57 years later, Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ gaining fans, appreciation

Brian Wilson performs the classic Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds" at the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. / Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP/File
Brian Wilson performs the classic Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds" at the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. / Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP/File

The year was 1966. The music industry was about to be rocked by one of the most innovative and groundbreaking albums ever created. The album was "Pet Sounds" by The Beach Boys, and its creator was none other than the band's musical genius, Brian Wilson. However, the effect the record had on the music industry wasn't appreciated for more than three decades.

The Beach Boys enjoyed immense success from past albums, including the iconic "Surfin' USA" and "Little Deuce Coupe." The band's success is credited to the members' captivating harmonies and melodic surf-rock style. It was Dennis Wilson, one of Brian's two younger brothers in the band, the only actual surfer in the group, whose idea it was to play surf rock.

"Seriously, Dennis got the idea that we should write something about surfing, because he was a big, avid surfer ... then," Brian said in the 2021 documentary "Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road."

Be that as it may, Brian Wilson was eager to develop new styles of music.

Following a severe panic attack in late 1964, Brian was compelled to stop touring with the group and return home to Los Angeles. This afforded him the ability to focus on writing and creating new music. Inspired by The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album and producer Phil Spector, Wilson longed to make the "greatest rock album ever." On May 16, 1966, the band's 11th studio album, "Pet Sounds," was released. It took The Beach Boys' sound in a completely new direction.

But "Pet Sounds" was not met with the same fanfare as all of the group's previous surf rock works. It faced harsh critiques after its release. So why did "Pet Sounds," which years later earned double-platinum status, fail to garner critical and commercial acclaim in 1966 when it's now regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time?

  photo  Capitol Records / The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" album cover, circa 1966.

Critics credit "Pet Sounds'" poor performance to the band deviating from the sound its core audience had become accustomed to.

"'Pet Sounds' wasn't a commercial flop, but it did signal that the group was losing contact with its listeners," said critic Dave Marsh, co-founder of Detroit's Creem rock magazine.

Their past albums included songs that evoked a beachy, summer mood. "Pet Sounds" didn't have the same vibe. It was much more melancholic. The record may not have been a complete commercial flop, but it was the catalyst for the band's commercial decline.

"It was a little ahead of its time," said original Beach Boy Al Jardine in a 2016 interview with the music news website Best Classic Bands.

Oftentimes, art takes time to be appreciated. You could say "Pet Sounds" was like a bottle of good wine; it got better with age. Since its disappointing release, the masterpiece's popularity has grown exponentially. The album's most revered song, "God Only Knows," is regarded as one of the greatest songs ever written (ranked No. 11 in Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time"). It features intricate vocal harmonies and a lush orchestral arrangement that are the hallmarks of Brian Wilson's creative genius.

Another standout track on the album is "Caroline, No" known for its poignant lyrics and austere production. The heart-wrenching ballad talks about a girl moving on with her life, leaving the singer puzzled as to what went wrong. A personal favorite of mine, "That's Not Me" is about a young man and his movement toward independence. The song features the same captivating harmonies, but the orchestral theme of the album is subtle. Wilson claims the song illustrates much more about his life.

"Pet Sounds" is now recognized for three things: First, its detailed instrumentals. Wilson used a wide variety of instruments, ranging from horns to a theremin, which is played by small finger and hand movements within its electromagnetic field, without physical contact. He even plucked the strings inside a piano with a hairpin for the intro to "You Still Believe in Me."

Next, the breathtaking harmonies. They are heard on nearly every song on the album, and their angelic tone is like nothing ever heard before. Lastly, Wilson's methods of production. His rule for production was that there was none. His techniques were abstract, and the music scene wasn't ready for it.

Brian's musical mind is a gift. Unfortunately, he suffers from a disease called schizoaffective disorder, which causes paranoia and auditory hallucinations in his everyday life. The inventive music he has written throughout his career, especially on "Pet Sounds," coincided with his disease. This is what gave "Pet Sounds" its rather emotional tone.

"Even the most upbeat songs were shot through with yearning and loss and confusion," wrote British journalist Alexis Petridis, a critic for The Guardian.

Wilson has said he hears voices in his head that say very derogatory things. It started when he was 25 years old, he said, but he didn't get professional help until he was 40. He's said that though these voices haunt him every day he has ways to fight them.

"I try to combat the voices by singing really loud. When I'm not on stage, I play my instruments all day, making music for people. Also, I kiss my wife and kiss my kids. I try to use love as much as possible," he said in a 2006 interview with Ability Magazine.

In the last 57 years, the music industry has changed countless times. Those changes brought a new appreciation for "Pet Sounds" and solidified Brian Wilson's artistic mind as one of the greatest in music history. Now, nearly six decades later, we remember "Pet Sounds" not just for the songs it contained, but for its everlasting effect on the music industry.

Alex Burnstine is a 17-year-old boarding student at McCallie School who describes himself as a musician obsessed with all things rock n' roll and a huge fan of The Beach Boys, "Pet Sounds" and especially Brian Wilson.

  photo  Contributed Photo / Alex Burnstine

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