In 1966, The Beach Boys took a departure from their standard surfing songs and songs about girls with their album Pet Sounds. This remarkable album explored new themes and different styles and arrangements of music.
Prior to Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys’ typical hits included songs such as “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfer Girl,” “I Get Around,” and “Help Me, Rhonda” (“The Beach Boys,” n.d.). These songs exemplify their light and upbeat sound, as well as depict life in southern California where they originated. And while these songs became classics on their own merits, many of the themes are basically simple and lack serious emotional content.
Brian Wilson, the multi-talented foreman of The Beach Boys, was the engine that kept the band moving. He was not only a singer and guitarist but also the composer, arranger, and producer of their albums (Carlin, 2009). Due to the pressures he was under to produce, record, and tour, in 1964, he had experienced severe emotional distress and removed himself from touring with the other members (Fusilli, 2005). While recovering from mental exhaustion, he began the work that would lead to the production of Pet Sounds.
With The Beatles’ release of Rubber Soul in 1965, Wilson was inspired to create a similar work that consisted of all original tracks that blended together to form a cohesive sound (Carlin, 2009). Wilson’s growing skills and knowledge of recording techniques paved the way to develop such an album.
Pet Sounds begins with a seemingly light-hearted theme with the song, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” But as Jim Fusilli (2005) wrote in the 33 1/3: Pet Sounds:
…at the end of the fourth bar, Hal Blaine…smacks the drums hard, delivering
a harsh, ominous sound that echoes like a shut door, a slammed gate (p. 41).
Such a sonic statement underlines a more serious tone to an otherwise innocent song. These embellishments were used throughout Pet Sounds, painting mental images that were not found in prior works by The Beach Boys.
Furthermore, the sonic palette had grown considerably for Pet Sounds. Still with the first song, instruments such as four guitars, three saxophones and a trumpet, two accordions, bells, plucks from the strings of a piano, and a timpani formed part of the backing tracks (Fusilli, 2005). Such arrangements were obviously influenced by working with Phil Spector’s “Wall-of-Sound” production process (Carlin, 2009). Such arrangements created a significantly larger sound than the original five-piece rock band of The Beach Boys.
Another departure from their earlier work consists of lyrical play. In the love song, “God Only Knows,” the opening line is, “I may not always love you.” This atypical line for an intro of a love song was followed with lines that negated its context; thus, it stresses that the singer will always love the recipient of the song.
Prior to Music History II, I have heard Pet Sounds several times, both in its original mono format and the remastered stereo tracks. While I enjoyed it tremendously, I was not aware of how groundbreaking it was. I was born five years after the release of Pet Sounds, and the techniques and arrangements that made it a pioneering album were now commonplace in the music I grew up with in the 1970s. But with fresh ears, I realize just what a major undertaking it was to produce such a work of art. As a future music producer, I was to learn more about how he layered the different instruments to keep the backing tracks uncluttered yet rich in sound.
Since studying Pet Sounds, I have a new respect and admiration for Brian Wilson’s exceptional musical talents.
Carlin, P. A. (2009, August 13). The Bob Edwards Show. Podcast available on iTunes.
Fusilli, J. (2005). 33 1/3: Pet sounds. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.
The beach boys. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 1, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beach_Boys