Published Jul 01, 2000It promises to rally the biggest chorus of music geeks since High Fidelity opened. Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, is touring this summer with an orchestra, performing the canonical 1966 Pet Sounds album in its entirety. Once again, much ink will be spilled on why it's one of the most originally overlooked classic albums in rock history, right up there with Velvet Underground and Nico. What will not be mentioned is that it's also one of the most overrated classic albums in rock history, right up there with Rumours. Such is its stature that there's a five-CD box set devoted to the one album.
Maybe Pet Sounds is supposed to be impressive because of how schlocky so much of the band's work had been up to that point, consisting of Chuck Berry rip-offs elevated by impeccable group harmonies that were intricately beautiful, if not bland. Although decent, Pet Sounds comes up short when accorded hyperbolic importance by geeks chasing the story more than the sound.
Compared with the other towering achievements in commercial pop and rock music accomplished during the 60s - beginning with Phil Spector and Esquivel, and ending with Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone - the mundane Pet Sounds is the most conservative of the bunch. What groundbreaking work did the 23-year-old Brian Wilson do in the pop genre that hadn't already been done by the Beatles on Revolver that same year? Or by Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington a decade earlier? The Beach Boys were lightweight relics rather than leaders, no more innovative than the Mamas and the Papas. The instrumentation is clever and tasteful, but hardly innovative. They were a band your grandmother could love, led by a man whose formative musical influence was the insufferably white-bread vocal group the Four Freshmen.
The album's cult appeal stems primarily from non-musical reasons. Brian Wilson has had a long period of mental instability, to say the least; he's a stereotypical "crazy genius." Sadly, like suicide or an early death, this trait guarantees him legendary status over someone with similar talent but a relatively normal life (e.g., Stevie Wonder). While it's true that intensely creative people are more prone to tenuous grips on reality, it's insulting to suggest that their condition fuels their art, instead of vice versa. It's an assumption often propagated by the British press, who have carried the flag for Pet Sounds since its release, and who are also notorious for making absolutely everything out of next to nothing.
The lyrics, which detail the longings of a social oddball (i.e., Wilson) for normality and security, fit in perfectly with the collective personality of music geeks worldwide. Yet most of the tracks were co-written with an advertising copy writer, and the Hallmark sentiments show through.
His record company hated the album, one that Wilson considered a deeply personal statement and his crowning musical achievement. The "misunderstood artist versus the corporate meanies" angle is another surefire way to create a fascinating story out of average music, an oft-told tale that has seen many half-baked efforts accorded far too much importance.
Wilson's truly amazing accomplishment wasn't Pet Sounds, but the single he recorded immediately after: "Good Vibrations." In a mere three-and-a-half minutes, Wilson betters all the highs of Pet Sounds: the band's vocal intricacies are in full force; it's structurally daring for what is essentially a bubble-gum pop song; and the instrumentation features theremin and a rhythm section driven not by drums but cellos, bass, and tambourines. Perhaps the song's commercial validation makes it less cool than the (deservedly) popular indifference Pet Sounds met upon its release.
On a purely personal level, it's heartening to see Wilson return to the stage, put many sad and tumultuous years behind him, and perform for appreciative audiences. It's heresy to say so in rock-crit orthodoxy, but I'm not one of those people.