Happy 50th Anniversary to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, originally released May 16, 1966. [Stream album and watch videos below]
Upon its release in May 1966, the Beach Boys’ eleventh studio album Pet Sounds garnered a critical and commercial response that can be considered lukewarm at best. The high praise for the LP often comes from fellow artists. Paul McCartney has frequently been quoted as saying that Pet Sounds was a great influence on how the Beatles approached recording Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released a little more than a year later. Beatles’ producer George Martin has admitted that without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened. It was the Beatles’ attempt to equal Pet Sounds. The Roots' charismatic bandleader Questlove has called Pet Sounds a masterpiece. He once remarked that the concept of the record was the absolute madness of Brian Wilson. He felt the album should've been subtitled “Meltdown of a Genius."
During the recording sessions for Pet Sounds, which lasted roughly ten months, the Beach Boys were hardly a band at all. Well at least not in the traditional sense. By the time 1965 rolled around, Brian Wilson had stopped touring all together. During a flight from Los Angeles to Houston in December 1964, Wilson suffered a severe panic attack. The episode had a lasting effect on him, essentially rendering him somewhat of a shut-in. Wilson concentrated all of his energies toward writing and recording while the remaining members of the band (brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and Al Jardine) toured relentlessly.
If there were a Mount Rushmore of horrible stage dads, then Murry Wilson would definitely be included. From 1961 to 1964, the Beach Boys released ten albums, toured constantly and made numerous appearances on television. This crazy schedule was all executed under the watchful eye of their dad/manager and Capitol Records, who were eager to get out as much product as possible. Brian Wilson's already fragile mental makeup was not suited for this kind of lifestyle. He was ready to make changes within the band. He had grown tired of singing about cars, girls, and surfing. Anything that strayed away from the proven formula did not sit well with his bandmates, especially Mike Love.
Brian Wilson's approach to recording Pet Sounds was very similar to the methodology embraced by Phil Spector. He even went as far as using Spector’s unofficial house band, The Wrecking Crew. This would be the first Beach Boys album in which none of the members played any instruments except for Brian, of course. Wilson's lyrics touched on themes like failed romance, faithfulness, fidelity, and feeling out of place in the world. You could say that the recording of this album was a 10-month therapy session for Brian Wilson. He no longer had to deal with his verbally and physically abusive father and negative feedback from the other band members. Left to his own devices, Wilson experimented with layering sounds, using a theremin, buzzing organs, harpsichords, bicycle bells, Coca-Cola cans, and even two barking dogs.
The album opens up with “Wouldn't It Be Nice,” which is probably the most Beach Boys sounding song on the album. The remainder of the album is a splendid sonic journey into the mind of a genius who may have taken way too much LSD. Wilson was always curious about writing songs under the influence of LSD and the only other time he tried it before this LP was when they recorded "California Girls.”
Legendary Wrecking Crew guitarist/bassist Carol Kaye said of Wilson that the things that he recommended in session made absolutely no sense musically. He heard things that no one else could hear, but they trusted him. Wilson was very demanding. So much so that it took a full week to record the vocal track on “Wouldn't It Be Nice.” Songs like "I Know There's an Answer,” "Caroline No,” and the amazing "God Only Knows" highlight this landmark album. One of the other things that makes Pet Sounds work so flawlessly is the incredible and impeccable harmonies sung by the Beach Boys.
To this day, Pet Sounds is still universally held in high esteem, but ironically when it was released, it only peaked at number 10 on the Billboard album charts, significantly lower than their previous albums. Capitol Records hated the album so much that they hastily released the Best of the Beach Boys compilation around the same time, which peaked at number 8 on the charts.
In 2004, Pet Sounds was one of the recordings chosen to be preserved in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Brian Wilson created a template for recording albums that many musical acts would follow for years to come.
Now, I know a lot of people out there, when they hear the name the Beach Boys, they instantly recoil. The truth is they weren’t just about sand, surfing, girls and cars. Get the post-1973 version of them out of your head. Do yourself a favor and just give Pet Sounds a listen and decide for yourself. As a matter of fact, listen to it several times. I guarantee you’ll hear something new each time. Pet Sounds’ status as a masterpiece is well-deserved and it shall forever remain a fascinating peek into the mind of the tortured soul and musical genius of Brian Wilson.