Nearly fifty years ago, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys set out to change music. Tired of being known for sugary surf rock that glorified surfing, cute girls, and fast cars, Wilson yearned to evolve as musician past any point an artist had gone before. He didn’t feel like it was something he wanted to do; he felt it was something he needed to do. Influenced by one of the biggest rock bands of all time, the greatest producer of that era, and the most mind-altering drug still known to man, Brian Wilson crafted an album that redefined what was possible in the world of popular music. Though Pet Sounds was initially a commercial and critical disaster when released in 1966, the album has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and is preserved in the Library of Congress. In honor of its 50th year, a deluxe reissue was released commemorating the album, and Wilson is currently on tour performing record, in its entirety. In honor its lasting impact on popular music, we’re taking a look back at the album that changed the Beach Boys forever, and ultimately led to their demise.
In order to understand how Pet Sounds was created, you have to understand what was going on with 22 year-old Brian Wilson. In late 1964, the musician had stopped touring with the Beach Boys due to the overwhelming anxiety and stress it caused. The decision proved healthy for Wilson, and both his mental state and songwriting improved. His writing was even further enhanced after he begun taking LSD while composing; a decision that would later prove monumental for the album, and devastating to Wilson’s mental health.
The true creative spark behind Pet Sounds came to Wilson after listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul in late 1965. He became elated by the album’s total lack of “filler music”; songs of lesser quality that were thrown on an album to bolster its more popular singles. Wilson had grown tired of the cheap industry practice and wanted to make an album where every song was a hit. He was also mesmerized by Rubber Soul’s use of the now-famous “Wall of Sound” production technique, developed by trailblazing producer, Phil Spector. Wall of Sound utilized various unorthodox instruments and sounds (vibraphone, ukulele, dog barks, coke cans), blended together to create a totally new sound. Wilson later stated that his goal was not to outdo the Beatles or Spector, but to borrow those techniques to enhance the original, innovative songs that he was writing at the time.
In order to create music unlike anything anyone had heard before, Wilson decided that he needed to work with someone he had never collaborated with before. While Al Jardin, Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, and Dennis Wilson were touring the world, Brian teamed up with a former jingle writer named Tony Asher, whom he had met at an LA recording studio. Wilson remained the key composer and lyricist for their songs, but Asher’s opinions and suggestions during Wilson’s creative process proved to be vital. Wilson has claimed that Asher’s love of classic ballads and “deeper” music inspired him to think about a style of music he hadn’t considered before.
The songs crafted by Wilson and Asher strayed light-years from the material that had made the Beach Boys an international sensation. Slow, symphonic tracks like “I’m Waiting For The Day” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” express Wilson’s melancholy yearning for acceptance, and his fear of loneliness. Even some of the more upbeat songs on the album express dissatisfaction with the world at large. A longing for things to get better during an era that saw the worst of the Vietnam War and the struggle of the Civil Rights movement. Amidst the tinkling bells and soft crooning of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and the upbeat Caribbean tempo of “Sloop John B” lies a heartsick wishing for better circumstances.
However, countering the sorrowful lyrics was a sort of glittering optimism of the music itself. While the tempo is much slower and sporadic than what the Beach Boys are known for, the Wall of Sound technique Wilson used lends the music a symphonic, almost angelic quality (inspired by his consumption of LSD). Tinkling bells, mandolin, accordion, chimes, and, of course, the layered harmonies of the group’s vocals create an ethereal sound that consumes the listener. Many of the songs deal with Wilson’s displeasure with the world around him, but each contains hope for a better future (You know it seems the more we talk about it/It only makes it worse to live without it/But let’s talk about it).
When the rest of the band first saw some of the songs Wilson had created in their absence, the group became divided in their opinions. While Carl and Bruce quickly approved of the album, Al, Dennis, and Mike were initially confused and disdainful of the new direction. Mike Love in particular not only objected to Wilson’s use of drugs during songwriting, but also objected to the few drug references hidden in the album’s lyrics. In the end, with very few compromises from Wilson, the group temporarily acquiesced to Wilson’s musical vision. Nobody in the band could’ve predicted that this disagreement would eventually contribute to the destruction of the band nearly two decades later.
The result was a genre-defying album that some have called the very first concept album; if not thematically, then certainly in terms of production. Unfortunately, just as Wilson had feared, the album went generally unnoticed by the public. Critics picked apart the album, singling out one or two songs that they felt stood out from the rest, contrary to Wilson’s intention. Favorable reviews seemed to come based solely on the band’s popularity. Even the label, Capitol Records, failed to adequately promote the album, and quickly released a “best of” compilation that essentially swept Pet Sounds under the rug. Wilson became dejected over the lack of interest, taking its failure extremely personally.
In the UK, however, the album became a huge success. Thanks to reinforcement by the British recording industry — as well as promotion by famous fans of the album, like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Keith Moon — English listeners fully embraced Wilson’s bold vision and gave him the validation he had so desperately craved. Of course, much later, American listeners came to appreciate the project that had seemed too complex to them at the time. Today, Pet Sounds tops lists of the greatest albums of all time, and critics continue to praise Wilson’s innovativeness. The album is often cited as the origin of concept albums as well as rock art, and is credited for helping abolish the formulaic composition of pop music and major label albums. Brian Wilson proved that a successful pop musician could take risks, try something unheard of, and still succeed. Wilson is currently on tour with Al Jardin and former Beach Boys’ guitarist Blondie Chapman to promote the album’s 50th Anniversary, but get tickets while you can; Wilson says this is the last time the entire album will be performed live.