Beach Boy Brian Wilson reportedly set out to make ‘the greatest album ever made’ with Pet Sounds. 50 years on it is a record that still appears in almost every ‘Best Albums Ever’ list so we can say with some certainty that he at least got close to realising that ambition.
I’ve just played my old vinyl version of the record while writing this and it definitely stands the test of time. It was originally released on 16th May 1966 and half a century on it still sounds extraordinary: gorgeously introspective, complex but moving, and tinged with melancholy. You have to wonder how a 23 year old could deliver such an ambitious and perfectly executed masterpiece, where he was pretty much responsible for all of its writing, production, and arrangements.
To celebrate the 50th year since its release Brian Wilson is now bringing his Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour to the UK for a number of dates, including Liverpool on 28th July, and popping up at festivals like Kendal Calling and Bestival.
A recurring theme at the British Music Experience is the relationship between UK and American music and how each at various times has influenced the other. Pet Sounds is a really interesting example of this. Apparently Wilson was inspired to write the album after hearing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965) with its evident progression in terms of song writing and recording techniques. In turn Pet Sounds has been cited by Paul McCartney as The Beatles’ attempt ‘to equal Pet Sounds’.
God Only Knows was praised by McCartney as one of the greatest songs ever written and listening to it now it still sounds like a small slice of pure pop perfection all crammed into a running time of under three minutes. Even more staggering is, that according to a recent interview with Wilson, the song was written in under an hour.
Pet Sounds was a radical departure from previous Beach Boys records and the complexity of its recording meant it cost a then unprecedented $70,000. Although it is officially a Beach Boys record, Brian Wilson is undoubtedly the driving force behind it. Wilson had stopped playing live to focus on writing and recording and when the rest of the band returned from a tour he reportedly presented them with a large part of the album with his vocals at its heart.
From the opening salvo of Wouldn’t It Be Nice right through to the closing Caroline No this is an album of glorious melodies and gorgeous vocal harmonies. It is these great songs combined with the lush, inventive arrangements that make this such a timeless album. Production wise Wilson echoed some of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound techniques and the record’s rich, deeply textured sound features the use of percussion and instruments that came from outside the rock ‘n’ roll norms.
It is easy to understand the greatness of the record now but at the time the Beach Boys’ American record company, Capitol, had expected an entirely different and much sunnier record. While the album was well received in the UK (where it reached Number 2 in the album charts) its reception in the US was less favourable. Capitol tried to compensate for this by releasing and giving a big promotional push to a hastily put together greatest hits album only two months after the release of Pet Sounds. The Best of the Beach Boys album provided the sales the record company had wanted Pet Sounds to generate. It quickly went gold while the latter struggled along with little promotion. Beach Boy Bruce Johnson later lamented that Capitol focused all their efforts on the greatest hits record while treating Pet Sounds like an ‘ignored stepchild’ because it wasn’t what they expected.
Many albums are called ‘classic’. Pet Sounds is one of the few that truly deserve the accolade. Go along and see Brian Wilson on one of his rare UK dates and pay tribute to a musical genius and his finest work.
Keep your eyes on the British Music Experience social channels for a great competition featuring a stay at the Titanic Hotel, entrance to the British Music Experience and tickets to see Brian Wilson when he brings Pet Sounds to Liverpool on the 28th July for two people.