The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds – [Record 191]
Pet Sounds is the eleventh studio album by the American rock band the Beach Boys. Released on May 16, 1966, it initially met a lukewarm critical and commercial reception in the United States, but received immediate success abroad, where British publications declared it “the most progressive pop album ever”. It charted at number two in the UK but number ten in the US, a significantly lower placement than the band’s preceding albums. In later years, the album garnered enormous worldwide acclaim by critics and musicians alike, and is regarded as one of the most influential pieces in the history of popular music.
The album was produced by Brian Wilson, who also wrote and composed almost all of its music. Sessions were conducted several months after he had quit touring with the Beach Boys in order to focus his attention on writing and recording. Collaborating with lyricist Tony Asher, Wilson’s symphonic arrangements wove elaborate layers of vocal harmonies, coupled with sound effects and unconventional instruments such as bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, Electro-Theremin, dog whistles, trains, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments, Coca-Cola cans and barking dogs, along with the more usual keyboards and guitars. Together, they comprised Wilson’s “pet sounds”, played in music styles which incorporated elements of jazz, exotica, classical, and the avant-garde. It was led by the singles “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows” and “Sloop John B” while Wilson made his solo debut with “Caroline, No”, issued a few months earlier. Due to his omnipresent directorial role, Pet Sounds is sometimes considered a Brian Wilson solo album in all but name.
A heralding work in the emerging psychedelic rock style, Pet Sounds signaled an aesthetic trend within rock by transforming it from dance music into music that was made for listening to, elevating itself to the level of art rock. It was one of the first rock concept albums, and has been suggested to follow a lyrical song cycle format, although Wilson has maintained that the album’s real unified theme lies within its cohesive production style. Writer Bill Martin said that within Pet Sounds, “The Beach Boys brought expansions in harmony, instrumentation (and therefore timbre), duration, rhythm, and the use of recording technology. Of these elements, the first and last were the most important in clearing a pathway toward the development of progressive rock.” Beyond pop and rock, Pet Sounds expanded the field of music production.
In 1993, it was named the greatest album of all time by NME magazine and The Times, and in 1995 by Mojo magazine. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it second on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2004, Pet Sounds was preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” In 1997, The Pet Sounds Sessions was released containing instrumental tracks, vocals-only tracks, alternate mixes, outtakes, and edited recording session highlights, as well as the album’s first true stereo mix.
1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice.
2. You Still Believe in Me.
3. That’s Not Me.
4. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder).
5. I’m Waiting for the Day.
6. Let’s Go Away for Awhile.
7. Sloop John B.
8. God Only Knows.
9. I Know There’s an Answer.
10. Here Today.
11. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.
12. Pet Sounds.
13. Caroline, No.
Background: The July 1964 release of the Beach Boys’ sixth studio album All Summer Long marked an end to the group’s beach-themed period. From thereon, their recorded material would take a significantly different stylistic and lyrical path. While on a December 23 flight from Los Angeles to Houston, the band’s songwriter and producer Brian Wilson suffered a panic attack only hours after performing with the group on the musical variety series Shindig!. Though the 22-year-old Wilson had already skipped several concert tours by then, the airplane episode proved devastating to his psyche. In order to focus his efforts on writing and recording, Wilson indefinitely resigned from live performances. Freed from the burden, he immediately showcased great artistic leaps in his musical development evident within Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), released in the spring and summer of 1965.
Having begun in mid-1965, the folk rocker “Sloop John B” predated the rest of Pet Sounds by several months. It was a traditional Caribbean folk song that had been suggested to Wilson by bandmate Al Jardine Wilson recorded a backing track on July 12, 1965, but after laying down a rough lead vocal, he set the song aside for some time, concentrating on the recording of what became their next LP, the informal studio jam Beach Boys’ Party!, in response to their record company’s request for a Beach Boys album for the Christmas 1965 market. Wilson devoted the last three months of 1965 to polishing the vocals of “Sloop John B” and recording six new original compositions. What would become Pet Sounds could not be finished in time for Christmas 1965.
“It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs …that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed. I said, “That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album.”
Halfway through the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson became enthralled with the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul, which was released that December. The British version of Rubber Soul was edited prior to its release in the US to emphasise a folk rock feel that critics attributed to Bob Dylan and the Byrds. Wilson found Rubber Soul to lack filler tracks, which was mostly unheard of at a time when 45 rpm singles were considered more noteworthy than full-length LPs. Many albums up until the late-1960s lacked a cohesive artistic goal and were largely used to sell singles at a higher price point. Wilson’s previous habits evident in Today! and Summer Days were to sacrifice portions of the album with lesser, superficial material. Wilson found that Rubber Soul subverted this by having a wholly consistent thread of music. Inspired, he rushed to his wife and proclaimed, “Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!”.
In late 1965, Wilson met Tony Asher while working at a recording studio in Los Angeles, a young lyricist and copywriter who had been working on advertising jingles. While together, the two exchanged ideas for songs. Soon after, Wilson heard of Asher’s writing abilities from mutual friends, proceeded to contact him about a possible lyric collaboration, and within ten days, they were writing together. Wilson played him some of the music he had been recording and gave him a cassette of the backing track for a piece with the working title “In My Childhood”. It had lyrics, but Wilson refused to show them to Asher. The result of Asher’s tryout was eventually retitled “You Still Believe in Me” and the success of the piece convinced Wilson that Asher was the wordsmith he had been looking for.
