With The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds,’ Brian Wilson Got His One Chance To Approach Perfection

You don’t need to be told that Pet Sounds is a great album. Side A opens with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and side B opens with “God Only Knows.” That alone is enough to cement it as one of music’s greatest works.

Its influence has sunk its claws so deep into music, it’s hard to even parse it anymore. The album, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today, is in the Library of Congress, and Rolling Stone named it the second best of all time. Paul McCartney called “God Only Knows” his favorite song of all-time, and Pet Sounds led pretty much directly to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An eclectic group of artists, including Thom Yorke, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, and Phillip Glass, have heaped praise upon and have been massively influenced by it. The New York Observer said of the record: “Pet Sounds proved that a pop group could make an album-length piece comparable with the greatest long-form works of Bernstein, Copland, Ives, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.” And its influence continues to bear fruit, basically inventing chamber pop, prog rock, psych rock, and art rock.

And oddly enough, there was no way to predict it. The Beach Boys’ first single, released in 1961, was “Surfin,” and their second single release was a split of “Surfin’ Safari” and “409.” This was who the Beach Boys were — they made bubblegum pop music with infectiously sweet harmonies. While they were the best at what they did, the music was indistinguishable from many acts of the day like Jan and Dean. If their early music were to be all we knew, the California group would have still had a fine career. However, the Beach Boys happened to feature a man named Brian Wilson, who dreamed of something grander. That’s why, through hell or high water, they released Pet Sounds, and the music industry changed forever.

How does an album so good, so influential get made? In this instance, it’s due to the singular influence of Wilson. It’s fair to call this Wilson’s album, as he’s the writer or co-writer of every song, sings on almost every song, and arranged every song. Pet Sounds paints the picture of a man with an obsession with perfection, and frankly, he actually accomplished it. Alas, it would be the only time he managed to make it happen, and he nearly killed himself trying to replicate that success.

If you’ve seen the film Love & Mercy or you just have any familiarity with the recording process of Pet Sounds, you know the degree of detail that went into the recording process for Wilson. He basically reinvented the concept of music production, because he was able to fully dedicate himself, in this instance obsessively, to crafting the iconic record.

The band’s 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! was something of a precursor to Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson had stopped writing surfing songs, and the instrumentation was much more complex and varied. It’s essentially a dry run for Pet Sounds, but it doesn’t feel like it fully captures Wilson’s dreams of what music could be. It was December 1964 when Wilson had an anxiety attack that led him to quit touring, at which point he focused all his efforts on producing music (he also started smoking pot, which may mean something).

Though, what accompanied the stratospheric highs of a triumph like Pet Sounds were incredible pressures and expectations, many of them self-imposed. Wilson went into near exile recording what would eventually become The Beach Boys’ follow up, Smiley Smile. When the record finally came out in 1967, it was public knowledge that it was a compromised effort after Wilson could not reign in his artistic vision. There are moments similar to Pet Sounds there — it does contain “Good Vibrations” after all — but the complete picture wasn’t quite there. Carl Wilson, Brian’s brother and fellow Beach Boy, called it “a bunt instead of a grand slam.” That’s probably a bit harsh, but it gets to the overall point that Brian Wilson wasn’t able to achieve quite what he intended. However, Wilson still had his magnum opus, Smile, percolating in his brain.

Unfortunately, that brain had a lot of stuff percolating in it aside from music and lyrics, and much of it was not good for Wilson. He did a ton of drugs, had a host of mental-health issues, and his music career fell off a cliff. Brian Wilson stopped being listed as the sole producer of Beach Boys albums, and his creative input waned. There still were some good albums, like 1971’s Surf’s Up, but the wild genius of Pet Sounds was increasingly in the rear-view mirror. For better or worse, the Beach Boys would eventually become the band who made “Kokomo” and appeared on Full House. But despite his problems, Brian eventually got his life back together, would make some solo albums, and he finally released his most genius burden, the breathtaking The Smile Sessions, in 2011.

Pet Sounds is an album that makes you both marvel at what is possible, and makes you wonder what could have been. Brian Wilson was only able to keep his demons at bay and channel his musical talents for that one sliver of time, and in the process managed to create one of the greatest artifacts of our culture, musical or otherwise. Pet Sounds is a reminder of what is possible, musically, and how hard it is to turn those possibilities into reality.

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