Rock Albums that Changed the World: Pet Sounds

Mike Love would probably tell you that Brian Wilson hijacked the Beach Boys in 1966 but in truth, Brian had already commandeered the plane and was performing barrel rolls long before he set out to create the songs and musical arrangements that became the landmark work of imagination and ambition, the conceptual and pop music masterpiece that we know as Pet Sounds.

As early as their 1963 Surfer Girl album (the first where Brian Wilson is given full production credit), we can hear Brian breaking with Tin Pan Alley, 50s doo-wop, and surf rock norms in subtle and less subtle ways. For instance, in the seemingly innocent ode to his 1932 Ford hot rod, “Little Duece Coupe” (“deuce” refers to the year of that classic Ford Coupe’s year of vintage), Brian slyly inverts the conventional ii-V (“two-five”) doo-wop progression, basing the chorus on a V-ii (”five-two”) progression instead. And listen to their ode to introverted adolescents, the pretty ballad, “In My Room” — on the long sustain of the word “room” in each refrain, you can hear Brian infusing modern chord substitutions into what seems like a pretty traditional 50s doo-wop ballad. Even the seemingly conventional title track, “Surfer Girl” emerges out of the bridge with a glorious key change, like two teenagers stepping out of the surf shack into the blinkering sunlight. The device of an ascending key change is later used to an even greater effect on 1964’s “Don’t Worry Baby,” another gorgeous Brian Wilson ballad set against the backdrop of drag racing, which pushes up a whole key to get into each chorus. And not to get too professorial, but the leaps that Brian employs in the pre-chorus are dissonant 7th intervals — the two of them in succession, ascending by key is a compositional move worthy of J.S. Bach:

But she looks in my eyes
And makes me realize, and she says…

“Don’t Worry Baby”

The fact that these early Beach Boys songs are all relatively simple only makes these harmonic and melodic devices more effective when they occur. Brian Wilson, in addition to having an inventive ear, also has an artist’s sense of scale. The poignancy of a lot of these early songs can be tied to Brian’s compositional mastery under analysis, but we don’t hear music that way, by putting it under a microscope. And the Beach Boys, even at their most sophisticated, always lead with their hearts, something Brian keyed into early and held onto all along the way.

As time went by, Brian’s writing showed even more development. “Warmth of the Sun” has a complex chord progression at the level of Brahms, as does “Girls on the Beach,” while “I Get Around” displays a dense intricacy in terms of chords, instrumental arrangement, and vocal arrangement too — but you’d never suspect that these innocent surf rock classics hide any of these complexities until you sit down and try to play them on your guitar. That’s because that signature Beach Boys earnestness is at the forefront and these tales of teenage life in Southern California are so vivid and immediate.

“I try to keep it sounding simple, no matter how complex it really is.”

– Brian Wilson, liner notes, Friends album, 1968

All of these songs I’ve spotlighted portray a compositional sophistication surpassing even the Beatles and we haven’t even gotten out of 1964. The next year would bring “California Girls” and much of the rock world would catch up to Brian Wilson, but with his competitive spirit, the growing creativity of his peers would only spur him on even further.

It’s one of rock’s most gratifying conundrums that its most accomplished and prodigious writers and musicians are either completely self-taught or have launched a whole approach to music from just a few childhood music lessons. Frank Zappa started out with just a snare drum as a kid but by high school had begun educating himself at the public library by listening to the works of modern composers and looking at the accompanying inscrutable scores, going on to compose major orchestral works of his own. Neither Lennon nor McCartney could read music but kept their ears open to the music around them (Paul was especially eclectic and curious in his taste). Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix — almost all of the original geniuses of rock didn’t have any formal training but grew up in musical households and each one was born with a great ear, something that cannot be taught.

Brian Wilson could mimic melodies as a baby, said his father Murray Wilson, himself an avid amateur songwriter. Though it was later determined that Brian was nearly deaf in his right ear, it’s undisputed that when it came to music, Brian could just hear it. To his great joy, he found the great love of his life very early — starting on a toy accordion, Brian then moved to the piano, and with the benefit of perfect pitch, started learning songs by ear and developing a self-taught concept of music theory. 

