Released on this day in 1966 there was one album that sincerely changed the face of American culture and utterly redefined pop music forever. We’re revisiting the brilliant Pet Sounds.
We take a look back at how The Beach Boys, a band previously built on the fundamentals of pop and the purity of having a good time, would go on to challenge the great and the good of the experimental music world and, in turn, define an entire generation. The album to do it? Pet Sounds. The record that would cement Brian Wilson as an intense and indelible genius and provide the sixties stepping stone for kids to go from dance hall giggles to mind-altering dimensional travel.
It’s December 23rd 1964, onboard a flight from L.A to Houston. A troubled man lays in the aisle shrieking and crying, his sound only dampened by the pillow clutched to his face. His brothers try to comfort him in vain, and when the plane lands at its destination, he is eventually coerced and escorted to his hotel room, where he finally regains some composure. This man is Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
The band had been touring non-stop for the past few years, and after this latest breakdown, Brian Wilson called time on touring and informed the band he would have to be replaced for live performances. This was the only way for him to create more songs for the band.
Fast forward almost a year to around November 1965, and Brian is sat with friends in his apartment when another friend arrives late to the party with a copy of ‘Rubber Soul’.
Wilson recalls, “I don’t know if it had been released yet? But he had it, and so we put it on the record player and, wow. As soon as I started hearing it. I loved it. I mean, loved it!”. That night Wilson declared that he couldn’t think of an album with a better collection of songs. He would set to work the following day, making what would later be known as Pet Sounds.
Wanting to depart from his usual collaborators, Wilson contacted Tony Asher, a former Ad agency worker who had been writing jingles and radio skits for Max Factor cosmetics, amongst others. The Beach Boys were overdue a new album, and with the band away on touring duties and the label frothing at the mouth, Wilson and Asher set about writing.
Although Wilson devised all the songs themes and lyrical content, Asher served as an interpreter. The final placement of words was largely attributed to him — and he deserves tremendous credit. They would sit and talk about life and love and relationships to set a kind of mood for the sessions, then sit and work at a piano with Brian’s ideas.
“It felt like we were writing an autobiography,” recalled Asher, “but oddly enough, I wouldn’t limit it to Brian’s autobiography […] We were working in a somewhat intimate relationship, and I didn’t know him at all, so he was finding out who I was, and I was finding out who he was”
Between January and April 1966, Wilson enlisted the services of a group of classically trained session musicians, dubbed “The Wrecking Crew”, something devised by the ensemble’s drummer Hal Blaine because some of the older session players thought they would ‘Wreck’ the music industry with their rock and roll stylings.
These were the same session musicians Phil Spector utilised in creating his now legendary “Wall Of Sound” recording concept. Although Spector was only 26, he had a string of hits to his name and produced for some years. Brian was only 23 and suddenly had all these older musicians at his disposal; the opportunities were endless.
The sessions were very stop-start with some days consisting of just meetings in the studio, with others being cut short because people weren’t achieving Wilson’s vision. A lot of experimentation took place with the use of, at the time, very unconventional recording techniques and instrumentation. In an excerpt from tape recordings, Wilson can be heard asking an engineer if it would be possible to bring a horse into the sessions.
When The Beach Boys first listened to the sessions upon their return from Japan, there was a mixed reaction. Mike Love, in particular, was very unhappy with some of the lyrical themes and refused to sing the lyrics Asher and Wilson had written. “People always thought Brian was a good-time guy,” recalled Dennis Wilson, “until he started releasing those heavy, searching songs on Pet Sounds. But that stuff was closer to his personality and perceptions.”
There was great fear at the time of messing with a formula that had been largely successful for the group across America. Wilson’s intention to make the group grow musically and compete with the likes of The Beatles and Phil Spector was met with robust resistance by the band and management.
However, after some refining of the lyrics largely to appease Love, the album was finished costing Capitol records around $500,000 in today’s money — this made it one of the most expensive albums ever. The record executives were completely baffled and disappointed when they heard the final mixes. Instead of sun-drenched pop songs about girls and surfboards, they received an introspective and subversive melancholic masterpiece. Not what they had hoped for at all.
So concerned were they of the commercial failure of the record they hurriedly rushed out a “Beach Boys greatest hits” compilation less than two months after the release of Pet Sounds. The compilation went gold whilst Pet Sounds just scraped into the top ten in the U.S.A. Fortunately, it did better in the U.K largely due to the efforts of Bruce Johnston. In essence, Pet Sounds was pretty much abandoned from birth by the ones who should have been there to help it grow.
If it weren’t for that fateful breakdown on the aeroplane in late 1964 and had he not decided to stop touring, thus creating time and space for himself to work without fear of reprisal from his own band, this LP may never have had time to gestate.
Today, it stands as a testament for any person or artist to vehemently defend their right to enact their own vision. It’s regarded as one of if not the greatest popular LP’s of all time, and it could have gone so differently. Wouldn’t it be nice if he hadn’t had to wait so long…