Kaye’s claims are, at best, unreliable, and she is only known to have played on two songs, both album tracks on More Of The Monkees.], who would play on most of Nesmith’s productions from this time. It’s also the closest thing to a group performance on the album, with Tork one of the several acoustic guitar players (as well as possibly providing some backing vocals on a rejected mix) and Dolenz harmonising with Nesmith throughout.

From this early, Nesmith was pushing for the band to have creative involvement in their own records, and so this track more than any others on this album points the way forward to the music the band would be making from their third album onwards.

A Latin-infused country song, with tons of percussion, this is musically not much more sophisticated than Boyce and Hart’s tracks, though much fuller sounding (and with some wonderful guitar work, presumably by James Burton). But lyrically, while still being a basic love song, there’s an awareness of language that is mostly absent from the Boyce/Hart material.

Nesmith’s lyrics are often slightly archaic in their word choices, and the tumbling Dylanesque phrases here (“So take my hand, I’ll start my journey, free from all the helpless worry, that besets a man when he’s alone”) are a joy. And the combination of Nesmith and Dolenz’s vocals, while all too rare, is by far the best vocal blend the band had.

Easily the highlight of the album.

Take A Giant Step

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

The first of Goffin and King’s several attempts at cod-psychedelia for the Monkees, this works about as well as you’d expect two Brill Building songwriters attempting to be down with the kids by inviting you to “take a giant step outside your mind” to work.

That said, there are points of interest – there’s some nice pseudo-Indian oboe playing (by Bob Cooper), and the melody is as strong as all King’s work, especially the “It’s time you learned to live again at last” over descending chords, which is reminiscent of much of her best work.

But the whole thing sounds like it was written and recorded by people who’d heard about psychedelia and not understood it, but thought “well, if this is what the kids are listening to…”

Last Train To Clarksville

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Recorded toward the end of the sessions for this album, this became the Monkees’ first single and first number one. Based roughly around the structure of the Beatles’ Paperback Writer, which like this stays on G7 for the whole verse before switching briefly to C7 in the chorus, this was inspired by hearing only the tag of that song and thinking that McCartney was singing “take the last train”.

The almost-moronic guitar riff (based around an open G chord) was inspired by Day Tripper, but when combined with the train rhythm and the obsession on a single chord sounds almost like Smokestack Lightning, if Smokestack Lightning had been recorded by LA pop musicians rather than Chicago blues ones.

Of all the Boyce/Hart tracks on this album, this one is far and away the best-thought-out, both lyrically (actually having a story to it, with a very mildly anti-war sentiment) and musically – it’s simplistic, but in all the right ways, the product of people who’ve been listening to every record on the radio and stripped all of them down to their most basic essentials, then rebuilt them into a pop masterpiece.

I may occasionally seem a little harsh on Boyce and Hart in this book, and it’s true that some of their work was sub-par, but that’s because they were producing such a lot of music in such a small amount of time. When they were on form, as they were here, they were as good as anyone.

This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

Three decent musical ideas (a rewrite of I’ve Just Seen A Face, a pesudo-Indian instrumental break, and a ‘cello-led baroque middle eight) jammed together with no real thought as to how they’d work together. Combined with a poor, sloppily double-tracked vocal from Jones, the end result is less than the sum of its parts.

Let’s Dance On

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

A simple dance track based on the Twist and Shout riff, but also taking elements from two other songs that used the same chord sequence, Hang On Sloopy and Little Latin Lupe Lou, this is generic garage band filler of the sort that was being churned out by the ton in 1965 and 66.

I’ll Be True To You

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Russ Titelman

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

A cover of a vapid ballad that had been a British hit for the Hollies the year earlier under the name Yes I Will, presumably chosen because Jones, like the Hollies, was from Manchester, this is a terrible song performed terribly. Jones sings the song consistently flat, and in a weird stage-school accent with strangely mangled vowels.

The lowest point is when Jones recites the lyrics of one verse, rather than singing them, letting you – yes you, teenage American girl in your bedroom – know that he will be true to you and only you.


Sweet Young Thing

Writers: Michael Nesmith, Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Peter Tork (guitar and backing vocals)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

A bizarre and rather brilliantly eccentric production, the distorted-guitar-and-country-fiddle combination here is eerily premonitory of the similar sound the Velvet Underground would get with John Cale’s viola a few years later. Almost exhausting to listen to, with the bass and drums pummeling the listener into submission, and Nesmith sounding audibly out of breath by the end of the track, this is another highlight from Nesmith.

This was apparently written at Don Kirshner’s insistence, Kirshner arguing that if Nesmith was going to insist on writing he should try to collaborate with more commercial songwriters. Nesmith apparently disliked the experience of collaborating with Goffin and King intensely, and the result is almost wilfully uncommercial.

Gonna Buy Me A Dog

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

A terrible song made into a terrible “comedy” track, as an attempt to create a Ringo-style song for the album. Absolutely no redeeming features at all.

Strangely, Nesmith also produced a backing track for this song with his normal Wrecking Crew musicians (available as a bonus track on The Monkees) which has a slightly more bluesy feel.It still wouldn’t set the musical world alight, though.

Bonus Tracks

I Don’t Think You Know Me

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith/Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: none

Producer: Michael Nesmith

A song that the band tried recording on several occasions, this rather preachy Goffin/King song (“If you think my goals could be so trivial and small/I don’t think you know me at all”) has been released in three versions. The deluxe edition of The Monkees contains versions with Nesmith and Dolenz taking lead, singing over the same backing track, while More Of The Monkees has a version with Tork on lead as a bonus.

