500 Greatest Albums of All Time

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The Beach Boys, 'Pet Sounds'

Capitol, 1966

"Who's gonna hear this shit?" Beach Boys singer Mike Love asked the band's resident genius, Brian Wilson, in 1966, as Wilson played him the new songs he was working on. "The ears of a dog?" But Love's contempt proved oddly useful: "Ironically," Wilson observed, "Mike's barb inspired the album's title." Barking dogs – Wilson's dog Banana among them, in fact – are prominent among the found sounds on the album. The Beatles made a point of echoing them on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – an acknowledgment that Pet Sounds was the inspiration for the Beatles' masterpiece. That gesture actually completed a circle of influence: Wilson initially conceived of Pet Sounds as an effort to top the Beatles' Rubber Soul.

With its vivid orchestration, lyrical ambition, elegant pacing and thematic coherence, Pet Sounds invented – and in some sense perfected – the idea that an album could be more than the sum of its parts. When Wilson sang, "Wouldn't it be nice if we were older?" on the magnificent opener, he wasn't just imagining a love that could evolve past high school; he was suggesting a new grown-up identity for rock & roll music itself.

Wilson essentially made Pet Sounds without the rest of the band, using them only to flesh out the vocal arrangements. (He even considered putting the album out as a solo project, and the first single, "Caroline, No," was released under his own name.) Its luxurious sound conveys a heartbreaking wistfulness, and the deeply personal songs, which Wilson co-wrote primarily with lyricist Tony Asher, bid farewell to the innocent world of the Beach Boys' fun-in-the-sun hits. Unfortunately, Capitol Records proved no more enamored of Pet Sounds than had Love; the label considered not releasing it at all. Not yet vindicated by history, Wilson withdrew further into his inner world. "At the last meeting I attended concerning Pet Sounds," Wilson wrote about his dealings with the label, "I showed up holding a tape player and eight prerecorded, looped responses, including 'No comment,' 'Can you repeat that?' 'No' and 'Yes.' Refusing to utter a word, I played the various tapes when appropriate."

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