55 Years Later: Revisiting The Beach Boys’ Unrivaled ‘Pet Sounds’ LP

Among his many other distinctions as a songwriter and recording artist, Brian Wilson is responsible for not just one, but two of the most famous albums in rock and roll history, Pet Sounds and Smile. With the release of the former in 1966–which originally met with a tepid critical and commercial response in America but accolades all around in Great Britain–the titular leader and artistic mastermind behind the Beach Boys enacted a marked digression from the group’s theretofore tremendously popular string of teenage/car/surf anthems. 

Moving far beyond rewrites of Chuck Berry into sophisticated production and arrangement where the Boys vocals became as carefully orchestrated and lush as all the other instruments, Wilson expended much-concerted effort to bring his original melodies to full fruition. His landmark artistic achievement has been widely recognized as such in the fifty-year interim since its release and has actually gained further prestige as an act of courageous creativity: based on the new information that has circulated regarding the circumstances at that time, virtually all of it via credible sources (including Wilson himself), his decision to quit touring is but the tip of the iceberg.

Like so many great albums, the full array of Pet Sounds (released 5/16/66) tracks is grounded in a select few truly exceptional tunes. Not coincidentally, those selections here were released as singles, beginning with “Caroline, No”–oddly issued under Wilson’s name alone–as well as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice, ” backed with “God Only Knows.” The reworking of the Bahamian folk song “Sloop John B” hardly denies that evidence of how prolific a composer Brian had become, but instead depicts how purposeful a recording artist he was: at the dramatic finish of a tune once covered by the Kingston Trio, the dropout of the instrumental backing only accentuates the deeply echoed vocal intonation of the line ‘…this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on…’ It may say as much about Brian’s state of being at the time as the candid “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

Pet Sounds is the soundtrack of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, its relative complexity is as much a reflection of Brian Wilson’s creative impulses as his state of mind at the time of recording. Not to disparage Tony Asher’s work as lyricist for songs like “You Still Believe In Me,” but while his words condense those conflicts as gracefully as they contour to the arrangements, the most eloquent statements arise from purely instrumental passages. Likewise, if the Beach Boys’ vocals themselves seem submerged in the lush instrumentation, for instance, during “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” it’s more to the point their intricate harmonies stand as a foundational template for the orchestrations surrounding them. 

The ornate arrangements including strings, exotic instruments such as the theremin (to make a prominent reappearance on “Good Vibrations”) and the usage of multiple session players in addition to the Beach Boys personnel was only the most tangible departure in production values. “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” is, with the title track, one of two instrumentals among the thirteen cuts, but the notion implicit in the name of the song links it with “I’m Waiting For The Day” and “I Know There’s An Answer:” it directly reflects the emotional undercurrents of the record mirrored in its expansive conception and execution. 

As such, this record set the stage for Smile in more ways than one, including the fact it’s become available in a variety of different versions over the decades, including, but not limited to, the ostensibly comprehensive box set The Pet Sounds Sessions of 1996. Besides numerous instrumental-only and vocal-only tracks, the prime feature of the latter is a brand-new stereo mix of the album, completed under it Brian’s personal supervision; his participation was an early inkling of the abiding pride he has taken in this work over the years, even to the point of touring with the album as the focal point of concerts in the early 2000s. 

Such self-validation of the timelessness of the piece might be precious and/or self-serving coming from any other artist, but this one.

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