The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

Released Date: May 16, 1966

One of the hallmarks of this site is the mission to bring you classic records that – for whatever reason – you may be unfamiliar with. What better way to start than with an album that was heavily influenced by the Beatles and has inspired countless artists over the decades including Mick Jagger, Elton John, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney who was quoted as saying that he weeps every time he hears it? It is #2 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. This is Pet Sounds.

My journey to the album began with a compilation record called Artist’s Choice: Rolling Stones. There was a series of these records that Starbucks put out for several years that directed me to a number of other great artists. The Stones chose the very deep track “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and reference the influence that the entire Pet Sounds record had on the band. Such high praise alongside my familiarity with several of the tracks (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”) made the purchase a no-brainer.

Chief songwriter, Brian Wilson, had been profoundly impacted by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, noting that it was an album with a unified theme and thought, rather than just a collection of songs. (This is an age-old battle that continues today and will be addressed in more depth as more records are reviewed). Wilson then set about to write the greatest rock album ever.

“For me to say that I was enthralled would be an understatement. I had never heard such magical sounds, so amazingly recorded. It undoubtedly changed the way that I, and countless others, approached recording. It is a timeless and amazing recording of incredible genius and beauty.” – Elton John

What he ended up with flew in the face of everything that the band had spent 5 years building their reputation on – those classics like “Surfing U.S.A.”, “Surfin’ Safari”, “I Get Around”, and “Help Me Rhonda”. Compared to those surf tunes, Pet Sounds was the 60′s version of “emo,” a collection of songs about teenage life and the search for meaning. Wilson wrote and recorded most of the record himself with studio musicians while The Beach Boys toured without him. When they returned from tour, he merely brought them in to contribute ad-hoc vocals. For the most part, the rest of the group didn’t “get it.” Lead singer Mike Love was perhaps the most vocal in his stance against the album and the album almost went unreleased – it’s intended follow-up SMiLE did go unreleased and was locked in a vault for some 44 years before being released in 2011.

Ok, so all of that was really just history. Can I tell you what makes it so good? No. Wilson is to music what a master painter is to the visual arts. He is someone who works without a box and without a safety net. He knows that if he hears it in his head, he can make it happen and he didn’t let anything stand in the way of that. In truth, even with the recording equipment and technology available to us today, a lot of what Wilson was doing over 40 years ago would still be difficult and his type of creativity is not something that can be born out of “hit machine” in a studio. However, unlike many of music’s strange musical mad scientists (Prince, I’m looking at you), Wilson crafted songs that had a universality about them that has resonated with people for nearly half a decade.

“I think I would put him up there with any composer – especially Pet Sounds. I don’t think there is anything better than that, necessarily. I don’t think you’d be out of line comparing him to Beethoven – to any composer.” – Tom Petty

Listen to: “Caroline, No”, “God Only Knows”, “I Know There’s an Answer”, “Sloop John B”