May 1966. Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, a double album opus that solidified his status as the songwriting savant in America. The Beatles, on the brink of their final US tour, were holed up in the studio creating the sound of the future with Revolver. The Rolling Stones, fresh off of a tantalizing response to Aftermath, had wrapped up their most recent abroad escapade. Rock music was in its creative and commercial zenith, striving to evolve by leaps and bounds with each passing day.
Yet, with buzzing attention tossed every which way, it was the mildly received Pet Sounds that would quietly revolutionize the art form. Hitting shelves in conjunction with Blonde on Blonde, the 11th Beach Boys album limped to a #106 debut on the Billboard charts, while Dylan sauntered his way into the top ten with ease. By far the weakest opening ever for the California group, it was a tepid response that did much to shake the confidence of brainchild Brian Wilson.
This lack of confidence has plagued the musician his entire life. A quiet, pensive young man with an overbearing father, Wilson’s difficult early years have been recounted many a time by both him and late brothers/bandmates Carl and Dennis Wilson. Prone to isolation and what was later diagnosed as manic depression, the eldest sibling was never comfortable with stardom, or the surfing safari lifestyle the band hilariously adopted (Dennis was the only true surfer). Such internal anxieties were also what forced Wilson to prematurely retire from touring in 1964, the result of flight-induced panic attacks.
Relegated to the studio as the Beach Boys took on additional members Glen Campbell and later Bruce Johnston, Wilson was finally afforded the luxury of focusing solely on the music, and it quickly showed.
Dropping the teenybopper act that had elevated hits like “Surfer Girl” (1963) and “I Get Around” (1964), the mop-topped composer began experimenting with both psychedelics and psychedelic sounds. “California Girls” hit like a brick through a glass window in 1965, opening on a melody Wilson later confirmed to be composed during an LSD trip. Orchestral preludes, unconventional verse-chorus structure, and a tentatively matured approach to the Beach Boys formula dominated much of that year with hit albums Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and The Beach Boys Today! But the singer/songwriter was just getting started, and a single listen to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul changed everything in its wake.
Ironically, what Wilson heard that December day was not the same Rubber Soul that fans have enjoyed in subsequent decades. The Beach Boys founder was in fact listening to the US version of the album, which restructured many of the songs to fit a distinctly folk inspired theme. Who knows, if Wilson had heard the UK version, perhaps none of this would’ve come to fruition.
Either way, the inspired artist burst into his home and proclaimed to first wife, Marilyn, that he would make the “greatest rock album ever made!” Later interviews revealed to what depths Wilson was captivated, as he would go on to explain, “It was a challenge to me… it didn’t make me want to copy them but to be as good as them.” With the band on a three-week tour in Japan and Hawaii, Wilson buckled down to make his claims a reality, and the results were positively marvelous.
Working in unison with songwriter Tony Asher, Wilson went about making his musical masterpiece. The composer felt his lyrics needed to separate themselves from the juvenile intonation of past works, and Asher, a jingle writer by trade, possessed the right pen for Wilson’s profound melodies. Song topics no longer jumped from Surfing Safaris to Little Deuce Coupes, and were instead harnessed around a single seminal mood: the fragility and heartbreak of growing up.
Wilson was not a man of inherent happiness, and the isolation that had sprung from past experience slathered its way across Asher’s written words. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and “Caroline, No” were musings on missed opportunities, and the lyrical prowess resulting from Asher and Wilson were unlike anything that had come out of the group before. Analysis in recent years have recognized these compositions, along with entries like “I’m Waiting for the Day” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” as moving cogs in the era’s most meticulous song cycle. For many, they also served as buffer for the transition from youth to adulthood.
Musically, Wilson’s (left) ear distinguished the album even further (he lost most of the hearing in his right ear as a child). Making good on his claim to avoid imitation in matching the prowess of Liverpool’s favorite sons, the lone Beach Boy dove head on into a new world of sounds and symphonies. Regularly subjecting himself to LSD by this point, Wilson tossed pop, jazz, and avant-garde into a Pet Sounds pot and filtered them through the gorgeous vocal arrangements of his boys from the beach.
