Let’s go away for a while: 50 years of the Beach Boys classic album Pet Sounds

In the mid-1960s, music was changing not just in how it was sounding but in how it was recorded. Albums were previously recorded by simply placing a ton of microphones down to record everything; a new technique pioneered by Phil Spector called “the Wall of Sound” was taking hold. The idea behind this is to overdub multiple instruments playing the same part over each other creating a thick sound. Songs went from spare guitar, drums, and bass to featuring intricate string sections and pianos that all worked together in unison. One noted devotee of Spector’s style was Brian Wilson, the proclaimed musical genius behind the Beach Boys.

In 1965 Wilson was trying to record an album that had “no filler,” something antithetical to the business model of the music industry at the time. At the time albums were essentially a scam where a band would record maybe 3-4 good songs, release them as singles, and when the record came out, they would fill the rest of it with throwaway songs dubbed filler. Wilson, inspired by the Beatles Rubber Soul, aimed to create an album that was only filled with good songs and adopted Spector’s production style to do so. This was easier said than done, though, with the Beach Boys being in shambles at the time. Wilson’s mental health was slipping and fellow bandmate Mike Love was very resistant to the change in recording style. At the end of this period of struggle, though, they did end up releasing an album that does have a claim to being one of the greatest albums ever, Pet Sounds.

Released in 1966, the album was a huge departure from the Beach Boys previous sound. The first song “Wouldn’t it be Nice” departed from their rock formula with the main instruments being a keyboard, an accordion, and horns that swoop in for the chorus matched with drums, an upright bass, a bell, and a tambourine. The album’s most famous song “God only knows” keeps with this style of music with the similar backing but weird popping sounds that keep tempo in the background. All of these disparate sounds work well together with every song being produced over a period of months. They are eclectic musically but not sloppy in style.

Lyrically the album focuses the emotions of growing up and falling in love. “Don’t talk (Put your Head on My Shoulder)” is a simple song about enjoying the last moments of a romance that is falling. Another standout is “That’s not me” which is about the panic of being an adult and trying to make it on your own. These songs are all accentuated by the tight melodies provided by the technique of overdubbing vocals from each member separately. Beforehand if one member flubbed recording, they would have to either have to keep the take or rerecord all over again. This method of recording would later become commonplace in production but at the time it confused many of the band members.

When the album was released in 1966, it was met with a lukewarm reception in the US though it fared much better in Britain. Its largest impact ended up being on producers with the Wall of Sound production style becoming the definitive sound of late 60s pop. Wilson set out to make a follow up album called Smile, an incredibly ambitious attempt at writing a concept album. Sadly the album would never truly be released with Wilson’s mental health descending into a complete mental breakdown with the song “Good Vibrations” being the only single released, a reminder of what could have been. After this, the Beach Boys popularity, production style, and Wilson’s sanity would be inconsistent for the next couple decades. Though Wilson would eventually regain both his health and release a solo album titled Brian Wilson’s Smile, the original recording is considered to be one of the great lost albums in music history leaving Pet Sounds to be remembered as the band’s magnum opus.

As of this year the album is 50 years old, and its style of recording and eclectic sound can still be seen in modern production. It is also still an album that finds a fan base among music fans with many independent bands citing it as an inspiration. If you have at least a passing interest in pop or musical history, it is an album that you need to hear at least once and as the album nears 50, it’s as good a time as any to check it out.

Photo courtesy of Allmusic.com

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