“At some point, a person sets up his own aesthetic standards which can’t be questioned. I began this process for myself with Pet Sounds.”
The above quote, elegantly stated by Brian Wilson—arranger and producer of The Beach Boys penultimate record Pet Sounds (1966), states when his aesthetic became cemented into the sediment we’ve all heard by now. Older generations grew up listening to the genesis, and further developments, of the California rock group. For younger generations, The Beach Boys music was heard beyond the simple twist-of-the-dial.
Tunes like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” have shared their airtime on the radio, as well as, on the big screen. The 2007 Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates provided the surfer setting of Hawaii akin to the settings lyricized in tunes like “Surfer Girl” and “California Girls.” For me, I’ll always remember Clark Griswold singing along to “Good Vibrations” while driving his soccer-mom van across his neighbors lawns in the opening scene of 1999’s Vegas Vacation.
However we came across a first listening of Brian Wilson and his family band of vocalists, a few musical novelties invariably tickle our ears: the two-to-five part harmonies; the high falsetto lead vocals; the abnormal—for the time—use of both orchestral and non-orchestral instruments; and, the oddly arranged musical numbers we’ve all come to love. In an epoch that paralleled the advances of rock n’ roll giants, such as, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, the album Pet Sounds seemed to come out of nowhere.
Somewhere in the winter of 1965, a 23-year-old Brian Wilson’s wishes came true. His reveries of imbibing Phil Spector’s wall of sound came to life when he contracted “The Wrecking Crew” to sit in on the majority of the 27 recording sessions needed to capture all of Pet Sounds. Different from The Beach Boy’s preceding works, the opening track, and original single off Pet Sounds (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) contains lyrics that steer towards an older, wiser version of existence:
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong
Riding the success of their mid-to-late teen years, Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, and Mike Love decided to write with more solemnity than in years past. The opening track clearly points towards a young man speaking of his longing to find himself in his elder years. Although we all go through periods of personal transformation, most of us do it in the quietness of our own homes. For Brian and the rest of “The Beach Boys,” their transformation debuted at no. 10 on the billboard charts—just two months after the album’s initial release.
Although a shift in musical direction might prognosticate a wanting of success, quite the opposite happened. In fact, Sir James Paul McCartney has openly stated that The Beatles follow-up album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was written “in direct response to The Beach Boy’s achievement.” Paul Williams, editor of Crawdaddy magazine, posited in May of 1966 that, “Pet Sounds was the best rock album yet.” Some Beatle Maniacs might suggest a certain eighth studio album by a band across the pond to be the vanquisher of such an achievement; regardless of its rank, Pet Sounds still hits listener ears with joy and interest as we celebrate its 50th birthday.
In the newest release, we get both mono and stereo versions, as well as, a second disc with an instrumental version of Pet Sounds, and, in addition, a half-dozen-or-so various live recordings. It’s quite an augmentation of the original thirty-six minutes comprising thirteen brief tracks. It’s an album that millions have listened to from front to back. It goes by in a blur. From “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “God Only Knows” to the final track, “Caroline No,” we hear a new aesthetic standard: orchestral colorations projecting a carnival of fun; harmonies advancing with a madrigal, renaissance-driven aptitude; a new wall of wound of the Beach Boy archetype; lyrics pushing beyond the surfer genre and into a new subconscious of an elder type.
50 years later. Ears of generations old and new sit down for a re-listening. Pet Sounds is being further elevated into a firmament hosting the greatest in rock n’ roll. Alongside Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby,” Mick Jagger’s “Midnight Rambler,” and The Beatles “Let It Be,” Pet Sounds continues sharing space somewhere in a rock n’ roll heaven.