Album Analysis | The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys' 1966 release, Pet Sounds, marked not only a new era for the band, but for music itself. Now over 50 years after the initial release, we look at why this album still holds up as a musical landmark today.
"Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!” Brian Wilson proclaimed – who was just 23 years of age when he began making music for the new Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds. Little did he know at the time, Wilson foreshadowed what was to come for him and pop music as a whole.
July 1964 marked the end of striped shirts, surfboards and catchy ‘tunes’ for The Beach Boys, the last album to follow this format was All Summer Long (1964) and proved to be a world away from what was to come. Brian Wilson, respective leader of the band, was at a creative crossroads. Not knowing where to go and feeling the need for growth, their previous easy-going music was replaced with something that would go on to have a colossal imprint on music forever. Proving Wilson to be a magnificent songwriter, producer and all-round creative genius.
Work on Pet Sounds began in early 1966 and spanned over 27 sessions across three months in sunny Los Angeles. For a lot of this, Wilson was collaborating closely with lyricist Tony Asher. Asher worked in advertising as a jingle writer and became close with Wilson throughout the writing process. Wilson would express to Asher messages he wanted to communicate through songs, and Asher would help him pen these words into lyrics. They bounced well off of each other, Wilson had the ideas and the musical capabilities, whilst Asher was a self-proclaimed ‘word person’.
Whilst Wilson and Asher worked in LA, the remainder of the Beach Boys toured through Hawaii and Japan. Wilson did not attend these tours due to previously suffering from a panic attack, this led to a conscious decision to stop touring altogether. By the time the rest of the band returned, they were presented with a substantial portion of the new, unnamed album. It was reported the direction Wilson was taking the music in was heavily fought over, specifically between Mike Love and Wilson. Tony Asher recalled witnessing the tense moments between Wilson and his bandmates, who at one point protested that the music “isn’t our kind of shit!”
Later, Mike Love tried to sue Wilson for over 30 songwriting credits, including Wouldn’t It Be Nice, which Wilson and Asher completed while the rest of the band were still touring. This would not be the first or the last time Love tried to sue Wilson. During the trial, Love’s attorney asked Asher how he could be so sure Love didn’t influence the writing in the song, in which he replied, “While it was true Mr. Love could have called Mr. Wilson on one of those occasions, it was doubtful he had any influence, considering it was one of the few songs I wrote the entire lyrics to by myself at home.”
The most minimal track, That’s Not Me, uses a 6-string guitar, 12-string guitar, electric bass, organ, a drum kit, and additional percussion.
The sound of Pet Sounds completely diverged from their previous releases. Musically, what lacked complexity in its predecessors was replaced with a warm depth that was partly thanks to Wilson’s arrangements on percussion, as well as more innovative harmonies. But what really elevated the album to the prestige reputation that still holds up today is the orchestration, almost single-handedly creating the idea of baroque pop. To talk about the arrangements on a complex level would be near impossible, due to its meticulous technical level. It blended multiple different genres together, and whilst the sum of the classic Beach Boys’ harmonies stayed, the genre safety was depleted – mixing jazz, exotica, pop, classical and rock together, as well as various subgenres.
To get an idea of really how musically advanced this album was, you can go to the instruments used in the music. The most musically expansive song on the album, God Only Knows, employs string bass, electric bass, guitar, tack piano, harpsichord, accordion, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, violin, viola, cello, a drum kit, sleigh bells, tambourine and additional percussion, whilst the most minimal track, That’s Not Me, uses a employs 6-string guitar, 12-string guitar, electric bass, organ, a drum kit, and additional percussion.
Pet Sounds is often cited as the first concept album in music. It was heavily inspired by The Beatles’ most recent release, Rubber Soul, which Wilson considered a ‘complete statement.’ At this point, LPs were not thought of as important and did not have to be cohesive – due to radio, 45 RPM singles were considered more significant. Other influences for Pet Sounds included Phil Spector. This can be heard consistently throughout the production, as well as in the intricate arrangements which Spector made popular through his ‘Wall of Sound’ formula, which combined different instruments to create a remarkably dense orchestral aesthetic.
