Monday, November 17, 2014

Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper

I recently resigned from my job at the airport, having decided it was time to return to civilian life. To further the effort to “come clean,” I shaved off my facial hair; maybe now I won’t look like a “terrorist” or a bum—things that airport security and police apparently “mistook” me for on a frequent basis. To further the make-over, I wiped off all of that Top-40 music off my mp3 player and replaced it with Albinoni, Bach, Beethoven, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Rossini, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. It is not as phony as it seems; I’ve been listening to “classical” music for over 30 years, and given the fact that much of the pop music I like best had “classical” production pretensions (particularly in the 1970s), it is not so incongruous with my listening preferences.

Nevertheless, when it comes right down to it, I’m still a “pop” music devotee, and it has its own classification of “classic.” I have to admit that while I am a great admirer of the Beatles’ music, their supposed “seminal” recording, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is perhaps my least favorite Beatles album.  Yes, John Lennon’s two significant contributions, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life” are stand out numbers (although I hardly agree with the recent Rolling Stone magazine special edition that claims that the latter is the Beatles’ “greatest” song).  

But most of the rest of the songs—especially Paul McCartney’s—merely seem to be cutesy vehicles upon which to play cutesy sonic games, everything and the kitchen sink experiments; this is a collection of songs whose quality falls far short as a collective whole than previous efforts like Rubber Soul, Revolver or even Help!. I can only cringe when I hear songs like “When I’m 64,” “Lovely Rita,” “Fixing a Hole” and “Good Morning Good Morning.” I snicker when I hear the line “Fun is the only thing money can’t buy” in “She’s Leaving Home”—one of the dumbest sentiments I’ve ever heard in a song. 

Since I am told that this is the greatest rock album of all time, I forced myself to listen to it again and try to ascertain why people believe this (or at least why the critics do, if only based on its “reputation”). If all the songs were simply tight and tuneful, it might be different; but since they are not, the instrumental experimentation just sounds forced and contrived. This isn’t Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, whose banal, pompous lyricism are rendered ethereal by being suspended in a mesmerizing haze that is just as “experimental”—but more “tight”—sonically. 

Now, while I like most—but not all—of their hits, I’m not a great fan of the Beach Boys. However, their seminal recording—Pet Sounds—is without doubt a “classic” album, and one I enjoy a great deal more that Sgt. Pepper. Although  it was said to have “inspired” the Beatles to record Sgt. Pepper, it was only modestly regarded by critics and public at the time, although since its status has been elevated to mythical levels as one of the rock era’s greatest  albums of all-time.  I think part of the reason that I hadn’t take Pet as “seriously” as Sgt. Pepper is that it sounded less “substantial” in the original mono. But the recent reissue in true stereo brings out the intricacies of the production of Pet Sounds. Does this mean that I think that Pet is the greater recording, in my humble opinion?'

Yes. Of course we might be having a completely different conversation if we included Beatles albums that I think are much better than Sgt. Pepper—like Rubber Soul, the “White” album and Abbey Road—but we’re not.

Admittedly as middling as I think the majority of the songs on Sgt. Pepper are, that doesn’t mean they don’t stand out by themselves; frankly, even a bad song tends to stick in the mind (especially to make fun of later). On the other hand, Pet Sounds only has a few really “stand out” songs, like the hits “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “Caroline No” and “God Only Knows.” The rest just seem to float on by, practically an afterthought as soon as the song is over, but not because they are “bad” songs—quite the contrary—but because they seem to merge from one song to the other so seamlessly, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and Let’s Get it On have a similar effect on me, yet these are acknowledged soul classics. The songs on Pet are not “happy” songs like Sgt. Pepper’s, but leave one with a general feeling of sorrow and recognition of the impermanence of life and love. It is more “meaningful.”

Unlike Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds is a record that I can listen to and not once feel the desire to skip a song or two. Being someone who prefers the singles medium, that must mean something. Also unlike Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds actually does sound like an album that was conceived and executed as a sonic symphony from start to finish. Pet is much denser musically (more than 60 studio musicians contributed to it) than Sgt. Pepper, whose sound is more defined by goofy use of tape loops and “sound effects” of anything handy, such as tissue paper. Brian Wilson’s appreciation of music was also in evidence by the instrumental “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” which—as the title suggests—carries the listener away in a free floating daydream, although it ends far too abruptly for me. 

Unfortunately for the Beach Boys, this album and the single “Good Vibrations” was the last gasp of relevance for the group, after which Wilson seemed to disappear from the scene, and often lampooned as some sort of kook. I remember a Saturday Night Live skit in which a couple of cast members actually broke into his beachside bungalow (apparently with his foreknowledge), rousted the well overweight Wilson out of bed and coaxed him onto the beach to go surfing. 

Still, in my opinion Sgt. Pepper’s reputation rests on how the album’s last song—“A Day in the Life”—lingers so strongly in the mind. It fools people into thinking the rest of the album was as “great” too, which is simply not the case. On the other hand, Pet’s ethereal “flow” from one song to the next fools people into thinking that the songs are not artistically “substantial,” yet this is hardly a useful argument when explaining popular music. And even McCartney would say that “God Only Knows”—a number two hit in Britain—was supposedly his “favorite” pop song of “all time.”

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