Group resistance: Pet Sounds is sometimes considered a Brian Wilson solo album in all but name. According to various reports, the group fought over the radical direction he had presented with Pet Sounds. When the other Beach Boys returned from a three-week tour of Japan and Hawaii, they were presented with a substantial portion of a new album, with music that was in many ways a jarring departure from their earlier style. Both Asher and Wilson state that there was resistance to the project from within the group, but on this occasion, Wilson’s conviction convinced the other members. Marilyn added: “When Brian was writing Pet Sounds, it was difficult for the guys to understand what he was going through emotionally and what he wanted to create. His need. His self-need. It was difficult because they didn’t feel what he was going through and what direction he was trying to go in.” One of the issues was the album’s complexity, and how the touring Beach Boys would be able to perform its music live.
Rumors of group infighting were denied by Dennis Wilson in later years, but corroborated by Mike Love, who admitted an active refusal to sing certain lines, while Carl Wilson intimated: “I loved every minute of it. He [Brian] could do no wrong. He could play me anything, and I would love it.” Authors Andrew Doe and John Tobler wrote that Dennis and Johnston loved the album, but that Jardine admitted “It sure doesn’t sound like the old stuff.” Brian expressed: “I think they [the Beach Boys] thought it was for Brian Wilson only. They knew that Brian Wilson was gonna be a separate entity, something that was a force of his own, and it was generally considered that the Beach Boys were the main thing. So with Pet Sounds, there was a resistance in that I was doing most of the artistic work on it vocally, and for that reason there was a little bit of intergroup struggle. It was resolved in the fact that they figured that it was a showcase for Brian Wilson, but it’s still the Beach Boys. In other words, they gave in. They let me have my little stint.”
Music and Lyrics: According to music journalist Jim DeRogatis, Pet Sounds is a psychedelic rock album, while the Journal Sentinel called its music psychedelic pop, and writer Vernon Joyson observed flirtations with acid rock. The Associated Press, on the other hand, said that the album is a baroque pop work, while author Domenic Priore referred to it simply as symphonic rock. Professor Kelly Fisher Lowe referred to Pet Sounds as an “experimental rock record.” According to biographer John Stebbins, the album’s innovative soundscape incorporates elements of pop, jazz, classical, exotica, and avant-garde music. The instrumentation is stylistically appropriated from a wide variety of cultures, with some relating it to exotica and associated producers Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Esquivel. In Pet Sounds, Wilson conceived of experimental arrangements which combine conventional rock set-ups with various exotic instruments, producing new sounds with a rich texture reminiscent of symphonic works layered underneath meticulous vocal harmonics. Exemplifying the album’s instrumentation are various stringed instruments, theremin, flutes, harpsichord, bicycle bells, beverage bottles, and the barking of Brian’s dogs.
As author James Perone writes, Wilson’s compositions include tempo changes, metrical ambiguity, and unusual tone colours that, culturally speaking, remove the music from “just about anything else that was going on in 1966 pop music.” He specifically touches upon the album’s closer “Caroline, No” and its use of wide tessitura changes, wide melodic intervals, and instrumentation which contribute to his belief; also Brian’s compositions and orchestral arrangements which experiment with form and tone colours. Referring to the opening track “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, Perone recalls that the track sounds “significantly less like a rock band supplemented with auxiliary instrumentation … than a rock band integrated into an eclectic mix of studio instrumentation.” What follows immediately after, “You Still Believe in Me”, features the first expression of introspective themes which would pervade the rest of the album. “One of the high points of the composition and Brian’s vocal performance,” he writes, “is the snaky, though generally descending melodic line on the line ‘I want to cry,’ his response to the realization that his girlfriend still believes in him despite his past failures.” He describes the “stepwise falloff of the interval of a third at the end of each verse” to be a typically “Wilsonian” feature. The feature recurs alongside a “madrigal sigh motif” in “That’s Not Me”, where the motif concludes each line of the verses. This sighing motif then appears in the next track, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”, a piece inspired by classical music, and once again in “Caroline, No”.
The album included two sophisticated instrumental tracks composed by Brian. One of them: the wistful “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, with a working parenthetical title of “And Then We’ll Have World Peace”; the other: the title track, “Pet Sounds”. The subtitle of “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” was a catchphrase from one of Brian’s favorite comedy recordings, John Brent and Del Close’s How To Speak Hip (1959). Both titles had been recorded as backing tracks for existing songs, but by the time the album neared completion Brian had decided that the tracks worked better without vocals. Of “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, Perone observes, “There are melodic features but no tune to speak of. As an instrumental composition, this gives the piece an atmospheric feel; however, the exact mood is difficult to define.” Of “Pet Sounds”, the piece represents the Beach Boys’ surf heritage more than any other track on the album with its emphasis on lead guitar, although Perone maintains that it is not really a surf composition, citing its elaborate arrangement involving countless auxiliary percussion parts, abruptly changing textures, and de-emphasis of a traditional rock band drum set.
