The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”
1966 was a year of firsts; the first Acid Tests were held at The Fillmore in San Francisco, Robert C. Weaver became the first African American Cabinet member, by being appointed United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Jim Morrison and The Doors released their first LP, the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series to win their first World Championship, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas was shown for the first time on CBS, later becoming an annual Christmas tradition. The year was no different for The Beach Boys, who in 1966 released Pet Sounds, an album that is considered their first true rock and roll record. Prior to 1966, The Beach Boys were well known for their sensational pop hits about California beaches and girls, but that all changed in May of 1966 when the band released Pet Sounds.
How Pet Sounds Came to Be
Before we can discuss how Pet Sounds changed both The Beach Boys and music history forever, we must first look to former member of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson. Many people over the years have asked, “How did Pet Sounds come to be?” and “Why did The Beach Boys abandon their successful formula?” The answer to both of these often-heard questions is Brian Wilson. Without Wilson’s desire for distinction and greatness, vision, innovation, and perfectionism, The Beach Boys might have never left the generic hotel room that is pop music and entered into the sacred temple of rock and roll.
While Brian Wilson was the pioneer behind The Beach Boys’ transition from surfer pop records like “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” to the Pet Sounds album featuring intimate love ballads like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulders)” and “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” he would not have led his exploration into more substantive, deep, and thought-provoking music without the help of The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul, LSD, and producer, Phil Spector.
When he heard Rubber Soul for the first time, Brian Wilson was absolutely enamored with the quality of the recording. He threw his hands up and said, “That’s it. That’s all. That’s all folks” (Art That Shook the World.) The Beatles managed to construct something that no recordists to date had done; the four rockers created what Wilson called a “filler-free” record (Art That Shook the World.) Previously, when bands recorded an album, somewhere between two and four a-side worthy tracks were recorded, with the rest of the album being filled with b-side material (Art That Shook the World.) The Beatles in 1965 pioneered a new sort of album that, according to many critics as well as Brian Wilson, had no fillers (Art That Shook the World.) Wilson believed hearing this album “awakened” something within him that had gone untouched for far too long (Art That Shook the World.) He wanted to challenge the greatness brought forth by The Beatles, and to do that he knew the band would have to change. No longer could the band sing about cars, chicks, and beaches; for Wilson’s vision to be realized they would have to move forward with something deeper, more poetic, and stimulating (Art That Shook the World.)
Wilson’s inspiration for Pet Sounds was partially founded after his discovery of the “filler-free” Rubber Soul album, but that record alone does not tell the full story. Another contributor to Wilson’s creativity might have been his liking for the drug LSD. By the time that Wilson and The Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds in 1966, the acid culture in America was intensifying to the point that several bands, including The Beatles, had already experimented with the drug. Wilson, too, dabbled with the drug. He has even publicly admitted to having tripped several times on LSD during the sixties. In an interview with Man of the World magazine, Wilson revealed, “I wrote ‘California Girls’ shortly after my first acid trip. It expanded my mind a little bit, so I could write better songs” (Mohr). The Beach Boys released “California Girls” on the album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) in 1965, and in just under a year, Wilson masterminded an album in Pet Sounds that many have questioned if it’s creation was only possible through the “inclusion of LSD” in his system. The psychedelic feel the album elicits, the intimate, poetic, and sincere emotion brought out in ballads like “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Caroline, No,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” and the experimental orchestrations with bright tone and color definitely create a very convincing case for LSD’s role in the making of Pet Sounds.
Still, even considering the roles of both Rubber Soul and LSD in the making of Pet Sounds, the story is incomplete without Phil Spector. Well known for his Wall of Sound technique which was employed in high volume in his recording sessions at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, California from 1958 to 1966, Spector was looked at by The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson with awe and admiration (Zak). Wilson had visited Gold Star Studios on the day Spector’s famed Wrecking Crew recorded “Be My Baby” (Art That Shook the World). This experience was unlike any other for Wilson; a sort of “revelation” as he calls it (Art That Shook the World). He claims he almost fainted during that recording session. From Spector, Wilson learned to “think in terms of production, rather than songwriting” (Art That Shook the World). The “combined combination of sounds” as Wilson calls Spector’s Wall of Sound was something that everyone who was anyone learned how to do in the sixties, because “it was revolutionary within the business” (Art That Shook the World). The use of harmonies that were created by Spector and his Wrecking Crew that day would later be imitated in The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds recordings. One must ask if songs like “God Only Knows” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder” could exist without Phil Spector’s innovative Wall of Sound, as both songs implemented lush instrumental arrangements of differing textures that created, as Wilson believes, a “rich, heavy blanket of music” (Art That Shook the World) . One thing is for sure, Spector held a great deal of influence over Brian Wilson that was enough for Wilson to take a few tricks of the trade from the famed producer and test them out in his own recordings.
