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Music

Brian Wilson's reaction to hearing 'Pet Sounds' for the first time says it all

Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys is one of the most iconic records of all time. It saw the band go more psychedelic, bombastic and introspective than they had ever done up until that moment. Upon listening to the opening track for the first time, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, the listener is instantly aware that the band who wrote such sunny surf hits such as ‘I Get Around’, had changed. Fame, mental health issues and drug use had taken their toll, and this was to be the band’s magnum opus. However, the album’s path to greatness was not easy.

The album was not as well-received as Brian Wilson or anyone in the band would have hoped after pouring himself into it for hours on end, and so it had a period of obscurity before it gained reappraisal in the 1970s and ’80s, until the album finally gained the universal acclaim it deserved. Looking back, fans and critics alike hailed the album as an art-pop masterpiece and saw Wilson as a genius who was overdue mountains of praise. 

It is well documented that the initial lukewarm reaction to Pet Sounds nearly destroyed Wilson, as the effort he’d put into writing and producing a project of that magnitude was nothing short of Herculean. During a 1976 Rolling Stone interview with those closest to Wilson, his wife at the time, Marylin Wilson-Rutherford, delivered a candid memory of the musician. She said: “He just told me one night, he says, ‘Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album, the greatest rock album ever made.’ And he meant it”.

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“Boy, he worked his butt off when he was making Pet Sounds,” she remembered. “And I’ll never forget the night that he finally got the final disc, when they finished it, dubbing it down and all that, and he brought the disc home. And he prepared a moment. We went in the bedroom, we had a stereo in the bedroom, and he goes, ‘Okay, are you ready?’ But he was really serious — this was his soul in there, you know? And we just lay there alone all night, you know, on the bed, and just listened and cried and did a whole thing. It was really, really heavy”.

Given that Wilson’s reaction to Pet Sounds‘ release was a defining feature of its path to greatness, Wilson-Rutherford then explained just how the album’s initial failure destroyed Brian. “That really hurt him badly, he couldn’t understand it,” she continued. “It’s like, why put your heart and soul into something? I think that had a lot to do with slowing him down.”

One of the most soul-destroying moments in music history, I think we’re all glad that the band and Wilson eventually got the plaudits they deserved, otherwise it would have been the biggest tragedy in modern music. Brian Wilson’s reaction to hearing the complete record for the first time says it all. He needed it to be a success, there was no alternative.   

Listen to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ below.