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‘Pet Sounds’: The Beach Boys’ Masterpiece Explained

The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ makes life worth living, reaffirming the notion that pop music is the most admired art form in the world.

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The Beach Boys Pet Sounds
Cover: Courtesy of Capitol Records

The Beach Boys were probably the last group on earth expected to start a musical revolution. After all, they had built their renown as clean-living all-American kids delivering harmonized hymns that worshipped surfing, girls, and hot rods – the holy trinity of Californian teenagers in the early 60s – over a rocking backbeat that bore a tangible trace of rock and roller Chuck Berry‘s musical DNA. And yet, in May 1966, the Hawthorne-hailing group – consisting of the Wilson brothers Brian, Carl, and Dennis, together with their cousin Mike Love and family friend Al Jardine – unleashed an audacious sonic experiment they called Pet Sounds. It was a collection of songs that would quickly cause a paradigm shift in pop.

Few pop albums – before or since – have enjoyed the notoriety of Pet Sounds, which for decades has been showered with almost every accolade imaginable and continues to be a high achiever in magazine polls ranking the best pop and rock LPs of all time. It is pop music’s equivalent to what Citizen Kane is to the world of cinema; a universally recognized masterpiece that defined a new era while simultaneously redefining the art form it represented.

Despite its fame, Pet Sounds still remains an unexplored country for some, who may have heard of the album but are unaware of its significance. For the uninitiated, then, this article intends to answer some of the fundamental questions about what is undoubtedly the Beach Boys’ – and possibly pop’s – greatest album.

The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then

Check out the 50th-anniversary edition of Pet Sounds here.

Why is Pet Sounds so important?

Quite simply, Pet Sounds ushered in a new approach to album making that revolutionized popular music. It was shaped by the musical sensibilities of songwriter/producer Brian Wilson, whose collection of carefully crafted pocket pop symphonies was unlike anything the Beach Boys – or any band for that matter – had done before. It brought about seismic changes to the landscape of pop music with its unusual sonics, novel textures, and structural innovations.

Pet Sounds didn’t follow the format of conventional pop albums of the day; It wasn’t merely a collection of disparate songs that combined a couple of hit singles with reheated covers, as was the norm in the mid-’60s; rather. It was conceived as a coherent work of art where every song – even every note – counted. Nothing was inconsequential; even the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Let’s Go Away For A While” and “Pet Sounds,” were integral to the record’s narrative arc.

Let's Go Away For Awhile

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Where were The Beach Boys in their career at the time?

Pet Sounds was the band’s 12th album in the space of five, hectic, and intensely productive, years. It followed in the wake of Beach Boys Party!, the group’s 1965 album of covers that included their memorable hit version of doo-wop group The Regents’ “Barbara Ann.” That particular record’s sound was minimalist in comparison with the grandiose sonic sculptures of Pet Sounds, which signaled a total musical transformation of a group who previously seemed solely preoccupied with the idea of having “Fun, Fun, Fun.”

What’s the concept behind the album?

“If you take the Pet Sounds album as a collection of art pieces, each designed to stand alone, yet which belong together, you’ll see what I was aiming at,” said Brian Wilson in 2010. Pet Sounds is cited as an example of one of pop/rock’s first bona fide concept albums because of its unity of purpose and mood as well as the way its 13 songs interconnect to form a coherent narrative. Its themes range from the hopeful idealism of young love (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) and the transient nature of romance (“Here Today”) to alienation (“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”) and deeper ruminations on life (“I Know There’s An Answer”).

Wouldn't It Be Nice (Remastered 1999)

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How and when did the album get written?

Brian Wilson began writing the material for the album alongside a new collaborator, lyricist Tony Asher, when the rest of The Beach Boys were performing in Japan and Hawaii in January 1966. (Wilson, a nervous flyer, had quit touring with the band a year earlier). One of the tracks that ended up on the album – “Sloop John B.,” an adaptation of a traditional Bahamian folk song – was already in the can, cut in 1965, but the remaining 12 songs were recorded at three Hollywood studios (United Western Recorders, Gold Star Studios, and Sunset Sound Recorders) between January 18 and April 13, 1966, with Chuck Blitz engineering.

What influences shaped the album?

Producer Phil Spector, famed for his signature “wall of sound” approach to making records, had a profound impact on Brian Wilson’s production style and directly influenced Pet Sounds‘ multi-layered recording technique as well as its cavernous reverb effects. Another, perhaps bigger, influence on Pet Sounds was The Beatles‘ groundbreaking Rubber Soul album. Wilson heard it in late 1965, and later described it in his autobiography, I Am Brian Wilson, as “probably the greatest record ever…where everything flows together and everything works.” Ultimately, however, Pet Sounds transcended its influences.

What does Pet Sounds sound like?

Pet Sounds reframed the Beach Boys’ most distinctive musical signature – their complex, layered vocal harmonies – against a widescreen musical backdrop where elements from pop, classical music, folk, psychedelia, easy listening, and jazz intermingled. Its instrumentation was kaleidoscopic; ranging from pounding classical timpani drums and tinkling bicycle bells to baroque harpsichords, growling bass harmonicas, and eerie noises from a theremin-like electronic device. Some commentators dubbed it chamber pop. Brian Wilson once described it as “chapel rock.” Wilson’s unique choice of instrumentation resulted in uncommon textures as well as peculiar sounds; and, like his idol, Phil Spector, he used the recording studio as if it was a musical instrument.