The integration of orchestral backing, layered upon traditional rock arrangements, made for dazzling pocket odysseys that could supplement catchy chamber pop (“That’s Not Me”) and breezy instrumental detours (“Let’s Get Away for a While”) with ingenious ease. Well documented through audio recordings and cinematic recreation (e.g., Pohlad’s 2015’s Love & Mercy), Wilson’s hands-on approach with “The Wrecking Crew”, an orchestra frequently used by personal hero Phil Spector, is the stuff of legend.
His insistence upon exact musical cues, unconventional structure, and experimental trickery made for a final product that radiates originality. Improvisation and ideas from the musicians also found their way into the album, as the maestro encouraged everyone to place their best musical foot forward. The resulting recordings were colossal achievements, as conventional instruments seamlessly meshed with glockenspiels, ukulele, Electro-Theremin, bongos, and harpsichords. Densely layered collages even found space for dog whistles (“Sloop John B”), bicycle bells (“You Still Believe In Me”), and Coca-Cola bottles (“Pet Sounds”).
By the time the rest of the band returned from Japan, Wilson had all but completed his work of chemically aided genius. The only issue was, they didn’t really get it. Lead singer Mike Love was put off by the new direction Wilson had taken, and complained often about the “sad sack” lyricism.
“Hang On to Your Ego” was a particularly sore topic for the bearded founder, as drug allusions triggered a clash with Wilson that resulted in the rewritten “I Know There’s an Answer” (as it is in the final version). Increasing paranoia, LSD intake, and stringent opposition from the group caused irreparable damage to Wilson’s weakened state of mind, and by the time 16 May 1966 rolled around, the album had been passed off as an artsy one-and-done Wilson project.
Reportedly “heartsick” over the album’s lack of commercial and critical success, Wilson felt a personal blow to his creative vision. The only saving grace that kept Pet Sounds relevant occurred overseas, where UK sales boosted it to number two on the charts, backed by praise from peers like John Lennon and Keith Moon. It was here, amidst the burgeoning avant-garde sounds of the Moody Blues and the Who, that listeners first absorbed the album’s cultural importance. Praised by every rocker from The Beatles to Bob Dylan, the latter who said Wilson’s left ear should be donated to the Smithsonian, The Beach Boys were suddenly spearheading the pop revolution.
Such esteem even stroked the egos of Mike Love and company, who left Brian to his devices when crafting “Good Vibrations” and follow-up album SMiLE in 1967. The tumultuous unspooling of that project, however, is another retrospective for another day. Wilson’s supposed “Pop Symphony to God” never came to fruition, but the musical genius that poured from his soul is heard clearly with the perfectly realized Pet Sounds.
Since that day in May 50 years ago, Pet Sounds has become a pillar of pop excellence. Regularly battling for ranking supremacy in Rolling Stone magazine, it’s restructured the landscape of modern music in its image. Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) would not have been created to top it, said Paul McCartney. Aside from praising “God Only Knows” as his favorite song, the Beatle has instilled the idea that no one is “musically educated” until they’ve put the needle to this profound record. Indeed, Pet Sounds has been absorbed by everyone from David Bowie and the Flaming Lips to Frank Ocean and Fleet Foxes. Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, Weezer, and Kanye West are equally indebted to Wilson’s work.
Pet Sounds is a great American pop album, composed almost single-handedly by the leader of a beloved band. Wilson’s emotive musings on love, loss, and loneliness have proven to be truly timeless.
Pet Sounds will be released in a new 4 CD/Blu-ray box set on 10 June, coinciding with Wilson’s 50th anniversary tour.
Carlin, Peter Ames. Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Pennsylvania: Rodale, 2006. Print.
Elliott, Brad. Pet Sounds Liner Notes. Los Angeles: Capitol Records, 1999. Print.
Himes, Geoffrey. Surf Music. teachrock.org. Rock and Roll: An American History. Web. 29 April 2016.
Leaf, David. Paul McCartney Comments. Album Liner Notes. 1990. Web. 29 April 2016.
Danilo Castro is a freelance culture critic and editor of the Film Noir Archive blog. He has contributed essays and reviews to several publications including Screen Rant, Noir City, and Tastes of Cinema.