While it was never released at the time, this has become a staple of Monkees reunion tours, with Tork singing lead. It has some nice moments (the Nowhere Man-esque ‘la la la’ break) but has neither the power of Nesmith’s songs nor the catchiness of the better Boyce/Hart tracks.

So Goes Love

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (guitar)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

A vaguely Latin-infused track with a lovely, jazzy arrangement, this has been released in two versions (on Missing Links and on The Monkees deluxe edition) which sound like the same performance but run at different speeds/keys. The faster version (on Missing Links) is definitely preferable.

Jones does a very creditable job on the verses, where he’s comfortably within his range, but on the middle eight he’s audibly straining at points.

(I Prithee) Do Not Ask For Love

Writer: Michael Murphey

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (guitar)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

Another song that was attempted by the band multiple times, this was recorded with Davy on lead over a harpsichord-based backing track (the version on The Monkees Deluxe edition), with Micky on lead over the same backing track (available as a bonus track on More Of The Monkees), with Peter over slow, heavily-reverbed electric guitar (on The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees deluxe edition) and finally with Peter over a sitar-based track (on the 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee TV special).

My own favourite version is the reverbed version with Tork on vocals, but every version of this pseudo-Elizabethean ballad by Nesmith’s friend Michael Martin Murphy is simply stunning.

Kellogg’s Jingle

Writers: Unknown (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart ?)

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Unknown (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart ?)

A tiny snippet, presumably a Boyce and Hart production, used to introduce the TV show. Apparently Kellogg’s cereals are “K-E-double-L-O-double-good Kellogg’s best for you!”

So now you know.

All The King’s Horses

Writer: Michael Nesmith

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones (backing vocals)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

An early Nesmith song, originally recorded with his imaginatively-named trio Mike, John & Bill, this shows little sign of his later songwriting talent, but is still catchy enough that it’s surprising it was not placed on the album, especially since it’s apparently the only track on the entire CD to feature all four Monkees (though Jones is inaudible).

Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care)

Writer: Michael Nesmith

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: None

Producer: Michael Nesmith

And here we have Nesmith’s first ever songwriting masterpiece. A gentle, beautiful country song, with the chorus line “I’ve known you for a long time but I’ve just begun to care”, Nesmith would record this three times. The version here is a demo, with John London (Nesmith’s former bandmate in Mike, John & Bill and his stand-in for the TV show) on bass and Nesmith on guitar.

Nesmith would re-record this with a full band in 1969 (that version is on Missing Links vol 3) and then again with the First National Band on his third solo album, Nevada Fighter. All these versions are wonderful, but this early version is possibly the best. The line “I’ve seen you make a look of love from just an icy stare” is still possibly the best line in any Monkees song.

The Beach Boys On CD: Good Vibrations

A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats

I… I love the colourful clothes she wears

While for the most part I am dealing with the Beach Boys’ music on an album-by-album basis, with this song (and one other I shall get to later) it feels wrong. The album this was eventually released on, Smiley Smile, is to my mind possibly the best the band released, yet this track still sits in the middle like a black hole, distorting the feel of the whole album in a profound way.

I have sixty-five different versions of this song in my MP3/FLAC collection, not counting copies on vinyl or CD. The worst is a version by Mike Love and Adrian Baker from the 1980s, the best is the version that was released as a single. For all the live performances, outtakes, covers and alternative versions, nobody has ever beaten the three minutes and thirty-nine seconds of mono glory that came out on October 10, 1966. It may well be the greatest pop single ever released by anyone.

It was certainly the height of the Beach Boys’ commercial and artistic success – it was their first UK number one, but their last (for 22 years, at any rate) in the USA. It took just over five months’ work, from the recording of the basic backing track on February 17th 1966, to the final electro-theremin overdub on 21 September, to create the track. At least two sets of lyrics were written for it, and it spanned the recording of two different albums before being released on a third.

That original, February 17, session has been released in part in various places, most recently on the Good Vibrations 40th Anniversary Single (spotify link), where it’s the beginning part of what’s credited as Good Vibrations (various sessions). You can hear, listening through these session recordings, that the basic verse/chorus of the song was there from the very beginning, but that the rest of the structure took a lot of tinkering and experimentation. Many of the ideas that were thrown out during these sessions (such as the ‘hum-de-ah’ vocal parts) would have been the principal hook for any other band.

We can hear the original conception of the song most clearly on this recording (Spotify), which is the 17th February backing track with a guide vocal put on by Brian the next day.

Listening to it, Brian originally intended the track to be a ‘psychedelic R&B’ track, and already has the verse and chorus music worked out. What we have here, in fact, is very closely related to several Pet Sounds tracks – the arrangement and general feel are similar to that of Here Today, the electro-theremin part is similar to that of I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, while the melody is a cousin of God Only Knows. In fact, the best way of thinking about this track is that it’s taken the lowest common denominator of Here Today and God Only Knows and turned the result into an R&B track. We have the same minor-third key change between verse and chorus we’ve seen throughout Pet Sounds, the same descending scalar chord sequences, the same mobile bass parts, but here, rather than to express melancholy, these things are used in a way that’s as close as Brian Wilson ever got to funky.

However, after those first two verse/choruses, Brian seems to run out of ideas, and much of the rest of the track is more or less vamping. Tony Asher’s lyric, too, is half-formed. The idea’s there – the basic concept of a man ‘picking up’ ‘good vibrations’ from a woman (which came from Brian’s own thoughts about telepathy), but it’s clearly a dummy lyric:

She’s already working on my brain
I only look in her eyes
But I pick up something I just can’t explain
I pick up good, good, good, good vibrations, yeah

I bet I know what she’s like
And I can feel how right/good she’d be for me Brian sings both words on this double-tracked vocal
It’s weird how she comes in so strong
And I wonder what she’s picking up from me
I hope it’s good, good, good, good vibrations, yeah

The result is close enough to the finished version that you can see where he’s going, but at this point it would have been an album track at best.