On February 10th 1966, The Beach Boys travelled to San Diego Zoo accompanied by Capitol staff photographer George Jerman to take the album cover photo. They were pictured in the children’s petting paddock, feeding goats apples. According to the liner notes, the reason they chose a zoo was due to a play on the album’s chosen title, Pet Sounds. But it was never revealed as to why this was the chosen name. There was much speculation and rumours, such as 'PS' being an ode to Phil Spector by using his initials. Love also claimed to have thought of it, but neither of these explanations was entirely confirmed. The text above, in a tight Cooper Black, reads “The Beach Boys Pet Sounds” in yellow and white, placed upon a green background. This is often credited with sparking a revival in the font, and today is an iconic and instantly recognisable cover.
After the album was assembled, Brian Wilson bought it home to his wife Marilyn, who remembers how beautiful it was hearing it for the first time. She explained how they both cried together after the album had finished and Wilson told her how scared he was no one would like it. On May 16th 1966, the album was finally released. Commercially, it flopped in comparison to their previous albums, debuting in the US charts at #106. Despite singles from the album faring substantially better, especially in Britain, with Sloop John B reaching #3 and God Only Knows reaching #2 in the UK charts, yet Wilson still saw it as a rejection of his creative ideas.
Pet Sounds was The Beach Boys first studio album in three years not to be certified as a Gold Record, and Capitol could be to blame. Since 1966, sources have said the record label did not try to understand or promote the record in the way they could have and Carl Wilson later suggested they could have been “afraid of it” for being such a radical album.
The lyrics on Pet Sounds prove to be simple throughout, with two instrumental songs, and many songs featuring only a few verses, but these songs still leave an immense impression on the listener. They leave room for words unsaid and allow the listener to read between the lines and notice the underlying sadness of the lyrics. As joyful as the music may seem, the cohesive themes of love lost, social alienation and loss of innocence lurk beneath the surface.
Sloop John B is a great example of this. On the surface, it’s a modified version of a traditional song written about a motley crew of sailors. But beneath this simply-written song is a sadness of feeling homesick and like you don’t fit in – this is a common theme throughout the album and reads deeply personally to Wilson, especially when looking into his long history including deep battles with mental illness.
In other songs, such as You Still Believe In Me and I’m Waiting For The Day, Wilson sees himself as someone who isn’t good enough, not only to his lover but also the world around him. The dreamy introduction and lyrics in You Still Believe in Me show Wilson as a child-like figure and someone that needs looking after in a relationship and bares all of his vulnerability. Lines such as “I know perfectly well / I’m not where I should be” have resonated with so many listeners and still continue to carry the same impact today.
The cultural impact Pet Sounds had on popular music was imminent; many artists recognised it as an inspiring piece of art - before even the fans did. Before its release, Bruce Johnston - a member of The Beach Boys who was filling in for Wilson during live shows, took two copies of Pet Sounds with him to London and arranged a meeting in a hotel with John Lennon and Paul McCartney to play it to them. They listened to it once through and immediately asked to hear the album again, just months after this Lennon and McCartney began to work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. George Martin, The Beatles long-term producer and coined the ‘fifth Beatle’, said that “without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper would never have happened… Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”
Other albums and artists that were heavily influenced by Pet Sounds include Nick Drake on his critically acclaimed 1972 album Pink Moon, David Bowie’s fourth studio album Hunky Dory, as well as names such as Bruce Springsteen, Weezer and Fleet Foxes, just to name a few. Just under thirty years after the initial album release, a panel of some of the most successful musicians, music producers and songwriters was gathered by British music magazine MOJO, where they voted to determine the ‘greatest album ever made’ – the winner was Pet Sounds, proving yet again, commercial success does not equate to greatness.