• Christopher McHale

Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper



During the summer after The Beach Boys released their album Pet Sounds, the Beatles were in L.A.. The band was on their last tour and were looking forward to a break.

“Bruce Johnson on a trip to London played it to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Moon and Mick Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, all of whom were struck dumb by what they heard. And soon the cream of British musicians–including Graham Nash, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and, well, Eric Clapton’s Cream–were in thrall to Wilson’s meisterwerk.” Paul Lester

By the time the Beatles got to L.A., they obsessed with the album. George told Brian Wilson they listened to the album again and again. Paul said Pet Sounds inspired him to write Sgt. Pepper.

I lived in London when Pet Sounds drops. I never connected to the record. Listened maybe twice and moved on. The music around me was more vital and edgy than this wandering exploration of sounds and songs. I simply didn’t get it.

Generally, over my life, music out of L.A. left me a little flat. Too polished. Too much air and not enough grit. I’m a child of the inner cities. I like my music wrapped in I-beams, laced with graffiti lyric.

The years elevated Pet Sounds. I even saw lists naming it #1 album of all time. Between the drop and the present day I’ve a music career spanning decades. Not Beach Boy epic, but good enough. I take my more refined ears into the studio and give Pet Sounds a deeper listen. How did an album a London teenager passed on in 1966, became a revered masterpiece in 2021, and how I missed it?

Every masterpiece results from inspiration. An artist’s road is often one inspiration after another, sometimes the artist’s own work lights the fire, sometimes it’s a sentence in a story or a glance of light. Creativity is opening to inspiration and following the lead.

Brian Wilson feels the call after listening to Rubber Soul. I get that. Rubber Soul rocked my world too. There’s not one extra beat on that record. A perfect balance of songs, focused riffs, powerful vocals. Peak Beatles. I consider it the best Beatle album. I love them all, but Rubber Soul turned me inside out.

The inspiration for Wilson led him off the road. He stopped touring and dedicated himself to songwriting. He looked for fresh paths. He auditioned new partners.

“I found myself competing with The Beatles. My goal was to create the greatest rock album ever made.” Brian Wilson

The album produced, arranged, and almost entirely composed by Brian with guest lyricist Tony Asher. And that’s the singular difference. Pet Sounds was the passion and decision of one artist.

"The Beatles definitely had an eternal curiosity for doing something different.” George Martin

Sgt. Pepper was The Beatles 8th album. The band followed a different road than The Beach Boys. They cut their teeth in clubs, three sets a night, played the rock-and-roll canon. They flew out of L.A. as burned out as Brian Wilson from touring and playing live. They brought back a new world from the new world, built a fire in the middle of Abbey Road Studios and went to work.

Pet Sounds sounded like nothing they’d ever heard. Wilson said the album songs didn’t share a similar theme, there was no overall story linking them together, but what he had done was create a unified sound. That was his concept. The Beatles took the next step.

“The Beatles insisted that everything on Sgt. Pepper had to be different, so everything was distorted, limited, heavily compressed, or treated with excessive equalization. We had microphones right down the bells of the brass instruments and headphones turned into microphones attached to violins. We plastered vast amounts of echo on-to vocals and sent them through the circuitry of the revolving Leslie speaker inside a Hammond organ. We used giant primitive oscillators to vary the speed of instruments and vocals and we had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way round.” Geoff Emerick

In 18 months Brian Wilson and The Beatle completely reinvented the sound and possibilities of the album. Innovation and musical invention exploded. Bands pushed in all directions. The goal became to break new ground, stand out, explore.

I started thinking about all this because of a conversation I had with a friend. I was talking about some new music I’d heard. I’ve always been a sucker for new songs, a fresh voice. I get enthusiastic when I discover a new artist, but my friend pushed back a little.

He said all the music sounded the same. I started listening with different ears and he was right. The same sounds, tempo, harmony, reverbs, samples, compressors, eq. Like everybody was using a template they’d downloaded onto the same laptop and mixed with the same headphones.

The music industry lost its vitality, and perhaps not coincidentally, its profit. If 1967 was innovation, 2021 was replication. How many times can the same sound clone itself? Commercial music reflects culture more than leads it, so do we conclude this is a copy and paste world?

I find stunning new music every week. I haven’t changed all that much. I obsess over albums. When I find a good one it’ll be the only thing I play, sometimes for a couple of weeks. I like to lose myself in new songs. In a world of blue and gray, I’m looking for a red shirt. But the heady days of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper are long gone.

You couldn’t find two albums with more contrast. The expansive reverberation of Pet Sounds, contrast the sharp definition of Sgt. Pepper. The languid, aching vocals of The Beach Boys contrast the tight, piercing voices of The Beatles. The longing lyricism of a boy’s heart in an ocean of memory contrasts with a Fellini-like circus of characters with a northern lilt. The solitary reflections of an introvert contrast with the dynamic collaboration of a band.

How beautiful is it we live in a world where both these albums exist? I walk down the street listening to Brian’s expansive mind, John’s bright cynicism, Paul’s open heart. The music feels fresh. Vital. Real. Relevant.

The music of these two great albums shaped the world. They are ours. Gifts. Eternal. Inspiration entwined from a moment long ago. Music matters. Find your unique voice. Connect the world with songs of love and sorrow. There’s no end to discovery in these grooves. The Beach Boys began recording on December 15th, 1965, and The Beatles finished on April 1, 1967. 16 months and the world changed.

I walk down 72nd Street. It’s a beautiful day. A light breeze promises summer. Paul’s ‘She’s Leaving Home’ on my headphones. Outside the Dakota, I step across the ochre brick vestibule where John was shot. A soft sob as tears begin. It’s too much and not enough.

I catch my breath. The voices on these albums call to one another. The harmony close, matched. The music rises and falls. A moment in time captured in vinyl. The song never ends. The album never fades. The world breaks me and the music recreates me.

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