When Pet Sounds was released in the UK, Capitol Records ran adverts in the music press calling it “The most progressive pop album ever! It’s fantastic!” Then, like now, it sometimes seems that British Beach Boys fans “got” the band – and, in particular, where Brian Wilson was trying to take his music – maybe more so than fans at home in America. It has so often been the case that no man is a prophet in his own land, and that old adage certainly applies to musicians and their music.
Listen to the 50th-anniversary edition of Pet Sounds right now.
In the summer of 1966 there were some fans who were confused by The Beach Boys’ 11th studio album – where were the striped shirts and the surfboards? In the intervening five decades, however, Pet Sounds has been acknowledged as a masterpiece, a record that has topped countless polls of the greatest albums ever made, and is revered by musicians and fans alike as the pinnacle of Brian Wilson’s songwriting, production and all-round creative genius.
Brian began seriously working on his masterpiece on Tuesday, 18 January 1966, at Western Recorders, and continued for 27 sessions spread over three months at four separate Los Angeles studios. This was an unprecedented amount of studio hours to be devoted to one album, but Brian was in pursuit of perfection. Just take a listen to any of the tracking sessions released on the various reissues of Pet Sounds: Brian was totally focused and demanded nothing less from everyone who worked on the project.
‘Let’s Go Away For Awhile’ was recorded that first day, with Take 18 of what was then called ‘Untitled Ballad’ the master. Among those in the studio were guitarists Al Casey and Barney Kessel; saxophonists Jim Horn and Plas Johnson; Carol Kaye on bass; and the ever-present Hal Blaine on drums. The rest of The Beach Boys were over 5,000 miles away, in Sendai, Japan, on tour with new man Bruce Johnston, who had replaced Brian in The Beach Boys’ road band, but was also becoming an integral part of the studio group.
By 9 February, eight sessions had taken place, and on this day the remainder of The Beach Boys joined Brian in the studio for what proved to be a difficult day for all concerned. Brian was frustrated that they could not seem to handle some of the complexities of the vocals he was demanding from them, and some of the band thought this new music was too radical a departure from their “sound” – a hit-making concoction no better illustrated than on ‘Barbara Ann’, which had been released as a UK single that same week, having already been a No.2 hit to The Beatles’ chart-topping ‘We Can Work It Out’ on the Billboard Hot 100.
By the end of the month they were over halfway through the Pet Sounds sessions, including working on a song that a Capitol Records memo refers to as “‘Good, Good, Good Vibrations’, the preliminary track from the album”, though, in the end, the song was not included on Pet Sounds. The final session for the album was held on 11 April, when the vocals for ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and ‘God Only Knows’ were finally completed to Brian’s exacting standards.
Brian mastered the album five days later, and it was released in the US exactly a month after that. The album’s title was chosen by Mike Love, in reflection of the fact that the music on the record was very much made up of Brian’s “pet” sounds. Despite all the effort, the beauty of the record, its innovative nature and the brilliance of Brian’s creative genius, it stalled at No.10 on the Billboard album chart. Brian was mortified.
On Monday, 16 May 1966, the day of Pet Sounds’ US release, Bruce Johnston arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport carrying a copy of the album. The following day, in his suite at the Waldorf Hotel, Bruce played the album in its entirety for John Lennon and Paul McCartney – not once, but twice. After the two Beatles left the Waldorf they went straight back to Paul’s house and there, inspired by Brian’s incredible music, they worked on the introduction to their song ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, which later appeared on Revolver.
“Pet Sounds blew me out of the water,” Paul recalled in 2003. “First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life – I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard this album.”
Despite its disappointing chart position in the US, the album fared far better across the Atlantic, reaching No.2, the highest UK chart placing of the band’s albums to that point.
Just what is it that makes Pet Sounds so amazing? The vocals include Brian’s most poignant ever performance, on the sublime ‘Caroline No’; Mike Love shines on ‘Here Today’; and Carl Wilson turns in a heart-stopping tour de force, ‘God Only Knows’. If you get a chance, listen to the a cappella mixes of the songs included on the most recent box set reissue of the album. The complexity of the arrangements are staggering, and yet the band were all so young. Brian himself was still only 23; Mike, the oldest member of the group, had turned 25 during its recording; Carl Wilson was still only 19, Dennis Wilson was 21 years old; and Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine were also both 23.
On ‘God Only Knows’ it is just Carl, Brian and Bruce singing. When they finish their vocal on the a cappella version, a voice asks, “How was that? Was that cool?” It’s Bruce Johnston speaking, and it is the perfect coda for not just the song, but also the album itself.
Pet Sounds is arguably the coolest record of all time. The kind of record that makes life worth living, reaffirming the notion that pop music is the most admired art form in the world.
And Pet Sounds is art.
The 50th-anniversary edition of Pet Sounds can be bought here.