Fast forward five months and what we have is something very different. Firstly, we have new lyrics by Mike Love. I’m not normally a huge fan of Love’s lyrics, but this time he’s done something quite clever:

I, I love the colourful clothes she wears,
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air

I’m picking up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations

Whereas Asher’s original lyric had focussed solely on the extra-sensory aspects (“She’s already working on my brain” “I pick up something I just can’t explain”), Love here grounds the song in the sensual and earthy before the more ethereal lyrics of the chorus. Note how he manages to work in sight (the colourful clothes, the sunlight), hearing (the sound of the gentle word) and smell (the perfume). This gives the song a grounding in the earthy, the quotidian, which allows the lyric to take the listener into more outrageous places and be sure the listener will follow. Whereas Asher’s lyric alienates, Love’s lyric draws us in.

The other major change suggested by Love is, of course, the good vibrations/excitations lyric. This is exactly the kind of dumb-but-brilliant idea Love was so good at, at his best. Taking the fairly low-profile bass part and turning it into a hook was a stroke of genius.

The finished recording is a patchwork, but somehow manages to be amazingly coherent. Let’s go through the different sections and see what’s going on.

We start with the sixteen-bar first verse I quote above. Coming straight in on the first word with no intro, we have Carl singing over just organ (played by Larry Knechtel) and bass (presumably either Carol Kaye or Ray Pohlman – I can’t find a copy of the session logs for the Feb 17 session online, and so am going by the logs from April 9 onwards – this verse recording sounds to me in fact like it comes from that very first session. Flute (Jay Migliori) and drums and percussion (Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine) come in on bar nine, which also helps to disguise one of the more interesting edits on the record.

Listen again to that line “I hear the sound of a gentle word” and you can tell it isn’t just Carl singing. The first half of the line – “I hear the sound of a” is in fact Brian, sounding a lot like Carl but clearly more nasal and less breathy (in fact it *MAY* be Brian doubling Carl. There are two voices there with different timbres – one may be Carl, but the more prominent is definitely Brian). The same thing happens on the line “when I look in her eyes” in the second verse.

This is an odd decision to make, frankly, as Carl could hit those notes (although they were to the top of his range). One can only presume that he just had difficulty with them – this being, after all, only his fourth real lead vocal. Listening to concert recordings, Carl would be doubled by someone (I *think* Bruce) on very early live versions of this song (e.g. the Michigan performance on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of the Beach Boys box set. Brian doubles him on the widely-booted Lei’d In Hawaii shows, when Bruce wasn’t present) but by late 1967 (e.g. the ‘concert rehearsal’ take on the Endless Harmony rarities collection) Carl was singing the line solo.

Either way, it’s something that, once you’ve noticed it, you can’t unnotice, but manages to escape most people’s attention…

Harmonically, this section is just a scalar descending pattern in Ebm, going down from the tonic to the dominant twice, before the second time it goes into the subtonic leading into the chorus.

The chorus starts with Mike Love singing, solo, the line “I’m picking up good vibrations/she’s giving me excitations” over a two-chord shuffle in F#. This two-chord vamp seems to come from Can I Get A Witness by way of the Ad-Libs’ The Boy From New York City (both of which are songs the Beach Boys had referenced before, on Carl’s Big Chance and The Girl From New York City), and this is obvious in the basic backing track, but the jazz-tinged bassline/vocal part disguises this somewhat, and the ‘cellos playing triplets (a suggestion of Carl Wilson) make the resemblance seem distant. But listen to Can I Get A Witness and you’ll see you can sing this line over the top easily. However between the ‘cello part and the electro-theremin (played by Paul Tanner) this sounds like nothing else on Earth.

(Well, almost nothing – it’s been suggested that this section of the song bears more than a slight resemblance to Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme. According to Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s About Time series of guidebooks, Carl Wilson used to watch the show in his dressing room before gigs in the UK. However, looking at the dates, prior to the recording of Good Vibrations the band had only been in the UK for one broadcast of Doctor WhoPlanet Of Giants episode two – and they were on BBC TV themselves that day, though I’ve been unable to find out precisely what time, so it seems extraordinarily unlikely that any of them had ever seen the show, still less seen it often enough to remember the theme tune).

We then repeat this line, but with a three part harmony (sounding to me like Brian, Carl and Al) girl-group answering phrase (“ooh bop bop, good vibrations, bop bop excitations”).

We then depart from the original version – the whole thing then moves a tone up, and we add another, falsetto, Brian singing “good, good, good, good vibrations, ah”. This falsetto Brian part is actually the original chorus melody, but here it’s just a final element in an intricate tapestry of music and vocals. We then move another tone up and repeat this last line. This movement of a two-chord chorus vamp up in stages of a tone at a time is something that Brian is reusing from California Girls.

There’s then a hard edit into the second verse on the last “excitations”, and we repeat the verse and chorus musical material almost exactly, but at the end of the second verse we go into a completely different section.

We start with a continuation of the ending chorus vamp between Bb and Eb/Bb, but this time played on tack piano (Al de Lory), bass and jew’s harp (Tommy Morgan), with ‘ah’ vocals and flute (piccolo?) coming in part way through. We briefly move to vamping between Bb and Ab for Mike’s “I don’t know where but she sends me there” and Brian’s “Oh my my what a sensation”, before returning to the original vamp for Mike’s answering “Oh my my what an elation”. All this material is still based on the chorus, but sounds stunningly different.

