50 Years Ago Today, The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' Brought Love To The World
Fifty years ago today, the Beach Boys released their masterpiece Pet Sounds. Declared the second-best album of all-time by Rolling Stone, it's the clearest marker of Brian Wilson's genius, and many believe it's essentially his first solo album in all but name. Sonically, Pet Sounds is an audiophile's dream. Lyrically, the themes of Pet Sounds—depression, alienation, heartbreak, nostalgia—at times feel incongruous with the beautiful harmonies, melodies, and upbeat, almost manic orchestration. But these arrangements illuminate the truth that you could be just as unhappy and tormented under the warm California sun as anywhere else; an enormous departure from the Beach Boys' previous identity as cheery surfer boys just looking to have fun, fun, fun.
At the end of 1964, Brian Wilson suffered a mental breakdown, and announced that he'd be taking a break from touring, and would be staying home to focus on songwriting. Wilson linked up with Tony Asher, who would be his main collaborator on the album, who said, "It felt like we were writing autobiography, but oddly enough, I wouldn't limit it to Brian's autobiography. You see, so much of our conversation as we were working on songs and even as we were just talking and getting to know each other—had to do with our experiences with women."
The Beatles' 1965 LP Rubber Soul was another catalyst for Wilson's inspiration. He wrote:
It inspired me. When we were listening to it that night I said to myself, "Now I'm gonna make an album just as good as Rubber Soul." Not the same album. Obviously there can only be one album that's Rubber Soul, just like there can only be one Pet Sounds. But it inspired me to do my own thing, and so the next morning I went to the piano and wrote "God Only Knows" with Tony Asher.
That inspiration chain circled back to Paul McCartney. After hearing "God Only Knows", which Sir Paul has said is his favorite song, he rushed off to compose "Here, There, and Everywhere." (In yet another loop back, it's said that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—No. 1 on that Rolling Stone list above—was in turn inspired by Pet Sounds.)
Let's go back to the beginning of Pet Sounds and listen to the opening track, the classic jam "Wouldn't It Be Nice." From that first crack of the snare and the whimsical keys, we know that this is not going to be the Beach Boys as we knew 'em.
"I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" was the first pop song to feature a theremin. Of this choice, Wilson said, "I was so scared of theremins when I was a kid. The thing about the '40s mystery movies where they had those kind of witchy sounds. I don't know how I ever arrived at the place where I'd want to get one—but we got it."
There was some drama behind "I Know There's An Answer" because Mike Love (of course) didn't approve of its allusion to Wilson's experience with LSD with the original title, "Hang On to Your Ego." As Rolling Stone notes, Love explained in 1996, "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." Ultimately, Wilson changed the title to a more Love-palatable "I Know There's an Answer."
The album's first single, released as a solo track by Wilson himself, "Caroline, No" was originally titled, "Carol, I Know," but Wilson misheard it as the former when it was spoken aloud. Asher said that the song was inspired by a former girlfriend, but Wilson also contributed to the themes by combining the changes in his relationship with his wife Marilyn. "We were young, Marilyn nearing 20 and me closing in on 24, yet I thought we'd lost the innocence of our youth in the heavy seriousness of our lives," he said. The opening percussion was made by hitting an upside-down Sparkletts water bottle.
And here, we'll leave you with the title track, a psych-y, jazzy, surf-y instrumental that was originally titled "Run James Run," and was recorded with the intent of being used as a James Bond theme. We think it would've worked!
You can listen to the full album straight-through here (and trust me, if you haven't, you'll want to):