(Above: Brian Wilson and a goat, from the album cover.)
One day last semester during a lecture on the Sixties, I made an offhanded comment that 1966 may have been the greatest year ever in popular music. As I would hope that they would, students respectfully challenged me to defend my position. “Simple,” I said. “Both Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde came out by summer. That would be enough, and then a ton of other great music came out after that.” Because my students were almost all born in the late 90s (think about THAT for a minute), many of them Googled the titles I was talking about. (I also suggested they read Jon Savage’s excellent book on the year in question.)
Pet Sounds was released on May 16, 1966. It didn’t sell terribly well, compared to other Beach Boys releases, debuting outside the Top 100 upon its release. It was …. different. You know how Midwesterners describe things as “different” when they don’t want to be rude and say they don’t like something? That’s what I mean. (“Marge, do you like the salmon dip?” “It’s different.”) The album isn’t all cars-and-girls, which had been the hallmark of the Boys releases up to that point. Here we get a peek at what’s going on in the head of 23-year-old Brian Wilson, a prime example of a tortured artist.
Sure, there’s lovely pop songs on this album: “Sloop John B” is here. (To be honest, I often skip over it when I listen to the album. It’s not a favorite.) “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was one of the first 45s I owned and its flip side – “God Only Knows” – may very well be the finest pop song ever written. And had Brian finished “Good Vibrations” in time, it would have been included here, and the album would have been the stuff of legend. But what was finished is art. Tracks like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” served to redefine what rock and roll could be sonically. “That’s Not Me” showed that rock and roll could be introspective – same with “I Know There’s An Answer” (which originally began its life as “Hang On To Your Ego,” a version I also enjoy.) “Caroline, No” showed that a nice-sounding song can be deceiving. (Brian supposedly wrote the song because he was “saddened to see how sweet little girls turned out to be kind of bitchy, hardened adults.” Touche.) And the instrumentals on the LP? Amazing. Try and hum “Let’s Go Away For A While.” I dare you.
Of course, the story of the various LPs inspired in a back-and-forth between the Beach Boys and the Beatles is the stuff of legend. Supposedly Brian was inspired to write this LP after hearing Rubber Soul, deciding that that was the best album ever made. After hearing “God Only Knows” specifically, Paul McCartney supposedly determined that they had been topped, and the band began working on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not to be outdone, Brian began work on Smile, and that’s when things went off the rails. How true the tale is is questionable, but the winners in the battle were the listeners.
But for me, the song that makes this album is “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” I think if I had to pick one song to represent me and my process of growing up, it’s that one. It’s about a young man who feels terribly out of place, and when I first had the record recommended to me at the age of 21, that was probably the best way I could describe myself. I had just come back from my failed stint in the Quad Cities and had just started to find my voice after my stint at WJEQ. But, one can’t live on a part-time income, so I had to pack up and move back to my folks’ house in the suburbs and look for more transient radio work. I was so into music from a generation before me that it ultimately defined my radio career. I spent so much time delivering the music of the 60s and 70s to audiences that I sort of missed the entire 1990s, save a few bits and pieces of it. Hell, a description of an unstable radio career, when seen through the eyes of a guy who skipped a grade in elementary school and should have probably solved cold fusion or something, is right there in the lyrics:
Where I can speak my mind
I’ve been trying hard to find the people
That I won’t leave behind
But they ain’t doing me no good
I wish they could
I think I got something good goin’ for myself
But what goes wrong
It takes a few more words than the WKRP theme’s “town to town, up and down the dial,” but you get the idea. Throw in the repeated “sometimes, I feel very sad,” and you can see why the 21-year old me who first discovered the poetry of the 23-year-old misunderstood genius got a chill down his spine upon first hearing the album. I didn’t fit in. Often, I still don’t – and it took a long time to understand that that was OK. (At least I get to use my brains a little nowadays.) Pet Sounds has always stuck with me, and – even 27 years after first hearing it, I still understand how it just doesn’t seem to fit in its surroundings. And I’m OK with that.
See if you were made for these times. You can hear the song by clicking here.