What more is there to say about an album that Rolling Stone ranked #2 in its 2003 list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and that Uncut ranked #1 in 2016?
By Jason M. Rubin
Along with the deaths of classic rock musicians, which have been occurring with increasing frequency as stars of the 1960s and ’70s, we are also seeing notable anniversaries of albums and events that helped to shape the history of contemporary popular music. So it is that Pet Sounds turns 50 on May 16. This Beach Boys album not only represents the artistic apex of that seminal band’s official catalog, but is also the magnum opus of its then-23-year-old creator Brian Wilson. As we all know, he nearly self-destructed in his attempt to follow up on an album that, while not a commercial hit upon its release in 1966, has come to be regarded as one of the finest and most influential recordings of all time.
Is there anything new to be said about an album that has been so widely praised and written about, whose recording process was so well dramatized in the 2014 film Love & Mercy? Most people know by now that from the birth of rock and roll in the 1950s until roughly 1965, albums had been made up of unconnected singles and their B-sides: a few lightweight “filler” tunes were added to fill out the 40 or so minutes of a standard 33-1/3 rpm long-playing record. But in 1965, when the Beatles released Rubber Soul, one of the first albums to experiment with conceptual consistency from track to track, it caught the eyes of a young fan. Rubber Soul inspired Wilson to make a similarly cohesive statement with Pet Sounds and this masterpiece, in turn, urged the Beatles, to attempt to top it with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Revolver was recorded in 1966 from April to June, so it largely missed Pet Sounds’ influence.)
Some may know that music superstars ranging from Eric Clapton to Philip Glass, and artists as diverse as novelist Thomas Pynchon and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, are fans of the album. Paul McCartney gave a copy to each of his children, telling an interviewer “I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album.” Screenwriter and director Cameron Crowe told the audience at a Brian Wilson tribute concert that he presses a copy in each of his actors’ hands at the start of a film project. (In his semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous, Crowe’s character is instructed by his departing older sister to look under his bed. There is something there, she tells him, that will “set you free.” It turns out to be a satchel filled with albums; the one on top is Pet Sounds.)
What more is there to say about an album that Rolling Stone ranked #2 in its 2003 list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and that Uncut ranked #1 in 2016? A couple of things. First, you should listen to it. Pop historians say that Pet Sounds bombed when it was first released, but the truth is that it reached the top 10 on the Billboard chart. Its failure was relative, given that Beach Boys albums, even after the Beatles arrived, routinely hit the top 5. Only three of the album’s 12 tracks are well-known: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” and “Sloop John B” (maybe four if you include “Caroline No”). Pet Sounds has been a widely praised but little-played album, especially on radio. Listeners are much more likely to know and hear earlier Beach Boy hits such as “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls” (the orchestral intro to which is a clear antecedent to Pet Sounds), and “Barbara Ann.” Too many accept the canonization of Pet Sounds largely on faith — they don’t know all of the songs that make it an outstanding achievement. I recommend listening to the entire album. Often. Maybe even as Wilson once recommended, with headphones on in the dark.
Perhaps the only other thing worth talking about are the fun facts and myths that surrounds the album. For instance, among the many studio musicians who played on the album, all members of the informal collective of first-call cats known as the Wrecking Crew, were Glen Campbell, future Derek and the Dominoes drummer Jim Gordon, and jazz guitarist Barney Kessel. Another fun fact is that while “Good Vibrations,” the million-selling single follow-up to Pet Sounds, is often considered to be the first rock song to feature the sound of a theremin, the Pet Sounds track “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” was actually the first song to do so. Also, prior to the album being released, “Caroline No” was released as a single under Brian Wilson’s name alone; the world wouldn’t see another release credited solely to him until 1988.
As for myths, the biggest one is that there is no filler on Pet Sounds. There is filler, but unlike earlier rock albums, even the filler is uniformly excellent. If the album has an overarching theme, it’s that of the emotional roller-coaster of its auteur, in terms of his relationships, self-image, self-doubt, and sense of purpose. Two tracks have nothing to do with this theme. The first is “Sloop John B,” a traditional folk song that rhythm guitarist Al Jardine suggested to Wilson would be a good tune for the group to sing. Wilson deftly arranged it at the start of the Pet Sounds sessions and its positive reception when released as a single two months prior to the album (it eventually reached #3 on the charts) made it a shoo-in for inclusion, even though it lacks the emotional resonance of anything else on the recording.
The other filler is the instrumental “Pet Sounds.” It may be odd to think of a title track as filler, but the working title of the composition had been “Run James Run.” Wilson was considering offering it to the producers of the James Bond films as a possible theme song. “Pet Sounds” is also a bit of an anachronism on the album; its reverb-heavy surf guitar, Latin percussion, and big band-style horns owe a lot to a style of pop music that rock and roll was fast breaking away from. However, it’s a lively piece that has the merit of breaking up the pessimistic mood of the album, especially on the second side, where the tune offers welcome aural respite from the dour “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” that comes directly before it, and the downright depressing (though achingly beautiful) “Caroline No” that follows.
Another instrumental on the album, “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” appears near the end of side one. It, too, had a working title that suggests that it was not intended to be part of the Pet Sounds concept: “The Old Man and The Baby.” Yet this amazing piece of music is far from filler; it fits perfectly within the emotional and musical tapestry Wilson weaves throughout the album. Influenced by the sound of Burt Bacharach, the song later appeared as the B-side of the “Good Vibrations” single. Neil Young included it on the soundtrack of his 1972 film Journey Through the Past.
Wilson is currently on tour, marking the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds by performing the album in its entirety, something he previously had done on worldwide tours from the summer of 2000 to early 2002, culminating in the 2002 album Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live. He comes to Massachusetts in June, playing with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall on June 17 and 18, and at Tanglewood on June 19; the following day he turns 74. Miraculously, Wilson has outlasted many of his peers, managing to survive the drug problems that have plagued an unfortunate number of much younger artists, such as Prince. Brian Wilson and his masterwork, Pet Sounds, have stood the test of time.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 30 years, the last 15 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. He regularly contributes feature articles and CD reviews to Progression magazine and for several years wrote for The Jewish Advocate.