'Pet Sounds': 50 years a-growing
If Brian Wilson was expecting to see his band's latest album, Pet Sounds, become a chart sensation in the US, he was to be sorely disappointed. Released half a century ago this month, the album that he had worked on obsessively for months, largely on his own while his bandmates were on the road touring, barely scraped into the top 10 in his homeland. It was the lowest selling Beach Boys album there in two years - and they released no less than five albums in that period.
Its cause was not helped when, just two months after its release, their record label Capitol brought out a best-of album that essentially acted as a spoiler to its continued sales.
It fared far better in Britain, however, and only just failed to knock the Rolling Stones' Aftermath off the top of the charts. Its success in this part of the world was helped, at least in part, by the ecstatic critical reviews. By contrast, some US rock writers appeared baffled by the new direction taken by the country's most popular surf band.
Fifty years on and Pet Sounds is universally hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time. Jon Savage, in his fine, recently published book, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, beautifully captures the essence of the album.
"Pet Sounds," he writes, "created a consistent musical and emotional mood, with every one of the 12 tracks forming a whole. It was, in essence, a concept album about loss, alienation and the end of adolescence. Blending the true sound of Los Angeles - the full range of exotica, surf and lounge music - with the trademark Beach Boys harmonies, Wilson wrote a series of gorgeous, tricksy melodies and contrapuntal harmony parts that perfectly matched lyrcist Tony Asher's disquisitions on failure, loneliness and dashed dreams."
The Beach Boys had proved to have an extraordinary faculty with penning gorgeously constructed, super-catchy songs, but this album was something else entirely. And Brian Wilson knew he had created something exceptionally special, despite its initial failure in the US. "This is Brian Wilson," he told Go! magazine in July 1966. "He is a Beach Boy. Some say he is more. Some say he is a Beach Boy and a genius."
It's sometimes said that quality from one can help the opposition to up its game and that was certainly the case when it came to the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Wilson was acutely aware of the Merseysiders since 1964 when they first hit the American charts. They were also signed to Capitol in the US and both shared the first three letters of their names meaning they were competing directly in the record racks. And it was when they released their groundbreaking Rubber Soul album in 1965 that he was fired up by the prospect of going one better - and thus Pet Sounds was born.
Wilson had retired from touring in December 1964 having suffered a panic attack on board a flight, and freed of the pressures of constantly being on the road, he was able to let his imagination run riot. "While Lennon and McCartney were exciting everyone with their new sounds," he said in 1966, "we were static. That's why I concentrated on giving the group a sound that would have lasting appeal... When I've thought about a theme I go to the piano and sit playing 'feels', which are rhythm patterns and fragments of ideas. Then the song starts to blossom and becomes a real thing."
He was also thinking about how the Beatles operated outside of the record studio when he hired their former press officer, Derek Taylor, in the spring of 1966. "I knew that in some circles we're not regarded as all that 'hip' or 'in'," Wilson said matter-of-factly that spring, and he had taken on Taylor "to help Pet Sounds take us 'to a new plateau'."
Former journalist Taylor certainly knew how to deliver the sort of hype that the then 23-year-old Wilson craved, but his new client could be a hard taskmaster. "Brian Wilson shared more than just a first name with Epstein [the Beatles' manager]," he later recalled. "He was just as impossible to please, just as edgy, and, unlike Epstein, he nurtured grudges and didn't write letters of remorse and regret."
For their part, The Beatles' took a keen interest in the work that the Californian wunderkind was releasing and their next album, Revolver, was their answer to Pet Sounds. Revolver, in turn, would encourage Wilson to up the ante on the Beach Boys' planned follow-up, the ill-fated Smile, but while that album wouldn't appear in the guise he might have hoped for until the early 2000s, the song he worked on immediately after Pet Sounds certainly did.
At the time of its release in November 1966, 'Good Vibrations' was the most expensive single ever made. It reportedly cost $50,000 (as opposed to $70,000 for Pet Sounds' 12 tracks), and was recorded over and over by an increasingly agitated Wilson, who was consuming drugs in increasing quantities. His then collaborator, lyricist Tony Asher, recalls the singer throwing "fits of uncontrollable anger" that summer as he tried to realise the fantastical song ideas in his head.
Brian's older brother Dennis, described the process to Hit Parader magazine. "It took about four months, but we didn't record every day... We went in one day and we recorded the soundtrack and we didn't like it. So we did it over again in sections. The soundtrack was in different sections and we wrote it as we were recording it. As we finished one part, we were inspired to do another. It just kept building and building."
The end result, featuring lovely vocals from Brian's youngest brother, Carl, was a breathtaking triumph of editing and a song quite unlike any other. Even the Beatles didn't think to use that strangest of instruments, an electro-theremin, in one of their songs, but it helped make 'Good Vibrations' feel as though it was beamed in from another planet.
It still sounds extraordinary - as does the magical Pet Sounds.