The Magic of the Beach Boys’ Harmonies: Hear Isolated Vocals from “Sloop John B.,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” & Other Pet Sounds Classics

Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to the Smith­son­ian.
                        —Bob Dylan on Bri­an Wil­son

The Beach Boys tar­nished their rep­u­ta­tion when they reformed in lat­er years and tried to “reclaim their whole­some­ness,” Dan Caf­frey writes at Con­se­quence of Sound, “only to find that it had all but dis­ap­peared.” But in the days when they sound­ed like the most whole­some thing on earth, they also had the dis­tinct advan­tage of sound­ing seri­ous­ly weird: “Weird­er than Waits, weird­er than Zap­pa, and def­i­nite­ly weird­er than the Bea­t­les. The immac­u­late vocal har­mo­ny that made them famous was their weird­est weapon of all; a sun­ny fortress of eupho­ny that shone through the dark­est of times and strangest of lyrics in their lat­ter days.”

The phe­nom­e­non could emerge “only out of the fer­ment that char­ac­ter­izes today’s pop music scene,” said Leonard Bern­stein when he heard “Surf’s Up.” Despite the sur­face-lev­el corni­ness, there were “real­ly deep, pro­found emo­tions” in the band’s music, emo­tions “that came out of a lot of pain,” Lin­da Ron­stadt remarked.

The full depths of Pet Sounds may nev­er be plumbed, yet one can also put it on and imme­di­ate­ly feel the SoCal sun­shine hit them square­ly in the face. Only a genius like Bri­an Wil­son could turn surf pop into clas­si­cal com­po­si­tion, with­out com­pro­mis­ing the sim­ple emo­tions of pop or the pro­fun­di­ty of a clas­si­cal arrange­ment. (“I fig­ure no one is edu­cat­ed musi­cal­ly ’til they’ve heard ‘Pet Sounds,’ ” says Paul McCart­ney.)

And only the Beach Boys as a group could pull off those har­monies. The rest of the band may not have quite grasped what their quixot­ic leader was up to. (Mike Love once famous­ly com­plained, “Who’s gonna hear this shit? The ears of a dog?”) But they knew how to sing togeth­er like no one else before or since. (When David Cros­by heard “In My Room,” he says, “I thought, ‘I give up–I can’t do that–I’ll nev­er be able to do that.’”) They were so good, they could pull off gor­geous a‑capella pas­sages like those in “Sloop John B,” Pet Sounds’ lead sin­gle. Hear it at the top in a full iso­lat­ed vocal ver­sion.

A tra­di­tion­al folk song that orig­i­nat­ed in the Bahamas and was record­ed in the six­ties by every­one from John­ny Cash to Lon­nie Done­gan to the Kingston Trio, the arrang­ing of the song took only 24 hours, Al Jar­dine remem­bers, from the time he brought it to Wil­son as a pos­si­ble cov­er to the time Wil­son com­plet­ed his ver­sion of the track. The vocals were anoth­er mat­ter. Jar­dine assumed he would sing lead, but Wil­son had a process:

It was like inter­view­ing for a job. Pret­ty fun­ny. He didn’t like any of us. My vocal had a much more mel­low approach because I was bring­ing it from the folk idiom. For the radio, we need­ed a more rock approach. Bri­an and Mike end­ed up singing it.

Those demand­ing vocal record­ing ses­sions, Jar­dine wrote in the Pet Sounds lin­er notes, could last 12–15 hours a day. The end results are an espe­cial­ly impres­sive feat con­sid­er­ing that the back­ing vocals were all record­ed at once, with no over­dub­bing or any of the dig­i­tal stu­dio wiz­ardry used today to nudge stray voic­es into the right pitch and rhythm:

At the vocal ses­sions, there was so much good ten­sion. At any one time, you would have four out of five of us get our parts just fine, and there would be one who would screw up. But it would­n’t be the same per­son each time. Then the next take, he would get it right, but some­body else would get it wrong. Kind of like the chaos the­o­ry at work. The more peo­ple you have in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, the more chance there is for error. Then, there would be the mag­ic moment when it all came togeth­er, and then you had your take.

