Why Does the Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' Still Have Its Hold on Us?

Danilo Castro

Fifty years on, Brian Wilson’s emotive musings on love, loss, and loneliness have proven to be truly timeless.

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.

Sources Cited

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. 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.

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Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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