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Goldmine; Feb. 22, 1996
One album had the musicians and live animals on the cover; the other had the musicians and slabs of raw meat on the cover. They were contemporaries, released within weeks of each other. By the same label, too: One's serial number was 2458, and the other's 2553.
And today, 30 years after The Beach Boys' ''Pet Sounds'' album became the unheralded jewel in the rock group's repertoire, its commercial fate appears to have been tied to The Beatles' "Yesterday and Today" American package, enough so to explain a series of otherwise brain-dead decisions by Capitol Records executives way back in June of 1966.
Sequence the events on Vine Street that June, and it becomes clear that, as much as The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" had inspired Brian Wilson to make "Pet Sounds," the snafu of "Yesterday and Today" caused Capitol employees to under-promote and otherwise undermine the album.
Filling in the dates and context requires several references, including Brian Wilson's 1991 autobiography, "Wouldn't It Be Nice;" Steve Gaines' "Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys;" Tom Schultheis' day-by-day Beatle diary, "The Beatles: A Day in the Life;" Joel Whitburn's various books compiling the Billboard magazine pop singles and albums charts, and the week-by-week chart listings in Harry Castleman and Walter J. Pdrazik's "All Together Now: The First Complete Beatles Discography, 1961-1975" and Brad Elliiott's "Surf's Up: The Beach Boys on Record, 1961-1981."
It was a curious, even a troubling time to be a white American popular musician recording for the teen or youth market -- and particularly a Southern Californian musician. For going on three years, the "British Invasion" led by The Beatles had dominated the pop consciousness with groups such as The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Zombies, The Dave Clark V and Herman's Hermits.
Just three weeks earlier, Phil Spector -- in Brian Wilson's mind the producer Wilson most directly competed with -- had released his over-the-top attempt at moving Ike and Tina Turner on to the pop charts, the single "River Deep Mountain High." It stalled at No. 88 on Billboard's Hot 100. Jan and Dean, the vocal duo so closely associated with Wilson's Beach Boys in crafting the Southern California Sound, had suddenly become unable to crack the Top 100 on Billboard's albums chart. Even Los Angeles's young turks, The Byrds, were having a hard time getting on the radio after a Southwest disc jockey started spreading the rumor that the group's spring single, "Eight Miles High," was a paean to drug use.
As the leader, songwriter, producer and bassist of The Beach Boys, Wilson had made some signficant changes in how rock records sounded. His knack for vocal harmonies and chord sequences had already transformed the image of "surf music" from staccato guitar over basic rhythm section to soaring falsetto over close-harmony vocals. The Four Freshman meet Chuck Berry.
But by the summer of 1966, artistic license in teen popular music came from Britain and was more frequently being stamped with ideas from Indian music and European classical music. The Beatles' "Rubber Soul," with its sitar solo on "Norwegian Wood" and its Bach-like harpsichord break on "In My Life," had inspired Wilson to make an album that was "all good songs." When he completed it, he learned Capitol had a double standard.
"Pet Sounds" was released in late May of 1966 without a concurrent single release, partly because Capitol included -- at Wilson's objection -- The Beach Boys' adaptation of the folk song "Sloop John B," which was in its fifth week on the Top 10 when the album was released. It took "Pet Sounds" four excruciating weeks to crack the Top 20 on June 18 -- the same week "Sloop John B" ended a 12-week run on the singles chart.
To Wilson, the former was a validation for his most personal album to date and one he had had to fight with Capitol executives, his fellow Beach Boys and his father to release. To the executives, the lack of a current hit single spelled doom for a down-beat song cycle about lost youth. At a weekly sales meeting, Wilson was told promotional efforts would be pulled away from "Pet Sounds" and that Capitol would release that fall "The Best of The Beach Boys," the first of more than a dozen collections over the years that repackaged hit singles from The Beach Boys' commercial peak years, 1962-1965.
As high-profile decisions go, this one has been vilified along the lines of John McNamara leaving Bill Buckner in at first base for the bottom of the 12th in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. Look at the what happened in hindsight, and you're bound to second guess: Why wasn't "Wouldn't It Be Nice" ready to go as a summer single? How can a company not be able to sell an album that has four charted singles ("Caroline No" at No. 38 and "God Only Knows" at No. 39 were the others)?
However, the "Pet Sounds"/"Best of the Beach Boys" decision wasn't made in a vacuum. The same week "Sloop John B" dropped off the charts, Capitol released and then quickly pulled from release a Beatles album that collected hit singles cuts with songs left off the group's previous two American albums. "Yesterday and Today" was pulled from release on June 16, the day after its official release, because of a "butcher cover" The Beatles supplied Capitol. That cover has been interpreted as a criticism of the American record company for its cut-and-paste "butchering" of the British Beatle albums -- which was, among other things, a slap at the Los Angeles office that came on the heels of John Lennon complaining that Capitol A&R man Dave Dexter was vandalizing the Beatle albums when he compressed the sound on the songs so they would sound better on pocket-sized transistor radios.
(This obviously stung; 15 years later the late Dexter wrote about it in a generally negative Lennon obituary for Billboard magazine. His article reportedly led to a brief record-industry advertising boycott against the trade magazine.)
As of 1966, The Beatles and The Beach Boys had combined to rescue a flagging Capitol Records' fortunes after the early '60s exodus of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. to Sinatra's Reprise label. Nat "King" Cole's death in 1965 and the decline in popularity of Jackie Gleason's mood music albums further isolated Capitol from the "adult" pop market.
The Kingston Trio had also been a popular act with both the youth and adult markets, and had seemed to maintain its popularity into 1964 despite banjo player Dave Guard's departure in 1961. But after the Beatles broke, its albums quit reaching the Top 10, and by 1965 the Trio had left the label.
Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki" was the only No. 1 single Capitol had in the '60s before "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The "teen" market was viewed as a singles market then, and although The Beach Boys and The Beatles had each established themselves as "album" groups, both groups had had as many as six albums each on the charts at one time in 1965. When "The Beach Boys' Party" dropped off May 14, 1966, after only 24 weeks on the chart (the previous four Beach Boys albums had spent 49, 62, 50 and 33 weeks respectively), the group was down to zero.
The Beach Boys hadn't been totally off the albums chart since April 27, 1963 -- the week before "Surfin' USA" first charted. As the album market started to grow during the mid-'60s, the group had more than kept up with that growth. "Surfin' USA" stayed on the charts for 78 weeks, dropping off during the summer of 1964 only to reappear on the low end at summer's end.
At that year's end, "Beach Boys Concert" would be the bestselling album during the holiday season -- although it was probably aided by the split sales between The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" soundtrack and the "Something New" album that included most of the soundtrack songs and a half dozen others in place of the George Martin instrumentals. "Beatles '65," culled from the British "Beatles for Sale" album, did not reach American stores in time to chart until the first week of 1965.
At any rate, throughout 1965 Capitol had from three to six Beatles albums on the chart and between two and four Beach Boys albums as well. This in addition to moderate success for albums by (roughly in order of success) Buck Owens, The Lettermen, Wayne Newton, Nancy Wilson, Peter and Gordon and Al Martino, not to mention a 51-week run for the original cast album to "Funny Girl."
Fast forward to 1966. Peter and Gordon's "Woman" album peaked at No. 60. Owens remained a popular country artist, but he would not match the crossover success of his 1965 album, "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail." Newton's "Red Roses for a Blue Lady" album had peaked at No. 17 in 1965. His "Summer Wind" would stall at No. 114.
"The Hit Sounds of The Lettermen" in 1965 was the highest charting album that harmony group had had since its 1962 debut, and it's safe to assume that the larger album market in 1965 meant that it actually outsold "A Song for Young Love." "Hit Sounds" included the biggest hit of The Lettermen's career, "(Theme from) a Summer Place." Neither of the group's first two albums of 1966 -- "A New Song for Young Love" or "More Hit Sounds of the Lettermen!" -- would crack the top 50. Capitol followed them with a greatest-hits package.
Nancy Wilson had had four Top 10 albums in 1964-65, but her first 1966 release, "From Broadway With Love," peaked at No. 44. Her three 1966 releases tended to stay on the charts for about the same time as her three 1965 releases, but with lower peaks.
Martino's "Spanish Eyes" would prove to be his bestselling album, but Capitol did not chart a single soundtrack album in 1966, and such cast albums as "The Great Waltz" (which peaked at No. 118), and "Skyscraper" (No. 128) had nowhere near the success of "Funny Girl," which owed more to the presence of Columbia artist Barbra Streisand than to institutional value the Capitol imprint had.
Meanwhile, when "Rubber Soul" dropped to No. 2 in the Feb. 19 Billboard after spending six weeks at No. 1, it actually under-performed the previous album, the American version of "Help!" that included seven songs and five soundtrack instrumentals, by three weeks.
From May 14 through that June sales meetings, The Beatles were down to two albums on the Billboard charts, the lowest level since the week before the Fab Four first performed on the "Ed Sullivan Show." The "Yesterday and Today" recall meant that it wouldn't chart until July 9, and the week before Billboard's Hot Albums included only "Rubber Soul."
What all this added up to was a bad, bad first quarter for Capitol, and every sign that the second quarter would be worse. Steve Gaines reports in his somewhat tabloidy Beach Boys biography, "Heroes and Villains," that Capitol started to prepare a "Best of The Beach Boys" package in the spring because of fears Wilson would not complete "Pet Sounds" in time for summer release.
So what happened? Someone panicked. Since the previous best-selling Beach Boys' album, "Concert," happened to have lots of hits on it, Capitol opted for the familiar rather than attempt to create more hits. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" wouldn't chart until the end of July, and by pairing it with "God Only Knows" as a double-sided single, Capitol pretty much assured itself of not having a fourth single to carry "Pet Sounds" into the fall.
Double-sided hits were still a big deal in 1966, not just because of the Beatles but also because of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which got airplay for both "A Taste of Honey" and "Third Man Theme" in the fall of '65, and "Zorba the Greek" and "Tijuana Taxi" at the beginning of '66.
Perversely, the release of a new single in October -- the masterful "Good Vibrations -- probably also had the unintended affect of pushing "Pet Sounds" further down the charts after it pulled back into the Top 30 in late September.
In retrospect, the "Pet Sounds" under-promotion rather than the 1967 "Smile" fiasco was the beginning of the end for The Beach Boys as America's No. 1 pop group. Art and commerce couldn't co-exist, and in hurting art, commerce also hurt itself.
But in retrospect, it's clear that Capitol's staff wasn't as evil as it was short-sighted. Modern album marketing didn't yet exist. No one really had much confidence that the emerging youth market had any demographic longevity.
With its inclusion of six single cuts and a title drawn from the group's "adult market" single, "Yesterday and Today" can be viewed as a hits album itself, joining 1966 summer hits packages for the American market only by The Rolling Stones ("High Tide and Green Grass") and the Animals ("Best of the Animals"). Remember: Capitol would also release a Lettermen "Best of" that summer.
So the sales and promotion folk -- who tended to look at a teen-music generation lasting from sophomore to senior year -- opted to cash in on the Beach Boys while they could.
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