All through junior high, Brian would obsess over his small transistor radio, hearing a new song and picking it out on the piano, identifying each feeling and trying to decipher how it was evoked. Along with Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Bill Haley, Brian was a fan of Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and especially the music of George Gershwin. As early as age 12, he was consumed by the records of the jazz harmony group The Four Freshmen, teaching himself jazz theory and vocal arranging by picking apart songs from his favorite album of theirs, Four Freshmen and 5 Trombones. Here’s a sample of what held the young Brian so spellbound:

“You Stepped Out of a Dream”

Somewhere along the way, brother Carl taught Brian how to play the bass guitar, the instrument he would play onstage with the Beach Boys, an instrument that undoubtedly helped Brian to develop and understand his self-taught music theory even more deeply, root movement being such a vital aspect of every chord progression (I-vi-ii-V-I, etc.). As Brian’s music developed, so did his bass lines so that by the time of Pet Sounds, his bass innovations were becoming a signature — the “Brian Wilson” device of replacing the expected root note (i.e., the C of a C major chord) with the 3rd or especially the 5th of a chord as its bass note is part and parcel of the originality and the sound that Brian brought to the rock world. Elton John specifically cites Brian as the inspiration for the rootless chords of his masterwork, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” See if this doesn’t evoke a particularly “Brian” sound with that in mind:

“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”

Once the Beach Boys were making records, Brian accepted an invitation to sit in and quietly observe some Phil Spector sessions and before long, Brian was producing his own Beach Boys albums, applying what he had learned, using his own interpretation of his famed “wall of sound” technique to his own productions. Spector is on record saying the admiration was mutual, that Brian Wilson is one of the only people in the music business he truly respected. Brian would eventually grow into the first artist-producer to use the studio as his instrument, something he pioneered for the Beatles and countless other artists to follow. But no one did it better than Brian, and dare say, with Pet Sounds, Brian even improved on Spector’s techniques as well.

The Beach Boys were incredibly popular with teenage America, but even more significantly, Brian Wilson’s music, his production, and the ambitious scope of his vision was a profound inspiration to his fellow musicians, a pervasive influence that continues to this day. George Martin is quoted as saying that Brian was the musician who made the biggest impact on the Beatles, the one who challenged them the most. That mutual one-upmanship between Brian Wilson and the Beatles spawned a musical renaissance that reverberated through the music world, throughout the culture and the world at large. 

“In My Room”

There was nothing easy about growing up in the Murray Wilson household. Himself the child of an abusive, alcoholic father, Murray was a strict disciplinarian, and by all accounts, a toxic narcissist around whom everyone in the family needed to navigate. Of his three sons, Carl, the compliant youngest and family mediator, was the least traumatized by his dysfunctional childhood. Dennis, the rebellious middle son, was in constant conflict with his father (often physical) and it left him angry, disillusioned, battling with substance abuse through most of his shortened life (he drowned in a drunken stupor in 1983 at age 39). Brian, the eldest son retreated into music as an escape from his father’s cruelty, but psychological issues plagued him as a teenager until the onset of mental illness at age 23, which grew in severity until he required treatment as an adult.

But music was indeed a refuge and young Brian sang in the church choir and encouraged his brothers to harmonize with him, developing a vocal blend that would later coalesce into the trademark Beach Boys sound. Family singalongs included cousin Mike Love and his family, Mike taking the bass part, Brian the high part, Carl in the middle and Audree Wilson, the boys’ Mother on the fourth part. Soon, Brian and his friend Al Jardine who sang with the folk group, The Islanders, would conceive of the Beach Boys and invite Carl and Mike Love into the band. Brother Dennis, whose singing was no great asset but whose surfing obsession would provide the cornerstone of the band, was eventually asked to join as well (Audree Wilson had a knowing hand in forcing the decision). 

