Although the Beach Boys’ music was fairly unsophisticated at the start of their careers, it matured very quickly. Their first top-10 hit, “Surfin’ USA”, was released in 1963, and it was essentially Chuck Berry, albeit with some nice vocal harmonies on top. By the end of 1965, they were producing pop gems with sophisticated melodies and chord changes, and creative arrangements, like “California Girls”, which featured an unusual, almost orchestral-sounding intro.
Throughout this time of musical growth, however, the music they created remained essentially “Beach Boys” music. Girls, cars, surfing and fun in the California sunshine were still the dominant themes, and the music, for the most part, was happy and upbeat. It was a formula that kept the Beach Boys on top, even in the face of the Beatles and the British Invasion.
By 1965, Brian Wilson, the band’s principal songwriter and producer, was no longer touring. He worked in the studio, writing the songs and producing the backing tracks, while the rest of the band would go on the road. When a tour ended, the rest of the Beach Boys would go to the studio and add their vocals to the tracks. In early 1966, following a tour of Japan and Hawaii, the Beach Boys listened to the tracks Brian had produced for their next album. They were totally unprepared for what they heard.
This was unlike anything the Beach Boys had done before. The complex arrangements included strings, accordions, harmonicas, kettle drums, sleigh bells, flutes, harpsichord, banjo, a bicycle bell, and even a theramin (a device used to create sci-fi movie sound effects). The lyrics were introspective and bittersweet, and the music was often hauntingly sad.
There was resistance at first. The Beach Boys were uncomfortable with the idea of changing the formula that was working so well for them. Still, as different as the music was, it was also undeniably beautiful. In the end, they all agreed to work on the project.
Pet Sounds was released on May 16, 1966, and reached #10 on the US album charts. “Sloop John B” reached #3 and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” reached #8 on the singles charts. Compared to the success the Beach Boys were used to, this was actually considered a somewhat disappointing performance. The folks at Capitol Records hadn’t been completely sold on the new musical direction of the Beach Boys, and they didn’t promote the album as heavily as they might have.
Today, Pet Sounds is widely recognized as the masterpiece that it is. Mojo magazine called it “The Greatest Album Ever Made”, and Rolling Stone magazine put it at #2 on their list of the Greatest Albums Of All Time. Paul McCartney said “I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album.”
Pet Sounds by Beach Boys
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
“You Still Believe In 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”
“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”