Perhaps that are other factors behind the shift in The Beach Boys’ style on Pet Sounds, but there is no doubt that each Rubber Soul, LSD, and Phil Spector influenced Brian Wilson in some sort of way, some sort of fashion during the mid-sixties.
Now that we have discussed in depth the roles that Rubber Soul, LSD, and Phil Spector had on the Pet Sounds recordings, we can discuss Wilson’s vision for The Beach Boys in 1966. Wilson’s vision would require The Beach Boys to take a change of course in their records, and, more importantly, would require a great deal of patience and acceptance by the other members of the band. In 1965, The Beatles stole the thunder from The Beach Boys and took the top of the charts as their own. Wilson was quite uncomfortable with this, and knew his band must respond quickly if they were to not fade away into nothingness (Art That Shook the World.) Other members of the band, most notably Mike Love, were not so ready to ditch the old formula that had given the band years of success and popularity (Art That Shook the World.) For Wilson, the task was to create good music that could prove they meant business like The Beatles, and so Pet Sounds was under way.
Pet Sounds is plentiful in innovation, excellence, and beauty in its original 13 tracks. Out of those original 13, I am going to discuss in depth the making of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” and “God Only Knows.” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is the first song listed on side a of the album, and is my personal favorite of the Pet Sounds recordings. It’s just so full of hope, love, and youth. The Beach Boys were able to encapsulate the teenage dream of so many in just 2:26 of a recording. Next, I will discuss “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” which I consider to be one of the most intimate, insightful, and intricate songs on the record. Finally, I will explore the making of possibly the most controversial track on the album, “God Only Knows.” Tony Asher, the co-writer of the song alongside Wilson, wrote, “Unless you were Kate Smith and you were singing ‘God Bless America,’ no one in 1966 thought you could say God in a song.” While I will only be discussing the making of these select tracks on Pet Sounds, I do believe that the full album rivals Rubber Soul in being a complete and filler-free record. Listed below are the rest of the tracks from the album:
- Wouldn’t It Be Nice
- You Still Believe Me
- That’s Not Me
- Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
- I’m Waiting for the Day
- Let’s Go Away for Awhile
- Sloop John ‘B’
- God Only Knows
- I Know There’s An Answer
- Here Today
- I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
- Pet Sounds
- Caroline, No
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
The first track listed on side a of Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is more than worthy of any and all attention it garners. A tribute to the teenage dream of living together with your partner, falling asleep in their arms, and waking up to their beauty, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is complete makeover from any previous Beach Boys work. The song brings forth sensual romance, love, and intimacy that was absent in pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys recordings like “I Get Around,” “Hawaii,” “Surfin’ U.S.A,” and “Surfin'” just to name a few. The recording of the song took nearly four months to complete, as Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys adopted Phil Spector’s technique of recording instrumental back tracks first, and adding vocals on later. The instrumental back tracks were recorded in January of 1966 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, California. Included within the first recording was a wide array of instruments that helped to provide, as Wilson and Asher put it, a “colorful rhythm” to the piece. Two 12-string guitars, two drum sets, percussion, three guitars, four horns, three basses, two accordions, a saxophone, a trumpet, a tambourine, and a celeste were used by The Beach Boys in their quest to fulfill Brian Wilson’s vision. Wilson told other members of the band, “here’s how I want to do it,” and from that point forward The Beach Boys did almost anything at the whim of “The Visionary,” Brian Wilson (Art That Shook the World.) Once the instrumental tracks were recorded to the liking of Wilson’s ear, the band mixed down the 4-track tape used in the recording to a single track on an 8-track recorder. Doing so allowed the band to free up six of the remaining seven tracks for Beach Boys’ vocals, with the final track being dedicated to either extra instrumentation or vocal performance.
