By Jack Chadwick ’19
Summer. Fun. Summer fun. In The Beach Boys’ heyday, those were the only terms ever really associated with them by the American public. Enter Pet Sounds (the album, not just animals making noises). Lead singer of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, collapsed on a plane while on tour due to a panic attack, and decided to take a year off and write an album that he was proud of. He had listened to Rubber Soul by The Beatles, and it made him want to completely reinvent the entire sound and style of The Beach Boys. Wilson isolated himself, sick of what The Beach Boys’ image had become and of the same sound Capitol Records wanted him to keep producing. He had a vision, and it was weird and different, but it his vision nonetheless. Using studio musicians who had worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra and other greats, Wilson composed what is, in my opinion, the best album released by The Beach Boys, and an album of legitimate importance to the world of pop and rock.
Pet Sounds is undoubtedly unique. Crafted with extremely complicated vocal harmonies, and coupled with bizarre instruments including, but not limited to, harpsichords, flutes, dog whistles, trains, Coke cans, barking dogs, bicycle bells, timpani drums, pianos (he plucked the strings instead of playing it) and toy horns, Pet Sounds was an innovative effort. Not only was it musically a radical departure from the band’s norm, but Wilson worked with professional lyricist Tony Asher to give his songs an emotional depth alongside symphonic depth. Ultimately, Wilson and Asher work together to paint a complicated yet beautiful portrait of love, internal conflict, and Wilson’s greatest fears. The album comes across as fun, yet steeped in melancholy, whether it be in the simplicity of the line “I wanna cry” in “You Still Believe in Me,” or in the ambiguity of “God Only Knows,” or in the heartwarming slowness of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).”
The rest of The Beach Boys, returning from a tour of Japan and Hawaii, were shocked by what Brian Wilson had created. At first the band was uncertain, but Wilson’s determination convinced them to go forward with the record. However, once the album was released, it was ultimately a commercial failure, at least in the United States. Topping the charts in the United Kingdom, it received critical praise. However, in America, reviews were mostly negative. Pete Townshend, lead guitarist of The Who, may have had an impact on reviews when he claimed that Pet Sounds was “written for a feminine audience.” Capitol Records had so little faith in the album that, within two months of Pet Sounds’ release, they also released the album, Best of the Beach Boys. However, within a few years of the release, the tide began to turn. In a Rolling Stone Magazine review by Stephen Davis, Pet Sounds was referred to as without a doubt Wilson’s best album, having “the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel.” According to Paul McCartney, in the albums released by The Beatles after Pet Sounds, the band attempted to match it’s sound, and have been very public about their love for the album.
This story was (and still is) almost unknown to a majority of the American public, including yours truly until about two months ago, when I saw the film Love & Mercy. Ultimately a Brian Wilson biopic, it takes place during two separate time periods, the 60s (when Wilson was writing Pet Sounds) and the 80s (during which time Wilson’s mental health had severely declined under the care of psychotherapist Eugene Landy). The film is beautifully shot, and takes a new approach to the biopic through its depictions of Wilson’s mental illness (including auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and schizoaffective disorder) as well as its portrayal of Wilson in two radically different periods of his life.
Using Pet Sounds as its soundtrack, Love & Mercy guides us through Wilson’s life, depicting tensions between him and his father as well as the rest of The Beach Boys. The acting is stellar, with Paul Dano portraying the younger Wilson, capturing the unconventional songwriting style of Wilson, as well as the terrifying emergence of his mental problems. From the very beginning of the film (filmed on a home video camera from the 1960s) it feels natural, and really musical.
I want people to listen to Pet Sounds and forget the idea of The Beach Boys being a bland, faceless, corporate pop, an idea that was always in the back of my mind until very recently. The Beach Boys are one of the very small number of bands who have started out mainstream and have gone on to change music forever, and their later work deserves a chance. Also, Love & Mercy is pretty neat, whether you want to know more about The Beach Boys, or see a beautiful depiction of mental illness and music, or just spend two hours watching a fantastically made film.
I don’t think that Pet Sounds has ever been considered normal, but, I mean, what good things have ever been normal? It’s definitely off-putting if you go into it expecting to hear about T-birds, surfing, summertime, and Hawaiian shirts. Pet Sounds shows people that Brian Wilson is complicated, mentally complex, and immensely talented. The sound is weird, but it’s great, and you should go check it out.