Pick up any vinyl from the 1950s and the words that’ll spring to mind will be earthy, guttural, and any sort of description that essentially denotes scratchy. There is a sense from that era that vinyl itself is somehow part of the sound. Words that will never crop up are immersive, crisp or textured. That is simply because it wasn’t possible to be any of those things.
Sure, you could capture the essence of the growl of Howlin’ Wolf, and with the cracks and hisses of the whirling disc you could maybe even imbue the recording with a sense akin to a fireside retelling of the real tale, but you couldn’t pick up on the way the drums rolled forth from behind the 300lb blues tour de force or how Hosea Lea Kennard’s piano would come twinkling in softly. Everything was front and centre in the monologue world and it sounded nothing like Carnegie Hall.
This left people perplexed for a while, it was like every element of a Sunday roast had been thrown into a blender, it was still the same, all the constituent pieces were there, but it was a reductive mess of the real thing. There was only one source of sound, it was all channelled into the same microphone so that’s how it came out—overlapped conversations, a bubble and squeak of sonic ingredients.
Then, suddenly, a jazz bandleader called Enoch Light thought of a better way. He could differentiate the mash from the gravy, or rather he trumpets from the tubas by dotting separate microphones about the place. In 1961, he released the album Stereo 35/MM, and it came with the description: “The first time you hear this record will be one of the most startling experiences of your entire life. For the very first time, you will hear sound that is completely liberated, sound that is totally free—pure, full, honest sound with no mechanical restrictions whatsoever.”
That was the invention of the wheel as far as recorded music was concerned, and only five short years later, The Beach Boys would speed by those happily pushing the wheel with a stick in a beauteous new sports car called Pet Sounds and it proved so astoundingly magnificent that years from now the History Channel might claim it was made by aliens.
Pet Sounds turned technology into art like a postmodernist masterpiece. To put it in a jargon-free metaphorical sense, the album bulldozed Phil Spector’s wall of sound and made the bricks into a library dedicated to the love of music. This, in a way, was the concept of the album. As Brian Wilson once explained: “It wasn’t really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album; it was really a production concept album.”
However, it wasn’t a homage to the technology, the technology merely informed the songwriting process to maximise the boundary-pushing ways of pop to transfigure it to the next level—to gild it into something Baroque. The intent for Wilson was as simple as it was profound: “Marilyn,” he yelled to his wife, “I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!” There are many who would say that he did just that.
However, there are a fair few others who would give that medal to the record that followed in its wake, released almost exactly a year later: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album is frequently cited as the moment music reached a new level. However, part of the reason for that was because The Beatles showed their working within the album itself. When the History Channel marks the exam in sonic engineering in years to come, they will be able to decipher that it was, in fact, a few blokes and not aliens.
There are masterful moments aplenty to marvel at on the record, but there is also, to put it bluntly, a lot of, well, bullshit, really. You could argue that this came from the fact that they were playing catch-up and as they hurtled into the sonic unknown they didn’t slow down enough to catch themselves going a bit too far.
Or you can contextualise it in the way that Keith Richards rather harshly did when he opined: “I think they got carried away. Why not? If you’re the Beatles in the ’60s, you just get carried away—you forget what it is you wanted to do. You’re starting to do Sgt. Pepper. Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish, kind of like Satanic Majesties.”
The fact that his own band copied it with Satanic Majesties certainly undermines his statement and, conversely, illuminates how trailblazing it was. However, there is a grain of truth to the sense of experimentation ruling the roost rather than strict artistry. But this came with the territory of having pretty much conquered the world. And the fact that Sgt. Pepper is still a terrific record all the same is a testimony to the naturally brilliant songwriters behind it. But the fact of the matter is, they were beaten to the moon, and with Pet Sounds, they were beaten to the moon in style.
The Beatles at their best coupled trailblazing with transcendency—the sort of songs so perfect that they painted the zeitgeist multicoloured and thereafter became woven into the fabric of society to such an extent that kids can hum the melody from the age of five without knowing they’re reciting a piece of history. That is the case with the seamlessness of Pet Sounds earth-shattering ways. ‘God Only Knows’ splits the atom, but it’s the pure poetry of it that moves Paul McCartney to tears to this day. The same cannot be said for the frankly unpleasant cacophonous moments on Peppers.
Simply put, Peppers doesn’t find The Beatles at their best. Whereas Pet Sounds finds The Beach Boys at theirs and that’s just about as good as it gets, it is an ode to music befitting of that intent, parting the clouds of the daily grind with an assegai of life-affirming sunshine, and God only knows where we’d be without it. And if you disagree, then I’m pretty sure that the ‘Fab Four’ would actually back me up on it too. But as a dude I greatly admire once said, “that’s just like your opinion, man.”