Between 1965 and 1966 the Beach Boys were going through a schism. In the midst of their seeming irrelevancy, sinking below the tidal wave of Beatlemania, with band members pitted against leader Brian Wilson in a battle for the soul and direction of the band (and unhappy with Wilson’s copious consumption of psychedelics), the Beach Boys fought to recapture their prior primacy on the pop charts.
The result of that conflict was the release (and non-release) of, arguably, the greatest recorded music of the 20th century.
Debate all you want on the importance of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5,” Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” or The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s,” no other music has had the kind of impact on 20-21st century music than the sessions that produced “Pet Sounds” and “SMiLE” (recorded solo by Wilson, almost immediately after “Pet Sounds,” not released until 2003, with complicated issues far too convoluted to include here).
Considering that Beatles producer George Martin said, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in the early ’70s, “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened … Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds,” it’s clear that the Beach Boys (and Brian Wilson) wield an influence that has been largely underestimated and underappreciated. That influence, from production to musical composition, is not just evident in what followed in the ’60s (Beatles, various Motown artists, the Who, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, et al) but continued well into the present with bands like the Pixies, the Shins (especially), Animal Collective, Panda Bear, Super Furry Animals, and dozens of others.
Unlike Sgt. Pepper’s, “Pet Sounds” is not tied together with production tricks; each track is separated by the standard five-second gap, there is no thematic pretension. Yet every track astounds, surprises, from the ubiquitous “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” (the lead cut), through the truly psychedelic (without even trying) “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” the transcendent “Sloop John B” (extending the psychedelia, slyly), “God Only Knows” (which Paul McCartney said was, “A song that changed my life”), with every cut building on the brilliant whole, the crescendo being the ethereally beautiful “Caroline No.”
Recorded during and after the “Pet Sounds” sessions, “SMiLE” not only begins with the most memorable start of 20th-century music (outdoing even the opening bars of “So What” or the crawling, clawing beginning of Ravel’s “Bolero”) then blends into “Heroes and Villains” — a hint of where Wilson is going. Making symphonic music for a new age, Wilson relied on technology as much as musical mastery, a concept not yet accepted by “serious music” lovers (John Cage perhaps being the notable exception).
Drawing on the American musical tradition of parlor music (the ghosts of a bygone area when families would gather around a piano and sing popular songs of the day), Wilson drops snippets of traditional music throughout as building blocks for his composition. With the pieces in place, Wilson creates a musical journey across time and space, beginning at Plymouth Rock and ending in the waves of Hawaii.
All the parts are there to justify Wilson’s claim to a symphonic work. Wilson builds three suites out of nods to his songs-around-the-piano heritage and an eye on the future. What he fought for and lost in the “Pet Sounds” sessions were taken into another studio (sans Beach Boys) and woven into a cohesive whole, the first (and only, as far as I’m concerned) rock and roll symphony. The Who’s “Tommy” could be a distant second, while Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is just a reason for a concert; everything else is, really, just crap.
The second suite (“Wonderful/Song For Children/Child Is Father of the Man/Surf’s Up”) is particularly beautiful, thematically perfect, taking a musical idea and softly letting it wash away in the waves. Having listened to the album again, the entire suite remains serendipitously stuck in my consciousness, as it has so many times before, the composition, rhythms and unerring harmonies playing over and over for me as a blissful memory. I defy anyone who has heard the second suite to tell me it hasn’t worked a similar magic for them.
It is the third suite, however, where Wilson unleashes the full force of his compositional genius and shows that the form of rock and roll is not as restrictive as his “betters” maintained. Not just something for the kids but something beyond what had ever been tried before. The beauty of the suite is in how he uses silences (the astounding secret of Beach Boy’s harmonies), backing off of bombast and just letting the songs speak for themselves, weaving themes within and without, finally bringing back a bar of the introduction to introduce “Good Vibrations” (stolen from the sessions and released to become one of the 1960s’ defining songs) — the song the album was built upon.
What Wilson did in the Pet Sounds/SMiLE sessions was take a new form (at the time, rock and roll was only about 10 years old) and extend its possibilities farther than anyone would have predicted. Certainly, classical composers have a long tradition of integrating folk and popular music into symphonic structure but Wilson pushed from the other side, defiant and subversive and ultimately triumphant. Moving beyond the standard three-chord/three-minute structure of popular music, Wilson redefined what rock and roll was and defined what it could be. Although some of those who followed in Wilson’s shadow produced overly pretentious dreck, many more who pay Wilson homage continue by creating pop music that defies the restrictions of the form.