Musicologist Daniel Harrison has written that “In terms of the structure of the songs themselves, there is comparatively little advance from what Brian had already accomplished or shown himself capable of accomplishing. Most of the songs use unusual harmonic progressions and unexpected disruptions of hypermeter, both features that were met in ‘Warmth of the Sun’ and ‘Don’t Back Down.'” Journalist Nick Kent felt similarly for lyrics of Pet Sounds, considering “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to be “teen angst dialogue” that Brian had already achieved with “We’ll Run Away” the year before. However: “This time Brian Wilson was out to eclipse these previous sonic soap operas, to transform the subject’s sappy sentiments with a God-like grace so that the song would become a veritable pocket symphony.” Fussili observed that Brian’s nuance to “wander far from the logic of his composition only to return triumphantly to confirm the emotional intent of his work” is repeated numerous times in Pet Sounds, but never to “evoke a sense of unbridled joy” as Brian recently had with the November 1965 single “The Little Girl I Once Knew”. Such occurs within “God Only Knows”, which contains an ambivalent key and non-diatonic chords. Critics Richard Goldstein and Nik Cohn both noted incongruity between the music and lyrics, where the latter suggested the album to be composed of sad songs about happiness while also celebrating loneliness and heartache.
According to Brian, his writing process at the time involved going to the piano and finding “feels,” which he described as “brief note sequences, fragments of ideas,” and that “once they’re out of my head and into the open air, I can see them and touch them firmly. They’re not ‘feels’ anymore.” Asher maintains that his contribution to the music itself was minimal, serving mainly as a source of second opinion for Brian as he worked out possible melodies and chord progressions, although the two did trade ideas as the songs evolved. On his role as co-lyricist, Asher clarified, “The general tenor of the lyrics was always his … and the actual choice of words was usually mine. I was really just his interpreter.” On Brian’s creative process, Asher remembers that “one of the things that I really enjoyed, was that first time I’d hear him hunting for a chord change and I’d think ‘Man, he’s just gone right off the edge because he’s not ever gonna get close. He’s way out there in some area that’s just—he’ll never get back. And if he’s successful, gets out of there, people are going to say, I’ve lost my tone center, don’t know where the hell I am and stuff. And then, eventually, he’d figure out what it was he wanted to do. A lot of it was just hunting and pecking, the way some of us type.”
While most songs were composed with Tony Asher, “I Know There’s an Answer” was co-written by another new associate, the Beach Boys’ road manager Terry Sachen. Mike Love is co-credited on the album’s opening track, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and on “I Know There’s an Answer” but with the exception of his co-credit on “I’m Waiting for the Day”, his songwriting contributions are thought to have been minimal. The exact degree of Love’s contribution to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was never fully determined, but under oath in a court of law, Asher stated it consisted of the tag “Good night my baby/Sleep tight, my baby” and possible minor vocal arrangement. Love’s influence on “I Know There’s an Answer” is reputed to have stemmed from his opposition to the song’s original title, “Hang On to Your Ego”, and his belief that it be partially rewritten and retitled. The original lyrics created a stir within the group. “I was aware that Brian was beginning to experiment with LSD and other psychedelics,” explained Love. “The prevailing drug jargon at the time had it that doses of LSD would shatter your ego, as if that were a positive thing… I wasn’t interested in taking acid or getting rid of my ego.” Jardine recalled that the decision to change the lyrics was ultimately Brian’s. “Brian was very concerned. He wanted to know what we thought about it. To be honest, I don’t think we even knew what an ego was… Finally Brian decided, ‘Forget it. I’m changing the lyrics. There’s too much controversy.'”
According to academics Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell, Pet Sounds has a “personal intimacy” that sets it apart from the Beach Boys’ contemporaries in psychedelic culture and the San Francisco Sound, but still retains a “trippy feel” that resulted from Brian’s experimental use of LSD. They attribute this to Brian’s “eclectic mixture of instruments, echo, reverb, and innovative mixing techniques learnt from Phil Spector to create a complex soundscape in which voice and music interweave tightly”. Brian was publicly effused with the drug during the mid-1960s and was using it to further his creative process, an admitted example being the 1965 single “California Girls”. Throughout the latter half of the decade, Brian was repeatedly been shown to have become interested in Eastern philosophy and the psychedelic experience, often pointing to ego loss as the key to a better way of living. During the spring of 1965, Brian had what he considered to be “a very religious experience” after consuming a full dose of LSD. He stated, “I learned a lot of things, like patience, understanding. I can’t teach you, or tell you what I learned from taking it.” In light of his intellectual pursuits and self-described “crucial” interest in metaphysics, Brian’s response when asked about LSD and “Hang On To Your Ego” was that “Yeah, I had taken a few drugs, and I had gotten into that kind of thing. it just came up naturally”. Despite the change from “Hang On To Your Ego” to “I Know There’s An Answer”, the psychedelic lyrics “they trip through their day and waste all their thoughts at night” were kept in the song. Similarly for “Sloop John B”, Brian’s lyric change from “this is the worst trip since I’ve been born” to “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” has been suggested by some to be another subtle nod to acid culture. Elsewhere within Pet Sounds lyrical content, Brian turned inward and probed his deep-seated self-doubts and emotional longings; Pet Sounds did not address the problems in the world around them, unlike other groups.