We then have a simple, almost churchlike, three-chord section in F, with Dennis playing the organ, hand percussion (Blaine?) and piccolo. This starts out instrumental, and then Mike comes in with “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations happening with her”. After this line, the bass comes in, and Brian sings the same line in falsetto, harmonising with Mike. They sing the line again, but their vocals fade out, replaced by Tommy Morgan’s harmonica, which continues playing the same phrase until the held F chord and “ah” vocal from the entire band.

There follows a brief reprise of the chorus material, but this time instead of going up in whole tones, it moves rapidly downward, ending up on B.

We then have a single, pulsing, bass note under a falsetto “na na na na na, na na na” (which actually doesn’t sound like Brian’s falsetto to me, strangely enough – I suspect this is actually sped up, and may be Carl or Al). We move up a tone, continuing this falsetto melody while Mike answers underneath with “ba ba ba ba ba, ba”, move up a tone again and have someone in the middle (Carl?) singing “do do do, do do, do do”, move back down a tone continuing this (note the constant obsession with whole-tone movements here), before suddenly everything drops out the ‘cello and electro-theremin come in, and they repeat the chorus riff to fade, with the other instruments coming in, staying in the key of Ab (the same key as the third line of the chorus).

That’s, by my count, at least seven distinct sections in this three and a half minutes of music, all variations of at least one of two ideas – whole tone steps and two-chord shuffles. As a *song*, Good Vibrations barely exists – it’s not something you can sit down with an acoustic guitar or piano and play and expect it to sound particularly good – it’s something rather different, a play with theme and variations in a way one doesn’t normally get in pop music, an experiment in production, the combination of instruments, and the use of the studio to create sounds one could never otherwise hear. Everything is hammering home the idea of ‘vibrations’ – the church organ, the jittery triplet ‘cellos, the ethereal electro-theremin, all sounding spectacularly different from almost anything.

Nothing like this had ever been recorded before, or ever would again.

The Beach Boys On CD: Pet Sounds

A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats

And so we get to the most difficult Beach Boys album for me to write about. Not because it’s musically more difficult than any other album, but because it’s much harder to find new things to say about it. While I only know of a tiny number of books that deal with the Beach Boys’ music in any detail, I own two books devoted to this single album (those by Charles Granata and Kingsley Abbot, to both of which I have referred during writing this).
Before I carry on, if you want to know precisely which version I’m listening to and why, skip to the bottom. Otherwise you can just listen to the album on Spotify.

Brian Wilson’s life went through a massive change in 1965. In very late 1964 he’d both had his first nervous breakdown and got married, and then in 1965 he tried LSD for the first time, quit touring with the rest of the band, and got access to an eight-track recorder for the first time. He’d already recorded one album – Summer Days – using predominantly studio musicians, but with the album that became Pet Sounds he was going to come close to recording a solo album, using the other band members as only vocalists (and often only backing vocalists at that).

Brian had hear the Beatles album Rubber Soul (not the original UK version but the revised US tracklisting) and become enraptured with the idea of recording “a whole album with all good stuff” – it having not occured to him previously that you could record an album with no filler.

To help him write this album he turned, not to any of his previous collaborators, but to Tony Asher, an advertising copyrwiter with no previous experience of professional songwriting. The two of them would sit in Brian’s house, talking about Brian’s emotions, and then they would write the most personal songs Brian had ever written up to that point.

This should be remembered when one reads comments about Mike Love allegedly disliking Pet Sounds originally – something he denies. Up to that point, Love had effectively been the co-leader of the band. He was the frontman, wrote the bulk of the lyrics, and sang the bulk of the lead vocals, while Brian wrote the music, produced the records and sang a minority of the leads. Now there was an album which was not only stylistically different from everything they’d done before, but on which he got two lead vocals and almost no songwriting input. Pet Sounds is indubitably a masterpiece, but it’s Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, not a Beach Boys masterpiece, and one can hardly blame Love for being annoyed at being reduced to a sidekick for his cousin, especially when his livelihood was on the line.

In the event, Pet Sounds was hardly the commercial failure it has later been made out to be – it was a top ten album in both the US and the UK, and contained four top forty singles (Sloop John B, Wouldn’t It Be Nice/God Only Knows, the two sides of which charted separately in the US, and Caroline, No which made the charts in the US as a solo single for Brian Wilson). It did, however, mark the point at which the band’s commercial fortunes in its home country began to wane – even as it also marked the real beginning of their commercial and critical success elsewhere. While within eighteen months of Pet Sounds‘ release the Beach Boys would be washed up in their home country, the influence the album had on, especially, the Beatles, meant that the band’s future as critical darlings was assured in the UK and Europe.