In March and April of 1966, The Beach Boys returned to the recording of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but instead of returning to Gold Star Studios, the band held their vocal sessions at Columbia Studios. To begin their vocal recordings, the band members each wore a pair of over-the-ear headphones, which played back the original instrumental recordings for them to hear while singing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” The recording process for this particular song took a lengthy amount of time, because the band had differing ideas for the particular sound of the recording. Bruce Johnston added in an interview, “We would slave…it was never right to him [Brian]” (Art That Shook the World.) Wilson was almost single-handedly in charge of producing this record, and if the sound didn’t match what he was looking for, he would ask the band to start from the beginning. Band member, Mike Love, gave Wilson the nickname “Dog Ears,” because he could hear things that the others couldn’t (Art That Shook the World.) It might be true that the only ears that could truly hear the imperfections in the recordings was “Dog Ears,” but Wilson’s unwillingness to settle for anything less than perfect helped to create the beauty that is “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
Wilson was quite the engineer in the recording of this track. At one point during the vocal sessions, Wilson took some time to teach Dennis Wilson how to properly cup his hands over his mouth while singing, as to get the desired sound Wilson was looking for in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Brian in an interview revealed that Dennis “had a lot of trouble singing on mike. He just didn’t really know how stay on mike. He was a very nervous boy. Very nervous person. So I taught him a trick, how to record and he said, ‘Hey Brian. That works great. Thank you!’ And I said, ‘It’s okay, Dennis: He was really happy. I showed him- not how to sing, but I showed him a way to get the best out of himself- just ‘cup’ singing.” That’s what Wilson did for The Beach Boys in his Pet Sounds masterpiece; he showed them that if they did deep enough within they can bring forth greatness.
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
Listed as the fourth track on side a, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” all but puts the nail in the coffin of the old Beach Boys and their happy-go-lucky California style. This track was unlike anything seen from The Beach Boys in the past; it was a very sad, depressing, and meaningful song. Wilson believes it is “one of sweetest songs” he ever sang as a member of The Beach Boys (Art That Shook the World.) There’s something about the line “listen to my heart…beat” that deeply saddened Wilson. The song as a whole is saddening, as it details a crumbling romance that has little chance of being saved. Regardless of who Wilson had in mind when he wrote this song alongside Tony Asher, the lines “being here with you feels so right” and “we could live forever tonight, let’s not think about tomorrow” tell us that whoever it is, they must’ve been very dear to Wilson at some point in his life.
The band began recording sessions for the song in February of 1966 at United Western Recorders, but did not finish the project until April that year. Unlike the band’s recording of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which used Phil Spector’s backtracking technique, this song was recorded with both instrumentals and vocals on the same track. The only part of the song that was even overdubbed was the string, which was done with H. Bowen David engineering. The song is well noted for its string quartet that played minor seventh chords at such close intervals, that an angelic, lush, and peaceful sound was generated. To date, Wilson believes this is one of his greatest accomplishments, because the sound that was created was something that many thought could never exist.
God Only Knows
What was once quite possibly one of the most controversial tracks of the sixties, “God Only Knows” has become one of the most covered songs in music history with a countless number of musicians covering the ballad. During the sixties, the song had less of an appeal though. It was unusual for God to be mentioned in a song, much less be in the title. This didn’t stop Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys from breaking ground, as the band even released the song as a b side single to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Although God is mentioned in both the title and the lyrics, Tony Asher believed that the “sentiments weren’t specific to any God, and could be addressed to any higher force, being a song about moving forward after a loss.” Wilson and Asher wanted to do something spectacular with this recording; they wanted to make the song to simulate the feeling of “being blind but in being blind, you can see more.” What the hell this means, only Asher and Wilson can directly answer. Nonetheless, the recording was aimed at doing something special, innovative, and never-before-heard.
As with any of the other songs on Pet Sounds, Wilson helped to produce and engineer a product that was immaculate. Special to “God Only Knows” was the use of perpetual rounds to end the recording. This was highly unusual for pop music, but then again The Beach Boys were transforming day by day in the recording studio. The practice involves a minimum of three voices singing the exact same melody in unison, but with each voice starting at a different point in the recording. For example, one Beach Boy would start the melody, then five seconds later another Beach Boy would jump in and sing in unison, and then a few second later a third would jump in to sing the same melody. In doing so, The Beach Boys were able to create something so harmonious that few in recording have ever been able to replicate. In addition to the creativeness with perpetual rounds to end the song, Wilson envisioned a sound for the piano that he brought to life by placing masking tape over the strings, while also using two plastic orange juice bottles to generate unrivaled percussion.
