Pet Sounds is an album that has not only musically stood the test of time better than perhaps any other sixties release but has also become one of the few, true milestones of what is considered to be rock's most creative era. However, before we learn how Brian made that landmark record, a little perspective is necessary.
From the very beginning, everybody, of course, could sing-- from their earliest days of harmonizing together in the Wilson family living room, the Beach Boys have always been first and foremost a vocal group. In fact, with the exception of Brian's piano playing, none of them were professional or even particularly proficient musicians when they first went into a studio; that makes it almost inconceivable that in 1963, Brian and the Beach Boys pioneered the concept of the self-contained rock band.
It went like this. Big brother Brian played bass, composed the songs, arranged the background vocals and (after two albums and a battle between Capitol and Murry Wilson--the brothers' father and the group's first manager) produced the records. It was Brian's soaring, evocative high voice (in counterpoint to Mike Love's R&B influenced bass vocals) that topped the Beach Boys' jazz-inspired harmonies. The original line-up was almost pure blood: Carl Wilson was on lead guitar, middle brother Dennis bashed the drums and the Wilson brothers' first cousin Mike Love sang lead and penned the lyrics. The all-important fourth harmony part in the mix was filled by Brian's high school and junior college classmate Alan Jardine, who strummed guitar and added his voice to the family blend.
Popular music in those days was for "teens," and when the Pendletones recorded their first hit in 1961 (a record company executive quickly changed their name), the Beach Boys certainly had youth on their side--both Dennis and Carl were still in high school. In fact, Carl, the youngest, was fourteen; Mike, the oldest, was only twenty. For a time in 1962, when Alan went back to college, there was another teenager in the group; Carl's neighborhood friend, David Marks, a fifteen-year old surf guitarist, briefly took Alan's place. But their ages never mattered, because Brian was born with a talent for the ages, and from the very start, he generously applied his gift to churning out two minute pop records in what he later described as a creative frenzy.
From 1962-1965, the Beach Boys rode Brian's musical wave, scoring sixteen top forty hits (including "Surfer Girl," "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "I Get Around" backed with "Don't Worry Baby," one of the greatest double-sided singles of all-time and a number one smash for the group at the very height of Beatlemania). Listening to those hits and album cuts (like "The Warmth Of The Sun"), it is clear that Brian's artistic development happened at lightning speed.
In January of 1965, determined to concentrate on his composing and record making, Brian retired from the rigors of touring. (He was temporarily replaced on the road by ace session guitarist Glen Campbell who already knew some of the songs because he'd played on many of the group's recording dates. When Campbell decided not to join permanently, songwriter/producer Bruce Johnston became a Beach Boy.)
Now that Brian was off the road, he had what seemed like all the creative time he needed, even given what must have felt like the always escalating demands of record company deadlines. Rising to the occasion, the very next (and one of the best) Beach Boys albums, The Beach Boys Today (their first LP release of '65) also reflected the fact that the 45 RPM format had already begun to lose its appeal to Brian. Side one of Today was chockfull of Beach Boys hits (including the avant-garde "When I Grow Up").
But on side two of Today, foreshadowing what was to come on Pet Sounds, Brian employed a studio full of incredible, trained musicians to begin to musically explore his thoughts ("Please Let Me Wonder" and "In The Back Of My Mind") and feelings ("Kiss Me Baby" and "She Knows Me Too Well"), something that was really unique for a rock group in 1965. He finally had the kind of players he needed to expand his vision.
Brian's growing studio mastery and an increasing confidence in his arranging skills that would be essential for the making of Pet Sounds were honed on 1965 recordings like the majestic symphonic opening of "California Girls" (from their Summer Days... LP) and on "Guess I'm Dumb" (a terrific single he composed and produced for Glen Campbell).
