The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds Turns 50

Imagine being 23 years old, on the verge of a mental breakdown, partially deaf, and writing the album that inspired the music of your generation. This image paged, when The Beach Boy’s main Songwriter Brian Wilson wrote Pet Sounds, he was turning out an average of three albums a year. Exhausting, Pet Sounds would become The Beach Boy’s eleventh studio album since they began in 1961, and in essence, it would change everything. At the time, Wilson had quit live touring to focus on writing and recording, while his brothers and his cousin presented his work to the masses. Determined to do something different, between the summer of 1965 and spring of 1966, he would fight through internal disagreements on the direction of the music, and finally, on May 16th of 1966, Pet Sounds was released to the world. 

The sad fact is that in today’s climate, Pet Sounds may have never got recorded; for its time, it was the most expensive album to create. Unlike any Rock album anyone had ever created, it took many months in the studio to perfect, employed world class session musicians to play the music, and pushed against the boundaries of modern music. These days, the record companies would not take the risk, and in some ways, Pet Sounds, at the time, shelved follow-up Smile is the reason they will not allow bands to get so carried away. Hampering Wilson’s creative impulses, the band and the record label did not understand the direction of the material, hence resulting in Pet Sounds official 1967 follow-up being the more marketable Smiley Smile.

The real progression of Pet Sounds, Smile did not finally emerge until 2004, some 38 years later after Brian destroyed the original recordings in a breakdown that would see him confined to his bedroom, playing piano in a sandpit and falling under the control of manipulative Dr. Eugene Landy years later. Tragic to see the deterioration of Wilson’s mind, at one point, he was convinced he had started a huge fire in Chicago by recording music written about the cow who had started the deadly great fire of Chicago in 1871. 

In a time before computers and synths, Wilson incorporated some of the strangest ensemble of instruments imaginable, from plastic bins, bicycle bells, and toy kazoos, to the almost alien theremin. With over 60 guests and session musicians including Carol Kaye and Glen Campbell, Pet Sounds is less of a Beach Boys album, but more of a Brian Wilson album. This said, the band only came in to put the vocals on the top at the end, with Tony Asher working with Wilson on the lyrics. Standing out with hits that included “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Caroline, No,” and “Sloop John B,” “God Only Knows” must lay claim to being the best song ever written, and the only one on Pet Sounds to feature Carl Wilson on vocals.

A massive investment, costing $70,000 at a time, when houses could be bought for a few thousand, the amount of trust placed in Wilson by the label was huge. Perhaps the pressure led to Wilson’s failing mental state. Add on top label, family, and personal pressures, Pet Sounds was not an immediate success in America. Although it scored big in the UK first, reaching #2 in the charts and staying in the charts for 6 months. Sometimes taking time for the public to understand excellence, it continued to sell in huge numbers ever since, and its success and critical acclaim have grown to garner it the title, perhaps, the greatness Rock-n-Roll record ever.  

To describe Pet Sounds as a Pop masterpiece, somewhat understates its significance. It contains elements of Folk, Rock, Symphonic, and Jazz, defying boundaries. It also focuses on more than just the lyrical content while Wilson painted pictures with the music. Art in its purist form, the sounds he heard in his head found their way into music, and that sometimes meant being unconventional in approach. 

Often cited as the first concept album, Pet Sounds was certainly a diverse collection of songs, including two instrumentals, “Let’s Go Away For A While” and of course title-track, “Pet Sounds.” Both innovative and contemporary, the tracks stay true to the trademark harmonies that defined the band. All this in mind, it could be said that Pet Sounds conjures up the feelings of a young man as he progresses from childhood into adulthood. For this reason, it was a coming of age album. Both fun and serious, there were dark currents under bright colours, with its Rock-n-Roll heart giving it a liveliness that captures the spirit of the time.

It is difficult to listen to Pet Sounds and not smile. Such is the joy of the music, but yet it was written by such a troubled soul, who had endured a great deal of pressure. This is something amazingly evident today in the song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Capturing the life and times of Wilson during the Pet Sounds era, on August 15th of 2015, the Bill Pohlad film Love & Mercy engaged Wilson/The Beach Boys fans of all ages. A shifting timeline of different points in Wilson’s adult life, the film was directly overseen by Wilson and his wife Melinda, to assure its accuracy. 

As far as Pet Sounds, for avid collectors, it has been a great challenge to collect all the versions, since it has been released and re-released in mono, stereo, digital, special editions, and anniversary re-mixes. In addition, there is a live version following the world tour which saw Wilson and his band, The Wondermints, take the album in full out on the road in 2000. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, there is The Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour, which began back in March of 2016, with more than 70 shows worldwide performed. Continuing the commerce of the album, Wilson will continue the tour come March of 2017 through the end of May. 

To put it simply, Pet Sounds is the album of a lifetime. It inspired greatness in others, showed the way for how sound could be layered and experimented with, and brought the musical genius out of Brian Wilson. A Mozart for the modern age, at 74 years old, he is the only one of his three Wilson brothers left alive. No question feeling the hurt of their loss, witnessing the love in his eyes when he sees the reaction of audiences to his music is humbling. Five decades old, Pet Sounds is iconic, but yet still just as fresh and exciting today.

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