This Month in Musical History: Brian Wilson makes his masterpiece

By Lee Zimmerman

There was certainly no denying the Beach Boys’ success prior to Pet Sounds. After all, they had been permanent fixtures on the pop charts since the dawn of the decade, accumulating enough hits (16 to be exact, between 1962 and 1965) to challenge the Beatles and all the other bands that charged these shores during the initial onslaught of the British Invasion. Yet, it soon became obvious that having hit singles wouldn’t ever satisfy Brian Wilson’s creative ambitions, and that his goal to redefine the barriers of popular music would require a broad stroke that would stretch pop’s parameters. Having opted out of the band’s touring schedule following a nervous breakdown on board their plane prior to take off, he used the group’s departure as an excuse to ensconce himself in L.A.’s Gold Star, Western and Sunset Sound studios, where he the city’s most formidable session players and began work on the album that eventually became his greatest triumph. It resulted not only in one of the seminal albums of the ‘60s, but also a recording that opened the floodgates to creative expression, an outpouring that would include Sgt, Pepper, Forever Changes, Electric Ladyland, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and a whole slew of other discs that blended art with the abstract while confirming Rock ‘n’ Roll as a creative force that demanded to be taken seriously. In later years it would be hailed as nothing less than the greatest album of all-time, a perennial pick in nearly every music poll of the past 45 years.

Wilson has claimed his inspiration was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP, an album that, unlike the practice of the time, consisted of a unified set of songs that stood apart on their own merits without dependence on hit singles to anchor them together. After hearing that album, he reportedly told his wife, “Marilyn, I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!” The fact that he succeeded proves a testament not only to his aspirations but his drive and determination as well.

Ironically, the complexities that burdened its creation encompassed a labyrinth of strategies and calculations that defied the mores of the time. The preceding album, 1965’s The Beach Boys Today, tampered with the template by relegating the hits to side one and Wilson’s more reflective tomes to side two. A demand by Capitol, their record label, necessitated a holiday release, which became The Beach Boys Party!, delaying Wilson’s plans further. “Sloop John B,” a traditional song with Caribbean roots, was the first song recorded for what would later become Pet Sounds, but it was set aside in order to complete Party!

Once the obligation to Capitol was completed, Wilson contacted a young lyricist and jingle writer named Tony Asher and handed him a demo of a song called “In My Childhood.” Discarding the lyrics he had written before, he allowed Asher to reshape the song, which eventually morphed into “You Still Believe In Me.” Asher had passed the audition, but he’s since insisted he was deferring to Wilson’s original inspiration. “The general tenor of the lyrics was always his,” Asher insisted, “And the actual choice of words was usually mine. I was really just his interpreter.” Indeed, Wilson had evolved light years away from his early muses, specifically cars, surfing and girls. He was probing deeper into his own troubled, bedeviled psyche and plucking from a wellspring of teenage angst and anxiety. The Beach Boys’ music would never be the same again.

Wilson and Asher wrote the rest of the material over the course of two months, December 1965 and January 1966, with only minimal outside collaboration (The band’s road manager Terry Sachen is credited on “I Know There’s An Answer” along with Mike Love, although the track was originally billed as “Hang On To Your Ego.” Love also claimed to have helped in the composition of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and while his contribution was supposedly minimal, he would later defend his allegations in court.) Recording commenced in January and rolled over into February, with Wilson taking advantage of a Beach Boys Japanese tour to undertake the initial efforts. Although the Beach Boys had earned their stripes as a self contained band – a unit fully capable of playing all their own instruments and furnishing all the vocals and harmonies – Wilson chose to recruit a massive contingent of studio musicians – more than 60 in all, including the reliable “Wrecking Crew”– to lay down the basic tracks for his opus. In the process, he greatly expanded his musical palette with an elaborate instrumental arsenal that included strings, brass, woodwinds and even sound effects that included a roaring train and his barking dogs. As a nod to this sophisticated mélange, two tracks were chosen for inclusion sans vocals, “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” (originally titled “And Then We’ll Have World Peace”) and the title track (recorded with the working moniker “Run, James Run” in the hopes it might eventually be tapped for a James Bond soundtrack). A third instrumental, “Trombone Dixie,” was also recorded but later discarded, only to surface on a 1990 reissue.

Emulating his hero Phil Spector’s so-called “Wall of Sound” technique (it ought to be noted that the initials ‘PS’ not only stood for Pet Sounds but ‘Phil Spector’ as well), Wilson eagerly took advantage of newly introduced Ampex 8-track recorders, which allowed him more sonic possibilities via ongoing overdubs and carefully plied textures. Among the early experiments undertaken at this time was an early version of “Good Vibrations,” which was inexplicably yanked from the final set list and later tagged for what was to be his next mind-expanding masterpiece, the ill-fated Smile. “Sloop John B” was included, but not because of the popular misconception that it was added due to Capitol’s insistence that the album contain a guaranteed hit. Complicating matters even further was the fact that “Caroline No,” another of the album’s lynchpins, was subsequently released as a Brian Wilson solo single, throwing the group’s trajectory into temporary disarray.

