Pet Sounds is the eleventh studio album by the American rock band The Beach Boys, released May 16, 1966, on Capitol Records. It has since been recognized as one of the most influential records in the history of popular music and one of the best albums of the 1960s, including songs such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”. Pet Sounds was created several months after Brian Wilson had quit touring with the band in order to focus his attention on writing and recording. In it, he wove elaborate layers of vocal harmonies, coupled with sound effects and unconventional instruments such as bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, Electro-Theremin, dog whistles, trains, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments, Coca-Cola cans and barking dogs, along with the more usual keyboards and guitars.
Although Pet Sounds has been credited as one of the most important albums of its time, its initial release failed to reach gold status, where it reached #10 on the American Billboard 200. A heralding album in the emerging psychedelic rock style, Pet Sounds has been championed and emulated for its dramatic and revolutionary baroque instrumentation. It has been ranked at #1 in several music magazines’ lists of greatest albums of all time, including New Musical Express, The Times and Mojo Magazine. It was ranked #2 in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
The track “Sloop John B” predated the recording of the rest of the LP by some months, but it proved to be a pivotal point in the album’s development. It was a traditional Caribbean folk song that had been suggested to Wilson by group member Al Jardine. Wilson recorded a backing track on July 12, 1965, but after laying down a rough lead vocal, he set the song aside for some time, concentrating on the recording of what became their next LP, the “live in the studio’ album” Beach Boys’ Party!, which was provided in response to their record company so the Beach Boys could have a new album ready for the Christmas 1965 market. What would become the Pet Sounds record could not be finished in time for Christmas 1965.
The real catalyst for Pet Sounds was the U.S. version of The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul, which was released that December in time for the Christmas market. (The British version of Rubber Soul was edited prior to its release in the U.S.A. to emphasise its folk rock feel that critics attributed to Bob Dylan and The Byrds.)
Wilson later recalled his first impressions of the groundbreaking album:
“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. I said, “That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album”
Wilson found Rubber Soul was filled with all-original songs and, more importantly, all good ones, none of them filler. Inspired, he rushed to his wife and proclaimed, “Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!”. In early January 1966 Wilson contacted Tony Asher, a young lyricist and copywriter who had been working on advertising jingles, and whom Wilson had met in a Hollywood recording studio months earlier. Within ten days they were writing together. Wilson played him some of the music he had been recording, and gave him a cassette of the finished backing track for a piece with the working title “In My Childhood”; it had lyrics, but Wilson refused to show them to Asher, who took the music away and wrote new lyrics. The result was eventually retitled “You Still Believe in Me” and the success of the piece convinced Wilson that Tony Asher was the collaborator he was looking for.
“The general tenor of the lyrics was always his,” Asher later recalled, “and the actual choice of words was usually mine. I was really just his interpreter.”
Writing and composition
Most of the songs on the album were written during December 1965 and January 1966. While most were composed with Tony Asher, “I Know There’s an Answer” was co-written by another new associate, Terry Sachen.
Mike Love is co-credited on the album’s opening track, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and on “I Know There’s an Answer” but with the exception of his co-credit on “I’m Waiting for the Day,” (originally copyrighted in February 1964, to Wilson alone) his contributions are thought to have been minimal. The exact degree of Love’s contribution to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is still hazy, but under oath in a court of law, Tony Asher has stated that it consisted of the tag “Good night my baby/Sleep tight, my baby.”
Love, in addition to Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine, was taken aback by Brian’s new sound (and Asher’s lyrics) when they returned from touring in Asia to record their vocals. Love in particular was nonplussed by Brian’s complete abandonment of the “fast cars, cute girls, and sunny beaches” formula that had marked the group’s hit-making career up to that point.
Love’s main influence on “I Know There’s an Answer” is reputed to have consisted of his strenuous opposition to the song’s original title, “Hang On to Your Ego”, and his insistence that it be partially rewritten and retitled. The original lyrics created quite a stir within the group. “I was aware that Brian was beginning to experiment with LSD and other psychedelics,” explained Love. “The prevailing drug jargon at the time had it that doses of LSD would shatter your ego, as if that were a positive thing… I wasn’t interested in taking acid or getting rid of my ego.” Jardine recalled that the decision to change the lyrics was ultimately Wilson’s. “Brian was very concerned. He wanted to know what we thought about it. To be honest, I don’t think we even knew what an ego was… Finally Brian decided, ‘Forget it. I’m changing the lyrics. There’s too much controversy.'” Terry Sachen, who co-wrote the revised lyrics to this song, was the Beach Boys’ road manager in 1966.