Concept and title: The concept album form received a resurgence of popularity in the late 1960s among pop artists, when many rock releases including Pet Sounds presented a set of thematically-linked songs. Other rock music artists, such as Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Beatles and The Who subsequently released concept albums. Pet Sounds was a musical portrayal of Brian Wilson’s private/public state of mind at the time. Even though Pet Sounds has a somewhat unified theme in its emotional content, Wilson and Asher said repeatedly that it was not necessarily intended to be a narrative. Asher explained that they had “truly spontaneously generated a lot of those songs” from lengthy, intimate discussions centered around their “experiences and feelings about women and the various stages of relationships and so forth”. Wilson stated: “If you take the Pet Sounds album as a collection of art pieces, each designed to stand alone, yet which belong together, you’ll see what I was aiming at.” He considered Pet Sounds to be an “interpretation” of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound method, something Wilson further clarified by saying: “It wasn’t really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album; it was really a production concept album.” Marilyn believed that her relationship with Brian was a central reference within the album’s lyrics; namely on “You Still Believe in Me” and “Caroline, No”.
Keeping the songwriter’s intentions in mind, Kent observed: “The album documents the male participant’s attempts at coming to terms with himself and the world about him. Each song pinpoints a crisis of faith in love and life: confusion (‘That’s Not Me’), disorientation (the staggeringly beautiful ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’), recognition of love’s capricious impermanence (‘Here Today’) and finally, the grand betrayal of innocence featured in ‘Caroline, No’. Then again, bearing in mind this conceptual bent, there are certain incongruous factors about the album’s construction. The main one is the inclusion of the hit single ‘Sloop John B’, as well as of two instrumental pieces.” James Perone argues, “To the extent that the listener hears ‘Let’s Go Away for Awhile’ as an incomplete piece, it is possible to understand it as a reflection of the alienation — the sense of not quite fitting in — of the bulk of Tony Asher’s lyrics in the songs on Pet Sounds.” Noting that a sense of self-doubt, concern for the future of a relationship, and melancholy pervades Pet Sounds, Perone claims in reference to “Sloop John B” that the song successfully portrays a sailor who feels “completely out of place in his situation which is fully in keeping with the general feeling of disorientation that runs through so many of the songs.”
In Perone’s interpretation, he also suggests a visceral continuity, writing that the high-pitched electric bass guitar part in “Here Today” bring to mind similar parts in “God Only Knows”, culminating in what sounds like the vocal protagonist of “Here Today” warning the protagonist of “God Only Knows” that what he sings stands no chance at longevity. The protagonist’s relationship then concludes shortly after “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, while “Caroline, No” is a rumination in broken love. From another viewpoint, author Scott Schinder has written that Wilson and Asher crafted an “emotion-charge song cycle that surveyed the emotional challenges accompanying the transition from youth to adulthood.” In his interpretation,
“Lyrically, Pet Sounds encompassed the loss of innocent idealism (“Caroline, No”), the transient nature of love (“Here Today”), faith in the face of heartbreak (“I’m Waiting for the Day”), the demands and disappointments of independence (“That’s Not Me”), the feeling of being out of step with the modern world (“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”), and the longing for a happy, loving future (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”). The album also featured a series of intimate, hymnlike love songs, “You Still Believe in Me”, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”, and “God Only Knows”.
On February 15, the group traveled to the San Diego Zoo to shoot the photographs for the cover, which had already received its title. George Jerman was credited for taking the cover photo. Both the origin and meaning of the album title Pet Sounds are uncertain. Brian has variously claimed that the title was “a tribute” to Spector by matching his initials or that it was named “after the dogs … That was the whole idea.” At another time, he credited the album title to Carl. Carl added with uncertainty that the title may have came from Brian, and said: “The idea he had was that everybody has these sounds that they love, and this was a collection of his ‘pet sounds.’ It was hard to think of a name for the album, because you sure couldn’t call it Shut Down Vol. 3 … It was just so much more than a record; it had such a spiritual quality. It wasn’t going in and doing another top ten. It had so much more meaning than that.” Love laid claim to the title: “We were standing in the hallway in one of the recording studios, either Western or Columbia, and we didn’t have a title,” he recounted. “We had taken pictures at the zoo and…there were animal sounds on the record, and we were thinking, well, it’s our favorite music of that time, so I said, ‘Why don’t we call it Pet Sounds?'” According to historians Andrew Doe and Brad Elliot, the cover photo was taken after the album had already received its title.
Recording and production: Wilson had developed his production methods over several years, reaching a peak with Pet Sounds during late 1965 and early 1966. Wilson idolized Phil Spector, and his production techniques were greatly inspired by Spector’s famous Wall of Sound productions, but Wilson arguably developed a far more complex and refined application of them. Thanks to the freedom offered by the recent development of multitrack tape recorders, both producers adopted the practice of taping their backing tracks first, and adding vocals later, and like Spector, Wilson was a pioneer of the studio-as-an-instrument concept, exploiting novel combinations of sounds that sprang from the use of multiple electric instruments and voices in an ensemble and combining them with tape delay and reverberation. He often doubled the bass (typically using an acoustic upright bass and an electric bass), guitars and keyboard parts, blending them with reverberation and adding other unusual instruments.
While the Beach Boys were occupied with concert touring, and with writing well under way, Wilson produced several backing tracks. The backing tracks for Pet Sounds were recorded over a period lasting several months, using major Los Angeles studios and an ensemble that included the highly regarded session musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew. Surviving tapes of his recording sessions show that he was open to his musicians, often taking advice and suggestions from them and even incorporating apparent mistakes if they provided a useful or interesting alternative. Wilson said that he “was sort of a square” with the Wrecking Crew, starting his creative process with how each instrument sounded one-by-one, moving from keyboards, drums, then violins if they were not overdubbed. Although the self-taught Wilson often had entire arrangements worked out in his head, they were usually written in a shorthand form for the other players by one of his session musicians. On notation and arranging, Wilson clarified: “Sometimes I’d just write out a chord sheet and that would be for piano, organ, or harpsichord or anything. … I wrote out all the horn charts separate from the keyboards. I wrote one basic keyboard chart, violins, horns, and basses, and percussion.”