Throughout 1965, Brian was combining that flowering production technique with a more mature lyrical expression. In the songs on side two of Today, Summer Days' "Let Him Run Wild" and the single "The Little Girl I Once Knew" (all of which contained lyrics that could have fit perfectly on Pet Sounds), Brian was expressing his concerns about love and relationships, combining heartfelt words with emotional music...layering rhythms and sounds and harmonies to express his ever more complicated feelings.
With each session, Brian was purposefully developing and refining his productions. Somehow, as they were becoming more structurally complex, the instrumental arrangements felt airier. Miraculously, that understated elegance clearly increased the impact of his compositions, making the records more powerful. This gentle balance... dynamic backing tracks mixed with the Beach Boys' Four Freshmen-like vocals and topped by Brian's heartbreaking tonal purity...gave the Beach Boys' records an incredible subtle spaciousness...a heavenly feeling that complemented the more post-adolescent nature of the lyrics.
Where was he going next? Well, Brian hadn't quite yet formulated his ambitious plans when, in the late summer of 1965, Capitol Records predictably demanded that he come up with more Beach Boys "product" in time for the crucial Christmas buying season.
Acquiescing to the company for the last time, Brian was forced to temporarily abandon his musical laboratory and maturing point-of-view to squeeze out one last record in the old Beach Boys style, a formula he was just about to completely abandon.
That September, going into the studio for a "live" jam session, the group recorded Beach Boys Party!, their eleventh album in four years and a "throwaway" record which yielded the #2 smash "Barbara Ann," ironically a more successful single than anything from Pet Sounds. But Party!, coming in the midst of Brian's contemplations, was like a hiccup in the night. And although it was hardly the best way to set the stage for what he was starting to envision, it was definitely the quickest solution. Perhaps, this final forced capitulation made him even more determined to do the next album completely his way.
And now, with the interruption past and the commercial obligations met, Brian returned to his studio experiments such as "The Little Girl I Once Knew," an October, 1965 single release that was so full of stops and starts that it confounded radio and "only" went top twenty. It was their first perceived "flop" in four years, and everybody was at least a little bit concerned. Was the ride over? Not quite.
In November of '65, as "Little Girl..." struggled on the hit parade, Brian was in the studio recording a number of instrumental tracks that texturally bore virtually no resemblance to the group's by-now, often-imitated trademark "California Sound." He even started tackling two standards, "How Deep Is The Ocean" and "Stella By Starlight," the latter, coincidentally, an all-time favorite of his soon-to-be-lyricist, Tony Asher.
Still, it was a discomfiting time for Brian. For someone who had relied on his unerring instincts in the studio, Brian seemed unsure of exactly what to do next. Of course, that was just part of growing up. He was reading, meeting new people. Thinking bigger thoughts. His mind and consciousness were expanding.
As 1966 approached, Brian wondered how to spring his nascent "new sound" on the music world. Should he make an album all by himself? What would the Beach Boys say? How would the record company react? What would his father do? What would be the right thing to do for himself, for the group, for his art?
The answers, or at least the direction to take, came from across the sea, and struck a bulls-eye in Brian's gut. Exposed to Bob Dylan's influence (lyrical and otherwise), his only real musical peers unveiled their first album "statement" in late 1965. It was called Rubber Soul, and it has always been one of the best, if not the best, Beatles albums.
Rubber Soul inspired Brian to bare his soul. Maybe just as equally important was the fact that Brian also immediately understood that Rubber Soul represented the future of the business. While, ironically, it wasn't the Beatles but a Capitol Records marketing decision that meant there would be no singles issued from the original U.S. version of Rubber Soul (the U.K. release of that LP featured the #1 single "Nowhere Man"), it nevertheless created a perception that their new work should be viewed as a whole.
So when no single from Rubber Soul was issued in America (even though "Michelle" was a huge "turntable" hit), it introduced the possibility to the recording industry that the 45 RPM disc...preeminent for a decade...might soon give way to a new king...the album as a work of art. This was a major evolutionary step for the music business and particularly for rock 'n roll records.
