By David M. Beard
Almost every discussion about Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys has to begin with “Pet Sounds,” the album that changed everything for the group. The impact of the release was immeasurable in Europe, particularly on Paul McCartney. When Bruce Johnston played the mono pressing of the album for Paul and bandmate John Lennon during Johnston’s promotional stint in London, the pair was amazed. The 16-month span that preceded the album’s release is one of rock legend.
Where it began: After suffering a nervous breakdown en route to a concert in Houston in December 1964, Wilson was through with touring. To fill in for Brian on the road, Wrecking Crew member Glen Campbell initially answered the call from December 1964 to May 1965. Then, Campbell left to pursue individual music endeavors. Johnston (Bruce & Terry, The Rip Chords, The Rogues) got the next call to assist with finding someone to replace Glen.
“I knew the guys, but knew Mike really well,” Johnston recalls, “and he called me to see if I knew of anyone who could sing in Brian’s style. I called several people and said, ‘Look, I’ll come down to New Orleans (April 9, 1965) for the weekend or whatever dates you have.’ That’s kind of how I first popped on stage with the band. I went back home and they called me and said, ‘Can you do some more?’ I wound up doing two weeks and Carl (Wilson) taught me the 17 or 18 songs that I needed to play on bass. I didn’t know how to play the bass, but I learned those songs quickly.”
Permanently joining the touring unit on May 19, 1965,* Johnston was welcomed into The Beach Boys’ world.
“When I came back (from the tour) I was invited to come to the vocal sessions that were the start of ‘Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!!)’ album,” Johnston says. “Brian loved to add textures, so I was considered another texture in his palette. The first sounds out of my mouth were the answers to the second lead in “California Girls.” I was shifting over to The Beach Boys and getting in a little deeper and deeper in the best possible way; it was kind of neat.”
With the release of “Summer Days” (July 5, 1965), Capitol Records was ready for the next Beach Boys’ album, which afforded Wilson little time for rest or creativity. To appease the request he knocked out the group’s next release, “Party!” [Nov. 8, 1965] in less than two months.
Wilson returned to the studio to begin work on the first tracking session for “Trombone Dixie”/“In My Childhood” on Nov. 1, 1965. “Childhood” developed into “You Still Believe In Me.” Although Brian was working at an accelerated pace, it wasn’t until “Rubber Soul” was released on Dec. 3, 1965, that he was able to crystallize his vision with “Pet Sounds.” It has been widely documented that Wilson was tripping on LSD when he first heard the album. The next morning, he would tell his wife that he “saw God.” No one knows what it is that Brian experienced that night, but his purpose became clear: to make an album better than “Rubber Soul.”
When asked about the sessions, Johnston said, “During the recording of ‘Pet Sounds’ I was truly amazed at what was going on in the studio. I was reacting emotionally, not to the songs, because we hadn’t sung them and we hadn’t heard the words. I was just listening to the incredible chord changes and the arrangements. On the ‘Pet Sounds Sessions’ box set, (November 1997) you can hear the leadership that Brian had in addition to the musical writing and arranging genius in terms of what he pulled out of everybody … He didn’t really write down the songs. He kind of scratched very cool and vague road maps and filled it in with his leadership.”
The Lennon-McCartney teaming was one of exclusivity, but Wilson would tend to work with outside writers in addition to hook-line artist and cousin Mike Love. For “Pet Sounds,” Brian expanded on his newest lyrical musings alongside ad exec Tony Asher.
This was news to Johnston: “I didn’t realize that it wouldn’t be Mike’s lyrics all the way through. It didn’t occur to me, because Tony Asher wasn’t really around much… I was used to seeing Brian getting these tracks going, and Mike would go out in the hallway and write something. He’d take a legal-size yellow pad and would go down the hallway and just start writing. He’d refine them in the studio while at the microphone. It was my experience in the studio during ‘Summer Days’ to watch Mike pop those lyrics out.
I didn’t expect him not to be writing on ‘Pet Sounds.’ He certainly didn’t push his way into the songs, but he had to draw a line with ‘Hang on to Your Ego’ with the lyrics because at that point, The Beach Boys’ image had never really been associated with drugs. ‘Hang on to Your Ego’ was what you don’t want to lose when you’re taking LSD. Mike just didn’t want to be a part of that and had to jump in and move the lyrics over to ‘I Know There’s An Answer’.”
The album’s last recording, a session for “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” was held on April 13, 1966. “Sloop John B,” recorded in July 1965, was not a consideration for the album until Capitol Records insisted upon its inclusion. When the album was finally mastered on April 16, 1966, it became abundantly clear to Brian and the group — in spite of what the label thought — that “Pet Sounds” was musically important.
Released on May 16, 1966, “Pet Sounds” quickly became the seminal collection by which all others were measured. Johnston immediately traveled overseas on a musical pilgrimage with a mono copy of “Pet Sounds” in hand.
Recalling his journey, he said, “When the album came out I took it to London and Derek Taylor set up a very nice suite for me in a hotel. My dear friend Kim Fowley lived in England, and he coordinated tons of interviews, and I was able to spread the word about ‘Pet Sounds.’ At the end of the week ... apparently Lou Adler brought a copy over and played it for Paul McCartney, and Keith Moon, who I’d been spending time with, brought Paul and John over to my hotel. I was able to play the album for McCartney and Lennon. Their reaction to the sweetness of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ can be heard in their ‘Revolver’ album with ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ You’ve got to understand it’s that messenger thing. It’s me bringing Brian’s great artwork over; it’s about Brian’s vision on ‘Pet Sounds.’
The following month — June 1966 — the effects of “Pet Sounds” could be heard on “Revolver” through the influences McCartney gleaned from the music. When David Leaf conducted a phone interview with Paul for the first CD release of “Pet Sounds” in 1990, he said, “It was ‘Pet Sounds’ that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much, I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life — I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album.”
Paul’s last nod to Brian appeared at the “tail end” of “Sgt. Pepper” in the form of a dog whistle. It is alleged that McCartney recorded it in tribute to Wilson’s dogs, Banana and Louie, who are heard barking during the coda of “Pet Sounds.”
*Historical note: When Johnston joined the Beach Boys he was still under contract with Columbia Records. His first appearance on a Beach Boys album – very small – is on the front (and back) of the “Party!” album in the “Fan Photo” montages; his second appearance was on the back of “Pet Sounds” where he and the group are on tour in Japan. It wasn’t until 1967’s “Wild Honey” album that he was free of his contract to appear on a cover. Unfortunately for Bruce, the cover ended up being the stained-glass window that resided in Brian’s home.