Most of March and early April 1966 was devoted to recording the remaining backing tracks and to the crucial recording of vocals. According to Jardine, each member was taught their individual vocal lines by Brian at a piano. He explains, “Every night we’d come in for a playback. We’d sit around and listen to what we did the night before. Someone might say, well, that’s pretty good but we can do that better … We had somewhat photographic memory as far as the vocal parts were concerned so that never a problem for us.” This process proved to be the most exacting work the group had hitherto undertaken. During recording, Mike Love often called Brian “dog ears”, a nickname referencing the fact that dogs can detect sounds far beyond the limits of human hearing. Love later summarized:
“We worked and worked on the harmonies and, if there was the slightest little hint of a sharp or a flat, it wouldn’t go on. We would do it over again until it was right. [Brian] was going for every subtle nuance that you could conceivably think of. Every voice had to be right, every voice and its resonance and tonality had to be right. The timing had to be right. The timbre of the voices just had to be correct, according to how he felt. And then he might, the next day, completely throw that out and we might have to do it over again.”
The overall total cost of production for Pet Sounds eventually amounted to a then-unheard of $70,000 (today equal to $510,000), and it was mixed in a single nine-hour session.
Mixing and engineering: Although Spector’s trademark sound was aurally complex, many of the best-known Wall of Sound recordings were recorded on Ampex 3-track recorders. Spector’s backing tracks were recorded live, and usually in a single take. These backing tracks were mixed live, in mono, and taped directly onto one track of the 3-track recorder; instrumental overdubs only rarely added. The lead vocal was then taped, usually (though not always) as an uninterrupted live performance, recorded direct to the second track of the recorder. The master was completed with the addition of backing vocals on the third track before the three tracks were mixed down to create the mono master tape.
By comparison, Wilson produced tracks that were of greater technical complexity by using state-of-the-art 4-track and 8-track recorders. Most backing tracks were recorded onto a 4-track recorder before being later dubbed down (in mono) onto one track of an 8-track machine. Brian typically divided instruments by three tracks: drums–percussion–keyboard, horns, and bass–additional percussion–guitar. The fourth track usually contained a rough reference mix used during playback at the session,[clarification needed] later to be erased for overdubs such as a string section. After mixing down the 4-track to mono for overdubbing via an 8-track recorder, six of the remaining seven tracks were usually dedicated to each of the Beach Boys’ vocals. The last track was usually reserved for additional elements such as extra vocals or instrumentation.
Brian recounted a cupping-the-microphone technique he taught his brother Dennis for recording vocals, elaborating: “Well, he had a lot of trouble singing on mike. He just didn’t really know how to stay on mike. He was a very nervous boy. Very nervous person. So I taught him a trick, how to record and he said, ‘Hey Brian. That works great. Thank you!’ And I said, ‘It’s okay, Dennis: He was really happy. I showed him—not how to sing, but I showed him a way to get the best out of himself—just ‘cup’ singing.” Love sung most of the album’s bass vocals, but necessitated an extra microphone due to his low volume range.
Over the period leading up to Pet Sounds, Wilson pioneered and perfected the now-common studio technique known as “looping” – creating master recordings that consisted of heavily edited assemblages of pre-taped segments. Most of the Pet Sounds vocal tracks were recorded piece-by-piece, rather than in a single continuous take. Typically, each small phrase or section of a song was recorded separately – sometimes dozens of times over, until Wilson was satisfied that he had the best possible performance – and then each of these segments would be physically spliced together to assemble a composite master vocal track, comprising the best possible performances of each segment of the vocal. Wilson also frequently used this editing approach to duplicate certain renditions of song sections, and the choruses of many Beach Boys songs from this period (e.g. “California Girls”) are in fact duplicated edits of the same single rendition (which was itself often an edited composite). Additionally, by the time of Pet Sounds, Wilson was using up to six of the eight tracks on the multitrack master so that he could record the voice of each member separately, allowing him greater control over the vocal balance in the final mix.
A true stereophonic mix of Pet Sounds was not considered in 1966 largely due to mixing logistics. However, in spite of the possibility for true stereo, Wilson purposely mixed the final version of his recordings in mono, as did Spector. He did this because he felt that mono mastering provided more sonic control over the final result, regardless of the vagaries of speaker placement and sound system quality. In that era radio and TV were broadcast in mono and most domestic and automotive radios and record players were monophonic. Another and more personal reason for Wilson’s preference for mono was due to his almost total deafness in his right ear.
