50 years on, listening to Pet Sounds on vinyl remains a rite of passage for pop music lovers
When Hal Blaine hit his snare drum on a cold January 1965 morning in Hollywood’s Gold Star Recording Studios, did he know that he was signalling a technicolour turning point in the history of pop music?
That single snare drum hit – the one that kicks ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and therefore Pet Sounds into action – can be seen as the precise moment at which a new way of making music, and a new way of viewing ‘the album’ as a piece of art, was unleashed upon the world.
Pet Sounds paraded a host of new writing and recording possibilities to the creative geniuses of the day while simultaneously showing the youth of the time that the “60s dream” may not be all cars, surfing and ‘Love Me Do’s, but rather something more emotionally complex. The album’s lyrics, composed by writer Tony Asher, document the inner fears, deep longings and naked vulnerabilities of its 23-year-old creator, while the album’s production displays that same 23-year-old’s wild ambition, creativity and determination.
It is this cohesion in both word and sound that made ‘Pet Sounds’ the cultural behemoth that it remains 50 years since its release on May 16th 1966; on a day that changed pop music forever. That 23-year-old was Brian Wilson and, upon setting about recording Pet Sounds he declared that he wanted to “make the greatest rock album ever made”. And that is, quite possibly, what he achieved.
“I had to prove that I could make it alone”
What was to go on to be one of the most influential pop albums ever made was heavily inspired itself by contemporaries of The Beach Boys in the mid 1960s.
Brian Wilson named the album Pet Sounds to honour Phil Spector (it shares his name’s initials) and has since spoken at length about how he was inspired by one of the best album’s of the previous year, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. Wilson said; “I liked the way it all went together…it was a challenge to me”.
This challenge felt by Wilson sparked a musical creativity race, run between The Beach Boys and The Beatles, which would spawn some of the greatest records ever made over the following two years. Pet Sounds, Revolver’, Good Vibrations, Strawberry Fields Forever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the ultimately-doomed SMiLE were products of this golden era of production innovation; one which has not been rivalled since.
“I guess I just wasn’t made for these times”
As pop music history tells us, no ground-breaking record is created without at least some struggle, tension and confrontation. Alas, it is the role of creative geniuses to break through walls that mere musical mortals didn’t even know were there. Pet Sounds was no exception.
On December 23rd 1964, Brian Wilson suffered a severe panic attack on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston, sparked perhaps by a nervous disorder developed after years of abuse by his overbearing father and now-fired Beach Boys manager, Murray Wilson; a pre-existing susceptibility to anxiety and/or the stress of yet another tour. It was, in fact, most likely a combination of all of these elements. Wilson returned to his home in Los Angeles, leaving the The Beach Boy’s other members to complete the tour without him and significantly, leaving him with the time and space to dream up what would become Pet Sounds.
Determined to create a series of recordings that would be thematically and musically consistent, Wilson employed writer Tony Asher to collaborate on lyrics and began working with a collection of classically-trained professional musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. Much faith was required of The Wrecking Crew during the recording sessions, with Wilson obsessively attempting to explain the sounds he was hearing in his head and asking the members to employ everything from empty coke cans to unconventional playing methods to produce exactly what he wanted.
The Wrecking Crew were no strangers to demanding recording conditions however, with members having worked with Phil Spector in the past. But unlike the dictatorial Spector, Wilson was collaborative, often taking suggestions from the musicians and quickly putting them into practice.
If faith was required of The Wrecking Crew, patience was required of Wilson’s fellow Beach Boys during the album’s recording, and it wasn’t always in vast supply. It is said that Mike Love, among others, was unenthusiastic about the change of direction in the band’s sound and style, upon returning from a successful tour on which tracks such as ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ and ‘Little Deuce Coup’ were the ones that got the audiences most excited.
Sitting at his piano, Wilson taught each Beach Boy his vocal parts one by one and, when it was time to record, he sat perched behind his recording desk and instructed his fellow band members on how he wanted them to sound.
The fact that Wilson was able to leverage the skills of Tony Asher, The Wrecking Crew and his fellow Beach Boys to deliver what was in his head is an under-rated achievement. It’s one things to have a vision, it’s another thing to put a vision so complex and ambitious into being.