Nevertheless, the consistent quality of the album still impresses today. “God Only Knows,” possibly the greatest love song of the modern era, reportedly brought Paul McCartney to tears every time he heard it, although it too attracted its share of controversy by including the word “God” in its title. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a song that epitomizes the breadth of teenage yearning, still spawns the same degree of optimism it did back in the day, although it also reaped a collective shudder due to the song’s overt suggestion about the young lovers’ desire to “sleep together.” The wistful “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” “You Still Believe In Me,” “That’s Not Me” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” reflects the fragile state of mind and the increasingly evident emotional toll and deep-seated doubts that were plaguing Wilson’s troubled psyche.

It certainly didn’t help his state of mind that the group was taken aback with the album demos upon their return from Asia. The foundations for their earlier successes, the odes to the carefree California lifestyle that courted nothing of greater consequence than surfing, hot rods and babes, had been wholly discarded in favor of this headier brew. The band later gave its consent after Wilson’s insistence that the work was worthy of their signature, and their harmonies once again proved the conclusive evidence of the Beach Boys’ staying power. Even so, fans reacted skeptically when the album was released on May 16, 1966. The drastic change in tone surprised their followers who naturally expected more of the fun, fun, fun the band had come to epitomize, initially resulting in lackluster sales and a lukewarm reception. However in the intervening years, Pet Sounds has grown in stature and been duly accorded the kudos it deserves. Paul McCartney has openly acknowledged its direct influence on the creation of Sgt. Pepper while numerous other artists from Bob Dylan to Pete Townshend to Elvis Costello have cited its influence on their own work.

“Sloop John B” reached number three in the U.S and number two in the U.K. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” broke into the U.S. Top Ten at number eight, while its flip side, “God Only Knows,” hit number two in Britain, but managed to make only number 39 in the States. The LP broke into the Top Ten in America, but was embraced more enthusiastically in England, where it climbed to number two. Pet Sounds has subsequently been re-released in numerous formats, first as a CD in 1990 with three bonus tracks (an unused vocal section recorded for “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” the original “Hang On To Your Ego” and the previously discarded “Trombone Dixie.” In 1997, a box set version was offered that included the original mono mix, the stereo mix and three discs of out-takes and rehearsals. Wilson later played the album in its entirety live and recorded it for release as Pet Sounds Live. A 40th anniversary set was compiled in 2006 boasting various mixes and a making of documentary. Two years later, the label that had originally expressed concern over the direction of the album cashed in again with a new vinyl version boasting the original mono mix.

Brian Wilson’s ambitious intents had been vindicated after all.

Other Late May Highlights in Music History

• * Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy becomes the first album in history of the recording industry to be certified Platinum (One million copies sold) on the day of its release – May 17, 1975
* DJ Alan Freed and eight others are indicted on charges of Payola by a Federal Grand Jury. – May 19, 1960
* See him, hear him. Pete Townshend of the Who is born – May 19, 1945
* Kiss drummer Peter Criss leaves the band. – May 20, 1980
* Everything is alright: 13 year-old “Little” Stevie Wonder records his first hit record, “Fingertips.” – May 20, 1963
* Elton John becomes the first Western rock star to be invited to play the Soviet Union. His concert at the Leningrad Concert Hall kicks off an eight show run of performances in the Soviet Union. – May 21, 1979
* Upping the ante. “Saturday Night Live” producer raises his offer to $6,000 if the Beatles agree to reunite and appear on his show. Lennon and McCartney, watching from John’s apartment, toy with the idea of jumping in a cab and going to the studio to take him up on his offer – May 22, 1975
* Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan LP is certified Platinum – May 22, 1979
* The birth of the Bobster. Robert Zimmerman enters the world and the universe will never be the same – May 24, 1941
* It’s the real-life Odd Couple and at Graceland, witnesses swear they hear her daddy rolling over in his grave. Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson wed — May 26, 1994
* Miles Davis is born… and all that jazz follows – May 26, 1926
* Anarchy in the U.K. The Sex Pistols release (or unleash) their first single, “God Save the Queen” – May 27, 1977
* Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, is released on Columbia Records. A landmark release, it contains the classics “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Allright,” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” – May 27, 1962
* John “Bonzo” Bonham, future drummer for Led Zeppelin is born – May 31, 1948

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