Unreleased material: On October 15, 1965, Wilson went to the studio to record an instrumental piece entitled “Three Blind Mice”, bearing no musical connection to the nursery rhyme of the same name. By mid-February 1966, Wilson was in the studio with his session band laying down the first takes for a new composition, “Good Vibrations”. On February 23, Wilson gave Capitol a provisional track listing for the new LP, which included both “Sloop John B” and “Good Vibrations”. This contradicts the long held misconception that “Sloop John B” was a forced inclusion as the hit single at Capitol’s insistence: in late February, the song was weeks away from release. Wilson worked through February and into March fine-tuning the backing tracks. To the group’s surprise he also dropped “Good Vibrations” from the running order, telling them that he wanted to spend more time on it. Al Jardine remembered: “At the time, we all had assumed that “Good Vibrations” was going to be on the album, but Brian decided to hold it out. It was a judgment call on his part; we felt otherwise but left the ultimate decision up to him.” A third instrumental, called “Trombone Dixie”, had been fully recorded, but it remained in the vaults until its inclusion on the album’s 1990 remastered CD release. According to Brian, “I was just foolin’ around one day, fuckin’ around with the musicians, and I took that arrangement out of my briefcase and we did it in 20 minutes. It was nothing, there was really nothing in it.”
Wilson devoted some Pet Sounds sessions to avant-garde indulgences such as an extended a capella run-through of the children’s song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” exploiting the song’s use of rounds via tape delay and overdubbing. At least half an hour of tape reels exist which involve Brian and friends attempting to create a psychedelic comedy album, foreshadowing much of his work on Smile, which was set to have followed Pet Sounds. The only product of these sessions present in Pet Sounds was an excerpt of Brian’s dogs barking accompanied by a recording of passing trains which may have been sampled from the 1963 sound effects LP Mister D’s Machine. Wilson may also have briefly considered recording other animal sounds for inclusion, as evidenced by a humorous snippet of surviving studio chatter from the “Dog Barking Session” (included on the Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set). This features Brian Wilson innocently asking studio engineer Chuck Britz: “Hey Chuck, is it possible we can bring a horse in here without .. if we don’t screw everything up?”, to which a clearly startled Britz responds” “I beg your pardon?”, with Wilson then pleading, “Honest to God, now, the horse is tame and everything!” About a year later Brian had moved on to burning wood in the studio.
Promotional films: Two music videos were filmed set to “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows” for the UK’s Top of the Pops, both directed by newly employed band publicist Derek Taylor. The first was filmed at Brian’s Laurel Way home with Dennis acting as cameraman, the second near Lake Arrowhead. While the second film — containing footage of the group minus Bruce flailing around in grotesque horror masks and playing Old Maid — was intended to be accompanied by excerpts from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Here Today”, and “God Only Knows”, slight edits were made by the BBC to reduce the film’s length.
Commercial performance: “Caroline, No” was released as a single; it was credited to Brian alone, leading to speculation that he was considering leaving the band. The single reached number 32 in the US. It was followed by “Sloop John B”, which was extremely successful, credited to the Beach Boys, and reached number three in the US and number two in Great Britain. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” reached number eight in the US where it was treated as the A-side. Its flip side, “God Only Knows,” was featured as the A-side in Europe, peaking at number two in Britain, as a B-side in the US, it reached number 39.
By mid-April 1966, Pet Sounds was fully assembled. Brian brought a complete acetate to Marilyn, who remembers, “It was so beautiful, one of the most spiritual times of my whole life. We both cried. Right after we listened to it, he said he was scared that nobody was going to like it. That it was too intricate.” Released on May 16, the LP broke into the top 10 in the US, belying its reputation as a commercial failure there. However, compared to previous albums, Pet Sounds earned dramatically less commercial success. Its initial release in the US disappointed Brian, with sales numbering approximately 500,000 units, a significant drop-off from the chain of million-selling albums which immediately preceded it. Pet Sounds’ initial release was not awarded gold certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) despite eligibility beginning in mid–1967. Eventually, Pet Sounds was presented with gold and platinum awards in 2000.
Some of the blame has been placed with Capitol Records, which did not promote the album as heavily as previous releases. Carl stated that Capitol did not feel a need to promote the Beach Boys since they were getting so much airplay, and that they had a “set image” for the group which even Pet Sounds could not alter. Others assumed that the label considered the album a risk, appealing more to an older demographic than the younger, female audience the Beach Boys built their commercial standing on. To Brian’s dismay, within two months, Capitol assembled the group’s first greatest hits compilation, Best of The Beach Boys, which was quickly certified gold by the RIAA. Capitol executive Karl Engemann later speculated: “This is just conjecture on my part because it was so long ago … because the marketing people didn’t believe that Pet Sounds was going to do that well, they were probably looking for some additional volume in that quarter. There’s a good possibility that’s what happened. Anyway, my real forte was dealing with artists and producers and making them feel comfortable so they could achieve their ends. And sometimes, particularly when the label wanted something that the artist didn’t, it wasn’t easy.
Its greatest success was in the UK, where it reached number two. Its success was aided by support from the British music industry, who embraced the record; Paul McCartney spoke often about the album’s influence on the Beatles. Bruce Johnston stated that while he flew to London in May 1966, a number of musicians and other guests gathered in his hotel suite to listen to repeated playbacks of the album. This included McCartney, John Lennon, and Keith Moon. Moon involved himself Johnston by helping him gain coverage in British television circuits, and connecting him with Lennon and McCartney. Johnston claimed that Pet Sounds got so much publicity, “it forced EMI to put the album out sooner.” Although it has been claimed that the Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham helped Derek Taylor publicize unsolicited advertisements lauding the album in British music papers, a search of the UK pop press for 1966 fails to uncover any such advertisement.
In Australia, the album was released under the title The Fabulous Beach Boys on the Music for Pleasure label.
