The path to Pet Sounds began in December 1964, when Brian Wilson went into a panic onboard a plane carrying his band, the Beach Boys, to a gig in Houston, Texas. For the previous two years, Wilson and his band- fellow brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and school friend Al Jardine- had kept up a furious pace of touring and recording. All while Brian wrote or co-wrote hit songs for the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and many others. At that moment, the Beach Boys were one of the biggest bands in America, and perhaps the world. But Brian just wasn’t made for those times. Always the most fragile and insecure person in the band, despite his remarkable talents, he wanted out. He wanted something different.
In 1965, Brian made the decision to stay home while the band picked up another Californian, Bruce Johnston, and continued touring the world. The hits kept coming for the Beach Boys, but the songs were no longer just about the beach. Young adult longings for love, love lost, a realization that you were no longer the child that you used to be. Becoming someone else, and realizing that it just wasn’t you. These ideas began swirilng around Brian’s head, and began to appear on the Beach Boys' next album, Summer Days And Summer Nights. Their label, Capitol Records, didn’t notice or care that Brian’s music was changing. They just wanted the next hit single. When the band released their quickly recorded, covers-heavy Party Album for Christmas that same year, the label was thrilled that it was a huge success. But the album was in reality a farewell to the ideas that Brian once had, and he was already at work on their next, and most important creation to date.
When Brian heard the new Beatles album, Rubber Soul, he was inspired by the album’s use of a set of songs that formed a complete whole. In his mind, he knew that there was an answer to Rubber Soul, and he began to put it together. With the Beach Boys on the road, Brian also began to use more of a stable of Los Angeles session musicians, later known as The Wrecking Crew, for the new songs that he was recording. With frequent collaborator Mike Love also on the road, Brian turned to local ad salsman Tony Asher for lyrics that spoke to all of Brian’s hopes, wishes and longings. All he needed now was the rest of the band.
When the Beach Boys returned from a successful tour of Japan (photos from which would be featured on the back cover of Pet Sounds), the band was dumbfounded by what they heard. A mixture of pop, jazz, symphonic rhythm & blues, and lyrics that were reaching far beyond the California shoreline. But they pressed on. Pushed by Brian, who taught the bandmembers their vocal parts individually at the piano, the band spent days and days recording their vocals. Mike Love would reportedly later say that Brian had dog ears, meaning that Brian heard mistakes that no one else could hear. What Love meant to say is that Brian Wilson had a dog ear. Brian created Pet Sounds, and all of his classics while being deaf in one ear. His Pet Sounds, meaning his favorite music, was now ready for the world.
However, the world was not ready for Pet Sounds it was released in May of 1966. Capitol Records did not know what to make of the album. Singles were released, and then another single was released soon after, as if they had no confidence in their chances of climbing the charts. “God Only Knows” was released as a single, but many stations would not play it, due to the word God being in the title. Many flipped the single over, and played “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, instead. By the fall of that year, Capitol would release a Beach Boys best-of, which would quickly outsell Pet Sounds that year.
In England, the mother country of the Beatles, Pet Sounds was quickly embraced as a modern masterpiece, and climbed to number two on the album charts. In return, the Beatles would be influenced on Pet Sounds. Listen to “Here There And Everywhere”, off of the band’s next album, Revolver, and see if you can hear an echo or two of the Beach Boys. Over time, Pet Sounds became the unknown treasure that many discovered, and shared with the rest of the world. A love of songs that continues to be never-ending. Wouldn’t that be nice?
For all of Capitol’s worrying about the band’s next single, Brian already had it in the works. Recorded over five months, and utilizing four different studios, “Good Vibrations” became the number one smash that the band and label craved. If Pet Sounds was a cradle of new ideas, “Good Vibrations” was the band’s symphonic explosion. Work on the song overlapped work on Pet Sounds, so much so that the band thought that the song would be included on the album. But Brian knew what he wanted. Pet Sounds, and “Good Vibrations” would each stand alone, and show the world what he was capable of.
While Pet Sounds is dominated by the vocals and talents of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys also contributed to the album’s final shape. Mike Love would sing lead on four songs, and contribute lyrics to three songs, including “I Know There’s An Answer” (originally titled “Hang On To Your Ego” by Brian and Tony Asher). Al Jardine would bring the folk song “Sloop John B” to Brian, providing a key anchor of Pet Sounds’ song sequence. Dennis Wilson and Bruce Johnston also sang various lead and harmony parts, while Carl Wilson (who also played guitar on the album) would be given Brian’s favorite song, “God Only Knows” to sing. Why? Because Brian wanted him to sing that song. Out of their six collective voices, Pet Sounds emerged as one singular statement.
In the fall of 1966, Brian Wilson turned 24 years old. After “Good Vibrations”, he turned his attention to his next project. An album that would push his concept album ideas, and harmonies as singular instruments even further. When Wilson abondoned the project, which had been called Smile, in the spring of 1967, the legend of Brian Wilson as a lost musical genius began to grow. The mere fact that Brian Wilson is alive today, forty years after the rush of Smile’s demise, is remarkable. The fact that he is touring more than ever in 2016, on an album that grew out on his refusal to tour 52 years ago, is nothing short of astounding. But like Pet Sounds itself, the story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys continues to confound and astound all who listen to it, and them.
If Smile can be considered Brian’s Pheonix-like rise and fall, Pet Sounds is the sound of one man, and one band soaring to the heavens in search of what comes next. Without fear of the sun, the winds, or gravity. No hell below them, above them only sky, and far removed from the sandy beaches from which they had started from.
Fifty years later, people still believe in a dream called Pet Sounds. How can it be?