Pet Sounds
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston (uncredited). All songs by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher except where mentioned.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice
The opening song of the album doesn’t stray too far from ‘the formula’, being a wistful love song that could, lyrically, be considered as following straight on from the last song on the band’s previous studio album – going from “he’ll be waiting, waiting just for you, one more summer and your dream comes true” to “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, and we wouldn’t have to wait so long?” is really no jump at all.
Musically, however, this is very different from anything the band had done previously – the only guitars one can hear are on the intro (yes, that is a guitar, played by Jerry Cole) and on the middle eight (where the same figure is doubled by Al de Lory on piano). There is apparently a second guitar on the track, played by Bill Pitman, but I don’t hear it.
Instead, we have something akin to California Girls in the way it uses whole-step chord differences – you can take individual lines from the two songs and sing them over each other, though not in the same order – but with a far more staccato rhythm that would become, in the mind of many people, a trademark of the Beach Boys’ mid-60s sound. While Brian rarely used that rhythm again, so many people copied this (starting with Penny Lane, which is very much McCartney trying to remake this specific track) that the feel of the track became a cliche.
Even so, though, most people, when they’re going for that rhythm, do so with straight piano chords. Here, on the other hand, we have the rhythm track played by two accordions, an organ, and two mandolins – a standard eight-string one and a custom twelve-string. (The ‘strings’ on the middle eight are also accordion, played with extra vibrato).
Meanwhile, rather more subtly, the song sets up the tertian movements that will recur throughout the album – we start in A for the intro, move down a third to F for the first verse, then down a minor third to D for the middle eight.
In a very real sense, then, this song is the bridge between Summer Days! (with its juvenile themes and its musical similarity to California Girls) and the rest of Pet Sounds.
Brian takes lead, with Mike singing the first two lines of the middle eight and the ‘good night baby’ tag. (Mike’s middle eight vocal part is missing from the stereo mix on the box set, replaced by Brian, but is there on later stereo remixes).
This song is the most controversial of all those over which Mike Love sued in the 1990s. While no-one disputed that he had co-written, for example, California Girls, in this case Tony Asher claims to have written the whole lyric by himself. Love, meanwhile, claims to have merely added the lines ‘Good night baby/sleep tight baby’ in the fade (a contribution which most musicians I know would consider an arrangement, rather than songwriting, contribution). Love nonetheless now has equal co-writing credit, and thanks to the terms of the judgement and of Asher’s contract, now gets a greater share of the royalties of this song than does Asher, who wrote the entire lyric.
Before I move on to the other songs, two little anecdotes.
Firstly, the first time I saw the touring ‘Beach Boys’ (Love and Johnston, plus John Cowsill of The Cowsills and various (extremely good) sidemen) was at Warwick Castle in 2001, and it was an open-air gig in some of the worst weather of my life. It was a great gig despite the weather, but it was hardly reminiscent of a California beach. Then Bruce Johnston announced they were going to play some songs from Pet Sounds, the first note of this song was played, and the rain stopped instantly. It remained bright and sunny through this, Sloop John B and God Only Knows, and through Good Vibrations. Then the band started playing Kokomo and the heavens opened again. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to evidence that there is a God (for more on which see this, the culmination of Doonesbury’s most touching story arc).
Secondly, something that has made me unable to listen to this song in quite the same light, a thread on a message board my friend Tilt pointed me to, talking about ‘great shootings in rock music’ (I Shot The Sherriff, that sort of thing), someone replied “the ice cream man at the start of Wouldn’t It Be Nice”…

You Still Believe In Me
The backing track for this was recorded before Brian and Asher started working together, and the song was provisionally titled “In My Childhood” (a phrase which fits the first five notes of the intro and also those of the verse melody perfectly), hence the appearance of bicycle bells and horns on the track, which is mostly driven by heavily-reverbed harpsichord and bass guitar.
A more interesting connection to the childhood theme, though, and one which I believe has never been remarked upon, is the horn arrrangement.
Brian has mentioned that the middle eight to Wouldn’t It Be Nice is influenced by Glenn Miller (something I can’t see myself), and it’s well known that the version of Rhapsody In Blue he first listened to growing up, which had a huge influence on him, was by the Miller orchestra. What nobody seems to have remarked on before is that the horn section here is in clear imitation of Miller’s style – Miller’s sax section was unusual in having a clarinet at the top of a stack of four saxophones. (Normally in swing music the clarinet was a separate lead instrument, as in the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw bands, or was absent altogether).
Here Brian is clearly going for the lush sound of slower Miller pieces like Moonlight Serenade, though rather than four saxes and a clarinet he has three saxes, a clarinet and a bass clarinet. The effect – a closely-harmonised block of saxes with a clarinet on top – is still the same, however.
(To add to this, these horns come in just before the backing vocals, for four bars, and as soon as the backing vocals come in they all drop out except the clarinet – the most voice-like of the instruments, this stays in as part of the vocal blend. Astonishingly clever stuff).
One other thing to note, but which you can’t miss, is the way the instrumentation drops down to just a bass ‘heartbeat’. This will be another recurring theme throughout this album.
The intro, which was recorded later, is Brian holding the keys down on a piano while Tony Asher plucks the strings inside it, with Brian double-tracked singing the same notes (if you listen closely you can hear that for the last few notes he attempts to harmonise on the lower of the two tracks and fluffs it slightly).
Lyrically, this is all Asher, which is surprising, as it fits precisely the themes that go throughout Wilson’s work, of the Goddess-like lover forgiving the imperfect, unworthy man. But Asher and Wilson collaborated so closely at this point that Asher was definitely writing ‘as Brian Wilson’ rather than as himself – writing lyrics that fit the things Wilson wanted to talk about.
Brian Wilson takes the lead (double-tracked), and Mike Love sings the answering wordless phrase after “I wanna cry”.

That’s Not Me
The most traditionally Beach Boys sounding track on the album, this is also the only track on which the Beach Boys themselves play – Brian plays organ, Carl guitar and Dennis drums on the basic track, with either Al Jardine or Terry Melcher on tambourine, depending on who you believe. There were only minimal overdubs by session players, and this startlingly empty-sounding track actually points the way forward, more than any other track on Pet Sounds, to the organ-dominated sparse productions on Smiley Smile and Friends, even while pointing backwards to earlier songs, with its Mike lead with Brian singing odd lines (he sings “you needed my love and I know that I left at the wrong time” and “I’m glad I left now I’m that much more sure that we’re ready”).
Probably the closest thing to filler on the album, this still works thematically and provides a welcome minor respite between the two most emotionally intense pieces on the album.

