The Pet Sounds Sessions
Since birth I’ve been deaf in my left ear, which puts me at a considerable technical disadvantage when listening to records. Sometimes, to imagine what I’m missing, I’ll cover one eye. My sight is much the same, but I lose depth perception. Hearing works similarly, or so I’m told: when a sound originates to your left, your left ear picks up the waves before your right one, and your brain instantly locates the source. I might hear the same thing and be looking over my right shoulder for it. Stereo is something I understand more as an abstraction, standing at different points between two speakers, than as a palpable experience; for me, Revolver through headphones is only half a masterpiece. Yet I don’t believe my diminished capacity to hear music diminishes my capacity to respond to music–after all, plenty of people with two good ears go out every day and buy Michael Bolton records.
On their latest releases, two of the artists I’ve responded to most strongly over the years have fundamentally questioned the way a listener is supposed to interact with a record. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds Sessions, a four-CD box set, is an unprecedented dissection of one 36-minute album: besides a remastered version of the landmark Pet Sounds (1966) it includes 163 pages of interviews, photos, and press clips; demos and alternate versions; excerpts from the instrumental tracking sessions; a vocals-only mix that isolates the band’s regal five-part harmonies; and a cleverly engineered stereo mix of the only mono record to be consistently ranked among the greatest of all time. The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka is a four-CD set as well, but it contains just eight songs, each of which is split into four separate recordings. To hear the whole work, you have to play all four discs simultaneously. (For those short a CD player or three, the Empty Bottle hosts a listening party at 11 PM Monday.)
Both releases originate from an impulse to integrate the varied instrumental textures of orchestral music into rock ‘n’ roll without sacrificing rock’s simple power. But Pet Sounds is the precise and uncompromising vision of Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, who wanted to control not just the musicians’ interpretations but also the listener’s. Zaireeka, by its very design, is an imperfect collaboration between the musicians and the listener.
In his Kaleidoscope Eyes, which posits a broad definition of psychedelic music, Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis draws a comparison between Pet Sounds and the Flaming Lips’ Clouds Taste Metallic (1995). Lips singer and guitarist Wayne Coyne is no big fan of Pet Sounds, but since 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance he and his band mates have been reaching past the standard pop lineup of guitar, bass, and drums just as Wilson did when he quit touring with the Beach Boys to write, arrange, and produce their records. An influx of industry cash only exacerbated the Lips’ experimental tendencies: the liner notes to their 1992 Warner Brothers debut Hit to Death in the Future Head list 33 acoustic and electronic instruments, including piano, organ, strings, horns, chimes, timpani, tabla, congas, samplers, tape, and power tools. Zaireeka was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Dave Fridmann during sessions for another record (a single CD due out next year), using a 24-track machine, a hard drive that allowed them to store another 40 tracks, and two samplers that could hold up to 16 tracks each.
“It really concentrates on harmonies and density of sound,” Coyne says. “On ‘A Machine in India’ the middle section is about seven minutes long, and it has one part that’s a dense little horn section and string section, and another part that’s kind of a loose melody that plays against the song and the orchestra, and then the other one is these ambient sounds that hit randomly. Any one of those on their own is kind of boring. The elements that play against each other and with each other is what makes it interesting.”
In fact, of all the band’s recent albums play sweet pop hooks against unearthly noise, but with the four-CD format the Lips have found a way to bring the process of folding sounds together to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness. On “Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)” the first CD kicks in with a fully mixed track of drums, bass, piano, organ, timpani, synthesized strings and horns, and choral vocals. A lazy electric guitar calls from one disc and responds from another; a descending bass figure on one is picked up on another by what sounds like synthesized French horn and on yet another by synthesized flutes. Throughout the record vocal parts from each CD bleed onto the others, where they’re heavily treated with reverb or other effects. “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair” features an airplane engine that’s equalized differently on each CD, and “How Will We Know (Futuristic Crashendos)” sends extremely high and low frequencies at the listener from all over the place. In some cases the spine of the song–usually Coyne’s guitar and vocals–is isolated on one CD, but it’s never the same one. “Sometimes a track on one CD will seem like an ambient track,” says Coyne, “but it’s actually playing harmonies in different keys from what’s on another CD. It presents–I hate to say it–‘rock music’ in ways that you’re not used to hearing.”
When Brian Wilson produced Pet Sounds more than 30 years ago, “rock music” was still a lowbrow form of pop that most in the music industry hoped would die a quick death. Inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Wilson set out to produce an LP of fully orchestrated songs, including “Good Vibrations,” the “pocket symphony” that he completed later and issued as a separate single. Wilson and engineer Chuck Britz used a four-track analog machine to record a live assemblage of LA’s finest session players, whom they arranged strategically in a 15-by-32-foot room. One of the tracks recorded the whole room so Wilson could get a rough idea of the overall sound, and another was sometimes reserved for overdubs (usually strings), so Britz had to mix all the instruments down to two or three tracks. A mono mix of the finished product would later be transferred to another four- or eight-track machine before the Beach Boys overdubbed their vocals.
A typical lineup included a wide range of percussion, bass guitar and upright bass, two or three electric guitars, piano and organ, accordion, and as many as five saxophones; on occasion Wilson called for flute, trumpet, trombone, French horn, vibraphone, harpsichord, ukulele, theremin, or several of the above. And in contrast to the Zaireeka tracks, which were built up through trial and error over a period of five months, each of the elaborate backing tracks for Pet Sounds was arranged and recorded in a single session. Wilson would show up with a simple chord sheet and work out each player’s part with him until he got what he wanted.