The album included two sophisticated instrumental tracks, the wistful “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” – with a working parenthetical title of “And Then We’ll have World Peace”[and the brittle brassy surf of the title track, “Pet Sounds” (originally “Run James, Run”, the suggestion being that it would be offered for use in a James Bond movie). The subtitle of “Let’s Go Away For A While” was a catchphrase from one of Wilson’s favorite comedy recordings, John Brent and Del Close’s How To Speak Hip (1959) (which Wilson can be heard talking about in a session outtake included on the Pet Sounds boxed set). Both titles had been recorded as backing tracks for existing songs, but by the time the album neared completion Wilson had decided that the tracks worked better without vocals and so left them as such. A third instrumental, called “Trombone Dixie,” had been fully recorded, but it remained in the vaults until its inclusion on the album’s 1990 remastered CD release.
With writing well under way, Wilson worked rapidly through January and early February 1966, recording six backing tracks for the new material. When the other Beach Boys returned from a three-week tour of Japan and Hawaii, they were presented with a substantial portion of a new album, with music that was in many ways a radical departure from their earlier attempts. Both Asher and Wilson state that there was resistance to the project from within the group, but on this occasion, Wilson’s belief in his new work convinced the other members of the group. The backing tracks for Pet Sounds were recorded over a four-month period, using major Los Angeles studios (Gold Star Studios, Western Studios and Sunset Sound) and an ensemble that included some highly regarded session musicians, including jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Carol Kaye, and session drummer Hal Blaine. The tracks were produced and arranged by Brian Wilson. He also wrote or co-wrote every track on the album.
Wilson had developed his production methods over several years, bringing them to their zenith with the recording of Pet Sounds during late 1965 and early 1966. Wilson’s approach was in some respects a refinement and development of the famous “Wall of Sound” technique created by his mentor and rival Phil Spector. With new Ampex 8-track recorders, Wilson produced tracks of great complexity using his regular team of ‘first call’ players, sometimes known collectively as “The Wrecking Crew”.
Wilson’s typical production method on Pet Sounds was to record the instrumental backing tracks for each song as a live ensemble performance direct onto 4-track recorders. His engineer Larry Levine has reported that Wilson also typically mixed these backing tracks live, as they were being taped. Subsequently transferring the sounds onto 8-track machines. Like Spector, Wilson was a pioneer of the ‘studio as instrument’ concept, exploiting novel combinations of sounds that sprang from the use of multiple electric instruments and voices in an ensemble and combining them with echo and reverberation. He often doubled bass, guitar and keyboard parts, blending them with reverberation and adding other unusual instruments.
Although the self-taught Wilson often had entire arrangements worked out in his head (which were usually written in a shorthand form for the other players by one of his session musicians), surviving tapes of his recording sessions show that he was remarkably open to input from his musicians, often taking advice and suggestions from them and even incorporating apparent ‘mistakes’ if they provided a useful or interesting alternative.
In spite of the availability of complex multitrack recording, Wilson always mixed the final version of his recordings in mono, as did Phil Spector. He did this for several reasons; one of which was that he felt that mono mastering provided more sonic control over the final result that the listener heard, regardless of the vagaries of speaker placement and sound system quality.
“God Only Knows” (stereo version)
God Only Knows broke new ground in many ways. It was one of the first commercial songs to use the word ‘God’ in its title. The song was also far more technically sophisticated than anything the Beach Boys, or arguably any group, had ever attempted before.
It was also motivated by the knowledge that, back then, radio and TV were broadcast in mono, and most domestic and automotive radios and record players were monophonic. Another and more personal reason for Wilson’s preference of recording in mono was due to his being almost totally deaf in his right ear, rumored to be the result of childhood injury to his eardrum caused by a blow from his violent father Murry Wilson, although Wilson has claimed that he was born deaf in one ear.
These backing tracks were then dubbed down onto one track of an 8-track recorder (at Columbia studio, the only facility in LA with an 8-track), and, although much of the fine detail in the arrangements was often covered by the group’s rich vocal harmonies, they interacted effectively with the vocal tracks. This mono recording meant that a stereo mixdown could not be achieved. Wilson’s partial deafness made him indifferent to stereo and it was not until the advent of digital recording that it was possible to combine the instrumental and vocal session-tapes to achieve a true stereo release. Six of the remaining seven tracks were usually dedicated to each of the Beach Boys’ vocals (the five-piece group was by then being regularly augmented by singer Bruce Johnston, who later became a permanent member). The last track was usually reserved for additional vocals and/or instruments and other ‘sweetening’ elements.
Provisional tracks and Capitol’s insistence
Wilson was back in the studio with his session band, laying down the first takes for a new composition, “Good Vibrations”. Around February 23, Wilson gave Capitol a provisional track listing for the new LP, which included both “Sloop John B” and “Good Vibrations.” This contradicts the long held misconception that “Sloop John B” was a forced inclusion as the hit single at Capitol’s insistence: in late February, the song was weeks away from release.
