The Beach Boys


Thursday, June 18, 2015
Beach Boys “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” from Pet Sounds (1966 Capitol)


Much has been written about Pet Sounds in the nearly fifty years (!) since its release. Rolling Stone ranked it #2 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. What many people may not know, however, is that Brian Wilson originally wanted to give the track “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” another name: “Shut Your Pretty Little Stupid Mouth (And Show Me Some Affection),” but singer Mike Love put his foot down.

Okay, that’s probably not true, but it does occur to me that a feminist critique of Pet Sounds is an idea whose time has come, especially in light of how vaunted the album continues to be so many decades after its release. Seriously, I tend to operate under the assumption that if I can think something up, the internet has already taken care of it, but my own casual googling on this matter suggests that there is a graduate level dissertation just waiting on a silver platter for some enterprising young person.

The lyrics, which I’ve included below, are at first blush pretty innocent — let’s just spend this moment together silently, enjoying each other’s company, except, I don’t know, it isn’t phrased that way. It’s bossy. And given the context of every other Beach Boys song I’ve ever heard, I’m given to believe that its object is a woman. The idea, then, of a man telling a woman that he’s more interested in cuddling with her than listening to her, seems pretty fucked up:

I can hear so much in your sighs
And I can see so much in your eyes
There are words we both could say
But don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder
Come close, close your eyes and be still
Don’t talk, take my hand and let me hear your heart beat
Being here with you feels so right
We could live forever tonight lets not think about tomorrow
And don’t talk put your head on my shoulder
Come close, close your eyes and be still
Don’t talk, take my hand and listen to my heart beat
Listen, listen, listen
Don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder
Don’t talk, close your eyes and be still
Don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder
Don’t talk, close your eyes and be still
Don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder

Oh, but it was a different time, I can hear someone sighing, and I can hear so much in those sighs, mostly about how I should focus instead on the song’s “elegant pacing.” Okay. It’s a beautiful song. I have it on repeat right now, and have listened to it maybe a dozen times while siting here. Its placement on the album is smart, and the orchestration, like that of the rest of the album, is masterful, a product of the intersection of Wilson’s mental illness and penchant for LSD.

But is that enough? Maybe I wouldn’t be grinding this particular ax so hard about another album, but given Pet Sounds’ undeniable influence on American culture, I don’t mind being the grump in the corner prattling on about feminism. Far more insufferable pedants than I have ruined far lesser works than this.



Monday, September 29, 2014
The Beach Boys – “Sloop John B” from Pet Sounds (1966 Capitol Records)


This is the second song featured on the Shuffler to have been previously recorded by the Kingston Trio. While I expected the Shuffler to reveal hidden threads common within my music library, I did not expect the first of these revelatory threads to connect to the Kingston Trio.

Setting the Kingston Trio aside for a moment, this song is the most problematic song on Pet Sounds (an album so important that it has its own web site). Most problematic for me is that it is, at times, a brilliant song. It opens with a little phrase that features flute, glockenspiel, and some kind of driving percussion (that may or may not be handclaps). It’s a fascinating opening that gives way to the song itself, a study in the sort of layered, masterful instrumentation that makes Pet Sounds such a lush record. By the third verse, the layering is nearly complete, with some clever vocal layering as well. The progression of the song brings to mind the kind of work producer/murderer Phil Spector was doing with the Ronettes around the same time, though it lacks castanets.

But then, ultimately, this is an incredibly campy song, and while the Beach Boys almost rescue it, some of those falsettos, added to the innate campiness, only serve to increase the likelihood of homicide upon repeated listens. And then it just fades out, like, oh, hey, we don’t really know how to tie this up, so…

Wikipedia reports that recording the song was guitarist Al Jardine’s idea, met by bandmate/acid casualty Brian Wilson with a curt, “I’m not a big fan of the Kingston Trio.” If only that had been the final word.

The song itself, long before having been handled by the Beach Boys and the Kingston Trio, was originally called “The John B. Sails” and was a traditional folk song from Nassau, Bahamas, dating back to at least 1916. The Beach Boys would later further desecrate the Bahamas in their song “Kokomo,” declaring vapidly Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty Momma.