By the late-50s, a full-blown craze was underway centered around the Southern California surfing life with surf language, fashion, movies, and music invading the pop culture. Starting as an instrumental-only offshoot of rock and roll with surf guitar king Dick Dale and bands like The Ventures, the “surf rock” genre would by the early-60s encompass vocal pop songs as well, primarily due to the success of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys which hinged on brother Dennis’s enthusiasm for surfing. Brian would grill Dennis for information and gather all of the details, the techniques, the slang, the best surfing beaches as the basis of songs. So, while he is the least musical member of the family, as the group’s only surfer, Dennis Wilson nevertheless had a vital impact on the image, purpose, and intention of the pivotal American band, the Beach Boys.

Starting with their first single, 1961’s “Surfin’” (which became a local hit in L.A., reaching #3 on KFWB’s “Fabulous Forty”) and quickly scoring a national Top 20 single in 1962 with “Surfin’ Safari,” the Beach Boys would soon become a hit-making machine, their singles getting into the Top 10 ten times in the four years leading up to Pet Sounds, and seven of their albums going Top 10 as well. A lot of their hits had surfing themes, but hot rods, heartbreak, and other adolescent crises figured in as well. What was constant in their lyrics (usually written by Brian but sometimes with the help of Mike Love) are genuine feelings and a dedication to the real details of teenaged life in Southern California, all adding to an authenticity and earnestness that became the signature of Beach Boys songs. Combined with Brian’s musical skills it’s no wonder that those early songs have earned a permanent place in the timeline of rock music and the culture of the early to mid-60s.

“Sweet Little Sixteen”

While Brian Wilson did display a creative impulse to subvert the doo-wop, Tin Pan Alley, and rock and roll musical norms that he heard all around him, he was not the only creative force in the band and their early music was often derivative. They even went as far as to base their first Top 10 hit entirely on the pre-existing Chuck Berry song, “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Even though Brian Wilson is to this day listed as sole composer of, “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” acting manager Murray Wilson, when approached, signed the copyright of the song over to Chuck Berry to avoid a costly lawsuit, not telling the band. So devoted were they as fans, the Chuck Berry influence is nearly constant in The Beach Boys’ early rock and roll songs, and Carl would lift Chuck Berry riffs here and there, famously appropriating the entire iconic “Johnny B. Goode” guitar intro for their hit song, “Fun, Fun, Fun.” If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, what’s outright larceny? The same question could be asked of Chuck Berry. He seems to have nicked his most famous riff from the guitar intro of Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman.”

“Ain’t That Just Like a Woman”

Just as Carl Wilson owed a huge debt to Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys vocal sound is a direct outgrowth of the 50s doo-wop ensemble sound, driven by Mike Love’s distinctive bass parts and the three and four-part harmonies that became their signature. Also influential on the band were the pioneering country-influenced Everly Brothers, who also deeply inspired the Beatles with their tight harmonies and crooning style. Brian also loved Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as well as the flagship Phil Spector vocal groups, the Ronnettes and the Crystals, and his dedication to the complex harmony music of the Four Freshmen was fundamental as well. 

As influential as all of these sources were to the band, perhaps the most profound influence was exerted by their manager, promoter, agent, publisher, business consultant, and head cheerleader, Murray Wilson. Yes, Brian was a musical prodigy and the group had their own sound, but the lion’s share of credit for their early success should probably go to Brian’s father, Murray Wilson, whose endless prodding, tenacious hawking of their music, and savvy business sense helped get and keep the Beach Boys songs in the charts and, through the lucrative publishing company he set up, helped keep money in the band’s’ bank accounts. Murray negotiated a recording contract with Capitol Records that, while modest (securing the group only 5% of profits from their record sales), also kept them busy with a dense schedule of contractual obligations, ensuring that they’d be prolific if Brian and the band could keep up. The Beach Boys recorded a whopping eight albums in two years (6 of them made the Billboard Top Ten). Add to that the constant touring Murray set up to promote the records and boost sales, and it’s easy to see that the boys were eventually being worn down by the constant demands of being part of a successful group — especially Brian, who bore most of the responsibility and was the least well-equipped to deal with the pressure.

