Released May 16, 1966 – 50 years ago
The Beach Boys 11th studio album, showcasing Brian Wilson’s genius as producer, arranger, and songwriter, is generally seen as their best release, one of the most important albums of the 1960s, and quite arguably one of the most influential rock albums of all time. It is a classic in every sense of the word, cementing their place in rock’s highest pantheon.
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4 p.m. Monday-Friday on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4 p.m. Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3FM and kxci.org.
The Beach Boys formed in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, California in 1961. The band’s original line up consisted of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their good friend Al Jardine.
Initially rooted in 1950s jazz-based vocal groups and doo-wop, The Beach Boys were originally more of a surf band akin to acts like Jan & Dean and Dick Dale, performing songs built around distinct vocal harmonies and lyrics reflecting early 1960s youth culture, surfing, cars, and young romance.
Brian Wilson eventually led The Beach Boys into a more novel and complicated sound, characterized by more personal lyrics, new approaches to music production, and layered, more complex arrangements. This new direction, sometimes referred to as psychedelic or baroque pop, was also shared to bands other West Coast acts like The Byrds, The Turtles, and The Mamas & Papas, among others. Collectively this movement became known as the “California Sound.”
The release of Pet Sounds, along with the single “Good Vibrations” also released in 1966, propelled The Beach Boys to the highest tier of music innovators and established the band as symbols of the early, but growing counterculture era.
Within a few years, Brian Wilson gradually ceded control to the rest of the band, reducing his input due to mental health and substance abuse problems.
Initially meeting with lukewarm critical and commercial success in the US, Pet Sounds was much more successful in the UK where it reached number 2 on the UK album chart and remained in the top-ten for six months. The Brits loved the album from the on-set, where many critics held them in high esteem and on the same artistic level as The Beatles.
Fifty years later, Pet Sounds now enjoys accolades from critics on both sides of the Atlantic, with nearly every music magazine in existence including it in their top all-time album lists. Indeed, Rolling Stone ranks the album no. 2 on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
Pet Sounds is considered by many to be a Brian Wilson solo album. He produced and arranged the entire album, and wrote and composed almost all of album’s music. Its recording was done in January-April 1966 when Wilson had actually stopped touring with the band in order to focus on the album’s recording.
Wilson’s symphonic arrangements incorporated elements of pop, jazz, classical, and avant-garde, and wove elaborate layers of vocal harmonies with various keyboards, guitars, horns, and unusual instruments and sound effects that include bicycle bells, buzzing organs, flutes, trains, soda cans, barking dogs, a harpsichord, and an electro-theremin.
Wilson consciously emulated Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” methodology, utilizing an orchestrated array of instruments doubling and even tripling many of musical parts to create a fuller, richer sound. In fact, Wilson at times has stated that the album’s title was in tribute to Phil Spector by matching his initials (various other stories behind the album’s title are out there however).
Pet Sounds cover art photos were taken at San Diego Zoo. In 1966 zoo officials were not too keen about being associated with a rock band, but gave in when the Beach Boys explained that animals were an “in” thing with teenagers.
Pet Sounds, in addition to its importance in music production, is particularly notable in that it was one of the first works of popular music made for “listening to” in its entirety, elevating itself to the level of art rock rather than simply a pop release composed of singles. This opened the door for more experimental acts of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Beach Boys are regarded as one of the most iconic America rock bands, as well as one of the most critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and influential bands of all time. The group produced 36 songs that appeared on Billboard’s US Top 40 chart – the most by any American Rock band. They have sold over 100 million records worldwide, appear at number 12 on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” And the core quintet of the three Wilson Brothers, Love and Jardine were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.