Brian Wilson is a master of harmony. Taking inspiration from groups like The Four Freshman, the Beach Boys leader crafted incredibly sophisticated vocal arrangments, many of which contain a complex assortment of chromatic modulations. It’s surely the dense harmonies of Pet Sounds that has made Beach Boys so enduringly popular; it’s pop music crafted according to the principles of Western harmony, and it’s absolutely mesmerising.
Wilson’s skill as a producer is made abundantly clear in this fascinating audio of him recording vocal overdubs for The Beach Boys’ 1966 Pet Sounds track ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’. The audio follows Brian as he lays down successive vocal takes, layering the harmonies until he’s left with a polyphonic vocal pad comprised of eight separate takes. It’s amazing to see how the arrangement builds. Wilson’s first two takes sound distinctly discordant, as though he has no real idea of what he’s doing. But don’t be fooled; as soon as Wilson adds the third layer, everything falls into place.
Written by Wilson with the help of his lyricist Tony Asher ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’, sees the speaker call for a quiet moment so that he can listen to the heartbeat of his lover. In the liner notes to the 1999 reissue of Pet Sounds, Asher observed: “It’s an interesting notion to sit down and try and write a lyric about not talking. That came out of one of those conversations where [Brian and I] were talking about dating experiences… I think at some point we were talking about how wonderful non-verbal communication can be between people.”
As this recording suggests, Brian Wilson is the only Beach Boy to perform on ‘Don’t Talk’. Wilson had started writing and recording the album while the other Beach Boys were performing in Japan and Hawaii in the January of ’66. Wilson, a nervous flyer, had decided to quit touring with the band and concentrate on recording new material. As a result, Pet Sounds is less a Beach Boys album than it is a Brian Wilson album recorded in The Beach Boys format.
Without his fellow musicians, Wilson was given immense creative freedom, taking inspiration from notorious ‘wall of sound’ producer Phil Spector to craft a series of densely-layered recordings drenched in reverb. However, it was Rubber Soul that had the most impact, helping Wilson to form Pet Sounds into one of the classic concept albums of the 1960s. Writing in his autobiography I Am Brian Wilson, the songwriter called The Beatles’ album “probably the greatest record ever…where everything flows together and everything works.”