- 16 May 19
53 years ago today, The Beach Boys released their 11th studio album, Pet Sounds. To mark the anniversary, we're revisiting our reflections on the classic album, originally published in Hot Press in 2003.
When Brian Wilson suffered his first nervous breakdown at the end of 1964 and decided to retire from live performances there were many – not least the rest of the band – who felt that The Beach Boys were finished. In little over two years the 22 year-old Wilson had produced, written and arranged no less than seven albums (which kinda puts The Stone Roses, Elastica and My Bloody Valentine into perspective), in addition to undertaking shattering touring schedules, dealing with constant in-band bickering (particularly between his brother Dennis and Mike Love) and having his domineering bollox of a father Murry undermining his self-confidence at every turn. No wonder he cracked.
Not having to criss-cross the globe (he was replaced on the road by Glen Campbell) gave Wilson the opportunity to indulge himself in the studio, and while he would eventually lose the run of himself completely in this respect, the initial results showed a marked leap forward in the band’s sound. An avid devotee of Phil Spector, Brian paid homage to his style on 1965’s masterful ‘California Girls’ and began to show a darker side on that year’s The Beach Boys Today. Yet he was only warming up.
In December 1965 Wilson heard The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and was amazed at its revolutionary concept: a self-contained song-cycle which completely broke away from the then-standard practice whereby albums were rarely more than three or four singles with a handful of extra tracks making up the running-time. Thus, early in ‘66 he got together with young advertising copywriter Tony Asher and began constructing what would become the greatest album of all time.
Intensely insecure despite the massive success The Beach Boys had enjoyed, Wilson felt himself in competition with The Beatles and was undergoing a series of crises in his personal life. Over a period of two months he outlined to Asher just how he was feeling and left it to the aspiring lyricist to articulate this self-doubt, no mean task given that the musical arrangements were already in place.
Brian Wilson’s intention was to make each track a sound experience of its own, and to this end he employed the cream of LA’s session community while undertaking the bulk of the vocal work himself. When the rest of the band arrived back from tour Brian played them what was, in effect, a finished album with their contribution largely restricted to filling out the harmonies.
Dennis and Carl Wilson were ecstatic at the sophistication of what had been done while they were away but Mike Love wasn’t too happy, complaining that this new, moody direction would alienate the vast audience who’d come to associate The Beach Boys with fun, sun, girls and cars. Like several prominent music critics in the States, Love wasn’t really able to get a handle on the concept of The Beach Men, although the fact that he’d been sidelined as Brian’s main co-writer may have had something to do with his displeasure.
Pet Sounds opens with the ecstatic ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, whose basic premise of ‘let’s grow up a bit and get married’ was completely at odds with the carefree image The Beach Boys had projected on all their singles to date but it’s with the following ‘You Still Believe In Me’ that the downbeat yet somehow still optimistic mood of the album is really nailed. This is the song where Brian Wilson’s unique compositional talents really flower, featuring a melody which appears to continually ascend and closing with the finest ensemble harmonies The Beach Boys had ever mustered.
‘That’s Not Me’ features Mike Love on lead vocals and has a thunderous percussion arrangement while the following ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’ is simply gorgeous. ‘I’m Waiting For The Day’ highlights Wilson’s dazzling grasp of dynamics but even that pales in comparison to the instrumental ‘Let’s Go Away For Awhile’, a track for which Asher wrote lyrics but was so complete without vocals that Wilson decided to leave it be. Try humming this and see how far you get.
I’ve always believed that every brilliant album has one track that doesn’t quite fit and in this case the Babb at the back is ‘Sloop John B’. This old Jamaican folk song was pitched by Al Jardine and had been demoed the previous year. Brian wanted to finish off ‘Good Vibrations’ for inclusion in its place but Capitol were anxious for product and so the mood of the record is broken for a couple of minutes.
That it became a huge hit in its own right is neither here nor there, it simply doesn’t belong in this company and on any tape I’ve ever done of Pet Sounds it’s been axed in favour of the aforementioned ‘Good Vibrations’. Call me pedantic but there you go.
The second side opens with probably my favourite song of all time, the almost unearthly beautiful ‘God Only Knows’. The band were worried sick that a song with the word ‘God’ in the title might get them into trouble in America but Brian stuck with his instincts and Carl Wilson delivers the best lead vocal of his life.
After that peak the next two tracks ‘I Know There’s An Answer’ (originally entitled ‘Hang On To Your Ego’ – phew, that was a close one!) and ‘Here Today’ cruise along until you get to the forlorn ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, as fine an expression of angst as have ever been written.
The instrumental title track follows before the album closes with the lament for lost innocence that is ‘Caroline, No’, whose odd percussion sound was achieved by drum supremo Hal Blaine hitting an empty water-container.
Pet Sounds confused the hell out of America but was rapturously received in Britain, with The Beach Boys even pipping The Beatles for the title World’s Best Group in that year’s NME poll. Steven Gaines’ incredible biography ‘Heroes And Villains’ charts the full horror of what subsequently happened to the band’s lives and career but it’s impossible to see this album as anything other than a work of genius.
In 1990 Brian Wilson said, "During the production of Pet Sounds I dreamt I had a halo over my head. This might have meant that the angels were watching over Pet Sounds." They were, Brian, they were.
Six of the best:
As the entire record consists of Brian Wilson’s pet sounds it’s apt that the last thing you hear is the sound of his pets. Brian’s dogs grace the end of ‘Caroline, No’ and their names were Banana and Louie.
'WHAT THEY DID NEXT'
Brian Wilson completed his three-minute masterpiece ‘Good Vibrations’ later that year and began work on Dumb Angel, later re-named Smile. However, during the recording of the track ‘Fire’ – for which he insisted that the orchestra wear firemen’s helmets – a series of actual fires broke out close to the studio and Brian, fearing he was responsible, ordered the tapes locked away. Heavy drug abuse gave way to virtual insanity, Smile was never fully completed and Pop’s greatest genius only worked sporadically after that.
'God Only Knows'
ACE LYRIC LINE
"They say I’ve got brains/ But they ain’t doin’ me no good/ I wish they would"
– I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times
Just when you think ‘You Still Believe In Me’ is about to end, with only a bassline resembling a heartbeat audible, the entire arrangement kicks in again with the massed vocals sounding like the the most celestial Christmas carol ever heard. Heartstopping.
RELATED ALBUMS FROM OTHER ARTISTS
The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, Love’s Forever Changes and The Zombies’ Odessey And Oracle all attempted to match Brian Wilson’s finest achievement. Nice try, boys.