The word masterpiece is often overused in the rock dictionary, but never has it rung more true than in the case of The Beach Boys′ epic Pet Sounds. Released in 1966, it is definitely one of the most important rock albums of all time and arguably the best American recording to this date. Paul McCartney has publicly named Pet Sounds one of his favorite albums and has cited it as a major influence on the Beatles recording Sgt. Pepper′s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is all quite fitting since Brian Wilson, the genius mastermind behind Pet Sounds, created it in order to rival the “Fab Four’s” Rubber Soul. “I wanted to try to top it. I felt competitive with the Beatles,” Brian Wilson has stated in various interviews. After hearing Rubber Soul, Wilson apparently rushed to his wife and proclaimed: “Marilyn, I’m going to make the greatest rock album ever made!” Mission accomplished, Mr. Wilson.
Fed up with the stress of touring, Wilson wanted to stay behind and focus his attention on writing and recording. So while the rest of The Beach Boys trotted the globe, he enlisted the help of acclaimed lyricist Tony Asher to help complete the iconic album. Together they wrote some of the most beautiful and poignant songs in The Beach Boys catalog, which was a far cry from the band’s hit song formula axed on cars, girls and the California sun. This was something completely different and sophisticated. The other Beach Boys’ main task was to record their signature harmony vocals, which brought the songs to a whole other emotional level. Often credited as the first concept album (a set of thematically linked songs), it forever changed the way albums are conceived. Wilson says the record became a “concept album” mainly because of the way the album was produced and structured. The evidence is in the track sequence. Alone, each song is good, but together they formed a brand new narrative evocative of the 23 year-old producer’s emotional state of mind.
We are offered 13 songs about love, loneliness and abandonment. Interestingly, what sets Pet Sounds apart from any other album that preceded it is its elaborate production. Sonically, it was way more advanced than anything else at that time and set the bar for everyone from the Beatles to Pink Floyd and even Radiohead. Wilson idolized producer Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound, but the young Beach Boy didn’t simply want to emulate his mentor’s sound. Instead, he wanted to do his own thing with it and come up with a new “Wall of Sound.” He achieved his ambitious goal thanks to new technological studio advances and the finest session musicians in the business: The Wrecking Crew – the same musicians who helped Spector pioneer his signature sound! Wilson utilized an array of instrumentation ranging from bass harps and French horns to harpsichords and cellos. The more traditional rock instruments such as guitars and bass were doubled and blended with echo and reverberation. Wilson even used unconventional objects like bicycle bells, dog whistles, trains, soda cans, and barking dogs as backing instruments. The result was a musical universe unlike any other: a true testament to Brian Wilson’s genius as a writer, composer and producer. With such a majestic record both lyrically and musically, it is almost ironic to have such a childlike cover photo featuring the band at a petting zoo. It was apparently a play on the record’s chosen title. There are many theories circulating about the origin of the album title, the most plausible being that the sounds heard on the album were Brian’s “pet,” or favorite sounds. If you believe that Pet Sounds was the musical portrayal of Wilson’s state of mind at the time, then that theory makes a lot sense.
What is truly remarkable about Pet Sounds is that it sounds as fresh today as it did in 1966. In many ways, it was very much ahead of its time. You can’t help being blown away from the very first notes of the opening track. Wouldn’t It Be Nice kicks off the album like a ton of brick with its baroque up-tempo melodies and eternally optimistic lyrics about young love. This song remains one of The Beach Boys’ most adventurous and diverse arrangements, rivaled only by the grandiose sounds of Good Vibrations –a song recorded during the Pet Sounds sessions but deliberately omitted from the album. To create the powerful, yet sweet sounds of the introductory track, Wilson used a myriad of instruments, which consisted of drums, percussion, two pianos, two accordions, three basses, three guitars, and four horns. The Beach Boys unrivaled harmonies are also to praise for the song’s success. The rest of the album is just as moving and foreshadows Wilson’s downward spiral into isolation, with I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times as a perfect reflection of his future seclusion. It is perhaps no coincidence that Brian sings lead on this almost biographical song about a gifted young man who can’t find a place where he can fit in. One of Pet Sounds’ greatest attributions to the world of music is hands down the excellent God Only Knows, one of the greatest love songs ever produced. It is by far the most heartfelt song on the album with the narrator proclaiming his unconditional love to his lover and testifying, “God only knows what I’d be without you,” over and over again with the most perfect orchestration in the background. Paul McCartney has repeatedly named it as his all-time favorite song, saying:
“God Only Knows is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian.”
The Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and Brian Wilson was inducted into the UK Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2001, The Beach Boys received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.Interestingly, Pet Sounds wasn’t a big hit in the U.S. upon its release and barely made it on Billboard’s Top 10. Capitol Records failed to promote it and the record was doomed to become a disappointment compared to The Beach Boys’ previous releases. Its greatest success came across the pond, where it was highly acclaimed by both rock critics and musicians and charted at the second position in the UK.
By now we all know there would be no Sgt. Pepper without Pet Sounds and that says a lot! Pet Sounds is constantly named as one of the most important albums in the history of music and with good reason. Many reissues have appeared through the years, the most popular being the lavish box set containing alternate versions, a cappella takes, and other musical treats. In 2006, Capitol released the album’s 40th Anniversary Edition, containing a remaster of the original mono mix, DVD mixes, and a making-of documentary.
First published on Puluche.com, using the Puluche Album Review Rubric©