Critical reception: Early reviews for the album in the US ranged from negative to tentatively positive. Upon release, it was named by many British publications as the most progressive pop album of all time. UK newspaper Melody Maker ran a feature which questioned the hype in its headline, but affirmed within: “The record’s impact on artists and the men behind the artists has been considerable.” Andrew Oldham stated “I think that Pet Sounds is the most progressive album of the year in as much as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade was. It’s the pop equivalent of that, a complete exercise in pop music.” Spencer Davis of the Spencer Davis Group praised the album saying “Brian Wilson is a great record producer. I haven’t spent much time listening to the Beach Boys before, but I’m a fan now and I just want to listen to this LP again and again.”
Pete Townshend was apprehensive of the album, believing “the Beach Boys new material is too remote and way out. It’s written for a feminine audience.” Similarly, journalist and television presenter Barry Fantoni commented at the time that he preferred the group’s Beach Boys Today!, and that Pet Sounds “[is] probably revolutionary, but I’m not sure that everything that’s revolutionary is necessarily good.” In Gene Sculatti’s 1968 editorial “In Defense of the Beach Boys”, he commented that Wilson was “one of the all-time great composers of melody in rock” along with Lennon-McCartney, John Phillips, and Smokey Robinson, yet, “Pet Sounds was by no means a revolutionary work in that it inspired or influenced the rock scene in a big way. It was revolutionary only within the confines of the Beach Boys’ music.” However, later in the piece he affirmed: “Pet Sounds was a final statement of an era and a prophecy that sweeping changes lay ahead.”
Reappraisal: Retrospectively, in Stephen Davis’s 1972 Rolling Stone review, Davis called it “by far” Brian Wilson’s best album and said that its “trenchant cycle of love songs has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel”. Yahoo! Music’s Bill Holdship called it “a beautiful reflection of romanticism in the modern world”. In Music USA: The Rough Guide, Richie Unterberger and Samb Hicks wrote the album to be a “quantum leap” from the Beach Boys earlier material, and “the most gorgeous arrangements ever to grace a rock record.” In 2006, Dominique Leone wrote a 9.4 review of its 40th Anniversary edition for Pitchfork Media stating: “Certainly, regardless of what I write here, the impact and ‘influence’ of the record will have been in turn hardly influenced at all. I can’t even get my dad to talk about Pet Sounds anymore. … The hymnal aspect of many of these songs seems no less pronounced, and the general air of deeply heartfelt love, graciousness and the uncertainty that any of it will be returned are still affecting to the point of distraction.” Author Luis Sanchez views the album as “the score to a film about what rock music doesn’t have to be. For all of its inward-looking sentimentalism, it lays out in a masterful way the kind of glow and sui generis vision that Brian aimed to [later] expand.” Music journalist Robert Christgau felt that Pet Sounds was a good record, but believed it had become looked upon as a totem.
The A.V. Club theorized that the later success of “Good Vibrations” was what helped turn around the perception of Pet Sounds; that the “un-hip orchestrations and pervasive sadness baffled some longtime fans, who didn’t immediately get what Wilson was trying to do.” By the 1990s, three British critics’ polls would feature Pet Sounds at the top or near the top of their lists.
Legacy: The album carries a few historical distinctions. It is the first rock record to incorporate the Electro-Theremin, an easier-to-play version of the theremin. Its inventor Paul Tanner performs the instrument on the song “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”. “God Only Knows” unusually referred to “God” in its title, a decision Brian feared would be seen as blasphemous. Professor of American history John Robert Greene stated that “God Only Knows” remade the ideal of the popular love song, while “Sloop John B” and “Pet Sounds” broke new ground and took rock music away from its casual lyrics and melodic structures into what was then uncharted territory. He furthermore called it one factor which spawned the majority of trends in post-1965 rock music, the only others being the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver (1966), and the 1960s folk movement. According to music journalists Stephen Davis and Nick Kent, it was the first rock concept album. Bill Holdship said that Pet Sounds was “perhaps rock’s first example of self-conscious art”. According to Jim Fusilli, author of the 33⅓ book on the album, it “[raised itself] to the level of art through its musical sophistication and the precision of its statement”, while academic Michael Johnson said that the album was one of the first documented moments of ascension in rock music.
Beyond pop and rock, Pet Sounds expanded the field of music production. In 1971, publication Beat Instrumental & International Recording wrote: “Pet Sounds took everyone by surprise. In terms of musical conception, lyric content, production and performance, it stood as a landmark in a music genre whose development was about to begin snowballing.” Pet Sounds is viewed by writer David Leaf as a herald of art rock genre. Vernon Joyson omitted the Beach Boys from his book The Acid Trip: A Complete Guide to Psychedelic Music on the basis that they “essentially predated the psychedelic era.” Music journalist Jim DeRogatis said that it was one of the first psychedelic rock masterpieces, along with The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966) and Revolver. Writer Bill Martin felt that it aided in the development of progressive rock at a time when the Beach Boys “brought expansions in harmony, instrumentation (and therefore timbre), duration, rhythm, and the use of recording technology”. The album has inspired many progressive rock bands, being later named as one of Classic Rock magazine’s “50 Albums That Built Prog Rock”.