Brian’s first mental break came in the form of a full-on panic attack on a late-December 1964 flight to a show in Houston. This followed a more manageable anxiety attack on the flight starting a short Australian tour six weeks earlier. The claustrophobic space of the plane couldn’t have helped, but it was the enormous pressure that had gotten to Brian despite the fact that by that time the brothers had begun the process of removing their father from the head of their affairs.

The separation from Murray Wilson began in 1964 and by the next year, their father’s only business tie to Brian, Carl, Dennis, and the band was through Sea of Tunes, the publishing company he’d been running for them since 1962. His overbearing, belligerent manner was just too much of a psychic drag on the group and a formal, contractual break was made. But rather than come as a relief to Brian, the split with his father brought on depression and loss, a pain he managed with music, but also with drugs.

Even though Brian wouldn’t start taking LSD until the following year, the marijuana he had started smoking in 1964 was not a safe choice for Brian, who eventually would be formally diagnosed as “schizoaffective with a mild form of manic depression” (the former term having to do with having symptoms of schizophrenia, in Brian’s case, hearing voices and other auditory hallucinations). Brian’s infamous doctor Eugene Landy’s 1984 misdiagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia was later retracted, but the damage from years of drug abuse to Brian’s brain has been documented and treated medically. But for the time being in 1964, smoking marijuana did have the benefit of relieving stress for Brian and it prodded his creativity, despite its hallucinogenic dangers.

After that late-December flight in 1964, Brian let the band know that he had decided that he would not continue as a performing Beach Boy, but would continue to make his contributions as their chief songwriter, arranger, and record producer. The guys struggled with understanding the seriousness of Brian’s condition, (Mike Love thought Brian was just homesick) but brother Carl supported the decision and helped to forge a way forward. Glen Campbell, who had played on some Beach Boys sessions was hired on, but was replaced with the super-talented Bruce Johnston when the rigors of singing Brian’s high parts and simultaneously playing the complex bass lines proved too much… for Glen Campbell. Johnston remains a Beach Boy to this day, only taking off a few years in the 70s to try out a solo career and write a #1 hit single for Barry Manilow, the ironically titled “I Write the Songs.”

“Kiss Me Baby”

Without the pressures of the road, and with pot opening up Brian’s creativity, it’s here when we start to see Brian utilizing a fuller palette of sounds, the recording studio as his instrument, a maturing of lyrical subject matter, and a more adventurous musical sense, all trends that would come to full fruition on Pet Sounds, but evident on the two preceding 1965 albums, Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights). Brian admitted that the entirety of side B of the former was written while high, and the slower, more exploratory treatments called for expanded orchestration, and a growing reliance on session players, most often the seasoned pros of L.A.’s legendary Wrecking Crew. Brian’s broadening ear for orchestration would culminate in “California Girls,” his most ambitious production to date, but was also apparent on “Let Him Run Wild,” “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” and even “Help Me, Rhonda.” The Musician’s Union contract sheets show no less than 35 musicians contributing to the Summer Days (And Summer Nights) album.

Lyrically, there’s not a single surf or hot rod song on either 1965 album, Brian and Mike Love (whose hand in writing the lyrics is nearly omnipresent) intentionally branching out into less juvenile themes, to varying degrees of success, but it’s a welcome development and one that advances the Beach Boys as a band in step with their musical growth. And of course, Bob Dylan was a looming presence for all rock lyricists — by 1965, with his landmark first electric album, Bringing It All Back Home, the gauntlet had been thrown. Everywhere you looked, artists and bands had begun to dig deeper, to think more poetically and the Beach Boys were no exceptions. Later, when the deeply emotional, searching songs of Pet Sounds would surprise Beach Boys fans, Dennis Wilson would look back and explain that that sort of emotional terrain was more of Brian’s natural habitat than the good-time summer fun vibe that Brian and the band put out on their early singles.

