Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” celebrates half century

Music is, of course, made of sound.

Music also has the ability to affect the emotions. In premature babies, whose nervous systems cannot tolerate touch, music is found to soothe them.

Within the science of physics, sound is described as a vibration; it is a mechanical wave of energy.

And, according to the legendarily famous statement made by the mother of Beach Boy’s founder Brian Wilson, dogs are capable of picking up on human emotional “vibrations”. Today, this is something scientists are just beginning to unravel.

Mrs. Wilson’s words were said to be the inspiration for the Beach Boy’s song title “Good Vibrations”. This song was written soon after, or perhaps even during the time of the recording of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds Album. So for me, Pet Sounds always seemed an inspired name for an album considered one of the most important of all time.

The Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour concert will take place at the Burton Cummings Theatre this Saturday night – 50 years since the iconic album was teased from the sounds envisioned in Wilson’s mind and pulled into creation within four California studios chosen by Wilson for their various recording capabilities.

Brian Wilson, along with Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, will perform the now heralded masterpiece along with an orchestral back up band.

Brian Wilson’s labour of love and extraordinary creativity was laid down in the inspired and challenging months of January and into the spring months of 1966, although “it’s hard to say exactly when the sound of Pet Sounds started” writes Wilson in his 2016 autobiography I Am Brian Wilson.

“Maybe it [Pet Sounds] started when I first heard “Be My Baby” on the radio and I began to understand how you could make emotions through sound.,” Wilson said. “Maybe it started on the second side of the Beach Boys Today! when I started to make softer and slower songs that weren’t exactly love ballads but instead were snapshots of how I was feeling as I grew up. It was probably all those things put together. But it started to change what I was doing.”

Released in December 1965 was The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album that was instrumentally diverse and infused with various genres. It was an artistic departure from the group’s traditional and highly salable style, and it enthused Wilson upon hearing it.

At the same time, new capabilities in sound recording technology were inspiring. (As for the Beatles, upon hearing Pet Sounds, it also enthused the group. “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened … Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds,” said Beatles producer George Martin.

Pet Sounds was one of the first “concept” albums that also introduced a novel audiocopia of musical techniques, unusual instrumentations, and first ever sound applications to create lush audio complexities that also underscored a new lyrical direction for the band.

At this time Wilson had chosen not to tour with the Beach Boys to instead focus on writing and recording.

“Because the guys were in and out of town, because I had so much time to go down to the studio and try take after take, the musical canvas for that record just got bigger and bigger,” writes Wilson.

The Beach Boys performing “I Get Around” on The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1964, three months before Wilson’s resignation from touring.

Pet Sounds also includes the unusual use of an electro theremin on the song “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”. (The classic eerie wailing melody heard in the song “Good Vibrations” is also produced by a theremin).

Pet Sounds even holds the percussive tones made from drumming upon two empty coke cans, makes use of multiple echoes and reverberations with unusual instrument combinations, and holds much more creative flourishes among enchanting and varied melodies that have captured hearts and souls for decades.

Brian Wilson posing with a goat at the San Diego Zoo.

“”You Still Believe In Me” begins with the ghostly sounds of Tony Asher leaning inside a piano to pluck the strings with paper clips,” writes Peter Ames Carlin in his 2006 book Catch a Wave The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.

Some music critics have analyzed the album as sojourning into psychedelia while yet further pointing the way to what was later termed progressive rock.

It was said to mark an artistic break from simpler dance music to greater artistic musical arrangements not just for the Beach Boys but for American popular music in general.

But for Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds seemed a deeply bold and courageous move for the 23 year old. The 1966 album was born amid the pressures of an early multi-million dollar music industry that banked on the status quo. The record was also plagued with strife due to a number of reasons variously documented from many points of view.

Despite this, Wilson, even amid the complex swirl of the 1960’s and the pressures of an unseasoned, nascent music industry, fulfilled his vision and identity as a creative artist.

A Scully 4-track 280 tape deck, similar to the 288 used for “Pet Sounds”.

Beach Boys singer Mike Love, in his 2016 autobiography Good Vibrations My life as a Beach Boy, says the album was given little marketing support. Capitol records saw the artistic growth seen within Pet Sounds as a business risk. Pet Sounds was placed onto stores shelves and to the surprise and dismay of many, the album was followed within two months by a hastily created greatest hits compilation album. What an introduction!

Fifty years later, it appears that questionable marketing initiative for Pet Sounds and the resultant default strategic product positioning served to undermine the company’s own objectives; a profoundly viable artistic resource of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys was unwittingly under valued.

According to author Peter Ames Carlin, the company,”through at least one high placed conversation” even considered shelving the record entirely and bringing out a greatest hits album in its place – despite the album containing masterpiece numbers with obvious hit potential.

“Wouldn’t it Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, and “God Only Knows” are today seared into North American cultural memory. Yet it was felt the band was wrongly moving away from the tried and true successes of its early “surf sound”.

Meanwhile, the British music industry responsible for the “British Invasion” export phenomenon better responded to Pet Sounds and upon the strength of this “revolutionary” album, the Beach Boys closed the last months of 1966 as the strongest selling album act in the U.K.

It is written that Beach Boys publicist Derek Taylor helped the album rise to number two on the U.K. charts – far better than its U.S. release. (Having started as a journalist in England and working as a writer and liaison for the Beatles, Taylor maintained close industry connections despite working in California at the time of the release of Pet Sounds).

Paul McCartney said the album track “God Only Knows” was the most beautiful song he had ever heard.

Today Pet Sounds is preserved in the American National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress because of its great cultural, aesthetic and historical importance.

“Capitol finally realized what it had in Pet Sounds, commercially and artistically…” writes Mike Love.

Brian Wilson performing “Pet Sounds” as a solo artist at Byron Bay Bluesfest, 2016.

Thirty-six years after its release, Pet Sounds reached platinum sales in the U.S. (one million units) in the year 2000. The album was re-released with added material in 1997, 2001 and 2006. The 2006 40th anniversary edition also includes a “making of” documentary.

A 50th anniversary edition box set (with 14 previously unreleased tracks) was released last year. It is a fascinating insight into the making of one of the greatest albums in the world. It includes studio sessions outtakes, alternate mixes, the remastered album in both stereo and the original format of mono, and live recordings.

Wilson said at the time of writing the album he just wanted to make something “meaningful”.

Due to the success of the The Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour that began last year, the tour has been extended and this Saturday night will be in Winnipeg.

A full 50 years since Brian Wilson toiled to put the music he heard in his head out into the world, you will be able to hear Pet Sounds performed by the very pioneer – and genius – who created it.

Shirley Kowalchuk

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Shirley Kowalchuk is a Winnipeg writer.

2 responses to “Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” celebrates half century”

  1. Anne Martin

    Very cool article, Shirley! I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Doug Kretchmer

    Great write up Shirley. An incredibly innovative and groundbreaking album. Brian Wilson was truly ahead his time. One of the few musical geniuses of the 20th century.

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