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
A strong contender for one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, attention has often been called – rightly – to the way the bass part and the tympani on this both take the role of the heartbeat mentioned in the lyrics. But the real beauty of this song (which features no Beach Boys other than Brian) is in the exquisite chord sequence. While there are guitars on here (one tremelo one and the other playing a simple answering phrase), what holds the track together is the string sextet (and the organ pad), and that’s because the chords here, with their close clustering, and with movement mostly being by single steps in one or two notes of the chords, are perfect for strings.
Listen to the way the chords under the line “I can hear so much in your sighs” slowly open up – we start with Ebm, then add in the seventh. We then move that seventh down to make Ebm6 (minor sixths turn up all over Pet Sounds) but now have F# (the minor third) in the bass – the album, again, is full of thirds and fifths in the bass, rather than the conventional root note. And from there we move smoothly to F7, which has the same C and Eb notes in the chord while the other two notes have moved down a tone and a semitone. In this sequence we’ve started with a tight, closed minor chord and ended up with an open, happy major chord with seventh, while never moving more than half the notes in the chord, and never by more than a tone. And we’ve moved up a tone even though all the individual progressions have been down.
That part is, of course, played on the organ – the strings haven’t come in yet at that part – but this sort of thing is tailor-made for creating interesting chord voicings out of interweaving melodies, and that’s what Brian does. The string overdub for this track – which can be heard separately on the Pet Sounds Sessions box set – works without any of the rest of the instruments, and is some of the most sophisticated arrangement work I’ve ever heard in a pop/rock context.
But of course none of that would matter if the melody itself didn’t stand up – but it does. As Elvis Costello said (when talking about an album he made in collaboration with opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter, on which she sang this and You Still Believe In Me) “Last summer, I heard ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’ played on the cello. It sounded beautiful and sad, just as it does on Pet Sounds. So now you know, if all the record players in the world get broken tomorrow, these songs could be heard a hundred years from now.”
He’s right,

I’m Waiting For The Day
Brian’s least favourite song on the album, this was also (on its original release) the only song to credit Mike Love as a co-writer. Originally written in 1964 (when a slightly different version was copyrighted under Brian’s name alone), this is the one song on the album that I could imagine writing myself – the chord changes are simplistic, with only the minor sixth in the chorus to give it any real flavour.
Nonetheless, it’s a triumph of arrangement – the pounding timpani intro (played by Gary Coleman, presumably not the famous one), the flute trio, and the shifts in tempo add a huge amount of interest to an otherwise by-the-numbers song, as does the string interlude which comes out of nowhere before the outro, which sounds like it’s wandered in from an altogether better song.
Apparently Brian sings all the parts on this himself, though if he does the bass part is lower than I’ve ever heard him sing on anything else.

Let’s Go Away For A While
A gorgeous instrumental piece of vibraphone-led exotica, inspired by Burt Bacharach, about which I can’t find much to say other than that it’s beautiful and it fits with the album.
One thing I *can* say though is that I am *certain* I hear voices singing wordlessly along with the melody on the fade – I’d go so far as to say I can identify one of the voices as Brian’s then-wife Marilyn Wilson. There are no vocalists credited, no vocal tracks exist, and I have never seen anyone else mention this, but I swear I can hear it. Am I going mad?

Sloop John B
And so after three Brian Wilson solo tracks in a row, at the end of side one we finally get another Beach Boys performance, and a fine one it is too.
Suggested by Al Jardine, the resident folkie of the group, this is a West Indian folk song that had been recorded by, among others, the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. Jardine modified the song slightly (adding in the Bbm chord, for a grand total of four chords) in the expectation that he would get to sing lead.
In fact Brian took Jardine’s idea and turned it into a test for the type of production he would use on the Pet Sounds album – this song was recorded before much of the rest of the album and was originally intended as a stand-alone single – having the song driven by glockenspiel, flute and twelve-string guitar and writing an ornate vocal arrangement, including the song’s a capella break, which inspired the Beatles’ similar use of the technique in Paperback Writer.
While Jardine didn’t, as he had assumed, get to sing solo lead, he is one of three lead vocalists here. Brian takes the lead on the first verse, then Brian and Jardine harmonise on the first chorus (Wilson changed the lyric of the song from “I feel so break up” to “I feel so broke up”, and you can clearly hear Jardine sing “brea-oke up”), Love takes the second verse (“the first mate he got drunk”) and then Brian takes the last verse.
An incredible feat of arrangement and production, and a great single, this ultimately is something of an outlier in the Beach Boys’ work – Brian Wilson trying his production techniques on something utterly different from their usual material, rather than being something that fits the rest of the album.

