"When you listen to Pet Sounds, use earphones in the dark. If you listen in the light, you look around and see things ... but in the dark you can hear it all," says Brian Wilson. Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' 1966 masterpiece LP, requires that listeners make themselves vulnerable. Wilson's ornate orchestra of voices, strings, drums, percussion, horns, and theremin (and timpani, water jugs, trains, and dogs barking) are arranged into the form of a complex body, flowing and pulsing, and somehow, the instruments give form not only to a body but to a soul — a spirit loving and inspired.
The young Wilson, then 23, transcended the physical abuse he endured from his father and rebelled against the profitable and predictable formula of the Beach Boys, when he heroically led Tony Asher, the Wrecking Crew, and "the boys" to create Pet Sounds, an album hailed as one of the greatest of all time.
Encounter any interview with Wilson about Pet Sounds and be moved to tears by the sincerity of his intentions to bare his soul on the album. On Pet Sounds, he preserves his enthusiasm, innocence, and love, because the songs, still today, succeed in connecting to those same precious elements in listeners themselves; one must have the revelation of Pet Sounds. Allow the horns and strings in "God Only Knows" to become the early sun. Permit the drums in "I'm Waiting for the Day," intermittent and often startling, to become a heart pumping not blood, but golden voices. Just be and "listen, listen, listen ... listen to my heart beat" pleads Wilson, as he sings on "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)." He bravely risks asking listeners to join his introspection.
Wilson is touring Pet Sounds for a final time, in honor of its 50th anniversary. He will perform Friday, Sept. 30 at the Fox Theatre, and in anticipation of this celebration, some Detroit musicians offer their thoughts about Pet Sounds.
Matthew Smith from Outrageous Cherry, on tour now with Wovenhand in Salzburg, Austria, had his Pet Sounds revelation in the '80s. "I realized Pet Sounds was the influence on all the Eno and John Cale stuff that was influencing me at the time. Since I hadn't heard it as a kid in the '60s, it sounded to me like music from the future. A real revelation, since before that I considered the Beach Boys to be a hive of flag-waving, high school sweater-wearing, happy California conformists," Smith says.
"Of course, beneath this facade of all-American normalcy was drugs, insanity, a history of psychological and physical abuse, and even the Manson family. Pet Sounds has a beauty that transcends all the Beach Boys' many myths and realities, and it turned me into an obsessive Beach Boys fan."
Likewise, Carl Hultgren, from ambient two-piece Windy and Carl, and owner of Stormy Records, discovered the tracks on Pet Sounds aren't typical Beach Boys' compositions: "When I was growing up in the '70s, my friends and I were really into listening to music. None of us had any idea that the Beach Boys did anything other than the big hits they were known for," Hultgren says. "An aunt of mine had Good Vibrations: The Best of the Beach Boys (the one with the waves crashing onto the rocks for the cover art.) It had a few Pet Sounds' songs on it ... The songs were so fascinating and they sounded incredible, unlike anything I knew existed. Pet Sounds is a timeless record, and it is one of my absolute favorite albums to this day."
Fred Thomas of the Ann Arbor-based band Saturday Looks Good to Me contemplated Pet Sounds during a formative period for his music. "The autumn of 2000 was when my Pet Sounds 'phase' was in its zenith. I listened to the record over and over again, studying it, really, while trying to assemble my own music into something that felt close to that — pure, unassuming, and gentle. I remember lots of solitary walks with a Discman, listening to the mono recordings and trying to pick apart the layers of instruments, voices, and reverb textures. I feel like it's a very lonely record in a lot of ways, kind of like a look at love, longing, and hope for what comes after youth, from the perspective of someone who is actually not connected to those things at all, but is looking out from a bubble ..."
Tony Muggs of Detroit's the Muggs and Dude pays homage to Wilson's artistic genius in music and words. "I love how Brian Wilson wrote that album from his heart. It has a very introspective and ethereal sound, with avant-garde instrumentation, for a popular album from the '60s. My band, Dude, loves vocal harmonies, and I can say with confidence that the Beach Boys influenced and taught me harmonies upon first listening to Pet Sounds. The word 'genius' is often overused today, but [it] actually applies to Brian Wilson."
Jen David, from duo Jenny Junior & Jackie Rainsticks and owner of the Detroit musical instrument shop Third Wave Music, encountered an alternate version of Pet Sounds' track "I Know There Is an Answer" called "Hang on to Your Ego" as a teen.
"I appreciate the literalness of those lyrics, an appropriate critique of people losing themselves in quests for enlightenment ... it could be about society swallowing you, or any idealism that wants you to give up your self. The sensitivity and almost abrasive earnestness of Brian's writing ... lets the listener capture their own sadness and tenderness."
Eugene Strobe of band Cosmic Light Shapes shares his experience with the album: "After listening to the Pet Sounds box set, it was apparent to me that a single composition could shift direction and mood in an instant. The rhythm, feel, and vocals can all move all around within the same song. Each individual instrument sounds like it is being stretched from its intended application and sonic design. The intertwining vocals spin a web so flawlessly and are like a labyrinth of playfulness and mystery. The sincere emotion and contemplative imagination of the lyrics tug at your core."
Through the artistic revelation that is Pet Sounds, Wilson is a mythological hero. He is Apollo, the god of music, truth and prophecy, healing — and of the sun and light. Celebrate!