Delving deep into ‘Pet Sounds’, the Beach Boys concept album that revolutionised the music industry
American rock band The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds as their 11th studio album on May 16, 1966, under the record label of Capitol Records and it would change the course of popular music in an instant.
Formed in California in 1961, The Beach Boys began life as a garage band but slowly transition their sound into the world of rock music having become immersed within the ‘California Sound’. Their music drew inspirations from traditional vocal harmonies found in pop music, rock ‘n’ roll and, like many at the time, the vibrant R&B sounds. Not content at stopping just there, creating their own unique output and under Brian Wilson’s direction, the band often incorporated classical or jazz elements in wonderfully innovative ways.
The Beach Boys’ rise throughout their career started with their debut album, Surfin’ Safari. Their second record would go on to reach number two in the US and lasted 78 weeks in the Billboard album chart in what also became their first ever gold record. Not resting on the early success, the band soon followed it up with the release of new material in the shape of Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe, two albums which once again shot into the top 10 charts. In fact, Little Deuce Coupe hit platinum when it was released, making it their first album to achieve the success. In such a short span of time, The Beach Boys became an immensely popular band and further established their position at the top of the American music industry. Continuing their rise, the group released six more albums which, unsurprisingly, all achieved the same levels of commercial triumph. In spite of the British invasion in the music industry across the USA, The Beach Boys maintained their dominance in prolific fashion.
With 10 albums under his belt and firmly in control of the band’s output, Brian Wilson went back into the studio to record the band’s 11th and critically acclaimed album Pet Sounds. Being compared to The Beatles at that time, Wilson wanted to make a statement with his newest project. Initially, it was met with a lukewarm critical and commercial response in the United States, peaking at number 10 on the Billboard chart, lower than the band’s preceding albums. However, across the pond in the UK, the album was favourably received by critics and peaked at number two, remaining in the top ten for six months. That said, the success came as little surprise considering that the album was being promoted by Derek Taylor who, of course, was The Beatles’ former press officer. Responding to Brian’s request to reinvent the band’s image, Taylor devised a promotion campaign with the tagline “Brian Wilson is a genius”. The album was promoted as “the most progressive pop album ever” and Taylor’s prestige was crucial in offering a credible perspective to those on the outside, and his efforts are widely recognised as instrumental in the album’s UK triumph.
The album was produced, arranged, and almost entirely composed by Brian Wilson who worked alongside guest lyricist Tony Asher, a creative who was working as a jingle writer at that time. His goal, with lofty ambitions, was to create “the greatest rock album ever made”, a cohesive piece of work with no filler tracks, a feature that was mostly unheard of at a time when 45 rpm singles were considered more noteworthy than full-length LPs. At this point in time, Wilson had stopped touring with his band and instead started to focus predominantly on writing and recording. This led him down a different stylistic and lyrical path, one which finally represented a bridge between Wilson’s progressive musical conceptions and ideas and the band’s traditional pre-1966 approach.
In the month of April 1965, Wilson consumed a consistent amount of LSD and started suffering from auditory hallucinations. In a mind-bending period, Wilson considered this to be a “very religious experience” and also believed, quite obviously, that the LSD influenced the writing of Pet Sounds because it “brought out some of the insecurities in me, which I think went into the music.” In July of the same year, he started recording the backing track for ‘Sloop John B’, which was the second track of the album. However, after laying down some of the vocal materials, he set aside the song and started working on another Beach Boys album instead. Later that year, however, he devoted the last three months to polishing the vocals of ‘Sloop John B’ and recorded new materials for the album. Finally, in the month of December, Wilson contacted Asher, after hearing about his writing abilities from his friend Loren Schwartz, to collaborate lyrically as he wanted to do “something completely different” with someone he had never worked before. Asher accepted the offer and, within ten days, they were writing together. Asked why he felt Asher was the right collaborator, Wilson responded that he “thought he was a cool person” and was impressed that Asher had known Schwartz, “a very brainy guy, a real verbal type person.”
Following their introduction, Wilson and Asher wrote together over a two-to-three week period at Wilson’s home, likely between January and February 1966. A typical writing session started either with Wilson playing a melody or chord patterns that he was working on, by discussing a recent record that Wilson liked the feel of, or by discussing a subject that Wilson had always wanted to write a song about. They referred to their rough musical sketches as “feels”, per the vernacular of the time. To inspire creativity, they sometimes smoked marijuana together, of course. Asher maintained that he served mainly as a source of second opinions for Wilson as he worked out possible melodies and chord progressions, although the two did trade ideas as the songs evolved. On his role as co-lyricist, he said, “The general tenor of the lyrics was always his…and the actual choice of words was usually mine. I was really just his interpreter.”
Often, throughout the years, Pet Sounds has been considered by many as a concept album. Fuelling the debates, Brian Wilson himself described the project as an “interpretation” of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound production technique when he stated: “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. It wasn’t really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album; it was really a production concept album.”
In comparison to previous Beach Boys albums, Pet Sounds distinguished itself in several unique ways. The album had a greater sense of depth and warmth, it had a more inventive use of harmony and chord voicings and, of course, the album celebrates a prominent use of percussive elements as a key feature compared to driving drum backbeats that were played previously. This album refined the themes and arrangement style of Wilson, including clear tempo changes, metrical ambiguity and unusual tone colours that weren’t usually available in 1966 pop music. The album had wide melodic intervals and instrumentation while parts of the compositions and orchestral arrangements were experimental in nature. Wilson’s arrangements combined traditional rock set-ups with unconventional selections of instruments and complex layers of vocal harmonies.
Continually pushing boundaries, many of the instruments used by Wilson were alien to rock music, including glockenspiel, ukulele, accordion, electro-theremin, bongos, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, trombone, Coca-Cola bottles, and other odd sounds such as bicycle bells. The number of unique instruments for each track average to about a dozen different experiments. Electric and acoustic basses were frequently doubled, as was typical for the era’s pop music, and played with a plectrum. Drums were not arranged in a traditional manner of keeping time, but instead to provide rhythmic texture and colour. The two instrumental tracks, ‘Let’s Go Away for A While’ and ‘Pet Sounds’, were originally recorded as backing tracks for existing songs but, by the time the album neared completion, Wilson decided that the tracks worked better without vocals and further demonstrated his unique ability to adapt.
Similar to subsequent experimental rock LPs by Frank Zappa, The Beatles and the Who, Pet Sounds featured counter textural aspects that called attention to every aspect of the album’s recording techniques. Tape effects were limited to slapback echo and reverb and the album was mixed in a single nine-hour session. Most of the session was spent mixing down the vocals to fit with the instrumentals, which had already been locked into one mono track. The album, which is impossibly hard to pigeonhole, is often considered within the canon of psychedelic rock… among the others, of course.
Pet Sounds is rightly recognised as an ambitious and sophisticated piece of work that advanced the field of music production to lengths previously deemed unimaginable, setting a higher standard in music composition and numerous precedents in its recording. In rock music, Pet Sounds marked the first occasion in which doubling was used for virtually every instrument, a technique previously limited to classical composers and orchestrators. According to some, this album single-handedly created the idea of ‘baroque pop’, heavily influencing the rise of power pop in the process. The pioneering record also marks the origin of progressive pop, a genre which led to the eventual creation of progressive rock. Through Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson was heralded as the leading figure of the “art-rock” movement and this album was—and still is—influential to all musicians worth their salt.