God Only Knows
It’s difficult to talk dispassionately about this song as, more than any other track on the album, it’s the kind of perfect construction that seems to come as one piece, perfectly formed. Good as, say, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) is, I can imagine writing it myself, were I talented enough. I can look at it afterward and see why Brian made the choices he made, and retrace his steps. God Only Knows, on the other hand, is not a song that can really be pulled apart and put back together again. Other than the key change for the instrumental break, the song is only twelve bars of actual musical material, repeated in a very simple ballad form, but those twelve bars are just astonishingly beautiful.
In fact, pretty much all the production work on this track seems to have been about stripping it down. The backing track is still full at crucial points, with violin, flute, French horn, harpsichord and accordion at points – but the first verse has only piano, bass, and percussion (provided by Jim Gordon, whose contributions to mid-period Beach Boys records tend to get airbrushed out of history due to his unfortunate later history). This builds during the song, but despite having eighteen different musicians, the song never gets overloaded.
But in order to get that sparse feel, Brian had to try a number of different effects in the studio. The idea of playing the instrumental bridge staccatto came from session pianist Don Randi, the beautiful three-part vocal round at the end was originally sung over a block of ‘bop bop bops’ sung by the whole band plus Brian’s wife and sister-in-law and Terry Melcher, and early mixes feature a godawful sax solo in place of the wordless vocals in the middle.
Lyrically, the song is interesting in that while it starts off very cleverly – “I may not always love you, but…” being one of the more arresting openings of a love song – the sheer force of the obsession in the lyrics comes off as a little creepy. I’ve seen this referred to as ‘the most beautiful suicide song of all time’ and while that’s not entirely true, it’s certainly a self-obsessed song in a way that few of Brian Wilson’s are. The ‘you’ being sung to is only important insofar as she affects the singer and how the singer affects her. “I may not always love you, but that’s OK because I’ll just prove that I do. On the other hand if you ever stop loving me I’ll have no reason to live”. This is a beautiful song but not, perhaps, an especially healthy one.
Which is why the single best decision Brian made was to have his brother Carl sing this one. While Brian’s vocals (audible on earlier mixes on the Pet Sounds Sessions box set) work, they have an intensity to them that pushes the song further into creepiness. Carl, on the other hand, sings with an angelic innocence and purity that takes the sting out of the words – the ‘if you should ever leave me’ becomes as unlikely as the ‘I may not always love you’, because he’s absolutely undisturbed by the line. This is the vocal with which Carl established himself as the new de facto lead singer of the band.
The only other vocalists to be featured on the track are Brian and Bruce – on the tag Brian sings both the low and high parts, while Bruce answers him in the same way he did on California Girls.

I Know There’s An Answer
An odd one out on the album, this song was written by Brian with the band’s then road manager, Terry Sachem, and is a hippie berate-everyone-else song in the style that George Harrison would later make his own, though with clunkier lyrics – “I know so many people who think they can do it alone/they isolate their heads and stay in their safety zone” is a bit of a come-down from the careful crafting of Tony Asher’s lyrics to the previous song.
Musically simple, this is notable instrumentally mostly for the use of the bass harmonica (which was to inspire its use on various tracks on Sgt Pepper the next year) and the banjo (played by Glen Campbell). Vocally, it’s interesting to see just how alike the various Beach Boys could sound – Mike Love takes the first line of each verse, Al Jardine the rest of the verse, and Brian the chorus, yet most people would swear it was a single lead vocalist throughout.
It’s also notable for being the cause of one of the biggest arguments the band would have during the making of this album – Mike Love thought the chorus lyrics “Hang on to your ego/Hang on but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight” were a reference to the LSD-inspired idea of ‘ego death’, and insisted on rewriting those lines to “I know there’s an answer/I know now but I had to find it by myself”, as well as changing “how can I come on when I know I’m guilty?” to “how can I come on and tell them the way that they live could be better?”

Here Today
While Brian was working on this album, he was also working on the single Good Vibrations (of which more next week…), and several of the Beach Boys have said they think that track should have been included on this album.
I disagree – the song wouldn’t have fit – but if we had had a hypothetical Pet Sounds Vibrations this is what it would have sounded like. The last collaboration between Wilson and Asher, this is a halfway house between That’s Not Me and Good Vibrations, having a Mike Love lead and being in the keys of A and F#m, like the former, while being created as a patchwork out of ideas that had come up in the GV sessions – it has the same organ-and-plucked-bass verse, the same quiet verses building up to big choruses, and so on. (Both start with a change down from a minor chord to a major a tone below, both are built around descending chord sequences). This sounds very much of a part with the early, R&B-influenced, takes of Good Vibrations that were being recorded at that time.
There are some nice musical ideas – the descending trombone bassline in the chorus, for example – but this isn’t a song anyone involved (except Bruce Johnston) has any especial love for, and it’s easy to see why. While a good track – it’s easily one of the most commercial things on the album – it’s ultimately a piece where its composer took a few experimental ideas and forced them into a conventional shape just to get something done.
The mono mix of this is also famously shoddy, with studio noise leaking all over the instrumental break. This studio noise is actually isolated as a hidden track on one of the discs of the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, and consists of some breath noises, some attempts at hitting a falsetto note, Bruce saying “do you have that attached to the flash, do you have it rigged up?”, someone (Dennis?) replying “Yeah, I do”, Bruce saying “very good” and Brian shouting “top please!” to get the tape rewound. So now you know what that was. (These noises aren’t on the stereo mix). (There are actually more noises under the second verse too, but these have never been isolated like that, officially at least).
One of the only two songs on the album with a Mike lead vocal, this is also one of the most “Beach Boys” sounding tracks, to the extent that the current touring “Beach Boys” occasionally perform it live (very creditably – though oddly Bruce takes lead on the lines starting on a D chord (e.g. “A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing”, the first half of the bridges)).

