When Robert Dimery put together his book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, he did a commendable job of summarising the most landmark albums in a wide variety of genres from the 1950s through the 2000s. The concept of his book was a simple and yet ingenious one, dauntingly comprehensive and yet accessibly casual; a gateway drug into the world of music nerd lore. Yet perhaps the curious would-be rock listener has far simpler needs for their first foray into the most iconic, diverse, and original genre of the mid-20th century. Perhaps they could make do with a single album, influential enough to stand representative of countless other records while creatively so inspired it dwarfs anything it is set alongside. Pet Sounds is the only album destined for such a task, as the record that inspired The Beatles’ best work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while standing on its own as consistent and inspired an album that has ever been made. This month, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this iconic record’s release with a retrospective look at what makes Pet Sounds so remarkable.
The legacy of Pet Sounds is essentially the legacy of Brian Wilson. It is in fact a Wilson solo album in all but name, recorded after he quit touring with the band following a severe panic attack in 1964. Confined to relative isolation in his studio, Wilson worked on Pet Sounds away from the other members of his band, considering the songs in their infancy to belong to a possible solo project. When the other members returned from weeks of touring in Japan and Hawaii without their bandleader, Wilson had already recorded a substantial amount of new material requiring little input from them. To make matters worse, Mike Love and the other musicians in the group weren’t receptive to the new sound Wilson was pioneering, citing the record’s unusual lyrics and stylistic departures from surf rock conventionality.
Brian had been a quiet and creative child, musically inclined from his earliest years, though he suffered from strong partial deafness in his right ear. A high school quarterback and cross country runner, Wilson balanced his sporting endeavors with dedicated musical practice at home. "By singing along to [records by The Four Freshmen] that's how I learned how to sing falsetto. I would sing along to songs like I'm Always Chasing Rainbows, I'll Remember April, and Day by Day," Wilson recounted in 2013. "When I wrote Surfer Girl I liked it so much that I said that I'm gonna keep on writing songs." And so it was that Wilson cobbled together a band from friends and family members, who during the early '60s saw tremendous success with their brand of fresh-face surf-themed party rock. Wilson's panic attack in '64 had tremendous repercussions, effectively putting an end to the first period of The Beach Boys' career while bringing about a fragile emotional state that would engender Wilson's most enduring work.
Between the albums that marked the end of The Beach Boys’ all-American surfer beginnings and the infamous Pet Sounds recording sessions, Wilson experimented with psychoactive drugs for the first time in his life. Following the fateful panic attack that kept him from touring with his group, a close friend of Wilson hesitantly exposed him to marijuana and LSD in early ’65, heavily influencing the change of direction first heard on that year’s California Girls single. The introduction of these substances to Wilson’s life would prove to be both a blessing and a curse, opening creative directions to Brian Wilson the artist while acting as a catalyst for the severe mental health problems that have dogged Brian Wilson the man ever since.
Inspired and revitalised by The Beatles’ classic genre-bending opus Rubber Soul, Wilson set out to make an album of similar form - that is to say, devoid of filler tracks. It had been the fashion of earlier rock records to pad albums with filler tracks while emphasising only a few choice singles, a byproduct of the prolific amount of output and concisely-marketable style demanded of groups by their record labels. Rubber Soul proved that such label-led idiocy was unnecessary in the creation of an album that expertly balanced commercial viability with artistic freedom. Wilson would later say: “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.”
Wilson experimented with combinations of the Liverpool foursome’s artistic freedom with the studio techniques he gleaned from Phil Spector, specifically the infamous producer’s Wall of Sound technique. An integral part of that process involved the layering of many different instruments upon one another, as well as recording repeated overdubs of unique parts, all with the intention of creating a pleasing sonic saturation that would convey more force and immediacy than the recording techniques prevalent at the time. Of Spector’s influence, Wilson would remark: “In the '40s and '50s, arrangements were considered 'OK here, listen to that French horn' or 'listen to this string section now.' It was all a definite sound. There weren't combinations of sound, and with the advent of Phil Spector, we find sound combinations, which—scientifically speaking—is a brilliant aspect of sound production.”
Taking this idea of “sound combinations” several steps further, Wilson dove into full-blown mad-scientist mode, utilising instruments as unusual as bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, Electro-Theremins, dog whistles, trains, Hawaiian stringed instruments, Coca-Cola cans, vibraphones, timpani, finger cymbals, accordions, modified twelve-string mandolins, water jugs, and the barking of his dogs Banana and Louie. Layering these found sounds, Wilson became an early pioneer of the type of up-cycling musical techniques that artists like Four Tet and The Books still dabble in today. He also borrowed something else from Spector, something considerably more substantial: the group of world-class studio musicians that surrounded Spector at the time, variously called The Wrecking Crew, The Clique, The First Call Gang, and The Phil Spector Wall of Sound Orchestra.
It was to the results of Wilson’s groundbreaking work that the other Beach Boys returned. Their additions to Pet Sounds remained minimal during the latter part of the album’s recording, mostly consisting of added vocal harmonies and a lyric or two changed here and there. In their stead, The Wrecking Crew functioned as almost a ghost band, performing much of the instrumentation that has long been assumed to be the work of the usual lineup. Ultimately, at the core of this album stands Wilson, the only unmoving member in the centre of it all, making sense of a strange and turbulent period in his life through relentless sonic experimentation and mind-expanding psychedelic conceptualisation. He had struck out on his own, away from his bandmates, and had finally distanced himself from his infamously overbearing father Murry Wilson. All in all, it is easy to forget that American rock music’s resident genius was only 23 at the time of Pet Sounds.
