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Classic Album: The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”

May 17, 2016

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beach Boys’ masterpiece album, Pet Sounds. What better way to look back on one of the most influential records in music history than with our Classic Album feature?

The creation of Pet Sounds is just as impressive as the album itself as it all seemed to be trapped inside the mind of the complex genius Brian Wilson, and with the help of his band and producers, he was able to share it with the world.

The Beach Boys were already a fairly popular group at this point in their career, having gotten significant notoriety from their California surf music. But the music that gave them fame wasn’t necessarily the music they wanted to be known for and the band, especially Wilson, sought to experiment with their sound.

The real kick in the behind for Wilson and the Beach Boys came in the form of The Beatles. Wilson had always held a friendly and respectable rivalry with the Liverpool quartet. But with the release of Rubber Soul Wilson reportedly came to the conclusion that his band had fallen way behind and needed to up their game significantly. He decided the only way to beat such an impressive album was to create the greatest rock and roll record ever. When it was all said and done, many would say he succeeded.

Concept albums were just beginning to come into the mainstream at this time. The B side was no longer filled with the lesser tracks of the album, but rather the whole record told a cohesive story. Along with lyricist Tony Asher, the Beach Boys began molding the story of young, failed love into a full album. But the real genius of the album must be credited to Brian Wilson. By all accounts of the making of this album, Wilson knew exactly how each of the songs sounded, he just needed to explain that to the rest of the band. He heard something in his head and worked at it until it sounded perfect. Sometimes that meant using unconventional instruments like sleigh bells and pop cans, and sometimes that meant manipulating other instruments. Wilson was known to be a man of many insecurities but he knew exactly what he wanted in the studio.

Upon release, Pet Sounds wasn’t the runaway success that the Beach Boys were hoping for, but the test of time has more than made up for that. The album was a risk to be sure, but it was so finely crafted and so mature that it changed music forever and is quite possibly the most influential album for modern pop music. Indeed it has gone on to influence countless artists that followed. But perhaps the highest praise the album could receive, and one that Wilson likely enjoyed the most, it convinced the Beatles they needed to up their game—the result was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Best track

I’d be very tempted to choose the opening track, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, as it’s a pretty perfect intro to the band’s new, focused sound, but the title must go to God Only Knows. It is one of the greatest pop songs of all time and essential to the flow of the concept album. At once soft and loving, as well as melancholy and devastating. The perfect blend of lyrics, a talented band, and a genius mastermind who heard something no one else did.

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