Also unusual to the recording was its unorthodox selection of French horn, accordions, sleigh bells, harpsichords, and a quartet of violas and cellos. This arrangement is cited by many for its “harmonic complexity.” Wilson compounded the complexity of the recording in calling for over 20 takes to satisfy his vision. Present on the recording are 23 musicians, including Spector’s Wrecking Crew. God only knows how these musicians were able to play through 20 takes with “Dog Ears.” As the recording session was at its near, and Wilson was almost satisfied with the product, he decided to scrap the recordings because he believed his voice on the recordings did not do the song justice. As such, Wilson chose to give the lead to Carl Wilson, who could “impart the message” better than he could. Wilson thought that Carl “brought dignity to the song and the words, through him, became not a lyric, but words.” This is an extremely powerful statement, as it shows that Wilson realized that even he could not perfect in real life the vision he had in his head.
One final technique used in this recording was double-tracking. Carl, who had been given the lead vocals by Brian, was tired and didn’t feel too well, so near the end of the recording session he left to go home. Since the band had been recording on an 8-track, there were three extra tracks left over. Brian saw this as a chance to work his magic once more. He used double-tracking to fill the third track that was not being used by him or Bruce Johnston. What he did with the double-tracking was produce a track that sounded as if his voice was simultaneously singing the same part twice. Doing so allowed for a bright, intricate, and full sound. The creative genius of Brian Wilson had succeeded once again.
Why Pet Sounds?
There are many speculations behind the band’s choice for the title of the album, including the appearance of Brian’s dogs near the tail end of the record, Phil Spector’s initials, the band’s San Diego zoo trip in 1966, and the random animal sounds on the recording. Mike Love has said, “We were all milling about the hallway just outside Studio 3 at Western Recorders. From the interior of the booth, the speakers were giving off the incongruous sound of a train passing in the distance. That’s how the album ended–the train passing, the clanging of a bell at a railroad cross, and a dog barking. Brian was unsure what to call the as yet untiled album. So with the sound of the dogs barking echoing in my ears, I said ‘What about Pet Sounds?'” Who really knows the true meaning behind those words? All I know is that Pet Sounds fits the record perfectly; it brings to life the manifesto of Brian’s life.
A First of Its Kind
When The Beatles released Rubber Soul in 1965, the band did something no one had done in recording; they released a filler-free record. Wilson said he was challenged to create something great in response, and so he did. Pet Sounds in 1966 was the first of its kind. Wilson and The Beach Boys invented the concept album, a record that follows a “linear progression,” meant to be a “thematic adventure” for the listener. This type of album has since been followed by Pink Floyd, The Who, and The Beatles. Pet Sounds created a story of love, youth, heartbreak, and devastation. Wilson hoped to surpass The Beatles in creativity, and I have to say he did it.
Soon after the release of Pet Sounds, disappointment settled in with The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and Capitol Records, as the record peaked at no. 10 on the charts. Perhaps the album was too much for even The Beach Boys’ loyal followers, as only “Sloop John ‘B'” resembled pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys music. I don’t see it as much as a betrayal of authenticity, but rather an evolution of the band. Bob Dylan was heavily criticized in 1965 when he switched from folk and protest-style songs to the more electric Highway 61: Revisited, but Dylan produced on that album “Like A Rolling Stone,” which has gone down as one of the most played songs of all time. The Beach Boys, too, were criticized following Pet Sounds, but I think the transition helped give the band the push they needed to finally arrive at the sacred temple. The initial skepticism and lack of interest in the album led Capitol Records to scrape together a compilation album titled “Best of The Beach Boys” to give their listeners The Beach Boys they thought they lost. This album peaked higher on the charts than Pet Sounds. All of this combined caused Brian Wilson to fall deep into depression and drug abuse. He put his heart out on the line. Pet Sounds was his creation, his manifesto, and his baby, but when he put it all out there for others to hear, he was rejected. Wilson spent the following three decades in exile, away from the recording industry. Recently, however, Wilson has begun to come out of hiding, and he has even announced a tour for this upcoming summer and fall to perform Pet Sounds in its entirety.
Art That Shook the World. Dir. Sarah Aspinall. By Mark Lamarr. Perf. Brian Wilson. 2001. DVD.
Davis, Stephen. “Pet Sounds.” Rolling Stone</i>. N.p., 22 June 1972. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Doyle, Jack. “Early Beach Boys,1962-1966,”PopHistoryDig.com, June 14, 2010.
Egan, Bob. “The Beach Boys Pet Sounds.” N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Greene, Nick. “15 Facts About ‘Pet Sounds'” N.p., 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Lorgan, K. “The Perpetually Underrated: The Beach Boys and Their Contender Pet Sounds.” N.p., 17 Apr. 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Love, Mike. “The Making of Pet Sounds.” N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Mohr, Ian. “Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson Says LSD ‘expanded His Mind’.” N.p., 22 June 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.