By Jessica Jones, Copy Editor
[Capitol Records; 1966]
Original Release Date: May 16th, 1966
In the spring of 1966, The Beach Boys debuted the “most progressive pop album ever” Pet Sounds, which was at the time a wildly experimental album that influenced generations of music to come. With two instrumental tracks, four songs reaching the singles charts, and ranking at number two in Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Pet Sounds is widely considered to be rock and roll’s first-ever concept album. Marking not only Brian Willson’s growth as a musician but also introducing a new way to include thought-provoking feelings and experiences on albums, the risks taken with Pet Sounds paid off in ways Wilson couldn’t even imagine.
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Pet Sounds is a whole 180 from the traditional sound of The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson produced, composed, and wrote nearly the whole album by himself, with help from Tony Asher, a lyricist famous for his commercial jingles. The themes found in Pet Sounds are not much different from earlier Beach Boys albums; toying with ideas of love and adolescence, as well as marriage and finding one’s true self in a world full of questions and uncertainty. Previous albums and hits from the All-American group largely centered on the ideas of feelin’ good by the beach, how to sweet-talk girls, and showing off your car or surfing skills. Wilson wanted to express much more than these frivolous ideas- he knew there was more to life as a musician than being just another pop hit on the top 40 charts. The way these ideas were conveyed in Pet Sounds, however, is vastly different than anything done before.
The album opens up with a familiar west coast sound, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, a poppy lil’ number about two kids wishing they were grown so they can live out the American dream. The song was extremely popular with the younger crowds, and Asher recounts Wilson’s fascination surrounding this idea of kids wanting the freedom to be married- a very ironic message. The summertime hit peaked at number 8 on U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and was the A-side to “God Only Knows,” another universally-loved (and arguably the best) Beach Boys song. According to Wilson, “God Only Knows” took only 45 minutes to write, quicker than any of the other songs on the album. Asher and Wilson debated about including the word “God” in the song, let alone in the title for fear it would not be well received. It turned out to be another hit, with Sir Paul McCartney himself calling it one of the greatest songs ever written. The final version of the song features an opening with glissando french horn, a steady tempo kept by bells, and that recognizable harmonious sound only the Beach Boys could make. Another unusual aspect of the song is the opening lyric, “I may not always love you” is not what you would expect out of a love song, but the tune has some of the most memorable and romantic lyrics ever written, “If you should ever leave me / Well life would still go on believe me / The world could show nothing to me / So what good would living do me?”
Aside from love and relationships, Pet Sounds features songs and themes known to be inspired by LSD. “I Know There’s An Answer” AKA “Hang On to Your Ego”, has a peculiar sound to it due to the mix of instruments used: bass harmonica, banjos, flutes, saxophone, organ, and a tack piano. This unique juxtaposition helps to convey the message of the lyrics in both versions, the album’s “I Know There’s An Answer” analyzes the way one may feel while on drugs and how separated they are from the rest of society, while simultaneously comparing society to someone tripping “They come on like they’re peaceful but inside they’re so uptight / They trip through their day and waste all their thoughts at night.” The original version’s (“Hang On to Your Ego”) chorus “Hang on to your ego, hang on, but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight” warns users of the infamous Ego Death, something Brian Wilson experienced prior to the release of the Album. Lead singer Mike Love felt that the original lyrics were too “druggie” which prompted Wilson to record the second version.
Other songs on the album include two instrumentals, “Lets’s Go Away For A While”, Wilson’s favorite instrumental he’s ever composed and a song that intended to have lyrics but Wilson felt that it didn’t need any. “Pet Sounds,” the title track, was actually written to be included in a James Bond movie and was originally dubbed “Run James Run”. The album closes out with an ode to innocence lost, “Caroline, No” a song that is not about anyone in particular, but there are speculations as both Wilson and Asher were involved with different girls named Carol. The sweet, dreamy tune concludes with recordings of a train passing by and a dog barking, the perfect ending to your Pet Sounds experience.
Years after its release, Pet Sounds is still being heralded as one of the best- if not the best- albums to ever exist. Despite its initial tepid reception, this album has proven time and time again why the biggest risks can be the most worthwhile. Helping to ignite the idea of concept albums that inspired musicians across every genre imaginable, Pet Sounds lives permanently in music history as one of the most extraordinary albums to ever have been produced.
Listen to the masterpiece here: