Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds forever changed the landscape of pop music. It’s a deeply personal album, and Wilson’s meticulously complex and bizarre arrangements elevated the three-minute radio tune to art.
The story of how Pet Sounds was made has been told and retold (and parodied) plenty of times since its release in 1966, but there are still so many fascinating little stories about the album that may have gone under the radar.
1. Pet Sounds was inspired by the immaculately constructed and filler-free Beatles album,Rubber Soul. “Rubber Soul blew my mind,” Brian Wilson says. “When I heard Rubber Soul, I said, ‘That’s it. That’s all. That’s all folks.’ I said, ‘I’m going to make an album that’s really good, I mean really challenge me.’ I mean, I love that fucking album, I cherish that album.”
2. Pet Sounds started with a panic attack. In December of 1964, while on a flight to Houston to start yet another Beach Boys tour, Brian Wilson collapsed in the plane’s aisle and began sobbing. He had to return to California, where he recovered and realized that he could tour no longer. He called a meeting with the rest of the band and said, “Listen, I’m going to have to quit the touring group. But it’s going to be well worth it, because I’m going to write you some good songs.”
3. Throughout 1965, while the rest of band toured, Brian worked on his new project. He arranged, composed, and produced the album and conducted an army of L.A.’s best studio musicians, also known as “The Wrecking Crew,” to perform on it. Wilson had unprecedented control over Pet Sounds, and he was just 23 years old.
4. Once the rest of the band returned from international touring, Brian had them come into the studio to put vocals down on top of his compositions. It took a full week to record the voice track on “Wouldn’t it be Nice.” Brian was so demanding, Mike Love took to calling him “Dog Ears” because he could hear things humans could not. Love joked that they’d have to re-record a take in case any of the members had “an impure thought” while singing that Brian could pick up on the track. Maybe it wasn’t a joke.
5. Wilson wrote the instrumental track “Pet Sounds” with the intention that it would be used in a James Bond movie. The original title was “Run James Run.”
6. Brian’s arrangements on Pet Sounds are so musically complex and meticulous, meaning can be derived at a remarkably technical level, as music critic Jim Fusilli does here (taken from Fusilli’s book about the album):
[“You Still Believe in Me”] begins in B major, a key rarely used in pop, and remains in B major. The G# major chord below the first, and only, time the word “love” is invoked in the song is particularly striking; on the second pass, the G# major chord hits below the word “fail.” In a rare example of the bassist emphasizing the root in a Brian Wilson arrangement, Carol Kaye hits the G# in both instances. It’s as if Brian wanted there to be no confusion for the listener: in his mind, at least in this song, love equals failure.
7. Brian’s abusive father and manager Murry Wilson had effectively been kicked out of his sons’ musical lives after a drunken, in-studio tirade during a recording of “Help Me, Rhonda.” Despite this, he managed to use his clout with Capitol Records to speed up Brian’s vocal track on “Caroline, No” to make it sound higher to his liking.
8. The barking at the end of “Caroline, No” comes from Brian’s two dogs, Banana and Louie.
9. The dreamy, plinking sound at the beginning of “You Still Believe in Me” is achieved by someone reaching inside an open piano and directly plucking its strings. This effect is used in other songs on the album, but it is isolated here.
10. Besides its orchestral strings and wind sections, Pet Sounds is famous for its unusual and almost comedic use of bizarre instruments, including, but nowhere even near limited to, bicycle horns, vibraphones, timpani, finger cymbals, Coke cans, accordions, modified twelve-string mandolins, and water jugs.
11. Capitol Records wasn’t thrilled with the album and how far it strayed from the band’s usual sound. The company refused to issue a single with it until months after its release. (“Sloop John B” and “Caroline, No” were released as singles months before the album, with the latter published as a Brian Wilson solo).
12. Capitol had such little faith in Pet Sounds, they decided to release The Best of The Beach Boys, a collection of the band’s well-known surf and party hits, around the same time.
13. Pet Sounds peaked at number 10 on the charts in the United States. The Best of The Beach Boys landed at 8.
14. Pet Sounds was a hit in the UK, where it topped the charts. Before its release there, Brian’s tour fill-in Bruce Johnston took two copies with him to London and managed—through Beach Boys fanatic Keith Moon—to arrange a meeting at a hotel with John Lennon and Paul McCartney to play it for them. They listened to it once through, paused, and immediately asked to hear the album again. Shortly afterward, the two began to work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
15. According to Beatles producer George Martin, “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened….Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”