In 1966, the Beach Boys were staying true to their name, helming the front lines of the California surf rock sound. Songs like “I Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA” were popular on the radio waves and amongst young people at the time. With their eleventh studio album, Pet Sounds, the band proved that there was more to them than poppy surf rock songs that were easy to dance to.
Pet Sounds is often considered one of the first concept albums ever made – albums that follow a central theme or story – before the term actually meant anything. The record, along with Beatles’ albums Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, were at the forefront of an uncoordinated movement in the 1960s to singlehandedly revolutionize what the general audience considered “pop” music to be. These albums challenged audiences by subscribing to more unconventional and less “safe” sounds while imbuing a musical quality that was lacking in the realm of popular music.
Undoubtedly the mastermind behind Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, was the first artist to be credited for writing, arranging, producing and performing his own material. Although many artists have written and performed their own music over the years, very few of them were as involved as Wilson was in crafting his records. So why do we keep talking about an album that was released 55 years ago?
In an age where Beatlemania was at its height and the British Invasion was an unstoppable force, Pet Sounds was a beacon of hope for brilliant American-made music. It showcased that American bands still had much to show for themselves.
Pet Sounds strayed from their associated surf rock sound to craft brilliant, poignant pieces of music that could no longer be considered simple love songs. Wilson began singing about his deteriorating mental state – something he would wrestle with for years to come. The record touched on themes of lost loves in songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” existential questions in tracks like “I Know There’s An Answer,” and the cost of fame in songs like “That’s Not Me.”
Musically, the Beach Boys abandoned fast paced guitar riffs for a larger picture soundscape that still remains incredibly cohesive and magical to this day. Instruments like harpsichords, synthesizers, brass and strings arrangements took center stage and accompanied the well-known vocalizing of the band. This created a very intricate sound that defined and highlighted their career; a sound that is very much responsible for ingraining Pet Sounds in modern popular culture.
Much of this is due to Wilson’s almost maniacal yet excellent vision of recording, producing and mixing of the record. He also pioneered the use of more unconventional instruments like bicycle bells, French horn, flutes, Electro-Theremin, string sections and beverage cans; instruments that were not associated with 1960s rock.
The record would later become a template for future artists and contemporaries. Although the Beatles also had a hand in setting the stage for forthcoming records, their work might have never come to fruition in the way it did without the Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney cited Pet Sounds as an influence for Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, as well as his own bass playing.
Pet Sounds was one of the few albums that pushed the boundaries of popular music in the ’60s. It innovated sounds and included instruments never before heard in rock music. The Beach Boys departed from their friendlier surf rock sounds to craft a deeper, more personal record that influenced countless records after its release. Pet Sounds is the Beach Boys at their most mighty, defining their own careers and the sound of the 1960s.