Big Sound Saturdays: Sonic Zoo pt. 1

When the Beach Boys recorded the dense, meticulous, and perpetually indefinable Pet Sounds in the period between July of 1965 and April of 1966, recording technicians captured front man and musical ingénue Brian Wilson asking studio engineer Chuck Britz to add to the dog-whistles, organs, double-cellos, and coca-cola cans, a horse:

“Hey, Chuck, is it possible we can bring a horse in here without…if we don’t screw everything up?…Honest to God, now, the horse is tame and everything!”

Brian Wilson’s startling request is set, amongst other surviving clips from the now colloquially-named “Dog Barking Sessions,” to the tune of his two dogs, Banana and Louie, barking excitedly. His request didn’t make the cut on Pet Sounds, but the same two dogs did make it onto the end of “Caroline, No,” one of two singles released before the album itself.

Incorporating the incidental aura of his soundscape into his music is par for the course in Brian Wilson’s oeuvre, but the dogs themselves are specific for their expert ears—lyricist, singer, and Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love, in fact, was said to call Wilson “dog-ears” for their shocking sensitivity. We might consider, with this relationship of happy accident in mind, what the relationship between our “pets” and our “sounds” actually is.

Animals have been imitated in musical compositions for years. I think immediately of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals from 1886, though I’m sure that in vaudeville, minstrelsy, and other popular entertainments, the tradition is much older. Catalyzed at least in part by John Cage’s “4’33” (four minutes and thirty-three seconds of any combination of instruments resting, silent, while the intended audience listens to the ambient noise of their surroundings), the inclusion of animal sounds in rock and roll might similarly serve to blur the distinction between art and the everyday, drawing attention to the textured sounds of the recording environment.

It might also, a la Donna Haraway, query the foundational relationship between human and animal. Since A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway has expanded her conversation about the intersection of human and technology in this, our technofuture, to one that considers our inter-species relationship with dogs. Understanding our relationship to dogs, for Haraway, helps us to understand our ethical relationship to our natural environment. How, then, do we listen to, and hear, this nature, and how does it talk back?

Obviously, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ rapturous “Alligator Wine” isn’t an intentional contribution to zoomusicology (an entire discipline about inter-species musical collaboration!). The endless stream of musical innuendo—rep’d here most overtly by Hasil Adkins’ nasty proto-punk “Chicken Walk” (an innuendo I started to explore in C-H-I-C-K-E-N, Vol. 1), PJ Harvey’s “Snake,” and the Cramps’ “Swing the Big Eyed Rabbit”—is similarly irreverent. Still, the sheer breadth of songs about animals does point to our fascination with animal soundings and symbologies. What is that freaky, low-down “Camel Walk”? What makes the “Milk Cow Blues,” recorded live, here, by the Kinks for their BBC Sessions in 1965, so persistently coverable? How amazing is it that Bikini Kill wrote a song about female self-sufficiency called “Star Fish”?

I’m very into all the tunes on this, the first volume of Sonic Zoo. It’s a loud, weirdo Noah’s Ark, and each song treats its animals differently. Come for Moondog, Daniel Johnston, King Kahn & BBQ and Fred Neil, leave with the dogs, cats, star fish, regular fish, cow, chicken, rabbit, camel, alligator, snake, rat, duck, dolphin. All with Wayne Coyne signing us off: “I thought I’d free the animals all locked up at the zoo.” An ongoing series of animals unchained! 

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