Pet Sounds: Beach Boys
The Beach Boys released their 11th album “Pet Sounds” on May 16, 1966. At first it met a lukewarm critical and commercial reception in the United States, but received immediate success abroad, where British publications declared it “the most progressive pop album ever”. It charted at number two in the UK but only hit number ten in the US, a significantly lower placement than the band’s preceding albums.
The July 1964 release of the Beach Boys’ sixth album All Summer Long marked an end to the group’s beach-themed period. From there on, their recorded material took a significantly different stylistic and lyrical path. While on a December 23 flight from Los Angeles to Houston, the band’s songwriter and producer Brian Wilson suffered a panic attack only hours after performing with the group on the musical variety series Shindig! The 22-year-old Wilson had already skipped several concert tours by then, but the airplane episode proved devastating to his psyche. In order to focus his efforts on writing and recording, Wilson indefinitely resigned from live performances. Freed from the burden, he immediately showcased great artistic leaps in his musical development evident within the albums Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), released in the first half of 1965. With the July 1965 single “California Girls“, Wilson began experimenting with song composition while under the influence of psychedelic drugs, a factor that yielded a great effect on the group’s musical conceptions
For Pet Sounds, Wilson desired to make “a complete statement”, similar to what he believed the Beatles had done with their newest album Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. Wilson was immediately enamored with the album, given the impression that it had no filler tracks, a feature that was mostly unheard of at a time when 45 rpm singles were considered more noteworthy than full-length LPs. Many albums up until the mid-1960s lacked a cohesive artistic goal and were largely used to sell singles at a higher price point. Wilson found that Rubber Soul subverted this by having a wholly consistent thread of music. Inspired, he rushed to his wife and proclaimed, “Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!” He would say of his reaction to Rubber Soul: “I liked the way it all went together, the way it was all one thing. It was a challenge to me … It didn’t make me want to copy them but to be as good as them. I didn’t want to do the same kind of music, but on the same level.”
The album was produced and arranged by Brian Wilson, who also wrote and composed almost all of its music. Most of the recording sessions were conducted between January and April 1966, a year after he had quit touring with the Beach Boys in order to focus more attention on writing and recording. For Pet Sounds, Wilson’s goal was to create “the greatest rock album ever made” — a personalized work with no filler tracks. It is sometimes considered a Wilson solo album, repeating the themes and ideas he had introduced with The Beach Boys Today! one year earlier. The album’s lead single, “Caroline, No“, was issued as his official solo debut. It was followed by two singles credited to the group: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (backed with “God Only Knows“) and “Sloop John B“.
Collaborating with lyricist Tony Asher, Wilson’s symphonic arrangements wove elaborate layers of vocal harmonies, coupled with sound effects and unusual instruments such as bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, Electro-Theremin, trains, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments, Coca-Cola cans, and barking dogs, along with the more usual keyboards and guitars. Unified by Wall of Sound-style production techniques, the album comprised Wilson’s “pet sounds”, consisting mainly of introspective songs like “You Still Believe in Me“, about faithfulness, “I Know There’s an Answer“, a critique of LSD users, and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times“, an autobiographical statement on social alienation (as well as the first use of a theremin-like instrument on a rock record). Recording was completed on April 13, 1966, with an unprecedented total production cost that exceeded $70,000 (equivalent to $520,000 in 2016). A follow-up album, Smile, was immediately planned, but left unfinished. In 1997, a “making-of” version of Pet Sounds was supervised by Wilson and released as The Pet Sounds Sessions, containing the album’s first true stereo mix.
It took some time but the album garnered enormous worldwide acclaim by critics and musicians alike, and is regarded as one of the most influential pieces in the history of popular music. One of the first big fans of the LP was Paul McCartney who has said many times how much he liked the album, citing “God Only Knows” as his favorite song of all-time. He acknowledged that it was the primary impetus for The Beatles’ 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Happy 51st Birthday to one of the most influential ablums in the history of Rock and Roll, “Pet Sounds”!!