“When you listen to Pet Sounds, use earphones in the dark” – Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys
When you are asked your favorite Classic Rock bands, you usually recite: “Led Zeppelin, ACDC, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Rolling stones, etc.” It is rare to ever hear The Beach Boys mentioned in the same breath as the former. Why is that?
The documentary “Art That Shook the World: Pet Sounds” is a fascinating chronicle of the Beach Boys: Pet Sounds. The making of Pet Sounds was groundbreaking for its time, but not without contest. They were type-cast as happy-go lucky California boys; when they ventured away from this role, it was hard for fans to accept. Brian Wilson felt consumed by the touring and the lackluster pop they were playing . Brian was influenced by Phil Spector, his idol. Brian notoriously named the album after: (“PET”, being Phil Spector’s initials) . “Pet” also denoted Brian’s favorite sounds . He used the studio as an instrument to produce the critically acclaimed Pet Sounds . Brian Wilson explored intrinsically and released songs that were personal to his experiences, it was as if the listener was reading the manifesto of Brian’s life in his diary. Sadly, the initial underrated reception of Pet Sounds caused him great distress.
Brian Wilson was the first to create a concept album. His creation: Pet Sounds changed rock as a genre. Instead of various songs unrelated to each other meandering through a lyrical landscape-it provided a story to follow and attach to. This linear progression, as coined by Stephen Davis of Rolling stone (1972), was the formation of the concept album . The concept album is a coveted fundamental of experimental rock; it creates a thematic adventure for the listener to experience. Artists that have implemented this are: Pink Floyd: The Wall (1973), The Who: Tommy (1969), The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Alan Parson’s Project: I Robot (1977), and more. Look at the years denoted after each album, they all came after Pet Sounds (1966). These notable artists of rock should credit the Beach Boys: Pet Sounds for their success. Brian’s style was avant-garde, building up layers of sound. The question to ponder is: How could a band that opened the door for so many musician’s masterpieces be so vastly underrated?
Essentially, The Beach Boys were underrated because they only spoke to one demographic in the forefront of their music career. Their music of beaches, surfing, hot rods, and chicks only appealed to well-off white kids in the suburbs; albeit, it was very popular in the sixties. Their early years portray the life of a California teen, cruising and enjoying the beach . The songs were fun to dance to, but did not transcend into the depths of human emotion. Their songs prior to Pet Sounds were more superficial, and they barely perpetuated any feelings. Significantly, that is the reason that Pet Sounds gave them ammunition to play in the big leagues of Rock and Roll. They infiltrated the human psyche now, instead of appealing to American greed: “fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes the T-Bird away”. You no longer had to be white; you just had to be human – rich, poor, Black, Spanish, etc. You just needed a forlorn heart and a following head to get it.
Pet Sounds is ingenious. Imagine the immense effect it has on the listener, especially in the mid-sixties; instead of the outsider staring in, it allowed the listener to connect on a deep level. The lyrics resonate deeply with those of human experience in love and heart ache. Its premise is a common thing, but its musical architecture is ground breaking, (at least for 1966). Pet Sounds begins in an elated “puppy-love” stage (queue: “Wouldn’t it be nice”), a state of wishing to be with the lover forever and always. As the album progresses, its foolish infatuation evolves into something else under the tribulations of life in romantic love. This tumultuous end of love and illusion is portrayed by the song: “Caroline, No”. It is the quintessential mantra of growing up; hormones flood our bodies, and the desire to share our lives with another human being conjures up feelings of contentment. The dissolution of the relationship is identifiable to many, the loss and sadness marks a pivotal point in many people’s lives.
For example: “God Only Knows”, evoked adoring feelings in the masses .
At the time, Pet Sounds barely made the top 10 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys changed the blueprint of the band: their once melodic California dreams now transitioned into somber harmonies of love gained, and love lost. It was only later that it was appreciated for its artful ideas. Brian took off from touring to create his 11th album, the studio masterpiece Pet Sounds, that which bolstered their legacy. He implemented harpsichords, bells, flutes, and more into their repertoire of instruments. Those idiosyncratic sounds coupled with their beautiful harmonies created the artful masterpiece that influenced many to come. Interestingly, Brian created and produced the music sans the rest of the Beach Boys. He did implement them into the vocals on the record though.
The Beach Boys had to gain an audience to really put out what they were meant for. By accumulating fans in their early era of surf songs, their likability allowed for the confidence to transition to something unique. Brian Wilson has said that he was inspired by the Beatles: Rubber Soul; this awakened his creative genius into devising a radical new concept without filler songs. Brian accredited the Beatles to creating a fluid album unlike any other:
“It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs…that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed. I said, “That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album” –Brian Wilson .
This preoccupation with a full album thoughtfully created was important, because at the time singles were preferred and bought over whole LP’s. Record companies and artist would stress the need for a hit single, instead of worrying about the entirety of the album. The new ideal that the album as a whole should have carefully crafted songs changed the way records were formulated. To play devil’s advocate, if the Beach Boys had started from the get go with songs like that of Pet Sounds, they may have never been accepted. On the contrary, they actually may have been more respected and notable in rock history if their former identity of surf pop songs didn’t question their musical credibility.