To Brian, the Beatles, especially the songs of Paul McCartney (Brian's bass-playing musical twin who was born only two days and one ocean apart), were always a major inspiration. When Brian heard Rubber Soul, his competitive instincts were aroused, and he felt that rock's rules had changed. "A whole album with all good stuff," he marveled, modestly ignoring the fact that previous Beach Boys albums like 1963's Surfer Girl, 1964's All Summer Long and 1965's Today and Summer Days had contained almost no filler.
Brian became determined to make an album that was perfect from start to finish, and "beat the Beatles" at their own game. However, on the surface at least, it didn't seem like a fair fight. Brian, even with a supportive cast of terrific studio musicians, was basically going it alone in the studio whereas John had Paul, McCartney had Lennon and they both had George Martin. But as the latest Beatles record made Brian try harder (he got what former Beach Boys and forever Beatles publicist Derek Taylor called "the grumps"), out of his insecurity came new resolve, which prompted him to issue the previously-noted incredible challenge to himself. Brian Wilson, only 23 years old, declared that he was going to make the greatest record ever. He had verbalized the vision that would lead to Pet Sounds.
Brian was now ready for his amazing journey; he just needed the right opportunity. So if it was the Beatles that gave him the competitive impetus, the creative courage and, in his mind, the necessity to artistically move forward, it wasn't until the Beach Boys embarked on a January, 1966 tour of Japan (see back cover photos on the bonus disc), that Brian had the time and the space to musically explore his psyche. That's when he engaged advertising copywriter Tony Asher as his collaborator and singlemindedly began assembling tracks and writing songs for the record that many considered to be his masterpiece.
In a lofty, filmic sense, Pet Sounds was really the work of a rock 'n' roll "auteur," Brian's "state-of-his-world" message, customized to be delivered by his hand-picked messengers, the Beach Boys, because, as Brian knew, that's the way it had to be. The group's important vocal contributions notwithstanding, Pet Sounds was a very personal album, a fact underscored by the lyrics...words that were primarily provided by Asher.
"No one is educated musically 'til they've heard Pet Sounds... It is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways."
- Paul McCartney
"Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have happened... Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds."
- George Martin
A relatively new acquaintance of Brian's whom Brian plucked out of the advertising world, Tony (introduced by a mutual friend) was enlisted by Brian to help him more precisely articulate his ideas and feelings...the emotional conflicts facing a young man...a growing artist...who, on the cusp of adulthood, was saddled with enormous responsibility.
These were obviously not the traditional "fun in the sun" themes that record buyers expected from the Beach Boys. Clearly, this was not an album constructed for the typical Beach Boys fan of 1966, an area of some tension both within the group and especially between Brian and Capitol Records. But in producing his spiritual love letter, sales weren't uppermost in Brian's mind, and while he was disappointed that Pet Sounds didn't reach a larger audience, Brian was completely satisfied with the creative results. (Curiously, in England, the Beatles' homeland, Pet Sounds was a huge critical and commercial favorite, paving the way for the Beach Boys' late '60s success overseas.
But at home, because it didn't immediately go "gold"--and even though the album went to #10 and includes two top ten and two top forty singles--it was considered to be a relative failure in terms of the sales of the Beach Boys' previous LPs.) But much more to the main point, Brian's sole concern was truly how his music would inspire the listener, and, as he once put it "cover them with love under the guise of a record." On "Don't Talk...," when Brian sings, "listen to my heart...beat...Listen, Listen, Listen," he means exactly that, and it's not surprising to learn that the bass line "heartbeat" of that track is perhaps Brian's absolute favorite moment on Pet Sounds. To Brian, it's why no explanation of his music has ever been necessary; his records have always spoken volumes. All Brian asks is that you open yourself to pure emotion as he has and "listen" to his heart with yours.
