It is now a half century since the release of Pet Sounds, one of three albums released in 1966, that irrevocably changed the course of popular music; when combined together they helped to make that year arguably the most important one for music ever. Along with Revolver and Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds marked the moment when artists finally and collectively kicked down the door whilst shining a bright light into each creator's soul. This allowed the album to become a piece of art in itself; becoming an equal, more or less, with more traditional art forms such as theatre, literature and cinema.
The beauty of Brian Wilson's creation though, is that he didn't necessarily rip up the rulebook – although there is an element of that – he simply modified it. Retaining pop's songcraft ethos, its essential reliance was on melody, harmony and structural flow, but decidedly pushing the parameters, the boundaries of what was permissible and possible, as well as mining a much deeper emotional and literate depth via the lyrics. In 1965 The Beach Boys were still singing trite such as: “Get around round round I get around / From town to town / Get around round round I get around / I'm a real cool head / Get around round round I get around / I'm makin' real good bread." It was brilliantly simplistic pop music, but for kids. A year later, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys were making brilliantly sophisticated pop music, but for adults.
"It was inspired by Rubber Soul by The Beatles," says Brian Wilson from his Los Angeles home. "All the songs, every one of the songs off the album were great; ‘Michelle', 'Girl’, ‘I'm Looking Through You’. They were all great songs."
The basis for Pet Sounds had also been laid out by the increasingly adventurous musical spirit of Wilson, who now had the aim of "making the greatest rock album ever made." By 1965 he had grown very tired of The Beach Boys’ wholesome sound and culture. Hits such as ‘Fun! Fun! Fun!’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, and ‘I Get Around’ depicted a youthful and innocent life of sun, surf and romance. The band were quickly looking out-of-place in the fast-moving cultural counter-revolution zeitgeist, to the point where Dennis Wilson (younger brother of Brian, and drummer with the band) reported back to Brian, after returning to the USA from a tour of the UK in '65, that the audience were laughing at them, at their uniform shirts and pants. But Wilson knew he was really in the moment, right at the centre of a profound change taking place within him and the world he knew. He knew that back in March 1966 when he told Melody Maker: "Personally, I think the group has evolved another 800 per cent in the last year. We have a more conscious, arty production now that’s more polished. It’s all been like an explosion for us, it's like I'm in the golden age of what it's all about."
Inspired by psychedelics he may have been, he was also hugely taken with Phil Spector's production sound and techniques, which was invading the charts at this time, with songs such a 'Da Doo Ron Ron' and 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling', and which essentially involved large ensembles of musicians, multi-tracking, and including orchestral players. "He inspired me as to how to produce records," says Brian. I ask him if, rather than the densely layered and nearly cacophonic 'Wall of Sound' that Spector specialised in, he was looking to create space within his music. "Yes, right. I wanted to make the sound breathe a little more. I learned from him very much. I recorded Pet Sounds with a lot of production ideas, and sound combinations."
Indeed he did. Pet Sounds is a record that sees the use of countless unconventional instruments, complimenting the elaborate layers of vocal harmonies prevalent here and throughout their history. With songs such as ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘God Only Knows’, ‘I Know There’s An Answer’, ‘Caroline, No’, ‘Sloop John B’, and the album's two instrumentals (the title track itself and 'Let's Go Away For A While') Pet Sounds' innovative and rich soundscape incorporates elements of jazz, classical, pop, exotica, avante-garde, as well as the unusual instrumentation (via bicycle bells, dog whistles, plastic water jugs, sleigh bells etc), classically-inspired orchestration and a more routine drums, guitar, piano and bass combo.
Regarded by some as a Brian Wilson solo record, he made the vast majority of it while the rest of the band were out touring (he had decided to quit touring completely after suffering a panic attack on a flight in late 1964) with the help of the infamous Wrecking Crew, a loose-knit collective of studio session musicians who had become Phil Spector's house band by the mid-60s. “We needed to grow,” Wilson says about the change of direction. “Up to this point we had milked every idea dry. We had done every possible angle about surfing and then we did the car routine but we needed to grow artistically. They (Wrecking Crew) are all great musicians that played for Phil Spector and other producers, and I called them all up and asked them to play for me, and they said they would! So, they came to the studio, and they read the notes and played the notes from the paper."
"We wrote every other day, and we would record a song with the Wrecking Crew until we had it recorded. Musicians came in with ideas for me, with different instruments to play. So, we had 12 instruments on each song."
With the help of The Wrecking Crew, and the fact that he was now a full-time studio creative, Wilson first of all tackled 'Sloop John B', on the suggestion of Al Jardine (the only non-family member of the original Beach Boys, who still performs with Brian). It was a traditional folk song from the Bahamas that had been recorded by The Kingston Trio in 1958, but re-arranged and lyrically altered for inclusion on Pet Sounds. "I wrote it, he (Jardine) just brought it to me and made some suggestions," say Brian. "It's just a song about a ship. I can't explain the song, the lyrics, but it's about a ship called the Sloop John B."
A subsequent hit for the band, and because it was essentially a folk cover song, Sloop John B was not a particularly strong foretaste of what was to come, despite the incredibly elaborate a cappella section that was unlike anything else in popular music at the time. But it was made incredibly very meticulously, and the scene was set for an intense six month period of recording the rest of Pet Sounds…
This was not how pop music, with the exception of Spector's work, had been previously made. Every piece, every note on Pet Sounds was meticulously detailed beforehand. And the vocals were also conducted by Wilson, who in effect auditioned each band member for the lead parts, deciding who was the best man for the job on each of the songs, including himself, a very fine singer lest we forget. While the music was made by Wilson and the Wrecking Crew, the vocals are still delivered by The Beach Boys. It's still the vocal performances that remain the prime reason why The Beach Boys were and still are held in such awe, and why Pet Sounds is still, in essence, a Beach Boys album. "I had each guy practice their part. We all stood around one microphone, we all sang together around just one microphone," he says. "Nowadays we use at least three microphones together."
Another key factor in Pet Sounds artistic success was the role of Tony Asher, as lyricist. While Brian had the ear for a melody, he needed an extra eye for a universal, poetic lyric, if he was to get away from the simple ABC lyricism of pre-Pet Sounds. "I had a friend of mine (Tony Asher) write the lyrics with me. We said, 'let's make a spiritual album'. We wrote a lot of spiritual songs and we had a spiritual album! We had a lot of talks, about different subjects, love, social statements and everything."
The true spirit of Pet Sounds is epitomised by ‘God Only Knows’, the lead track on side two of the original version, which was released as a single in the UK, reaching number two. Wilson has explained that his and Asher's intention was to create the feeling of "being blind, but in being blind, you can see more", moving forward in life after suffering a loss. "'God Only Knows' is my favourite song off the album”, he says without hesitation when asked. "I turned it over to Carl (his younger brother) because I thought he could do a good job on it. He sang it beautifully."
"God only knows what I'd be without you" goes the song, and 50 years on from that, Brian Wilson would be a much less respected artist if it wasn't for songs such as ‘God Only Knows’, and the Pet Sounds album as a whole, almost invariably cited as one of the greatest ever pop and rock creations, if not the greatest. But, it's near the end of the road for this half-century birthday celebration, with Pet Sounds being played in full for what may be the last time. "We've been to a lot of countries and they all love the album very much. They all seem to enjoy it. And we have a lot of fun performing it. We play Beach Boys songs then we do the Pet Sounds in its entirety. We play it in the same order as the album."
Just as it should be done.
Brian Wilson will be appearing live at Together The People Festival in Brighton on Saturday 3rd September performing Pet Sounds.