The Albums That Changed My Life: #8, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

by Rick Krueger

The good Dr. Birzer did a fine track-by-track survey of this milestone album for its 50th anniversary in 2016.   While I’m tempted to say “just read his article,” it wouldn’t answer the implied question this series poses.  How did hearing Pet Sounds change my life?

Though I always liked the Beach Boys, I didn’t glom onto Pet Sounds until I was in my 30s. My older brother had a few of their early records; I remember borrowing the In Concert album and subjecting my family to repeated plays on one vacation.  Some of their songs from the 1970s filtered through to FM rock radio in my high school years, too; “Sail On Sailor” was particularly popular.  I even arranged a medley of the band’s 1960s classics for my final choir concert at Lutheran High School East.  But I typically thought of the Beach Boys as a group with cool harmonies, a Chuck Berry fixation, and decent songs about surfing, cars and girls.

Then, on a whim, I picked up the 30th anniversary edition of Pet Sounds in 1996.  Which included liner notes featuring Paul McCartney quotes like “this is the album of all time” and “no one is educated musically until they’ve heard that album.”  I figured I’d better give it a serious listen.

What I heard first was sheer vocal beauty — the blossoming harmonies of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the lush a cappella section of “Sloop John B,” the hypnotic counterpoint of the “God Only Knows” fadeout.  This stuff was leagues beyond what I’d heard the Beach Boys do on their biggest hits — complicated, yet enticing at the same time.  Mike Love, the Wilson brothers and Al Jardine were better singers than I’d ever realized.

And the backing tracks!  Here was Phil Spector’s wall of sound taken to a new level of sophisticated punch and sheen.  Pensive drums and orchestral percussion, acoustic and electric bass working in tandem, plangent guitars, string and horn pads that ebbed and flowed with the mood and the melody, the occasional oddball tone color from accordions and bicycle horns.  The toughness of the Beach Boys’ rockers was there — but only when needed, sharing the tunes with glorious, welcoming soundscapes.

What really floored me, though, was the gravity of the songs.  Shunting fun and sun off to the side,  Brian Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher channeled the unsettled undercurrents of earlier ballads like “In My Room,” “The Warmth of the Sun” (famously written in response to John F. Kennedy’s death) and “Don’t Worry, Baby” into a song cycle about the doubts, fears and pitfalls of young adulthood.  The seriousness of it all probably kept Pet Sounds from the top of the charts in 1966 — but it gave future fans something special to discover. (Pet Sounds was the last Album That Changed My Life I bought before I started dating my future wife.  Make of that what you will.)

Ultimately, Pet Sounds gave Brian Wilson the space to stretch his musical genius to the utmost — try to sing along with the astonishing vocal twists of “Caroline, No,” and you’ll realize its hair raising difficulty, its drop-dead gorgeousness and its utter rightness for the lyrics and the story they tell.  But Wilson also knew that his band of brothers were the right vehicle for his inspirations, and they didn’t let him down executing his grand designs.  Along with Bob Dylan’s hallucinatory electric sound and the Beatles’ avant-garde experiments it inspired, Pet Sounds blew rock and roll wide open.  And, making up for the years I ignored it, it quickly became my single favorite album of all time.  Which taught me once and for all not to discount music I’d missed the first time around.

Other Favorites by The Beach Boys: The SMILE Sessions box shows how much further down the rabbit hole Brian Wilson went — and how far the Beach Boys let him go.  Reassembling the never-completed 1967 album and offering copious amounts of work-in-progress outtakes, it’s a monumental set.  Reigniting his career in the late 1990s, Brian Wilson performed Pet Sounds Live in London with power-pop cult band The Wondermints; it’s an surprisingly good whack at the album, precise and heartfelt.

Related Other Favorites:

The Bangles, Sweetheart of the Sun.  Still sounding fresh long after their 1980s heyday, the West Coast all-female band (now a trio) comes on like gangbusters on this 2011 album. Susanna Hoffs and the Petersen sisters add the wry voice of experience to their hard rocking vignettes of both flower power long gone and love lost and found.  The harmonies are fabulous, too!

The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin.  The Lips never got more commercial or more far-out than on this 1999 album, downplaying punky guitar in favor of intricate symphonic layering, and adding a touch of thoughtfulness to their surreal lyrics.   Front man Wayne Coyne’s fragile falsetto and sympathetically skewed point of view have more than a little in common with Brian Wilson’s late-1960s efforts.

Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates.  Jones’ 1979 debut album was a splashy piece of jazz-pop, feeding off the vibe of the great Beat poets.  For her 1981 follow-up, she doubled down on her ambitions, raiding American literature for themes and conjuring up Aaron Copland with orchestral backdrops.  Overstuffed and sparse by turns, it’s attractive because it’s enigmatic.

Roxy Music, Avalon.  Like Pet SoundsAvalon replaces the glam-rock rowdiness of early Roxy with more polished musical surfaces — and Bryan Ferry runs with it, campily showcasing his woeful tales of heartbreak for all they’re worth.  Smooth, seductive and quite superb.

Previous Albums in this Series:

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