That's not quite the way it went thirty years ago. Pet Sounds was the Beach Boys LP release that followed the fun but comparatively simple Party! album. Primarily recorded from January through mid-April of 1966, Pet Sounds was released in May of that year to a confused public. The introspective lyrics, the sophisticated composition and the classical overtones of the complex arrangements were astounding. But the otherworldly quality of tracks like "Let's Go Away For Awhile" just didn't connect with some of the group's fans; much of the Beach Boys faithful weren't quite ready to accept the gospel according to Brian. And the rest of the potential audience...the 1960s anti-war generation that was starting to embrace drugs, long hair and blue jeans...were put off either by the Beach Boys' striped-shirt image or the cliched cover photo and didn't even give the album a chance. It was ironic. It seems like the self-absorbed piety that the "peace and love" baby boomers spouted would have been perfectly suited to the true spirituality of Pet Sounds. But there was just no way, they thought, that a message like that could come from the Beach Boys, so they basically ignored the record. As Brian himself prophetically sang on the album, "I guess I just wasn't made for these times."
But times have changed.
Because while in 1966, millions of rock fans may not have welcomed Pet Sounds with either open arms or wallets, the musical community was and continues to be astonished by Brian's aural achievement. The one-two punch of Pet Sounds followed by "Good Vibrations" gave rise to the belief that Brian Wilson had become the genius "leader of the studio pack." In 1966, Paul McCartney was quoted as saying "God Only Knows" was the best song ever written. In the thirty years since, Paul's passion for Pet Sounds hasn't diminished. He always credits "Pet Sounds as my inspiration for making Sgt. Pepper's...the big influence. Pet Sounds flipped me. Still one of my favorite albums'
of all-time just 'cause of the musical invention. Wow. I play it for our kids now and they love it That was the big thing for me [in 1966] I just thought, 'Oh dear me. This is the album of all-time. What are we gonna do?'-- Or, as George Martin recently explained, "without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have happened Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds."
In trying to grasp how hard it was to pull off what Paul McCartney calls the "musical invention" contained in Pet Sounds, it's important to know that recording studios were comparatively primitive in 1966. Brian had to figure out a way around the limitations of the machines. As a music industry observer once noted, "the equipment in today's recording studios was primarily created so that they now could make records the way Brian Wilson was making them in 1966 without the technology. They've almost caught up."
In his early days as a producer, Brian had been impressed by Phil Spector's records. Having absorbed (through observation, imitation and obsession) Spector's "Wall Of Sound" methodology, Brian took what fit his musical vision, adopted Spector's studio musicians as his own and took away one production lesson that was a key to creating the sound paintings and textures of Pet Sounds--the technique of combining the sound of two instruments to create a third, brand-new sound.
It was when Brian applied that concept to every instrument and vocal timbre at his disposal, that he came up with a startlingly unique collection of vibrations Miraculously, he used voices and instruments to synthesize new sounds that pre-figured contemporary
electronics by two decades.
It is not hyperbole to say that for every pop and rock group that followed in the Beach Boys wake, Pet Sounds became an audio benchmark. It is also not possible to overstate how influential Pet Sounds was in its day, and remarkably, continues to be. Ask Bob Dylan or Elton John or Tom Petty or Mike Mills of R.E.M. Or any musician with ears. It is a record that musicians worship.
Back in 1966, producers, engineers, recording artists--everybody in the business was overwhelmed by the revolutionary resonance that they felt made Pet Sounds the new sound rock had been waiting for...what Brian called "a white spiritual sound."
Since that time, nothing has really changed, because anybody who has "heard" the album has been deeply and endlessly touched by the heart and depth that poured out of every microgroove of Pet Sounds, a record that in 1966 was so far ahead of its time that it's just now coming into its own.
Thirty years ago, Brian Wilson put his soul right on vinyl, and nobody...not even Brian has ever been able to consistently recapture the special moment that was is and always will be Pet Sounds.
- David Leaf
"The idea of making music that could make people feel better became like a crusade."
- Carl Wilson