Fifty years ago the Beach Boys’ eleventh studio album was released by Capital Records. Actually the release (and thus, the anniversary) was back in May, but I thought it historically appropriate to give Revolver it’s due first and then tackle their greatest (band) rivals across the Atlantic. After all, it was the Beatles’ music, and their evolution on the Rubber Soul album, that pushed Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson to compose this, his greatest album.

But let’s back up.

For years the Beach Boys, managed by Murry Wilson (patriarch of the clan) were an easily understood little southern California band. They sang happy songs about cute girls, fast cars, catching rays and riding waves. Songs like Surfin’ USA (1963), Fun Fun Fun (1964), and California Girls (1965) defined this era. In the midst of this successful run, as the band was establishing themselves as America’s premier rock band, Brian Wilson fired his dad and took over responsibility in managing and leading the group. Unfortunately, the pressures of managing, song writing, and touring were too much to deal with. A few months after taking over the group, Brian suffered a nervous breakdown on a flight to Houston and decided to give up touring with the band.

Instead he sent the group out to perform while he stayed behind to write, compose and produce their next album. In fact, Wilson had been producing the band’s records as far back as the Surfer Girl album (the band’s third LP, released in 1963), but now he was devoting his full creative capacity to music creation, and it is here where his unique talents fully began to manifest. The brilliance on display in Pet Sounds was first hinted at in the albums that just preceded it, especially Summer Days And Summer Nights, which featured a remix of Help Me Rhonda and one of the band’s most enduring songs, California Girls.

After Summer Days and Summer Nights was released, Brian poured all his energy into what he aspired to be “the greatest rock album of all time.” In those days, LP’s (with 5-7 songs per side) usually consisted of two or three top notch tracks while the rest was mere filler. Rock music especially lived and died by the 45 (a smaller record with only one song per side, designed for singles). Wilson had a goal to release an album with no filler music, where every song was not just of great quality but was essential to the record and fit into the album’s larger theme.

As previously mentioned, he was inspired (also challenged, also nearly driven mad) by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, although Wilson had only heard the USA-version of the record. Capital, who published the Beatles’ music in North America, tweaked with the albums and released different versions of the band’s material in the US versus what was officially released by EMI in the UK (Capital’s records were shorter, usually with only eleven songs, as opposed to the standard fourteen that most Beatles albums had). For Rubber Soul, Capital released an album with a much more distinctive folk sound, cutting out some of the rocking tunes like Drive My Car and Nowhere Man. The album also opened with a holdover track from the Help! album: I’ve Just Seen a Face.

Though it was not the Beatles’ intention, the Capital version of Rubber Soul created a unifying Folk sound that Wilson was instantly attracted to. His goal for the Beach Boy’s next album was to duplicate that “unifying theme” where each song, while being very different, would have an implicit sameness that linked them all together. Sprinkled throughout the album, would be little “pet sounds” (hence the title) that served no purpose other than to be different, quirky, charming and sweet.

While the band (sans Brian) was away touring and playing their old hits to sell out crowds, Brian was slaving away in the studio, arranging and recording the music. The band would return from their tour to find an album of mostly completed music, needing only their unique harmony to finish the job. In many ways, this was Brian Wilson’s first solo-album, though the amazing sounds the Beach Boys made when their voices blended together can’t be denied. Still though, the “sound” of the album belongs entirely to Wilson. Though he was never classically trained, he had the arrangements of the songs in his head and he played each bandmember’s vocal part for them on the piano, showing them exactly how they fit into the larger puzzle. And though he was deaf in one ear, he mixed the album in stereo, switching between left and right channels individually yet managing to mix them perfectly.

He was music’s Rembrandt.

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Work on the album was long and Capital Records was nervous; they wanted the band to leave the experimentation behind and get back to doing good old surfer music again. Members of the band (notably the alleged epic tool bag Mike Love) were also lukewarm to Brian’s new ideas. Surfer music is what made them big; rocking the boat seemed unnecessary. Brian was determined to see his idea through, however. To placate Capital, he produced a knock-off LP (Party!) of mostly throwaway covers (although their take on The Regents’ Barbara Ann became a signature song for the group). It’s an ironic warm up act to Pet Sounds: Party! is an album of unconnected songs, originally recorded by a wide variety of artists, hastily put together just to put something out; Pet Sounds an album of purely original material, with each song fitting together like pieces in a puzzle, delicately crafted in a way that has perhaps never been duplicated by a record producer before.

Despite the hard work and good intentions, however, when the album released, the response was terrible. While musicians all over the world hailed it, critics mocked it. What’s worse is that record buyers mostly ignored it. It debuted at a dismal #106 on the Billboard chart. The album failed to sell more than 500,000 units, despite previous LP’s that sold well over a million. It wasn’t even officially certified as a gold record until the year 2000! Capital did it no favors however: The record company hated the album and didn’t believe it could be a hit, so they commissioned a greatest hits album for release. Two months after Pet Sounds shipped, Capital released Best of the Beach Boys. The compilation record was an instant hit, becoming a certified gold record soon after release, while Pet Sounds floundered. Capital took that as a sign that their hunch was right, but of course they failed to consider that they cut the legs off the former album.

And yet, thanks to the benefit of time, reflection and the overabundance of musical garbage that has spewed forth over the decades, we now look back on the record, fifty years later, and rightly declare it a masterpiece. Wilson’s goal was to make the best rock album ever. In fact he created what it is perhaps the finest “album” in American music history, rock or otherwise.