The next Beach Boys album was a quickie. Party! was billed as one long continuous singalong, recorded “live” sitting around with acoustic instruments (the songs were actually pre-recorded and mixed individually in a recording studio with party atmosphere mixed in). Featuring the rowdy hit single, “Barabara Ann,” the album was almost all covers, including three Beatles songs. Released in time for Christmas, 1965, Party! was made to convey a sense of togetherness for their audience, but at the height of their popularity (all three 1965 albums charted Top Ten), the Beach Boys were in fact, anything but — the band touring and Brian staying home conceiving of new music and making tracks in the studio. Brian was deeply inspired by the music happening all around him in that watershed year where everything changed, especially the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and intimated to his new wife Marilyn, “Mar, I’m gonna make the greatest rock album ever made.”

Work on Pet Sounds began in late 1965 at home in the laid-back, spacious house Brian and Marilyn bought in the upscale neighborhood above Sunset Boulevard, just north of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Writing mostly at the living room piano, Brian drew divine inspiration from meditation, psychedelic drugs, and the views from the big picture windows, coming up with various musical fragments, known in 60s parlance as “feels.” But by January of 1966, with the band off touring in Japan, Brian knew he was already behind schedule and sought the aid of a songwriting partner who could help him to realize his vision.

Rather than turn to previous collaborators, Brian instinctively knew that to move forward, he’d have to experiment. Seemingly on a whim after bumping into each other at the water cooler between sessions at Western Recorders, Brian invited an acquaintance, budding songwriter Tony Asher to help him put together the new album. Brian originally had met Asher at a party of a mutual friend and gravitated toward the 26-year-old Brit’s easy manner and sophisticated intellect. Asher was granted a three-week sabbatical from his day job at an advertising agency (he was at Western recording jingles), and the two set about forming what would become a loose concept album, possibly the first one ever.

Working on Pet Sounds involved a lot of procrastinating in the kitchen (Brian loved to eat), and talking about anything besides the work, but they would eventually end up at the piano with Brian playing ideas, singing wordlessly, and Tony coming up with lyrical fragments that he would sometimes take home to complete. Being a musician himself, Asher was not shy about building on Brian’s musical ideas, or offering alternatives. Likewise, Brian’s lyric writing skills came into play and in the end, it was often unclear exactly who wrote which line or was fully responsible for which parts of the music. A true collaboration, Pet Sounds resonates with emotional support and the spirit of friendship, and the music is revolutionary in terms of scope and scale. All in all, Pet Sounds amounts to a milestone work, an imaginative masterpiece of music and lyrics, and signifies the first truly ambitious undertaking in rock.

Brian would eventually grow into the first artist-producer to use the studio as his instrument… even improving on Spector’s techniques as well.

Conceived while the band was off touring, the legendary Pet Sounds took shape in many ways as a Brian Wilson solo album. With great care and precision, it was recorded and mixed over the course of four months and 27 session dates, a massive undertaking that involved 57 musicians and a crew of recording engineers. A fascinating document now exists, The Pet Sounds Sessions box set was released in 1997, containing the actual session rehearsal tapes with Brian giving instructions to the players as he honed the arrangements and prodded the precise emotional puzzle piece he was seeking from each instrument.

By the time the band had returned from their tour of Japan in early February much of the basic structures of the backing tracks for the album had been laid down. Sharing his brother’s deep spirituality and understanding his genius, Carl was blown away, but the rest of the band was initially thrown by the general lack of danceable songs and the advanced musicality that they were hearing. The lyrics they were shown proved even more confusing. The infighting over how the Pet Sounds songs fit in with the Beach Boys got pretty heated, with Mike Love and Al Jardine facing off with the Wilson brothers and Bruce Johnston. In the end, some compromises were made over the lyrics and an agreement was made to give Mike Love a signature role in the lead vocals, after which it was settled that, while the album was a departure for the band and indeed a feature for their musical leader, they would put their best effort into bringing Pet Sounds into fruition as the masterpiece they could all clearly hear that it had the potential to be, a decision for which the band has never been given proper appreciation, incidentally. One of the three songs Mike Love had a hand in opens the album.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”

