The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”: Revisiting Pop’s Damaged Opus 50 Years On

Stretching the fabric of the pop form Pet Sounds stands as a musical masterpiece. Stepped in symphonic complexity and a crazed grandeur, the album elevated Brian Wilson to a level of prestige and esteem seldom granted to non-classical composers. But as with the greater narrative of The Beach Boys, it’s perhaps the darker and unpleasant genesis of the melodically beautiful exterior that drives the album above the standards of popular music.

The ‘Kings of California,’ The Beach Boys were a clean cut collection of brothers and cousins who became the golden poster boys of the all-American ideal. The eldest of three sons, Brian Wilson was steeped in music since before he could walk. Under the tutelage of father and later manager Murray, the Wilson brothers could harmonise and pick apart a song before most children would ride a bicycle. But the sunny veneer of The Beach Boys would only later be pierced; revealing a tragic and sinister web of abuse, exploitation, and bickering from the very beginning. An amateur songwriter, the ambitious Murray Wilson was a violent alcoholic. Being the eldest son, Brian would become the target of years of emotional and physical abuse. The threat of his father’s violent outbursts would haunt him, lingering long after Murray was ousted as manager and well after his death.

When a surf-crazed public was greeted with the anthemic hit Surfin U.S.A. in 1963 The Beach Boys were catapulted to fame and fortune. As the band’s chief songwriter, Brian remained a dominant force, yet the group quickly began to crack from internal tensions. Glassy eyed and emotionally fragile, the band’s leading talent was ill-suited to life on the road. Brian’s hysterical blow-up while the group was in transit to Houston from LA in 1964, led to a change in the status quo. Brian would remain in the studio, composing and recording hits while his bandmates satisfied an excessive touring schedule.

Brian’s retreat coincided with a changing pop climate. The Beach Boys had dominated the charts with their melodic take on rock and roll, but they were now competing with a new class of pop star. By 1965 Bob Dylan and The Beatles led a generation of acts that weren’t just teen idols; they were singers, songwriters, philosophers, and artists. Music had matured, it wasn’t just about catchy songwriting. Songs carried gravity and meaning. The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1965 planted the nascent notion of the ‘studio album’ in the minds of a generation of fans.

Wilson was frightened and competitive by nature, but was also hailed as a genius by his friends and peers. He quickly found purchase with these new ideas, developing his own creative vision for a symphonic form of avant-pop, embracing the paradigm of the genius composer. From this flowed not only formidable creativity but years of suffering.

Encouraged by successful post-touring album The Beach Boys –Today in 1965, the rest of the band left Brian to his own devices in the studio. While accounts differ, it’s likely that his touring band mates remained nearly entirely absent from the studio in sessions for Pet Sounds. The music on the album instead stems from Brian’s idiosyncratic production and arrangement. Brian’s growing studio acumen paired with his innate gifts for melody would prove a formidable force. With the help of a collection of studio musicians and short-time collaborator Tony Asher, marathon recording sessions were painstakingly melded into cohesive artistic vision.

But these studio efforts were troubled. Periods of intense creativity sat amidst long mires of lethargy. Nocturnal hours, fiscal irresponsibility, lack of discipline, inability to meet basic commitments, drug abuse and emotional outbursts were increasingly commonplace in Brian’s life. What would not be known until decades later was that these tendencies went beyond simple depression and drug use. His illness was rooted in a rare mental illness known as schizoaffective disorder, a condition sharing elements of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Unbathed, unkempt, increasingly bloated and wracked by a crippling self-doubt born of a lifetime of manipulation, Wilson created an opus of visionary pop. Elaborate score charts, sonic collages, ever evolving arrangements and lofty philosophical ideas were injected into The Beach Boys’ rock template. Traditional instruments were augmented with sonic layerings of bicycle bells, organs, flutes, a theremin, found sounds, unconventional string instruments, soft drink cans and even dogs.

A dominant mood of nativity and romance fills Pet Sounds. Yet as if influenced by Brian’s insular surroundings there’s a cold isolation. Sunny Americana subsides and confessional lyricism take focus. Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows show a gentle introspection and vulnerable innocence. In conjunction with the band’s formidable harmonies, intricate instrumentals carry ever-shifting melodies. The enveloping sonic mastery of Don’t Talk (With Your Head on Your Shoulder) and Let’s Go Away For A While are beautiful in their richness and simplicity. Yet beneath the serenity there’s an unstated turmoil, they could just as easily be pleas for help. The existential crisis of I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times leaks with intensity. Caroline, No conveys heartbreak like nothing else.

The album was also perhaps Brian’s downfall. The Beach Boy’s disdain for the final product, mixed reviews, and the poor commercial success were interpreted by the thin-skinned Brian as an ultimate rejection of his vision. Descending into reclusivity, the pop mastermind would attempt to take his ideas further with doomed follow-up Smile. If Wilson’s mental health had been addressed, his focus and ambition may have been maintained. But it was not to be. Slowly ebbing deeper into depression, Wilson’s album sessions culminated with a calamitous breakdown.

Pet Sounds is but a single chapter in the tragedy and triumphs of The Beach Boys, yet musically it’s the high watermark of innovation. Wilson would never again create such a unified or arresting vision. The influence of the album upon The Beach Boys’ musical peers and those who followed forever changed recorded music. With Wilson pushing the limits of musical expression each track from Pet Sounds comes from within. It’s a retrospective masterwork, with a resonant honesty and naive purity which carries through time.