Although Pet Sounds included two upbeat songs “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B.” – both released as singles and viewed as quintessential Beach Boys’ songs – the album’s mood was mostly introspective; and that fact was reflected in its mostly somber tone colors, which are especially evident on the melancholy slow ballads “You Still Believe In Me,” “Don’t Talk (Put Your On My Shoulder),” and “Caroline (No).”

Caroline, No (Mono)

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Which musicians contributed to Pet Sounds besides The Beach Boys?

In terms of instrumentation, The Beach Boys contributed less to Pet Sounds than any of their previous albums. Although their intricate, soaring vocal harmonies were ever-present, the chugging electric guitars that had defined some of their earlier classics were notably absent. Under Brian Wilson’s direction, the band took a back seat to The Wrecking Crew, an elite cadre of Hollywood-based session musicians who were extremely versatile and had famously been producer Phil Spector’s house band in the early 60s. They included drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon; electric bassist Carol Kaye; guitarists Glen Campbell, Barney Kessell, and Billy Strange; and saxophonists Jim Horn and Plas Johnson.

What did the other Beach Boys contribute to Pet Sounds?

Understandably, Brian Wilson has received much of the acclaim over the years because it was his singular artistic vision that brought Pet Sounds to life. That said, the contributions of the rest of the band shouldn’t be overlooked. Besides contributing The Beach Boys’ trademark golden harmonies, some of them also sang lead vocals: Carl Wilson fronted the heavenly “God Only Knows,” the album’s most famous and celebrated song, while Mike Love sang lead on “Here Today” and shared lead vocals with both Brian Wilson (on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “That’s Not Me”) and Al Jardine (on “I Know There’s An Answer”). Love also received writing credits on three songs: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “I’m Waiting For The Day,” and “I Know There’s An Answer.”

I Know There's An Answer

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How did the album get its title?

According to Brian Wilson, the group had decided to call the album Pet Sounds before they visited San Diego Zoo for the cover photoshoot. He says the title was inspired by three things; his two dogs, whose barks were recorded and used as effects at the end of “Caroline (No)”; Phil Spector (whose initials were the same as Pet Sounds); and the idea that the music on the album was very personal and featured his “pet” (as in favorite) sounds.

Why was it mixed in mono?

As a youngster, Brian Wilson took a blow to the head from a child wielding a lead pipe. It resulted in 98% deafness in his right ear. As a consequence, Wilson was unable to process sounds in stereo, which accounts for Pet Sounds being mixed and released in a monaural configuration. Also, the album’s monophonic presentation was not deemed unusual when it was released in May 1966. Stereo wasn’t yet the norm in home audio.

How was the album received?

The Beach Boys’ and Capitol Records initially considered the album a commercial disappointment; all but two of the group’s previous eleven LPs had enjoyed higher chart positions than Pet Sounds, which stalled at No. 10 in the US albums rankings.

Critical reactions were mixed. Some rock and pop writers were nonplussed by Pet Sounds while others declared it a masterwork. Contemporary musicians, though, seemed to embrace the album wholeheartedly. The Beatles, in particular, were smitten and inspired by Pet Sounds’ charms. “Lennon and McCartney were blown away,” Brian Wilson later recalled.

In what direction did the Beach Boys’ career go after Pet Sounds?

Though it’s now considered the pinnacle of their work, Pet Sounds heralded the beginning of the band’s commercial decline. Even so, buoyed by the album’s artistic achievement, Brian Wilson had plans for a grandiose follow-up called Smile, which was preceded by a taster single “Good Vibrations” in late 1966. Disagreements, however, between band members combined with legal wrangles with Capitol Records and Wilson’s deteriorating mental health led to the album being shelved. In its stead came a watered-down substitute LP, Smiley Smile, whose deliberate lo-fi production values were the antithesis of Pet Sounds‘ sonic grandeur.

What has the album’s wider impact and legacy been?

Pet Sounds redefined what pop music was and more importantly, showed what it could aspire to be; that there should be no barriers or limits to musical self-expression. As soon as it was released, it fuelled The Beatles’ ambition to reach new creative heights in the recording studio. What resulted was another iconic pop album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But the influence of Brian Wilson’s ambitious song cycle extended far beyond the Fab Four, spanning genres and decades. It sowed the seeds for art-rock, prog-rock and even, some contend, punk. Everyone from David Bowie and Queen to R.E.M., Radiohead, and Weezer have all been touched by Pet Sounds‘ innovations.

Why is Pet Sounds still relevant?

Once far ahead of its time, the album’s innovations have since become the norm in pop and rock. Nevertheless, it continues to inspire musicians in the 21st century not just because of its lush beauty, but also because it still shows that pop music doesn’t have to be formulaic or crassly commercial to resonate deeply with millions of people. The fact that it was groundbreaking without sacrificing accessibility means that Pet Sounds remains a musical touchstone for progressive-minded musicians today.

The 50th-anniversary edition of Pet Sounds can be bought here.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Chandler

    May 17, 2022 at 4:54 am

    One of the best things I’ve ever read about this, my favorite album of all-time. I think the author covered all the bases and this article needs to be read by everyone with a love for popular music. I do feel PET SOUNDS has some flaws, notably the inclusion of “Sloop John B” and the pitch-shifting on Brian’s voice in “Caroline No.” The original version is so much better. And although the two instrumentals have been “accepted” by me, I think the record would have been stronger had there been vocals on them, as these would have been adventurous backing tracks, to be sure, but Brian no doubt could have come up with some amazing lead melodies to fit them. Despite those “flaws,” no other album has the same magic, and listening to it from opening track to the dogs and train at the end is a musical experience like no other.

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