In 1966, The Beach Boys went out on the road while Brian Wilson stayed behind and created their singular masterpiece
In the mid-1960s, a band known for light, catchy tunes released an album that broke all the boundaries between pop and “serious” music, and that album was an acclaimed masterpiece…several years later.
If we were talking about The Beatles’ 1967 release Sgt. Pepper, we’d be discussing how that album changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll and made serious art (with a capital ‘S’ and ‘A’) possible in a format that had once been content with their upbeat, punchy numbers from the British Invasion. But we’re talking about Pet Sounds, the legendary album that mystified Beach Boys fans and didn’t really become iconic until well after it sank from the charts.
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The legend of Pet Sounds is maybe not as well-trod as that of the aborted follow-up, SMiLE; for that album, lead composer Brian Wilson threw in everything including the kitchen sink and ended up losing his way. But Pet Sounds wove its way into rock-music lore as the most important stateside album to come out of the 60s, because so much of what became classic rock was coming out of England by that point.
Indeed, The Beach Boys were probably the only serious rivals to The Beatles in the hearts of fans across the pop world; both bands had come along at around the same time, were on the same label (Capitol in America). While Wilson and his cohorts got their American-as-apple-pie sound out before The Beatles landed, they were able to ride the crest of the Invasion wave and survive while many of their contemporaries succumbed to the pressure of trying to top the Beatles. The Beach Boys not only survived but thrived, and their label mates across the pond duly took notice; for years, the two groups had a friendly rivalry, especially between Brian and Paul McCartney (they were born two days apart in 1942). That rivalry would lead each to craft new songs and albums that would define the rock genre.
For the Beach Boys, 1966 was a rough patch; like any boy band currently on the charts, the group had to navigate the uncertain waters of what to do as their fan base grew up and found new idols. Would they keep released party records that sold in the millions but did little to earn them respect for their (genuinely beautiful) production value? Would they become Beach Men? The way wasn’t clear in 1965 and 1966; some of the Boys (notably cousin of the Wilsons and future Trump supporter Mike Love) were content to play the hits while Brian stayed in the studio, having retired from live performances in 1964. But Brian Wilson had a notion that he could craft not just pop songs but pop landscapes, taking the lessons that he’d learned from record producers like Phil Spector and compose teenage symphonies that would last long after the initial popularity of the Beach Boys faded (because no one in the 60s, even the Beatles, thought that their careers would last beyond the next single or album).
Working with lyricist Tony Asher, Wilson began to craft beautiful songs about alienation, fear, and the divine. And he did so while also paying attention to what had gotten the Beach Boys on the charts in the first place: sterling music and production. Each song on Pet Sounds would be laboriously recorded by The Wrecking Crew, a legendary group of L.A. studio musicians, and the vocals would be overdubbed by Wilson’s bandmates later. The songs themselves still work fifty-five years after the fact, some more than others but the album as a whole is a satisfying group of songs that isn’t quite a concept album, but not just a random collection of would-be singles, either.
VIDEO: The Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
The album opens with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and right out of the gate the mature, grown-up Beach Boys get thrown for a loop. Probably the most wistful song about domesticity, the song implores the listener to imagine a time when the singer and his beloved may finally cohabitate when they’re old enough to live away from the parental units. “You Still Believe In Me” charts the rough patches in a relationship (perhaps the same one as described in the opening song) where the singer is buffeted by the love his partner still shows him in the depths of his despair.
I’m not going to break down the entire album song by song, but let me highlight what I consider the peaks of both songwriting and production: “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” took a while for me to enjoy, if only because the opening chords put me in the mind of a horror movie, not a romantic lullaby. Alas, it’s fantastic, and I should’ve given it more of a chance when I first got the album. “Here Today,” the second of the two Mike Love lead vocal songs, is kind of catchy and fun, even though it’s about the fleeting sensation of first love and how quickly it can disappear. “Sloop John B” is the outlier in a lot of ways (I’m not sure what it has to do with the themes of adolescent love and growing up that pepper the rest of the album…unless going to sea with your grandpa is a great way to avoid the heartbreak of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” maybe), but it’s hilarious. And the aforementioned “Times” is a beautiful and haunting elegy for anyone who’s ever felt out of place (I can imagine many kids in different marginalized communities over the years seeking solace in this song, honestly).
But the show-stopper here is, of course, “God Only Knows.” One of the first pop songs of the era to mention God in any way (albeit more just as the expression “God only knows” than as a direct appellation to a higher deity), this is the most amazing song about depression and suicidal thoughts ever. No, really; listen to the lyrics and suddenly the placement it enjoys at the end of Love, Actually doesn’t make any freaking sense. But the lyrics aren’t the selling point with the song; the gorgeous production is the main attraction here, as well as little brother Carl’s aching vocals. I’m trying really hard not to use the word beautiful to describe yet another song on this album, but dammit, I have to even if it’s a cliche; “God Only Knows” might be the most beautiful pop song ever written.
VIDEO: “God Only Knows” in Boogie Nights
The Beach Boys would experience chart success in the wake of Pet Sounds, but not for any of the songs on the album. The follow-up single “Good Vibrations” would storm to the top of the charts in the latter half of 1966, rescuing the group from any lingering depression or doubts over their new direction. They would boldly look ahead in the new year to an album that would vault them over their rivals from Liverpool…until the strain broke Brian Wilson and left his bandmates scrambling to keep themselves in the public eye with their oldies-but-goodies stage show, as if Pet Sounds had never happened. They would rebound with more albums, many of which I’m sure are fine, but I’ve never listened to them. Pet Sounds itself would eventually get the love that it so obviously deserves. And Brian Wilson would emerge from the shackles of mental torture to release his own take on the aborted SMiLE project many decades later.
But if Pet Sounds wasn’t made for the times that it was recorded, it’s lived long enough now to have a cultural impact many lifetimes over. Maybe today is the day that someone unfamiliar with the songs or the group decides to give the funny-looking album with a picture of some young white dudes feeding zoo animals a chance.
Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?