Wilson also brought in friend and advertising executive Tony Asher to contribute lyrics and occasional creative opinions to the album. Though he penned brilliant lyrics for songs like You Still Believe in Me, Asher returned to advertising and jingle writing following Pet Sounds, leaving a furious Mike Love in his wake (the two never got along, anyway). Indeed, the writing credits on Pet Sounds remain so one-sided that Love’s biggest contribution to Pet Sounds may have come in the form of his joking asides about Brian Wilson’s seemingly unnecessarily perfectionistic tendencies. “Who's gonna hear this shit?" he asked, “The ears of a dog?” It was in this way that Wilson landed on the unusual album title, while The Beatles would later include knowing asides in the sound effects included on their magnum opus Sgt. Pepper. According to late, great Beatles producer George Martin, the influence of Pet Sounds went to the very core of Sgt. Pepper: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened… Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”
In many ways, the history of Pet Sounds is a tale of two albums, separated by a year or so and the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Pet Sounds had advanced the idea of the concept album proper, presenting a fully developed suite of interrelated songs that picked up recurring motifs and themes. But Sgt. Pepper broke the floodgates wide open, with The Beatles taking on military alter egos in a bid for more creative freedom, all the while recording songs they never intended to play live. The two records will perhaps always be looked at as two sides of the same coin, the Americans and the British engaged in a friendly competition for the best rock album they could conceive of, recorded while their nations slipped into ‘60s psychedelia and ushered in the Summer of Love. Even more incredible is the idea that a bunch of laidback surfer types who had experienced local niche success were suddenly on par with bonafide rock royalty, making music that would live through generations and successive iterations of every credible Best Albums of All Time list.
The long-running argument over which record is more deserving of the coveted number one spot on such lists is irrelevant and purely subjective. What has never been questioned, however, is the fact that the cycle of Rubber Soul inspiring Wilson to record the album that inspired The Beatles to follow up with Sgt. Pepper is a brilliant one. Creative respect and mutual recognition is a beautiful thing when it works in that way, and there is no finer example than this, the cycle of give-and-take boundary pushing that these two legendary groups engaged in in the mid-‘60s.
It’s also irrelevant to go through these songs track-by-track, as though they aren’t already ubiquitous, as though they don’t manage to speak for themselves even if you’ve somehow never heard them before. This really is an album that everybody should hear before they die. If nothing else, you’re unlikely to ever hear pop songwriting this fine again, especially on a debauched psychedelic rock album. These melodies, imprinted indelibly on the minds of so many listeners, will spread across generations to come like a vast net, gently pulling curious fans into the mysticism of the ‘60s rock golden era.
The defining example of the famed California Sound and one of the most personal albums of all popular music, Pet Sounds is an immortal album, if not an immediate one. Upon first listen, Capitol Records was initially upset about the band’s new direction. In fact, the company refused to issue album singles until months later, when Sloop John B and Caroline, No came out, the latter billed as a Brian Wilson solo effort in a bid to distance the new sound from the familiar Beach Boys name. As a mark of how little faith they had in the new album, Capitol even released The Best of The Beach Boys, which culled together the band’s previously established uptempo surf rock hits, at the same time. Listeners didn’t initially rate Pet Sounds much higher than those doubtful label boffins: Pet Sounds peaked at number 10 on the charts, while The Best of The Beach Boys reached number 8.
The Beach Boys began to slip away a little bit after Pet Sounds. As contemporaries like The Beatles disbanded, the California group frequently veered towards mediocrity as Wilson’s mental state deteriorated. He gradually withdrew from his role as bandleader and became reclusive, often suicidal, and helplessly dependent on a deadly cocktail of drugs. His diagnosis as manic-depressive with schizoaffective disorder, as well as his involvement with the unethical psychologist Eugene Landy, drew Wilson into a downward spiral that continued for decades and effectively put an end to The Beach Boys as they were in their iconic ‘60s work. Happily, Wilson’s mental health has improved greatly in recent years, and he still performs Beach Boys songs and solo material regularly. A memoir is forthcoming, though Pet Sounds itself is as fine and concise an autobiography as one could wish for.
“Sometimes I feel very sad/ Can't find nothin' I can put my heart and soul into,” Wilson sang on I Just Wasn't Made For These Times; it is not without irony that Wilson managed to put his heart and soul into the album that song appeared on. There has never been a finer example of confessional rock music, a more lonely and beautiful rock album, than Pet Sounds. And while the legacy of The Beach Boys as a group lives on through the many brilliant albums they released, Brian Wilson himself managed to capture the strength of his heart and spirit on the 35 minute and 57 second runtime of a single record. It is fruitless to attempt to imagine rock and roll more sensitive and introspective than this, adjectives usually spent in vain when describing rock albums.
The enduring brilliance of Pet Sounds is in its universality, its daring, and its inalienable magic that seeps through every second; there is great spirit here, flowing through melodies so perfect they sound impossible. There won’t ever be an album like it, but there doesn’t need to be; this suite of songs is as unique as the man who made it, as fleetingly temporal and frailly imperfect, as gentle and as brilliantly understated. This is music born from the heart and soul of its creator, and it demands that we put the same investment into it, as it reaches into the core of who we are as a listener, gripping us from within while the coldness of the world finds a brief reprieve.
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