Pet sound echoes
19 February 2021-
As we hear the Beach Boys have joined other major artists in selling their catalog, now feels like a good time to remember the making of one of the most important albums in music history...
History is often made by a few great minds — who tend to influence each other. The story of Pet Sounds is no different: the 11th album (in 5 years) of surf pop super group The Beach Boys was never meant to sound like that. But group leader and musical genius Brian Wilson had had too many listens to Phil Spector, the now deceased and convicted record producer, and was shocked at the quality of his production work, a lot of which had to do with the sheer volume of elements (instruments, vocals, overdubs…) he piled up on every bit of work. Then, he heard The Beatles’ Rubber Soul.
Those three musical powerhouses — Phil Spector, The Beatles and Brian Wilson — collided in the winter of 1965. Fascinated by the sound Spector was able to produce, Wilson was even more struck by the artistic ambition his British colleagues were able to convey in their work. And so he embarked on a mission: to come up with his very own concept album, complete with production that would rival Spector’s “Wall of sound”. Later dubbed “Wave of sound”, Wilson’s approach was to hire a number of accomplished session musicians and have them interpret compositions that were both quite sophisticated — and then mostly unheard of in pop music — as well as highly consistent overall.
The result of that remarkable alchemy is the aforementioned Pet Sounds, a Beach Boys album composed, produced and recorded almost solely by Brian Wilson (based on lyrics by Tony Asher and some background vocals provided by his brothers and bandmates). It features absolute classics like “Wouldn’t it be nice”, a textbook pop song whose catchiness hides its subtle melodic changes and stellar arrangements, “Sloop John B”, one of those rare song covers that managed to eclipse the original (see: “Hey Jude”), “Here today”, which Paul McCartney or the Kinks’ Ray Davies would have probably loved composing themselves, and “God only knows”, a song so unique it readily transcends rock, pop or folk music as a whole — and features religious references that were and are an absolute rarity in contemporary popular music.
The immediate outcome was less noteworthy, however: Pet Sounds failed to meet the commercial success of its predecessors, which rightfully angered Wilson. His following single, “Good vibrations“, would rectify that. Sadly, though, this was the beginning of downward spiral in which the artist would spend a couple of decades, seeming unable to cope with the rarefied air he now found himself in. On the upside, the album inspired the Beatles to outdo themselves — and produce Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. History is thankful.