“I think it’s a very everlasting album. I’m very proud of the love that went into it. A lot of love went into that album. And people pick up on that too, and they really like it ’cause they feel the love.” – Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys early career trajectory matched that of pop music, itself. The early days of rock n’ roll were defined by catchy and often simplistic pop singles that provided the soundtrack to a new generation who yearned for a voice distinct from their parents’ conventional tone. The Beach Boys delivered with a host of hits that revolved around teenage concerns like girls, cars and surfing, and were pierced by a ray of California sunshine.
From their 1962 debut Surfin’ Safari through to the end of 1965, The Beach Boys released ten studio albums, sometimes three a year. Some of these albums were a repackaging of their singles under a different thematic banner, and others were created specifically to exploit the Christmas market. Then Brian Wilson heard The Beatles’ Rubber Soul.
He later divulged, “I really wasn’t quite ready for the unity. It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs … that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed.” The Beatles’ sixth album made use of the album format as an artistic statement. From beginning to end the album showcased a much more mature songwriting sensibility with tracks like “In My Life” and “Norwegian Wood” taking pop to another level of sophistication. Inspired, Wilson rushed to his wife and proclaimed, “Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!”
There had been some changes with Brian’s position within the Beach Boys and his songwriting. Songs like “In My Room” from 1963’s Surfer Girl showed a more introspective and sentimental side to his character. A year later, he suffered a panic attack on a plane trip back from a show which devastated him. Brian had a more sensitive disposition than his bandmates and was not suited to touring. He felt more freedom recording and once he was off the road and a permanent fixture in the studio, his talent flourished. The Beach Boys Today was proof as with its more textured instrumentation and candid lyrics, the 1965 album was the first true precursor of the album that would become his masterpiece.
When it was released, Pet Sounds wow-ed the critics and the cogniscenti. Brian Wilson had produced and arranged the entire album and had written most of the album along with lyricist Tony Asher. It was an artistic statement and used the album format to its full potential. And his new musical direction, created in the studio while the rest of the band were on tour, helped change the course of pop music.
Like his hero, producer Phil Spector, Brian Wilson used the studio as an instrument and pushed the technical boundaries of four-track recording. He brought in Spector’s go-to-studio-musicians, The Wrecking Crew and although he was not a formally trained musician, he was able to speak their language as he composed the parts on piano and handed them out to the seasoned session players. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it. The musicians felt it was more on a par with a jazz session, bassist Carol Kaye remembering that Brian was, “aware of the variety of tones and timbres that are possible from just one instrument.”
Brian’s complex symphonic compositions and were recognised as having the details of Beethoven, Gershwin and Bach and Leonard Bernstein singled him as “one of today’s most important musicians.” He was hailed the “Mozart of Pop”. His use of a wide spectrum of instruments alien to rock music like the electro-theremin, glockenspiel and harpsichord and sound effects like a train and bicycle bells referenced the exotica of Martin Denny. Somehow Wilson knew how to put it all together: “I have an instinct for music, or a feeling about it, and I’ll have my feelings guide my hands.”
Delivered with the trademark Beach Boys harmonies, the lyrics were more reflective and showed a poignant vulnerability, especially in terms of intense romance and disappointing relationships. And of course, the album featured one of the best pop songs ever and a pinnacle of Wilson’s honest beauty, “God Only Knows”, a favourite of Paul McCartney’s and also the songwriter Jimmy Webb who said, “I love ‘God Only Knows’ and its bow to the baroque that goes all the way back to 1740 and J.S. Bach. It represents the whole tradition of liturgical music that I feel is a spiritual part of Brian’s music.”
All in all, Pet Sounds was a groundbreaking album and not only coincided with, but helped influence pop’s ever-changing landscape by pitching it forward into the future and encouraging others to do the same.