Pet Sounds is frequently cited by both critics and musicians as the greatest rock album of all time. Advocates include Mojo magazine and Paul McCartney. Although not originally a big seller, Pet Sounds has been influential since it was released. In 1995, a panel of top musicians, songwriters and producers assembled by MOJO magazine voted Pet Sounds as the #1 greatest album among them. Artists and musicians have revered the album as a remarkable milestone in the history of popular music. These have included the Beach Boys’ contemporaries Pink Floyd, Cream, The Who, and The Beatles. In the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, it was reported that singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston was enraptured with Pet Sounds and it immediately led him to buy the rest of the Beach Boys discography. He later recorded his own version of “God Only Knows”, a song which also inspired songwriter Margo Guryan to reevaluate her career, saying “I thought it was just gorgeous. I bought the record and played it a million times, then sat down and wrote ‘Think of Rain.’ That’s really how I started writing that way. I just decided it was better than what was happening in jazz.” Seattle-based folk band, the Fleet Foxes have often been seen paying tribute to the album. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth — who has covered both “Here Today” and “I Know There’s an Answer” from the album — has commented: “I would look at the cover of Pet Sounds and think… these guys with these sheep. I mean, what’s going on here?”
Novelist Thomas Pynchon was played Pet Sounds by journalist Jules Siegel shortly after the album’s release; at the time, Pynchon was unaware why the journalist had been interested in covering the group. After listening, Pynchon was reportedly in a “stunned pleasure,” sighing softly before saying, “Ohhhhh, now I understand.”
Paul McCartney has frequently stated his affinity with the album, citing “God Only Knows” as his favorite song of all-time, and crediting his uniquely melodic bass-playing style to the album. He acknowledged that it was the primary impetus for the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band The album also influenced their Revolver album. Arranger Robert Kirby claims that English singer-songwriter Nick Drake intended the instrumentals on his 1970 album Bryter Layter to evoke Pet Sounds. Kevin Shields of the Irish shoegazing group My Bloody Valentine referenced Pet Sounds as an example toward why their 1991 album Loveless was recorded in mono. R.E.M.’s song “At My Most Beautiful” from their 1998 album Up was written as a “gift” from Michael Stipe to his bandmates fond of Pet Sounds. According to Thom Yorke, portions of the album OK Computer were based on the atmosphere of Pet Sounds. When Animal Collective co-founder Noah Lennox was asked about critics comparing his 2007 solo album Person Pitch to Pet Sounds, Lennox responded: “For me, Pet Sounds wouldn’t be the first thing I would compare my album with…first, because it would be kind of arrogant.”
Tributes: Pet Sounds inspired tribute albums such as Do It Again: A Tribute To Pet Sounds, The String Quartet Tribute to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Mojo Presents: Pet Sounds Revisited. Many songs from Pet Sounds have also appeared on general-themed Beach Boy and Brian Wilson tribute albums like Making God Smile and Smiling Pets, which feature cover versions by various artists including Sixpence None the Richer and Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her. Other artists include They Might Be Giants, David Bowie, Black Francis, Peter Thomas, Rivers Cuomo, Patrick Wolf, Tim Burgess, Saint Etienne and the Flaming Lips.
Pet Sounds tribute parodies include Punk Sounds by the Huntingtons. Track-for-track mash-ups include Sgt. Petsound’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a blend of Pet Sounds with Sgt. Pepper. It was released under the pseudonym “The Beachles”.
In the mid-1990s, Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo and Jim McIntyre of Von Hemmling founded Pet Sounds Studio, which served as the venue for many Elephant 6 projects such as Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the Olivia Tremor Control’s Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage.
Live performances: After its release, several selections from Pet Sounds became staples for the group’s live performances, including “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows”. Other songs were performed, albeit sporadically and infrequently through the years, and the album was never performed in its entirety with every original group member. In the late 1990s, Carl Wilson vetoed an offer for the Beach Boys to perform Pet Sounds in full for ten shows, reasoning that the studio arrangements were too complex for the stage, and that Brian could not possibly sing his original parts.
As a solo artist, Brian performed the entire album live on three occasions on his 2002 and 2006 “Pet Sounds” tours, which included fellow band member Al Jardine at several shows. He also performed it twice on his 2013 tour, which again included Jardine as well as original Beach Boys guitarist David Marks. Recordings from Wilson’s 2002 concert tour were released as Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live.
Release history: Pet Sounds has had many different reissues since its release in 1966, including remastered mono and stereo versions. Its first reissue was in 1972, when it was packaged as a bonus LP with the Beach Boys’ latest album Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”. The first release of the album on CD came in 1990, when it was released with the addition of three bonus tracks: “Unreleased Backgrounds”, “Hang On to Your Ego” and “Trombone Dixie” all of which were described as unreleased.
In 1997, The Pet Sounds Sessions box set was released. It included the original mono release of Pet Sounds, the very first stereo release, and three discs of unreleased material. The stereo mix was reissued in 1999 on vinyl and on CD. In 2001, Pet Sounds was rereleased with the mono and improved stereo versions, plus “Hang on to Your Ego” as a bonus track, all on one disc. On August 29, 2006, Capitol released the 40th Anniversary edition. The new compilation contains a new 2006 remaster of the original mono mix, DVD mixes (stereo and Surround Sound), and a “making of” documentary. The discs were released in a regular jewel box and a deluxe edition was released in a green fuzzy box. A two disk colored gatefold vinyl set was released with green (stereo) and yellow (mono) disks. On September 2, 2008, Capitol reissued a single LP version replicating the original artwork and the inner sleeve with the original mono mix on 180 gram vinyl.