In writing, arranging, producing, and performing on Pet Sounds–at the time an unprecedented feat in the record business–Wilson translated a deeply personal vision through a team of more than three dozen artists. The Making of Pet Sounds, the longer of two booklets in the box set, solicits comments from nearly everyone who worked on the album; in its pages Wilson emerges as a genial 23-year-old prodigy whose admiration for the professionals he’s working with never overwhelms his firm sense of what he wants to hear on his record.
“Oftentimes, we would spend the whole night on a 16-bar phrase and get it to exactly where he would like it,” remembers bassist Lyle Ritz. “Even though he had trouble communicating what he wanted, we had no leeway. We were cut no slack as far as the part we were to play. It was, ‘This is what I want.’ Nothing more or less.” Wilson was equally demanding when the Beach Boys assembled to record the complex harmonies. “He was a taskmaster and he didn’t tolerate fooling around,” recalls lyricist Tony Asher. “He was short-tempered with them when they couldn’t get it done the first time or get it right.”
Wilson’s hunger for control extended past the studio–all the way to the listener’s living room. Though stereo was an option at the time, Wilson continued to produce in mono, partly because he was deaf in his right ear but mostly because he didn’t like the idea of the listener being able to alter the playback. “A mono track was exactly what Brian wanted,” writes box set coproducer Mark Linett in the liner notes. Like his idol, Phil Spector, “Brian felt that making records in mono allowed the producer to present the record exactly as he wanted it heard without any interference from the listener’s stereo, which could be set up in many different ways that might affect the sound.”
The Brian Wilson who recorded Pet Sounds would have fainted at the idea of a record being split into parts for eight speakers. In a 1996 interview with Mix, he admitted, “I used to think that the people in the industry were the only ones with all the brains and the listeners were the stupid people that couldn’t make music, but could just hear it. It’s not so. I’ve learned, regardless of whether it’s the singer or the listener, it’s all music. Listeners are just as creative as the singer.”
Zaireeka is only the latest installment in the Flaming Lips’ campaign to prove this point. In the fall of 1996 Coyne collected 40 cars with cassette decks in a parking garage and gave each driver a different tape with music, sound effects, or both. At his signal, the drivers all started the tapes. The result was “a kind of mutated symphony where the musicians are just tape decks,” he writes in the liner notes to Zaireeka. Coyne wanted to stage a musical event without performers, to give listeners a chance “not just to go and witness an event but to be the event. Not just to experience the ‘show,’ but to have the ‘show’ and the audience participate in each other.”
What he got out of the deal was an education in “the possibilities of using separate sound sources to expand on the ideas of composing and listening.” This fall Coyne upped the ante with a “boom box symphony” at the CMJ festival in New York, gathering 135 fans with portable stereos; at another event this weekend, in the Lips’ native Oklahoma City, people with boom boxes will be divided into two sections, one playing a gaggle of intertwined melodies, the other a dense chord comprising 14 different recordings. Coyne and Lips drummer Steven Drozd will “conduct,” directing the audience to raise and lower their volumes as the music transmogrifies into the sounds of car crashes and ambulance sirens.
By turning the performance over to their listeners the Lips are drawing a fine line between music and chaos, making Zaireeka the polar opposite of the original Pet Sounds. Wilson has often said that he wanted his magnum opus to communicate spiritual love (the Beach Boys held regular prayer sessions in the studio), and given the nature of the music, he obviously equated divinity with order. Despite its many instruments and voices, Pet Sounds maintains an extreme–some might say excessive–neatness. Many of the session players interviewed for The Making of Pet Sounds marvel at Wilson’s ability to hear the entire arrangement in his head even as he created their parts from scratch. Brian’s brother Carl recalls that “if out of a whole studio of musicians…there would be one little thing happening wrong in the arrangement, he would stop it immediately….A lot of people said, ‘It sure sounded good to me.’ To us, it did sound incredible; it was easy to get lost in it. But if one of his ‘little children’ wasn’t in line, he heard it right away.”
“If God hears all our questions / Well how come there’s never an answer?” Wayne Coyne sings on Clouds Taste Metallic, and as you might guess, cleanliness isn’t next to godliness in his book. But since Priest Driven Ambulance Coyne’s obsession with Jesus has developed from psychedelic shtick into genuine soul-searching, and with Zaireeka the Lips leave the fate of their music to greater forces. Despite their fancy digital displays, CD players will not remain perfectly synchronized; the first time I listened to the four CDs, they fell in and out of sync regardless of how carefully the start times were coordinated, creating weird echoes, phase shifts, and syncopations. For Coyne, that randomness is part of the record’s charm. “I wanted to make songs that were different every time you played them,” he writes, “music that would be unfamiliar even after a thousand listens.” The album’s title is a word he coined from Zaire, which he associates with chaos because of its political anarchy, and eureka, which connotes sudden insight emerging from confusion: “A kind of anarchy meets inspiration, or maybe a mess with a purpose,” Coyne explains.
Strangely, both Zaireeka and Pet Sounds end with dogs barking. Wilson brought his dogs, Banana and Louie, into the studio and dubbed their yelps over the sound of a passing freight train. As well as making an aural pun on the album title, it provides a lonely coda to the ballad “Caroline, No.” The last song on Zaireeka, “The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now,” begins with Coyne telling how his dogs adopted a stuffed animal as their baby but then destroyed it after they found a plastic insect they liked better. The song breaks into a rousing chorus of “The big ol’ bug is the new baby now” before fading into a mass of snarling, barking canines. In both cases we’re reminded that dogs can pick up frequencies people can’t–and that sound, like other forces of nature, can never be completely controlled, no matter how well you can hear.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers; Beach Boys uncredited photo; Flaming Lips photo by Chris Johnson.