Five amazing albums that wouldn’t exist without The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’
Prior to the release of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys had released eight top 10 albums in the previous three years. So when the album was released on May 16, 1966 and just scraped into the top 10 on the Billboard chart it looked like a failure.
Rock critics didn’t have a frame of reference for evaluating it and neither did a record-buying public used to songs about surfing, fast cars and California girls. But as the legendary album celebrates the 50th anniversary of its release ROB INGLIS looks back on five records that wouldn’t exist if not for Brian Wilson’s trailblazing work.
On Radiohead’s latest record A Moon Shaped Pool, orchestral flourishes are in ample supply. They’re there from the very beginning, as the London Contemporary Orchestra’s pinprick strings establish an atmosphere of disquiet on ‘Burn the Witch.’ Fifty-years-ago, the popular music arena rarely overlapped with the realm of classical music. But today, a band like Radiohead can create their own pop symphonies without anyone batting an eyelid. Why is this? The answer – as is so often the case with broad questions – is that it’s complicated. For the most part, though, we have Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys to thank.
Early in 1966, the Wrecking Crew – a collective of L.A. session musicians often employed by Phil Spector when he needed to erect his legendary “wall of sound” productions – joined Wilson in Studio 3 at Hollywood’s United Western Recorders. In the space of four months, they laid down the majority of the instrumentals for Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys’ eleventh studio album.
Although he wasn’t formally trained in classical composition and arrangement, Wilson was able to craft a work of singular pop genius that was also richly orchestral – however paradoxical such a statement might have sounded at the time. These were songs that dealt in the heartbreak and misplaced innocence of teenagerdom. Like all the best pop music, there are undercurrents of sadness beneath the tides of treacle here.
Wilson’s mental health spiralled after the release of Pet Sounds, as he toiled away at making what should have been his magnum opus Smile. Aggravated by his neurosis, Wilson’s perfectionism caused the Smile sessions to cost astronomical sums of money, and the album was never released in its original form. Thus the task of further consolidating the link between classical and popular music was left to those who came in The Beach Boys’ wake.
Tame Impala – Lonerism (2012)
Kevin Parker masterminded the production of his second album Lonerism, playing nearly every instrument, and shaping even the tiniest details of the release. The Perth band are a unit when performing live, but the studio remains Parker’s domain – just as it did Wilson’s.
One thing that the 2015 Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy got across so well was that the making of Pet Sounds was a means for the visionary Beach Boy to grapple with the fact that he heard voices. All the boings, zips, and zoots on the record are akin to the strange messages that were being relayed to Wilson, from where he did not know. On Lonerism, Parker contends with his own self-doubt, which carries across the battlefield of his mind like a ringing gunshot. He asks himself why people won’t talk to him, whether anything really matters, what’s right and what’s wrong. Wilson never probed the depths of his consciousness quite as fastidiously as Parker does on Lonerism, but the idea that music can be an outlet for the expulsion of one’s neuroses ties both Pet Sounds and Lonerism together.
And so in 2012 – nearly fifty-years after the release of Pet Sounds – the biggest loner in the history of recorded music continues to influence successive generations with the emotional precision of his songwriting. Isn’t it ironic that solitude can be such a powerful force for galvanisation?
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009)
The Beach Boys’ influence is felt palpably in the interplay between Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s vocals on Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion. Both Pet Sounds and Merriweather represent the bands’ most towering artistic achievements. Writing for the Guardian, Louis Pattison said of the Animal Collective album upon its release in 2009: “[it’s] a giddy whirl of tropical-tinged melodies, Beach Boys-style harmonies, and booming bass.”
Whereas XTC and The Flaming Lips emulated the Pet Sounds formula by adhering to its synthesis of orchestral arrangements and pop songcraft, Animal Collective attempted to tinker with the equation on Merriweather. Substituting the classical elements of Pet Sounds with delightfully weird electronics, the band updated The Beach Boys’ template without undermining what made it so wonderful in the first place.
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)
In a 2011 retrospective review of The Soft Bulletin, Mike Diver of the BBC wrote that The Flaming Lips’ ninth studio album “sings with the same warmth and composure that characterized The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.” The “warmth and composure” of Pet Sounds is of course offset by the melancholic aspect of Wilson’s songwriting. Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd’s compositions on The Soft Bulletin are ostensibly upbeat, but active listeners will note that there’s a latent gloom in the jauntiness of the songs. In the tradition of Pet Sounds, The Flaming Lips here combine pop instrumentation with all the grandeur of the symphony.
XTC – Skylarking (1986)
In 1964, Wilson experienced a debilitating panic attack on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston. Deciding to withdraw from touring life, he stayed at home to work on new music while his bandmates – two of whom were his brothers, Dennis and Carl – roamed the world. The songs the 22-year-old Wilson wrote while in hibernation would become Pet Sounds.
Under similar circumstances, XTC’s Andy Partridge retreated to the studio after he suffered a mental breakdown onstage in 1982. The Swindon new wave group would never tour again. Joining forces with psych-pop wizard Todd Rundgren in 1986, XTC set about making their greatest album: Skylarking. Rundgren wasn’t shy about broadcasting his love for The Beach Boys; he recorded a version of ‘Good Vibrations’ in 1971, which was almost identical to the original. With Skylarking, XTC deliberately tried to create their own Pet Sounds. You can hear their aspiration in the lush string arrangements on ‘1000 Umbrellas’ and ‘Sacrificial Bonfire,’ in the vocal harmonies on ‘Season Cycle’ and ‘Big Day.’ Then there’s the pastoral themes of the record, which call back to the farmyard aesthetic of Pet Sounds.
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Before entering the studio to flesh out his ideas for Pet Sounds, Wilson devoured The Beatles’ 1965 LP Rubber Soul. It was an experience that inspired him enormously. The cycle was complete when The Beatles themselves were given the opportunity to hear Pet Sounds for the first time. Bruce Johnston, who was then only a very recent addition to The Beach Boys, travelled to London in May 1966 with two copies of the album under his arm. Finding himself in a hotel suite with Keith Moon, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, Johnston played Pet Sounds for them. As soon as side two had come to a close, Lennon and McCartney immediately asked to hear the record again.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles’ eighth LP, was released in 1967. Some have said that the band lifted the recordings of Wilson’s dogs from Pet Sounds – which he’d placed at the end of ‘Caroline, No’ – for their own song ‘Good Morning Good Morning.’ Even if this isn’t the case, it’s clear The Beatles were influenced by the unconventional nature of Wilson’s approach to pop production. Producer George Martin, often hailed as ‘the fifth Beatle,’ wrote in the liner notes for the 1997 box-set The Pet Sounds Sessions: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened … Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”