Right out of the gate, the album offers an innovative musical device in the intro of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” We hear a harp idly playing the familiar repeated accompaniment we know from the “Heart and Soul” duet that every amateur pianist has mastered, but with an unexpected twist — halfway through the repeat of the figure, the drums hit, the music shifts, and the vocal arrives “hook-first” in a completely different key, an auspicious beginning to the album. A song about taking the proverbial leap, about crossing boundaries, exceeding limits, and it’s also pretty explicitly about sex, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” expertly sets the wistful, promising tone of Pet Sounds. Musically, there are two accordions, three guitars, a brass section, 2 pianos, 3 different basses, percussion, and the forceful, buoyant drumming of Wrecking Crew leader Hal Blaine. What’s remarkable is that the music still sounds lean and uncluttered — Brian has adopted the scope and size of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique, but he has tamed it, personalized it, and so has made it that more powerful, something he executes all through Pet Sounds and it’s the musical hallmark of the album. The two big influences on Brian’s aspirations, the powerful minimalism he heard in the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and the panoramic sweep and scope of Phil Spector’s productions are somehow fused in a way that only Brian Wilson could achieve, and combined with the ambitious lyrics, the effect is profound, deep, and lasting. The song ends with a dramatic pullback, the tempo slows as Brian savors the act of just dreaming about the future with his beloved. Then, suddenly, a spirited tympani fill launches the coda of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the song fades with classic Beach Boys harmonies, three different melodic ideas in counterpoint, including a Mike Love doo-wop bass part. 

“You Still Believe In Me”

Pet Sounds continues with the equally ambitious, “You Still Believe In Me,” a classically influenced masterwork of vocal harmonies that carries the major themes of the album — vulnerability, emotional support, love, wonder, promise, and humility. Opening with an ethereal single-note unison of Brian’s wordless high vocal doubled with a harpsichord, “You Still Believe In Me” has a very different sound and feel from the opening track. It’s a slow, introspective processional based on a three-measure pattern with a woodwind ensemble against occasional finger cymbal hits as the main musical texture, very tenuous and fragile as it edges toward the title refrain each time at the end of each verse. Under those refrains are a series of complex “Brian Wilson” chords with non-root bass notes on each syllable, settling with dark, uncomfortable tension on the unconventional bVI chord (G major), which resolves into the verse with relief back to the home key of B major — darkness into light. After two verses, Brian sings “I want to cry…” reprising the notes of the intro’s wordless melody on the sustain of “cry,” then repeating it on a sustained “ah” an octave lower. All of this anticipation begs for a payoff and we get it on the third repeat in the form of a huge chorale of Beach Boys voices, one part doubling Brian’s high melody, the other on a Baroque counterpoint line in harmony, resting for a moment on the last sustained note before repeating two more times in the song’s fadeout. “You Still Believe In Me” was written and demoed by Brian with different lyrics under the title, “Ode to Childhood,” the bike horn at the end of the song being that original version’s only remnant, and that nod to the sounds of youth only adds to the wistful quality of “You Still Believe In Me.”

Quite a one-two punch and Pet Sounds has only gotten started. “That’s Not Me” follows with its long sustained organ chords against a punctuated bass line doubled by guitars, supported by busy percussion patterns. The lyrics explore another complex love theme of Pet Sounds, how introspection can first fray but then help solidify a relationship. The story of leaving and returning stronger fits nicely against a musical backdrop that shifts to distant keys and finds its way back again and the minimal two-part musical texture (long, sustained chords against an active bass line, the Beach Boys’ stacked vocals supporting the organ along the way) also helps to tell the story of anxiety and self-reflection leading to personal growth and commitment. 

