Today marks 50 years since the Beach Boys' seminal masterpiece Pet Sounds came out. Since then, the album has been universally hailed as one of popular music's most important recordings. In everything written about Pet Sounds, “genius” and “masterpiece” are two words that invariably appear from one sentence to the next. Of course, the former is applied to the album’s creator and spiritual avatar, Brian Wilson.
Inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, Wilson set out to construct the greatest pop record ever made. He carefully aligned the famous Beach Boy harmony with a wall of instrumentation worming in and out of occasional smatterings of foolhardy intonations from trains and barking dogs. Everyone from Garry Trudeau to Paul McCartney has reserved the highest praises for Pet Sounds and its breathtaking production — in mono, no less.
It wasn’t easy for the reclusive Wilson. The thoughtful accolades, the yearning for surf songs, followed by the abuse from his father, his band mates, his record label and the abandoned Smile sessions — all grounded him into a sandbox of disorientation. Defying all odds, he has lived to tell about it. Fifty years later, Pet Sounds remains the quintessential traipse of the 1960s, the precursor to the rock album as an art form to behold.
Overwhelmed with the demands of touring, Wilson retired to the studio in 1965. Brimming with creative ideas, he started laying down tracks and brought in a ‘wrecking crew’ of musicians to realize his vision — all while the remaining Beach Boys were on the road.
All this time, Wilson was transforming into a musical wizard, whipping up strange concoctions for a Beach Boys album through the magic of big production. He tackled themes beyond the soda shop, the drag strip and the California coastline. He wrote fewer songs with Mike Love, and more songs with non-Beach Boys Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks. His palette was seething with layers, pinches, dashes and sweet melodies.
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is a perfect example. A shimmering intro seamlessly slices through the melody before we get a stupendous vocal blend from Wilson, brother Dennis and Mike Love. What follows is a litany of emotion, teeming with rich instrumentation — saxophones, bicycle bells, tympanis, violins, accordions and French horns.
“God Only Knows,” featuring an eloquent vocal from Carl Wilson, “Caroline No” and the album’s only cover “Sloop John B” would become nominal hits of the day. Brian Wilson exhibits a remarkable flair for arrangement on the instrumental “Let’s Go Away For Awhile.” The autobiographical “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is a confessional ballad with a clip clop that’ll make you wince.
As diverse and rich as it is, Pet Sounds was not an instant smash upon its May 16, 1966 release. Capitol Records didn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement; in fact, they released a Beach Boys compilation at the same time. In England, it was a different story. Bruce Johnston, the sixth Beach Boy, was in London and played it for John Lennon and Paul McCartney. After repeated listenings, the two Beatles were both inspired to expand their songwriting and recording skills, culminating with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the rest, as they say, is rock and roll history.
Over the years, Pet Sounds has been reissued in numerous configurations. Fans have been able to indulge in Wilson’s process with access to early takes, alternates, backing tracks, available in both mono and stereo. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Capitol has upped the ante with various expanded editions, including a box set that not only digs deep into every nook and cranny of the album, but also features remastered (in some cases, remixed) versions of the original album in stereo, mono, high resolution stereo, mono, and — viola! — 5.1 surround.
Session outtakes, alternate mixes, previously unreleased live recordings and tons of reading material round out the box set. Double disc sets pair the remastered album in stereo and mono with highlights from the box set. And, as is the trend, there is also a180-gram LP edition of the album in mono and stereo with the original artwork replicated.
As the Beach Boys’ 11th studio release, Pet Sounds has come to define everything there is to love and appreciate about Brian Wilson and the passion and craftsmanship he pored into his music in the 1960s. More than anything, Pet Sounds was a giant leap forward that didn’t taint the formula. You got the familiar, innocent harmonies of the Beach Boys, enhanced with musical sophistication, hanging on themes that were deeper, more abstract. Fifty years later, Wilson tours the world with a world-class band and recreates Pet Sounds, note-for-note, exactly as he had envisioned. To celebrate the legacy of one of the most important recordings of the 20th century is pure redemption in Wilson’s tumultuous life. Indeed, all the traits of any great artist.
~ Shawn Perry