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times
Possibly the most ‘Brian’ song on the album, while Tony Asher wrote the lyrics for this he’s stated many times that he was pretty much taking dictation, and has never really ‘got’ the emotions behind it.
Singing in a low register where he sounds at times uncannily like his brother Dennis (listen especially to his pronunciation of the word ‘found’ in the second verse, and compare to Dennis’ vocals on the very similar In The Back Of My Mind), the sentiments here are perhaps a little jejune, but nonetheless from the heart, and this song had a huge impact on me when I was 16. The line “they say I got brains, but they ain’t doing me no good/I wish they could” probably did more to make me a Beach Boys fan than any other moment in the band’s career, and for all that it’s easy to mock that as the kind of thing every ‘sensitive’ teenager ever has thought, ‘sensitive’ teenagers need music too.
However, for a song whose sentiments basically boil down to “nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms”, the music really is exquisitely constructed. Like much of Pet Sounds there’s no drum kit until the chorus, the song being driven by harpsichord and bass in the verses and Frank Capp’s clip-clop percussion in the bridges, with Hal Blaine adding punctuating timpani in the second verse. And in the choruses we have a wonderfully bizarre mix of instruments – Blaine’s drum kit being almost clodhopping in its straightforwardness, while Don Randi’s barrelhouse piano, way down in the mix, chases the percussion around like a soundtrack to a silent comedy, before breaking down into a heartbreaking little melodic fragment played simultaneously on tenor sax and theremin (actually an electro-theremin, an instrument invented by session player Paul Tanner, that sounded like a theremin but was easier to play accurately).
To my ears, Brian is the only Beach Boy on the track, but there’s a whole *stack* of Brians. On the chorus we have three of him singing “O cuando sere, un dia sere” (Spanish for “when will I be, one day I will be”), while at each repetition is introduced a further Brian with a further repeated line – one singing “sometimes I feel very sad”, one singing “Ain’t found nothing to put my heart and soul into” a little higher, and finally, so high he’s almost screaming, one singing “People I know don’t wanna be where I’m at”.
A gorgeous song, however immature the sentiment.

Pet Sounds
An exotica-flavoured track, this owes equally to three separate influences. Most obviously there’s Jack Nitzsche’s surf instrumentals, like The Lonely Surfer or Surf Finger, which share the clip-clopping feel and reverbed Fender guitar. (So close are the similarities that when REM recorded their tribute to Nitzsche, 2JN, it came out sounding far more like this track than any of Nitzsche’s…)
Second there’s the exotica of Martin Denny and Les Baxter, with the reverbed percussion and mildly dissonant horns.
And finally there’s John Barry’s work on the James Bond scores (this track was originally titled “Run, James, Run”, and was half-intended to be submitted to the Bond film producers), particularly the way Barry’s arrangement of Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme had the melody played on electric guitar over a repetitive vamp.
The whole thing adds up to a minor track, but a pleasant rest between two of the most emotionally intense tracks on the album.

Caroline, No
The final track on the album is almost a musical rewrite of Don’t Talk, having the same feel and many of the same chord relations and voicings (the Fm7/Ab – Ebm7/Db change under the verses here being very similar to the Db7-Abm7 changes in the choruses to the earlier song). However, where there the music had been in the service of a feeling of comfort and love, here it is in the service of a song about hurt, and lost innocence (this song’s similarity to Wonderful from the next album has never, in my view, been adequately explored).
Originally titled “Oh Carol, I know”, the more negative title came from Brian mishearing Tony Asher, and it’s a shame, because the earlier title is less judgemental than this one. However, this did lead to the rather smart wordplay in the second verse, where instead of “Oh Caroline No” he sings “Oh Caroline you” (oh carol, I knew).
This was originally recorded a semitone slower, and was sped up on the advice of Brian’s father, Murry Wilson, ‘to make him sound younger’. One of the few decent bits of advice Murry ever gave, this stopped the track from feeling quite so dirge-like, and made it a fitting close to the album. Outside that context, it was released as a solo single for Brian and made the lower reaches of the US Top 40.
From its opening percussion (played on water bottles) to the closing sound of a train being barked at by two dogs (Brian’s dogs Banana and Louie) the whole song has a melancholy air that is the absolute antithesis of the album’s hopeful opening. But you can always turn the album over and start again. Maybe next time it’ll end differently…

Bonus track
Various bonus tracks, usually alternate versions of tracks on the album, have been issued on the different CD issues of this album, but one that is there consistently is Trombone Dixie. An instrumental that was never released at the time, and recorded around the start of sessions for the album, it’s pleasant enough, bearing a strong resemblance both to Wouldn’t It Be Nice and especially to the late-1965 single The Little Girl I Once Knew, and having some ideas that Brian would come back to for Holidays on Smile. But it’s a minor work and it’s easy to see why it was left off the finished album.

On remastering…
It’s difficult to know that the reader is listening to the same recording as I am – Pet Sounds having been reissued, remastered, and generally messed-around with more than any other album I own.
It was issued on CD in 1990, in a rather flat mix with a ton of noise reduction, making for a listenable CD but with little top end. A Pet Sounds Sessions box set came out in 1997, with a newly remastered version with no noise reduction (which I personally find unlistenable due to the tape hiss) but with a brilliantly clear new stereo mix (which crucially missed a few overdubs) and with tons of session recordings.
Another CD issue came out in 2001, with yet another remastering job on the mono mix and a slightly altered stereo mix (including some but not all of the formerly-missing overdubs). And yet another CD version came out in 2006… (that’s not to mention the live CD of Brian Wilson performing the entire album live, or the live DVD…)
I only own the box set version on CD, but for discussions of this album I will be using the mono version in the 2001 master, which can be found on Spotify here. To hear significant details, however, you may well want to listen to the isolated backing tracks, isolated vocals, outtakes, alternate versions and session recordings on The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, which can be found on Spotify here.

Next week – Good Vibrations