Surf! Cars! Girls!
The Beach Boys (whose name was assigned to them by Capitol Records) were just teenagers wanting to make records, and they did. In the early ’60’s, The Beach Boys made me believe: “I Get Around” in my “Little Deuce Coupe” with my “Surfer Girl” having “Fun Fun Fun”, even though I was “In My Room” stuck in the Midwest.
Once in a while, primary songwriter and group leader Brian Wilson would throw in more serious lyrics and topics, but mostly it was good feelings as their “Surf Music” came out of our radio speakers. High quality harmony vocals and melodies meant their songs would be enjoyed for decades.
Brian Wilson knew they couldn’t just keep writing surf and car songs. The music around him was evolving. He was aware that Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and many other artists were raising the bar.
In 1965, Brian began using more complex musical arrangements with a wider variety of instruments. There’s a new sophistication to the sound of “California Girls” even though the topic wasn’t new.
Then in late 1965 came Rubber Soul by The Beatles.
Brian said he was blown away by it. He said he wanted to make a Beach Boys album like that…good all the way through. Being a Beach Boys fan, I know their albums had some great songs, but also songs that would be considered filler.
Brian was no longer on the road with the rest of The Beach Boys. Instead, he focused on songwriting with lyricist Tony Asher starting in December of 1965. He also was directing instrumental tracks with L.A.’s super session musicians “The Wrecking Crew”.
Recording session for Pet Sounds in 1966. That’s Carol Kaye on bass, some of the other Wrecking Crew players, and additional musicians. The Beach Boys were replaced in the studio, except for their vocals.
When The Beach Boys returned from touring, they heard the tracks for the new album, and with the exception of Carl Wilson, they weren’t enthusiastic. In particular, Mike Love thought Brian was straying too far from the formula that had made the group popular.
Pet Sounds’ complex musical arrangements are almost classical. The instruments are often layered in the “Wall of Sound” style, and were unusual for Rock, like a bass harmonica, harpsichord, and Electro-Theramin. The lyrics are mostly introspective. No one was having any “Fun Fun Fun”.
Despite reservations, the group members worked on the challenging vocal parts. Brian Wilson has a great ear for harmonies, and he pushed for perfection.
Pet Sounds was released in May of 1966. Reviews of the album were mixed. It didn’t perform as well as previous Beach Boys albums, reaching #10 in Billboard, and selling under 500,000 copies. The Beach Boys mainly blamed Capitol for not doing enough promotion. Brian was devastated, and felt his new direction was being rejected.
In 1966 a friend and I were in a record store, and we picked out one album together…Pet Sounds. He paid for half of the album, saying that he listens to all my records, and wanted to pitch in. He was being a nice guy, though I feel like I still owe him half an album (maybe side two?). It’s hard to believe Pet Sounds was in any way a failure. It includes the now classic songs, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”, “Sloop John B”, and “Caroline No”. Plus it has the beautiful recordings “You Still Believe In Me” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”. I’ve always thought it was easily their best album.
Years passed. Somewhere along the line, positive opinions of the album began to grow. Other musicians praised it, especially Paul McCartney. He often has said the “clever” arrangements and use of unusual instruments influenced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul also says “God Only Knows” is one of the best songs ever written, and that he gave a copy of Pet Sounds to each of his children.
For decades, the album was only available in mono. I finally got to hear the stereo mix in 1996 when I obtained a promotional CD that Capitol sent to radio stations. Pet Sounds was supposed to be released in stereo that year on it’s 30th anniversary, but for some reason, it was delayed until 1997. Meanwhile, I’m listening to this pristine copy of the album and am amazed by how it sounds. For the first time, I could hear the intricacies of Brian Wilson’s arrangements and the individual instruments themselves, rather than everything being mashed together through one channel.
The instrumental accompaniments are genius. Brian Wilson arranged all of the parts himself. He carried around the arrangements in his head for strings, horns, keyboards, everything. He made notes and relayed what he had in mind. It was then translated into actual scores. Interviews with the musicians who worked the sessions had nothing but high praise for Brian Wilson’s musical vision.
Capitol Records may have dropped the ball on the initial release, but they’ve excelled since. They’ve released box sets and special editions that include the separated instrumental backing tracks, so people could hear those genius arrangements. I believe that’s had an effect on the perception of Pet Sounds as one of the all time best albums.
There could have been one addition that would have made Pet Sounds an instant hit. “Good Vibrations” was started during the album sessions, but wasn’t completed. With a few more months of work, and costing more than any previous single, “Good Vibrations” came out in October of 1966.
It was a #1 smash! “Good Vibrations” was accurately described by publicist Derek Taylor as a “pocket symphony”. It has six musical sections edited together, and combines the innovation of Brian Wilson with the old “feel good” style of The Beach Boys.
The year 1966 was the musical peak of The Beach Boys’ career. They put out an album and a single that are among the best ever recorded.