Pet Sounds... The Prequel
'God Only Knows: The Story of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys and the California Myth' by David Leaf is published in the U.K. on the 30th June and in the U.S. in September. Ahead of the publication, David has curated a series of playlists inspired by the book, which can be found on the Omnibus Spotify profile.
One of the playlists is called 'Pet Sounds... The Prequel' - https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0mFdPht7xbXoxph2bZCH98?si=6b53efe49d7d4d4e
We asked David to write a blog post about the meaning and composition of this playlist.
I’ve just begun doing interviews for God Only Knows: The Story of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys and the California Myth. One question that invariably keeps popping up is, “What is your favorite Beach Boys album?”
And my answer is…The Beach Boys Today!
Which seems to surprise everybody. Not Pet Sounds, they ask? So then, I clarify. Pet Sounds is their best; it’s Brian’s Sistine Ceiling. A complete work of ineffable beauty. It paints a perfectly expressed and complete portrait of the artist and his emotional life story. And like the Capella Sistina, it’s overwhelming. Stunning. Leaves one speechless.
But if you’re going to ask me to pick just one that’s both magnificent and fun, it’s Today! It’s an album filled with brilliant pieces, songs that were instantly accessible to me. To continue the Michelangelo analogy, they are musical sculptures like his Pieta and “The David.” Easier to take in and embrace.
That’s why The Beach Boys Today! is central to this playlist, my self-designed prequel to Pet Sounds.
When I first heard Pet Sounds in 1972, even though I loved the hit singles, loved the spiritual and melodic brilliance of “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No” too, I didn’t “get it.” I wasn’t quite ready to absorb Brian’s musical autobiography in its entirety. That would take a while. Maybe it was just too crushingly sad. Don’t know. I guess I had taken it in by 1977 when I named my fanzine, Pet Sounds. And certainly have by now. After all, I’ve named the new edition of this book God Only Knows.
Long before I even began the deep dive into the 2022 update of The Myth, I was wrestling with the issues that had surrounded the recording and release of the album. Certainly, as a journalist, I did in the original edition of The Myth, and it came up again back in 1996 when I worked with Brian on The Pet Sounds Sessions box set.
Let’s step back to early 1966, when the Beach Boys first heard the songs that Brian Wilson and Tony Asher had written for Pet Sounds. According to my reporting and other accounts, members of the Beach Boys were surprised by the lyrical content. And not necessarily happy with what they heard. Nor, apparently, was the record label.
Looking back, given the two studio albums that had preceded it, given the fact that it would yield two big Top ten hits, I didn’t quite understand why. What was the issue? And that’s what led to this playlist, the Pet Sounds Prequel.
One day, I was mentally flipping through my list of favorite pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys’ records. Naturally, I love the biggest smashes like “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda.”
But the ones that hit me in a different way, the ones on my heart-list included “Surfer Girl,” “In My Room,” “The Warmth of the Sun,” “Don’t Worry Baby” and “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man).” After all, I wasn’t a surfer (although I loved to body surf). Never drove fast cars. Girls were just a dream when I was a teen. If only I had the experience described in “She Knows Me Too Well.”
There was something about those songs, though, a wistful melancholy that came through in Brian’s voice. They “spoke” to me. His voice connected with me on a visceral level. Not that I would have defined it in those terms when I was younger. I just loved the way the music and harmonies made me feel. And Pet Sounds does that for me…and the world…on an entire album.
But I was only buying Beach Boys singles in the 1960s, so I didn’t know what albums any of the songs came from. So in the fall of 1971, when my intense passion for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ music really began to evolve into something of a musical obsession, kind of a calling, I had to hear everything.
I remember when I began digging deep into the albums and heard Today! for the first time. Mostly recorded in 1964 and early 1965, well over a year before Pet Sounds, I loved it instantly. It seemed to have a perfect balance between the hits and ballads. Also, by the time I heard that album, I had actually fallen in love and had my heart broken. So I could relate to the lyrics in the songs, especially those on Side 2.
Same with the album after Today!, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!). Capitol Records use lots of exclamation points in 1965. Lots of great songs. Big hits too. And the single afterwards, “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” When I discovered Glen Campbell’s record of “Guess I’m Dumb,” it was another Brian Wilson piece that fit on my mental mixtape.
But I’m not thinking in 1965 terms. This idea came to me in the 21st Century.
I thought to myself, on the previous studio albums from 1965, there were songs that felt like Pet Sounds, In my reporter’s head, I began to wonder why Pet Sounds was met with a comparatively lukewarm reception. In my fan’s head, I thought I had an answer, a playlist that would lead the listener to Pet Sounds.
That’s when I came up with the notion of a prequel to Pet Sounds. A playlist that would show that Brian was on his way to Pet Sounds well before he even heard the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. (Almost certainly the U.S. track listing, by the way.)
Taking my favorite songs from Brian’s 1965 productions and adding in a few earlier ones, I think I’ve created an “album” that has an emotional feel similar to Pet Sounds. At least in my head, this playlist has the songs, the lyrical content, the soaring vocals and the production technique that could be considered a prequel to Pet Sounds.
The point is, Pet Sounds didn’t come out of nowhere. Brian was on the introspective road to Pet Sounds from the start. Do you know “The Lonely Sea”? He’s already expressing that same feeling.
And on this playlist, he’s looking at almost exactly the same lyrical issues that would find full flower on Pet Sounds. Difference is that it feels like a happier time, more hopeful too.
For me, picking the songs was easier than the sequence. And you’ll probably have some bones to pick with my choices and the song order. (FWIW…couldn’t find “After The Game” on Spotify.) But inarguably, those pet sounds were in Brian’s head before he made Pet Sounds. Let me know what you think at my Facebook page.