Each one of the songs of Pet Sounds is a mini-masterpiece of songwriting and arranging innovation. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” is a slow, languid string-orchestrated ballad with a long, serpentine melody over a modernistic chord progression as the verse (A theme) flowing into a simple chorus (B theme) that resolves tentatively into rootless “Brian Wilson” chord (with the 5th in the bass). The instrumental bridge is a short development of the A theme, returning to the chorus as the recapitulation and coda. Music theorists will recognize it as a mini-symphonic three-part form, but its brevity and simple love lyric about being still and treasuring a moment together make it feel like an intro piece to “I’m Waiting for the Day,” another co-write with Mike Love, sung by Brian. It’s a song about lending love, support, and patience to a recently heartbroken object of his affection, and while it’s ostensibly in the realm of teenage romance, its complexity shows that Brian wasn’t the only Beach Boy maturing as a lyricist. Musically, “I’m Waiting for the Day” benefits from contrasting sections; one driven by drums and punctuated rhythms, the other pulling back to quiet idyllic strains with different woodwinds doubling the vocal melody. It’s the type of improvement on the Phil Spector ideas that Brian was hearing and that makes Pet Sounds such a treat. Someone once said that the album was like peeking through a keyhole and seeing a whole universe, and these simple devices like contrasting sections and unique doublings give Pet Sounds the character and indelible stamp that makes it unique, sublime, and sustains it through repeated listenings.

Side A ends with the bossa nova instrumental travelogue piece, “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” and the traditional sailor’s folk song, “Sloop John B,” (the first single issued from the album) which, while not written by Brian and sung mostly by Mike Love, is still tied to Pet Sounds through the masterful arrangement Brian lends it, full of interesting doublings and punctuated by glockenspiel and a web of guitars lines plus a signature busy bass line provided by Wrecking Crew member, Carole Kaye, a mainstay of the Pet Sounds recordings. But typical for Brian, he doubles Kaye’s electric bass with an upright bass played live on the session.

“God Only Knows”

Side B opens with what is generally acknowledged as one of a handful of the most beautiful songs in the rock canon, “God Only Knows.” Blessed with both a gorgeous melody and an inventive, very beautiful set of chord changes, no less than Paul McCartney once revealed that it’s his favorite song of all time (and has been cited by him as the direct inspiration for his own beautiful song, “Here, There, and Everywhere”).  Many notable covers of “God Only Knows” exist, almost all of them slow and dramatic; the original version benefits greatly from a relatively fast tempo and spare but poignant arrangement, the sweetness of Carl’s voice (specially chosen by Brian) coming through as the main feature of the song. There was much concern in the writing of the song over the mention of the sacred name of God in the title, because even though the phrase was a common enough saying, there had yet to be a pop song that made any mention of any sort of deity, except for Kate Smith and “God Bless America.” In the end, the title only adds to the spiritual feel of this very special love song without evoking anything specifically religious.

The next track, “I Know There’s An Answer” had a bit of a rough time in the birth canal, starting life with a different title and slightly different lyrics. “Hang Onto Your Ego” was a song about the search for enlightenment and the pitfalls of seeking it through chemical means. Brian would pay dearly for his heavy indulgence with LSD later in life, so it’s fascinating to see him advising himself of the dangers (the original version is readily available). Apparently the song was too druggy for Mike Love so he offered an alternate lyric and title, but decided to keep the references to tripping. Huh. After some heated arguments, Brian agreed to the very minor changes which are probably an improvement anyway, and “I Know There’s An Answer” was born. Musically, the song is a romp and a high point in terms of energy and intention, relying on a riffing piano doubled with an array of keyboard instruments, a solid bass part (also doubled), driving drums, a signature bass harmonica part, and Glen Campbell’s sudden strumming banjo during its wild solo. 

Pet Sounds rounds out with “Here Today,” another upbeat contemplation featuring the punctuated basslines of Carole Kaye with a message about how heartbreak is so often nested inside of newfound love, moving into “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” a lament essentially about taking the heat for aspiring to make something as audacious as Pet Sounds, also featuring the articulated bass of Carole Kaye and the expert backing of the unsung L.A. session heroes, the Wrecking Crew. One more bossa nova influenced instrumental confection, “Pet Sounds” is included before the breathtaking finale.