Notably, Pet Sounds has a very psychedelic feel to it. The times of the mid to late sixties were socially and politically changing. The acid culture was rising to prominence; LSD was the drug of choice for Beach boy, Brian Wilson . A thought to ponder: would Pet Sounds have been so revolutionary without the inclusion of LSD into Brian Wilson’s system? Arguably, LSD is attributed to opening of the creative unconscious for musicians of the 60’s. Considerably, the Beatles are known to have experimented with LSD, and it only made them better. It is clear that they were trying psychedelics when their music went from poppy teenage love ballads, to transcendental orchestras of obscure lyrics. Brian Wilson is on record for admitting he tripped on LSD more than a few times, and coincidentally his music changed from surfer rock anthems, to intimate poetry of love and loneliness. Without LSD, Pet Sounds may have never existed. Consequently, the very thing that ignited Brian’s hidden creativity, was one of the things that added to his detachment. He abused alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine ; he was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, and suffered several nervous breakdowns . As a result, he left the business for three decades.
A possibility for its limited success was the political and social climate of the time. The Vietnam War was churning and causing animosity amongst supporters and those in opposition (namely, Hippies). This counter-culture disassociated themselves from conventional norms . Drug use and sexual freedom were elements they partook in, and this caused the ones against it to backlash. The band was due to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967), but Brian pulled the band out. As stated earlier, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys went from a seemingly innocent California kid, to a deep and dark guy with experimental psychedelic music. He owned up to his affair with LSD, which created favor amongst him in some eyes, and disappointment in the eyes of others. This did not go over well with the conservative fans that adored the popular hits of happy times. This created a negative view of the Beach Boy’s new work, which could be a reason they were vastly underrated. They all didn’t desire to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”; some wanted the music they found solace in, that now was stripped from them. The people opposed to these radical changes were losing their foundation, the culture was leaving them behind and they failed to accept it.
Moreover, perhaps Pet Sounds was not accepted as much as Brian wanted because their authenticity was put into question. Imagine as a fan and avid listener: The Beach Boys create these catchy tunes that appeal to my life and then suddenly after 10 albums of such, change inexplicably. Their fame was garnered through their “sunshine pop”  and to steer away from it is comparable to Katy Perry singing heavy metal. Their identity was completely transformed, and this probably was disconcerting for the fans. The only recognizable aspect from their early days to Pet Sounds was their voices; other than that, everything changed. Familiarity for the fans was now washed away with Brian’s creative outlet. The Pet Sounds era was hard to accept, because it lacked that American Dream and happiness factor that their predecessor records had.
Later, Pet Sounds gained momentum and eventually was acclaimed as one of the best albums of all time. In a way, their underrated value can be attributed to their surfer early days that appealed to only baby boomers. The addiction to these shallow beach hits clouded the brilliance of Pet Sounds. Its initial skepticism was understandable for the time; Pet Sounds was a true diamond waiting to be excavated. Pet Sounds is the reason the Beach Boys are respected by the rock genre as a whole. Without its monumental influence, the Beach Boys would be immortalized as a “popular music” band with pop hits about objects. After their legendary art-rock creation, they should be heralded as one of the best acts to ever grace rock music. To evade the underrated anchor that held them, they had to shed their skin as the “surfer boys” and grow into adulthood.
1.”Brian Wilson.” 2014. The Biography.com website. Apr 17 2014 http://www.biography.com/people/brian-wilson-586000.
2.Davis, Stephen. “Pet Sounds | Album Reviews | Rolling Stone.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone Magazine, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
3.Doyle, Jack. “The Pop History Dig » Pet Sounds History.” The Pop History Dig » Pet Sounds History. N.p., 14 June 2010. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.
4.”Socio-Political Climate of 1960s.” Driftwood. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.
5.”The Beach Boys – God Only Knows.” YouTube. YouTube, 05 Apr. 2009. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
6.”Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” YouTube. YouTube, 01 Dec. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Brian Wilson had existing mental health issues, its a little easy to claim that LSD induced his various psychoses. If you look further back, his father was a tyrant who terrorised the family and aggressively forced Brian into various roles that far exceeded his nervous capacity such as band leader, producer, arranger and songwriter. He had a nervous breakdown in 1964 as a result of the pressure these roles created for him, coupled with having to now produce hit after hit and tour relentlessly. Acid made him paranoid for sure, but I think its important not to simply follow one factor as the catalyst for 37 years of seclusion. Cool article
Thank you for the information and kind words! I am still in the process of editing my post. I will touch upon the deep seated familiy issues that could have lead to this psychosis. I just didn’t want to go too far off on a tangent, but I’ll add that in tonight. I am glad you enjoyed the article because I had a fun time writing it. Thanks! Kelly Lorgan
I’m working on an essay at the minute on the cultural impact of Pet Sounds so it was a treat to find someone else working on similar material. There are reams of interviews with the man himself, his family & friends available online, as well as some great Beach Boy history sites.