Is there anything left to say about Pet Sounds? Between thinkpieces inspired by the beloved album’s recent 50th birthday, reviews of Brian Wilson’s current tour, and new memoirs by both Brian Wilson and Mike Love, it seems unlikely that there’s anything new to learn.
Eagle Rock Entertainment’s new Blu-Ray/DVD release, Classic Albums — The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds, is advertised as “the definitive authorized story of the album,” but truthfully, it has very little to add to the last five decades’ worth of Pet Sounds discussion.
All five living Beach Boys are interviewed separately, saying mostly the same things they’ve been saying in interviews for years. David Marks, who had left the band before Pet Sounds, talks about the band’s early days as kids growing up in Hawthorne, CA. Brian Wilson discusses his early love of the Four Freshmen and his exposure to boogie-woogie music, while Al Jardine raves about the Kingston Trio, and Mike Love name-checks Chuck Berry.
Love also adds a new version of the Beach Boys origin story here, claiming in this interview that the Beach Boys came together as a band because he and Brian were “asked to do a folk song,” and when they said they preferred R&B to folk music, they combined the two to write “Surfin.'”
When it comes time to talk about the album, Bruce Johnston rhapsodizes about Wilson’s genius (“He’s truly the most gifted music person I’ve ever met”), Love defends himself (he did so like the album, and you can tell, because he sang on it!), and Jardine talks about the Kingston Trio some more.
The interviewers clearly lucked out in the making of this film, as Wilson is in an animated, talkative mood for most of his footage — in fact, he probably plays more piano on this DVD than he does on any given night of his current Pet Sounds tour. It’s a treat to watch his face light up when engineer Mark Linett plays him the isolated backing vocals from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (“There they are!” he exclaims. “The Beach Boys!”)
While everyone else is attempting to outdo each other with praise for him, Wilson talks about his pets’ appearance at the end of “Caroline No” (“I just wanted my dogs to be heard, you know?”), claims that the word “genius” doesn’t mean anything, and concludes simply, “I love music.”
Many other people with Beach Boys connections (and a few with tenuous connections at best) give interviews for the documentary. Tony Asher, the jingle writer who became Wilson’s main lyrical collaborator for the album, describes his first meeting with Wilson (“He was good with words,” Wilson himself recalls), and reads aloud the lyrics for “God Only Knows.”
Rock journalists David Wild and Lucy O’Brien discuss Wilson’s gifts for arranging vocals and working with studio musicians, while engineers Bruce Botnick and Mark Linett are in audio geek heaven as they discuss Wilson’s recording process.
Then there’s Helen Shapiro, a singer who opened for the Beach Boys during their tour in England, who describes them as “lovely guys,” and offers the scintillating revelation that Johnston had once offered to record her… and then didn’t.
Most of the non-instrumental tracks from the album are spotlighted. Wilson summarizes the “social statement” of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” as, “I wish I could find people that could help me find a cooler place.” “Here Today” is accompanied by photos of the Boys and their Pet Sounds-era wives,” Mike Love and Tony Asher address the drug subtext of “Hang Onto Your Ego”/”I Know There’s An Answer,” and much is made of Paul McCartney’s statement that “God Only Knows” is the greatest song ever written.
And anyone who’s ever wondered just how long one can hold a grudge will get their answer when Al Jardine prefaces a montage set to “Pet Sounds” with a priceless rant about the album cover: “‘We’ll send you down to the San Diego Zoo and photograph you with a bunch of damn goats!’ I mean, what was that all about? That was the biggest miscarriage of justice of all!”
Bonus material includes segments on some of the songs not included in the documentary, Mark Linett pushing more faders around, Mike Love boasting that his setlists in 2016 will feature “at least six” songs from Pet Sounds, and Bruce Johnston claiming that, if “Good Vibrations” had been included on the album, the Beach Boys would now be owners of the galaxy.
Casual fans and Brianistas alike will be able to follow along with the well-known Pet Sounds narrative. The Beach Boys used to only sing about cars and surfing and teenage romance! Then, Brian got tired of touring and became a Serious Artist, and possibly a Genius! He decided that he would move away from writing singles and instead make A Real Album! The other Beach Boys were mad, and Capitol Records didn’t like the album at first, but now it’s a classic! Cue “God Only Knows” and roll the credits!
There’s more than an element of truth to all of this, of course, but a film claiming to be the “definitive” story of Pet Sounds would have done well to present a more nuanced perspective. Luckily, viewers searching for more information about Pet Sounds have plenty of resources to choose from these days.
Get your copy of Classic Albums: The Beach Boys – ‘Pet Sounds’ on Amazon.