Beethoven. Mozart. Bach. Brahms. Chopin. Schubert. Wilson. Yes, Brian Wilson — the shy, troubled and prodigiously talented singer-songwriter for surf-pop vets the Beach Boys — has earned his place among history’s greatest composers. And his definitive work — his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, if you will — is Pet Sounds, which turns 50 today (May 16, 2016).
Formed in 1961 in the Los Angeles suburbs, the Beach Boys crafted hit after hit in honor of the California Dream — sun, surf, fast cars, and girls galore. Think of all their Golden Oldies: “Surfin’ Safari,” “409,” “Surfer Girl,” “In My Room,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” I Get Around” and many more. Grab a surfboard and hit the beach! But by 1965 the times had done a-changed and a cultural revolution was afoot. The Beatles had just released a landmark record, Rubber Soul, and Wilson was mesmerized by its leaps in songwriting and production value. He wanted to respond, and the seeds were sown for one of music’s iconic competitive streaks.
But Wilson’s mental state was fragile when he set out to create the ultimate Teenage Symphony. In December ’64, the band boarded a flight to Houston to kick off another tour when Wilson collapsed and began sobbing. He was suffering a full mental breakdown. He returned to California and soon called a band meeting — he was going to quit the touring group, at least for the time being. But he promised them he would write some great songs while they were on the road.
His efforts immediately hit roadblocks and detractors. In various Hollywood studios between January and April ’66, Wilson produced, composed, and recorded Pet Sounds with a small army of classically trained for-hire musicians, including session vets The Wrecking Crew. But the change in musical direction from the Beach Boys’ tried-and-true formula, as well as Wilson’s increasing instability, ignited internal drama. Wilson would obsess over sounds in the studio, spending a full week recording vocals on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” He tracked barking dogs, including his own pet pooches Banana and Louie, and experimented with other instrumental sounds like bicycle bells, Coca-Cola cans, and passing trains. Multi-instrumentalist and singer Mike Love even started calling Wilson “Dog Ears” because he could apparently hear sounds other humans could not.
The insult was actually helpful: “Ironically,” Wilson later noted, “Mike’s barb inspired the album’s title.”
The band’s label, Capitol Records, had reservations about the LP, too. They worried the sound wouldn’t connect with the young female fanbase the group had built since the early ’60s, and they rush released a greatest hits compilation shortly after Pet Sounds‘ arrival (incidentally, that comp, Best of The Beach Boys, peaked higher than Pet Sounds on the Billboard 200).
When the album finally did drop on May 16, 1966, it debuted at No. 106 on the Billboard 200, eventually peaking at No. 10 in the U.S. and No. 2 in England. Regardless, music was never the same again. It was the dawn of the concept album: The 23-year-old Wilson, working with lyricist Tony Asher, had an evenly paced, thematically cohesive storyline that lionized a young California love, all delivered in waves of sunny melodies, harmonies, and orchestration inspired by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The floating keys and cracking snare of opener “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” signaled a sea change. On ” I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” Wilson expressed his tenderness and discomfort with the world around him. Later, he pleaded on one of pop music’s most-enduring love songs, “God Only Knows.”
The drug scene on the West Coast helped color the music. During this period Wilson admitted to drug use, including smoking marijuana as a stress reliever. The track “I Know There’s An Answer” — with layers of his angelic vocal, playful horns, and martial drums — was written as a response to an intense LSD trip. Simply closing one’s eyes and listening to Pet Sounds is, in itself, a semi-psychedelic experience.
For all practical purposes, Pet Sounds is a Brian Wilson album solo album. He considered leaving the band to release it, and “Caroline, No,” — one of the LP’s best tracks — was actually released in March ’66 as his solo single debut. But outside of the framework of the Beach Boys, the album loses its magic. Without the squeaky-clean image these young preps developed — those matching sweaters! — the soaring symphonics and psychedelic portraits shed a dramatic touch.
After Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys would expand on the artistic breakthrough with “Good Vibrations,” which Wilson spent months and reportedly over half a million dollars recording. It would become a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and England. Then he teamed with lyricist Van Dyke Parks to work on its proper follow-up, Smile — which wouldn’t be finished for decades — and drifted further from the band and further into turmoil. He sobered up, returned, and then slid back into addiction on tour. Dennis Wilson, his brother, died in a swimming accident. Then Brian Wilson released his first solo album as Love reclaimed the Beach Boys with 1988’s “Kokomo,” one of the band’s biggest hits. It’s been a long and chaotic career.
But Pet Sounds remains a story of personal triumph. Brian Wilson fought his label, his bandmates, and his family to bring the album to fruition. Against all odds, he harnessed his mental state for genius. He produced and inspired two of music’s greatest albums ever. “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin later said. “Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”
And now, after years of personal struggle, Wilson has revived his career as a bankable touring act. This summer, he’s celebrating the album’s 50th birthday by playing Pet Sounds across the U.S. That’s right: Brian Wilson is healthy and touring an album that exists solely because he wasn’t mentally fit to tour back in ’66. Now that’s a triumph.