50 years of Pet Sounds and Brian Wilson on tour

Monday 16th May 2016 was the 50th Anniversary of Pet Sounds, an album most people aged 35 upwards have in their music library.

It has touched the lives of generations, it is critically rated by many of the great musicians and is often cited as being one of the best albums of all time (it’s actually Rolling Stone magazine’s number 2 out of 500 Greatest albums of all time).

And so it should be, when Pet Sounds came out it was groundbreaking.  It wasn’t the bubblegum surfer pop hits that The Beach Boys had been churning out previously, it was off-the-wall, from the heart, modern day classical music.

brian wilson.jpegBrian Wilson produced and arranged it, writing almost all the the musical scores for the instruments, the lyrics and the amazing vocal harmonies. It is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thanks Dave Eggers).  And don’t take my word for it, Tom Petty said:

“I’d put Brian Wilson in a class with Bach or Mozart.. I think the Pet Sounds album will be seen as the classical music of its age.”  

I remember first coming across it wedged between Houses of the Holy and Hunky Dory in my Mum and Dad’s epic LP collection as a girl, so when I heard he was playing the whole album LIVE I bagged some tickets for the Bristol leg on May 15th for Mum and I.  Sadly, Mum couldn’t make it at the last minute so my buddy Ange stepped in.

We got there a bit early and spotting the huge black tour buses out front, we sat and drank a couple of pints of Gem – a rather tasty Bath Ales beer – with one eye on the bus in case we could catch a glimpse of the man himself (knowing full well he was probably in the local Mariott getting some kip before the show).

Ange and I had seen Brian back at Glasto in 2005, where we danced barefoot in front of the pyramid stage picking up the Good Vibrations.  We were definitely there in body, but I have to admit that I didn’t pay too much attention to the musicianship at that particular gig.

It’s fair to say that Bristol represented.  Generations of families, old hipsters and Beach Boys fans filled”the beating heart of the city” Colston Hall.  As the call came for the beginning of the show, the foyer and the stairs was a sea of grey, awash with Beach Boys and Brian’s tour T-shirts.

The lights didn’t go down when Brian Wilson entered and the crowd applauded as he was joined on stage with – amongst other talented veteran musicians – original Beach Boy Al Jardine, his son Matt and (later in the set) early Seventies member Blondie Chaplin who also toured with The Rolling Stones, he definitely had the Stone’s strut and looked like he’d been on a few benders with Keef.

Wilson, businesslike and not looking entirely comfortable, sat at the baby grand and introduced the songs matter-of-factly with no frills.  They opened with Our Prayer, a gentle hush moved over the crowd, the beautiful layered acapella harmonies stimulating goosebumps throughout the hall. And then – from post Pet Sounds album Smile – the chirpy, quirky Heroes and Villains and proof that this band really can play the Beach Boys.

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Pet Sounds was played in order and sandwiched between the classic Beach Boys pop hits, as if cradled in it’s own fragility.  Just as Brian was cradled by the players on stage who at times carried him, picking up the falsetto he can’t reach any more and breathing life and vitality back into his compositions.

The second half opened with perhaps the most cherished song of the album, written by Wilson and Tony Asher and commonly known as Paul McCartney‘s ultimate love song and the song we walked down the aisle to – my husband and I, not me and Paul – God only knows.

I looked around the auditorium and watched people singing to Brian, to each other, to themselves.  And I felt an overwhelming sense of unity, that the song (like so many other songs) has a story for so many.  The beauty of music – giving us a shared experience.  It was also sweet to see an older couple having a bit of a romantic moment down the row from us.

Manuscript_of_Lyrics_for_God_Only_Knows_-_Rock_&_Roll_Hall_of_Fame_and_Museum,_Cleveland_(by_Adam_Jones)
Manuscript of lyrics from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Cleveland, by Adam Jones

Pet sounds is a insight into Wilson’s life, the joy and happiness of first love and first experiences mixed with the self doubt and inner turmoil of his well documented depression.  Perhaps the song that epitomises this is I guess I just wasn’t made for these times, the point emphasised at the end by Chaplin pointing to Brian and singing “I guess he just wasn’t made for these times” – Genius’ often aren’t of their time.  

With the repeated lyric “sometimes I feel very sad” – he did seem very sad and despite being surrounded by musicians he cut a lonely figure on that big stage.  The Telegraph’s review asked if this gig was the saddest gig ever? and I can see why, if you’ve watched his biopic Love & Mercy you wouldn’t be blamed for cynically wondering who is behind the gruelling 60-odd date tour, the expensive ‘meet and greets’ at each gig.  It certainly went through my mind but it is nice to think positively, that Brian is doing if for himself and his fans and that his ‘family’ – as he refers to his inner sanctum – wouldn’t let him be taken advantage of again.

When the album was played out, we were back into the bubblegum pop and the audience were up and dancing in the aisles to Good Vibrations, Help me Rhonda, Barbara Ann and Surfin USA, happy to relive memories and shake off the emotional rollercoaster that is Pet Sounds.

Brian closed the concert with Love and mercy, the song of the aforementioned film – which I highly recommend if you want to get nerdy about Brian Wilson and know more about his life story and the tumultuous story of The Beach Boys.  I wasn’t sure about the casting of Cusack as Brian but he definitely grew on me.

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