Wilson worked through February and into March fine-tuning the backing tracks. To the group’s surprise he also dropped “Good Vibrations” from the running order, telling them that he wanted to spend more time on it. Al Jardine remembers:
“At the time, we all had assumed that “Good Vibrations” was going to be on the album, but Brian decided to hold it out. It was a judgment call on his part; we felt otherwise but left the ultimate decision up to him.”
Most of March and early April was devoted to recording the remaining backing tracks and to the crucial recording of vocals, a process which proved to be the most exacting work the group had hitherto undertaken, as Mike Love later recalled:
“We worked and worked on the harmonies and, if there was the slightest little hint of a sharp or a flat, it wouldn’t go on. We would do it over again until it was right. [Brian] was going for every subtle nuance that you could conceivably think of. Every voice had to be right, every voice and its resonance and tonality had to be right. The timing had to be right. The timbre of the voices just had to be correct, according to how he felt. And then he might, the next day, completely throw that out and we might have to do it over again.”
Heralding the psychedelic era
Brian Wilson’s response when asked about acid and the song “Hang On To Your Ego”:
“Yeah. I had taken a few drugs, and I had gotten into that kind of thing. I guess it just came up naturally.”—Brian Wilson,
Brian appeared to become interested in Eastern philosophy and the psychedelic experience, in particular; often pointing to ego loss, or ego-death, as the key to a better way of living:
“Studying metaphysics was also crucial, but Koestler’s book really was the big one for me.”—Brian Wilson
Along with Revolver and The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, Pet Sounds is one of the first psychedelic rock masterpieces with its artful experiments, psychedelic lyrics, and new sounds on guitars, organs, pianos and other instruments. Pet Sounds created worlds that only existed on tape and which couldn’t necessarily be duplicated on stage, even with the help of an orchestra. The resulting album is a touching plea for love and understanding. While psychedelic drugs inspired the Beatles to look at the problems in the world around them, they made Brian Wilson turn his attention inward and probe his emotional longings and his deep-seated self-doubts.
Pet Sounds, Revolver and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, relics of the first era of psychedelic rock and shining testaments to what can be accomplished in the recording studio when folks are fueled on the potent drug of rampant imagination.
In 1966, several rock releases were arguably concept albums in the sense that they presented a set of thematically-linked songs – and they also instigated other rock artists to consider using the album format in a similar fashion: Pet Sounds was a musical portrayal of Brian Wilson’s state of mind at the time (and a major inspiration to Paul McCartney). Although it has a unified theme in its emotional content, the writers (Brian Wilson and Tony Asher) have said continuously that it was not necessarily intended to be a narrative. However, Brian Wilson has stated that the idea of the record being a “concept album” is mainly within the way the album was produced and structured.
Although not originally a big seller for the band, Pet Sounds has been influential since the day it was released. Rapturously received in Britain, it was lauded in the music press and championed by many top rock stars. The Beatles, for example, have said that Pet Sounds was a major influence on their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Paul McCartney has repeatedly named it as one of his favorite albums (with “God Only Knows” as his favorite song) – completing a circle begun by The Beatles’ influence on Wilson. McCartney stated that:
“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life … I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album … I love the orchestra, the arrangements … it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century … but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways … I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John [Lennon] so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence … it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines … and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines. “God Only Knows” is a big favourite of mine … very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. On “You Still Believe in Me”, I love that melody – that kills me … that’s my favourite, I think … it’s so beautiful right at the end … comes surging back in these multi-coloured harmonies … sends shivers up my spine.”
Other artists have also cited Pet Sounds as one of the all time classic albums. Eric Clapton stated that “All of us, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and I consider Pet Sounds to be one of the greatest pop LPs to ever be released. It encompasses everything that’s ever knocked me out and rolled it all into one.”
Elton John has said of the album, “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.”
Beatles producer George Martin stated that “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened… Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”
“It was just so much more than a record; it had such a spiritual quality. It wasn’t going in and doing another top ten. It had so much more meaning than that.”
Bob Dylan has said of Brian Wilson’s talents, “That ear – I mean, Jesus, he’s got to will that to the Smithsonian.”
Roger Waters stated that along with Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds “completely changed everything about records for me.”
Elvis Costello stated “Last summer, I heard “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” played on the cello. It sounded beautiful and sad, just as it does on Pet Sounds.”
In May 1966, Bruce Johnston flew to London with copies of Pet Sounds and recalls Keith Moon loving the album. Keith later stated “Pet Sounds was too far removed from the style he loved”.
Pete Townshend stated “‘God Only Knows’ is simple and elegant and was stunning when it first appeared; it still sounds perfect”.
Tom Petty stated “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.”