The Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds is considered by many as not only their finest work, but one of the greatest albums of the 20th century (remember that century when music wasn’t just tones produced on a hipster’s laptop). One of the first 'concept albums' ever produced, the innovative production methods used by troubled genius Brian Wilson not only confirmed his place as one of the great talents, but also opened the door to his own deep struggles with mental illness.
Ironically, the square jawed, blonde haired surfer boys, who were the epitome of all things Americana in the 1960s had their worst commercial reception in the USA with Pet Sounds peaking at #10 on the charts. The true success came from the gloomy skies of England where it sat at #2 and remained in the Top 10 for six weeks.
While Pet Sounds’ unique quality was due largely to Wilson's visionary direction that saw the incorporation of trains, dogs and coke cans; his newly-formed song writing collaboration with the former jingle writer Tony Asher saw the lyrical direction of the band change dramatically. The Beach Boys no longer wanted to sing about a day at the surf with their best girl. Drugs, alienation and the battles of fame all became ready themes.
The radical change in experimental direction on Pet Sounds became of great concern to the record company, Capitol, who felt it was too great a departure from the traditional Beach Boys sound.
So worried that this album contained nothing like a Surfin’USA or Barbara Ann, Capitol actually released a Beach Boys hits compilation in case Pet Sounds bombed and while it didn’t bomb, the Best of the Beach Boys went on to Gold status.
Regardless, the tapestry of heartfelt songs and cryptic sounds on Pet Sounds not only gave us the likes of Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows (described by Paul McCartney as the greatest song ever written) and Sloop John B, it presented us with an album that really changed the course of popular music.
The great Beatles producer George Martin explained years later that without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper would never have happened, while the likes of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., and Radiohead have all acknowledged the impact the album had on their music.
This summer, take the time to revisit one of the best records of our time. If you are interested in the evolution of music, there really is no better place to start than Pet Sounds.