Just below, hear Pet Sounds’ sad­dest song, “Car­o­line, No,” in a vocal take fea­tur­ing only Wil­son. He thought of it as “prob­a­bly the best [song] I’ve ever writ­ten… a pret­ty love song about how this guy and this girl lost it and there’s no way to get it back. I just felt sad, so I wrote a sad song.” It’s also a song, for all its melan­choly, born from the sense of inno­cent long­ing the band brought to all their music in their prime, con­veyed in har­monies that would nev­er shine as bright­ly for any oth­er band at any oth­er time. Hear more of the Beach Boys, a‑cappella, in the YouTube playlist here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How the Beach Boys Cre­at­ed Their Pop Mas­ter­pieces: “Good Vibra­tions,” Pet Sounds, and More

The Beach Boys’ Bri­an Wil­son & Bea­t­les Pro­duc­er George Mar­tin Break Down “God Only Knows,” the “Great­est Song Ever Writ­ten”

The Mak­ing (and Remak­ing) of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Arguably the Great­est Rock Album of All Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Rick Blanton says:

    In 1965 I bought a 45 of the Beach boys song 409 at a garage sale. I had heard of the Beach boys but I was­n’t real famil­iar with there music as my par­ents were coun­try and gospel fans. That’s all we lis­ten to. I was 10 years old. I put the record on my lit­tle turntable turned up the sound and played the record. Only to be inter­rupt­ed by my moth­er who scremed turn that garbage down. I’ve been hooked on the Beach boys since. I still love there melodies. Rick B.

  • Burgués hugo says:

    Para mí el mejor grupo del mundo.Lo des­cubrí estando de gira por Europa en 1966.En Roma com­pré “Pet Sounds“y des­de entonces son mis preferidos.Saludos y sigo todo lo que ten­ga que ver con “The Beach Boya.

  • Lesley Charlton says:

    Hi I used to col­lect every record the beach boys ever made, peo­ple used to say I was sil­ly doing this. But I have got the orig­i­nal pet sounds album my first con­cert was the beach boys. Am think­ing of going to Scar­bor­ough to see the beach boys con­cert shame they are not com­ing to Birm­ing­ham. Would love to see them again byes been to all their con­cert’s as well. Love them their music that sounds the harmony.lesley x

  • Anthony McGhee says:

    I grew up on the sound of the Beach Boys, I bought records when I was old enough to afford to. They’ll nev­er be sur­passed. They’ve influ­enced lots of bands who came lat­er. I was lucky enough to see the Bri­an Wil­son band tour cel­e­brat­ing the 50th anniver­sary of Pet Sounds 5 years ago, what a mem­o­rable night! Tony 🎸👍

  • John Palfreyman says:

    As Wil­son on many occa­sions has said…the har­monies were tak­en from the music of a jazz har­mo­ny group called the Four Fresh­men.
    Who by the way after many changes in per­son­nel still
    tour and per­form to across the USA and abroad

  • JW says:

    When I was a kid in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the 1970s and 1980s, The Beach Boys were corny, and none of my friends took them seri­ous­ly. Sure, we’d dance to them and holler out “LA JOLLA” when they got to that part of “Surfin’ USA” but we did­n’t LISTEN to them. No one I knew (in my age group) would have said, “I love The Beach Boys” any more than we might have loved Son­ny & Cher or the Osmonds. Corny old stuff.

    But I had an ear­ly morn­ing paper route for a few years start­ing when I was twelve years old. I would get up at 5:00am and fold the papers, put them in the bag on my bike, and ride up and down the hills to deliv­er them to the hous­es. On cold, rainy days, alone in the dark while the rest of the world was sleep­ing, I would turn on End­less Sum­mer and lis­ten over and over and over. I’ve prob­a­bly heard that album 500 times. I am sure I know every word of every song.

    Lat­er I went through a Pet Sounds phase, in part based on the praise heaped on it by oth­er musi­cians. I had most­ly skipped it when I was a kid, but decid­ed to give it a try. I liked it, though it feels over­pro­duced com­pared with the stuff on End­less Sum­mer.

    I doubt I’ve actu­al­ly lis­tened to End­less Sum­mer since 1988. Maybe it’s time to give it a spin. It’s a cloudy day, feel­ing qui­et and intro­spec­tive and nos­tal­gic: per­fect.

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