Time does not allow for a song-by-song examination of the whole record (which is doubly-tragic since the album really is at its best when listened as a whole), but a few songs deserve special mention:

The album opens with a song that perfectly captures the mood of the record and illustrates the timelessness to the music that has allowed it to remain so amazing so many decades later. There’s the dreamlike beginning and the wonderful subversion on a key theme in Beach Boys music (about the joys of youth) in the first words “wouldn’t it be nice if we were older…” The song is about the imaginations of a teenager, too young to marry. But instead of frustration and agony, it is playful, joyous and excited. The perfect album opener.

There’s nothing to say to do justice to the ballad that opens side two. Just listen to it: It begins with fifteen seconds of a hypnotic cadence before the faint drum beat launches into the poetry. The cadence in the background continues to drive the beat of the song. Along the way are little instrumental flourishes that only brighten the ballad, before the insanely catchy “bah buh-bah’s” (mimicking those in Wouldn’t it Be Nice) kick in around the halfway point. The song ends in rounds (harmonizing and repeating a short refrain over and over and over, into a fade out), which was highly unusual for a song from the 1960’s, much less a pop song intending to find airplay on the radio. Paul McCartney called it “the greatest song ever composed.” It so moved McCartney that he spent weeks writing and arranging Revolver’s “Here, There and Everywhere” in response. Wilson (with Tony Asher), however, penned the lyrics to God Only Knows—some of the most sublime poetry ever put to a pop record—in less than an hour! Amazing.

The songs recorded for Pet Sounds were composed by Brian Wilson and songwriting partner Tony Asher* . The exception** to that is Sloop John B, which is based off a traditional folk song from the Bahamas. Wilson worked with bandmate Al Jardine to tweak some of the lyrics and chords. The result was a song that became an instant classic and concert staple. It was the album’s lead-off single, likely because it was the most like the band’s old “surf and fun” days, in lyric though not in composition. Actually the song is dramatically different from the old days; the arrangement is sparse, and the vocals from Brian and Mike Love are at times almost acapella, which was unheard of for a rock song at the time.

*Mike Love sued to have his name put on a few songs as songwriter, but that’s a laughable claim since he [1] was in a Japan touring with the band when the songs were written, and [2] is a no-talent hack who hated Pet Sounds during production and initial release and only wanted to leech off its belated success, years later.

**The other exception is the tune “I Know There’s An Answer” which was originally written by Wilson as a song called “Hang on to your Ego” (written to be in response to his experience with the ego-depleting drug LSD). Mike Love hated the lyrics, however and demanded they be changed. Eventually the manbaby got his wish and the song was changed entirely. The original is lightyears better and listening to it in place of I Know There’s An Answer is the proper way to experience Pet Sounds.

Good Vibrations is not a Pet Sounds song, but it was composed during the Pet Sounds sessions, and was originally slated to appear on the album. At the last minute, Brian changed his mind and decided that it needed more work. The original, would-be Pet Sounds version of the song is here:

It’s a strikingly different song when you go beyond the basic “sound.” The lyrics are slightly different but the arrangement is much more limited compared to the “pocket symphony” that it would become. Wilson tinkered with the song for weeks, raking up an unprecedented production cost of over $75,000 (the equivalent of a half-million dollars today), the largest amount ever spent on a single.

Instead of writing, arranging and recording take after take until it was perfect, Brian instead recorded the song in pieces. Parts were recorded in four different recording studios around southern California. By the time Brian was ready to start stitching together the disparate pieces of music, he had over 90 hours of tape to work with (!) which he then whittled down to three minutes. This gives the song its one-of-a-kind sound, as it frequently abruptly changes, adding and dropping instruments, seemingly at random: Listen to the final version of the song; the first ten seconds alone feature Carl Wilson’s vocals while the background music rumbles behind him, before suddenly two-thirds of the instruments (presumably recorded at a different studio) disappear.

Here is the song in wave-form:

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The top is Good Vibrations (right and left channels), the bottom is Help Me Rhonda. Notice how Help Me Rhonda has a pretty consistent pattern? It has moments where it gets louder and parts where it fades down here and there, but for the most part there’s a uniformity to it. Good Vibrations, however, is remarkably different. It looks like four different songs stitched together, because that’s exactly what Wilson did, only he did it in such a way that you don’t even notice it unless you’re looking for it. There’s almost a normalcy to the lyrics and the way they are arranged (verse, chorus, verse chorus, middle eight, chorus, fade out), but its the instrumentation that is so different. It’s almost like the singer and the instruments are playing two different songs, yet Wilson arranged them so perfectly that they fit together like hand in glove. It’s amazing. Thank goodness he didn’t release it on Pet Sounds, because the first version was not ready. The version the Beach Boys ended up releasing is one of music’s single greatest compositions.

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The experimentation done to make Good Vibrations such a success (and it was a success, instantly redeeming the band in the eyes of fans and critics, who dismissed Pet Sounds) inspired Brian Wilson to make a whole album in such a way. He wanted it to be “a symphony to God.” It was to be ambitious, unusual, new and beautiful. It was to be called “Smile” and it was to supposed to be Wilson’s magnum opus. Instead, opposition from Capital Records, discouragement from bandmates, personal anxiety that the project would not live up to his own lofty ambitions, and the feeling that the Beatles had made the “next” greatest album ever–Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–led to Smile‘s abortion, and the collapse of Wilson’s role as leader of the Beach Boys.

Thus, Pet Sounds becomes the final album of “Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys.” Many more albums would be released, but Brian would never again conduct a recording studio with the same joyful ambition and creative gusto that he did during the making of Pet Sounds. The album stands as that version of the band’s masterpiece. Fifty years later it is rightfully considered among the very best in history.

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And it’s just as delightful to listen to now as it was then.

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