“Caroline, No”

All the elements of Pet Sounds are here at the end, but looked at from the other end of the telescope. “Caroline, No” has the percolating bassline, the sustained chords, the softly articulated keyboard pulses, and the fluid woodwind lines, the complex chord progression, even the exotic percussion flavor, plus a gorgeous, soaring melody voiced so caringly and emotionally by Brian himself. It’s got the themes we’ve been accustomed to, promise, wonder, emotional support, friendship — but it’s a sad tale of regret, of innocence lost, told looking backward, asking how it could have happened. This extraordinary shift of perspective at the end of a long journey, makes Pet Sounds not only a pinnacle achievement in American Music, but also earns it a mention in the annals of American Literature. And not incidentally, the album’s final inclusion of the sound of a train passing a station, that sturdiest of American images, it’s bell clanging while our trusty dog barks carries that same symbolism, of life moving on, passing us by as we remain rooted in place, wondering where the future is off to.

As fascinating a tale as the making of the album is the history of what happened after is possibly even more jawdropping. After 10 months of production and a huge budget of $70,000 were sunk into Pet Sounds, Capitol Records was expecting a big commercial payoff. Instead, they got what was to their ears, an introspective, somewhat melancholy collection of songs that didn’t even resemble a Beach Boys product. In the end, the marketing heads at the label were so miffed that Brian had used their funds to create something with ambitions beyond the merely commercial, that they refused to promote the album (this despite the three major hit singles emanating from Pet Sounds). Instead, they quickly compiled Best of the Beach Boys and put all of their promoting funds and muscle into selling an easy winner, ignoring Brian’s milestone work, leaving Pet Sounds to sell whatever it could completely on its own merits. Aghast at this snubbing by Capitol, Bruce Johnston went on a private excursion to London to try to create whatever buzz he could for Pet Sounds, getting to play the album for John and Paul who dropped by Johnston’s hotel suite to get a listen to Brian’s masterpiece.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Pet Sounds, there would be no Sgt. Pepper, no Tommy, no Dark Side of the Moon. Brian Wilson’s break with tradition in terms of scope and scale, unified vision, and ambitions for pop songcraft and production would explode the construct of pop music and what it could achieve. The melodies and chord structures, musical textures within the arrangements, and the committed performances Brian extracted from the players on the album was something only Brian Wilson could first hear and then execute, but by stretching himself and the art form, he heroically provided a model for others to follow and inspired generations of musical auteurs in every genre, not just rock. And the literary achievement and significance of Pet Sounds cannot be overstated either, the way it adheres to and informs a set of themes and how it turns those themes on their head in the finale gives the album an unprecedented level of integrity and meaning, elevating Pet Sounds to the realm of a substantive large scale work, equal to a novel or an opera. In this way, Brian and his Beach Boy confederates initiated a great tradition in rock, the album as an art form in itself. Pet Sounds further points the way to an even more ambitious enterprise as the first concept album, an endeavor that would be taken up by artists and bands as wide-ranging as The Who to Elton John, from Stevie Wonder to Garth Brooks, and Beyoncé and beyond.

It’s widely known and documented that Brian’s songwriting had a profound impact on Paul McCartney and that Pet Sounds was specifically one of the direct precursors to the Sgt. Pepper album. We all know that the butterfly effect was in full force during the creative renaissance of the 1960s, and that cross-pollination was the strongest driver in art in that burgeoning time of possibility and awakening. Although he was just making his music, through his direct influence on the Beatles who then influenced every other maker of music and culture, Brain Wilson pushed on a lever that then moved the world. Pet Sounds was Brian’s great achievement and it is a jumping-off point for every other creator in rock that ever dreamt of doing something more, traveling somewhere further, and reaching beyond the mundane to achieve greatness with their music.

Liner notes, Friends album:

Photo Credits:
Waves crashing:
Photo by Michael Goyberg from Pexels

Beverly Hills:
Photo by Vincent Gerbouin from Pexels

Train tracks:
Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels