The story of Pet Sounds is the story of art versus commerce, youthful optimism versus adult cynicism and the independent spirit versus the mundane status quo. It’s also a story of tremendous courage. In 1966, 23-year-old Brian Wilson hijacked the Beach Boys, a multi-million-dollar industry consisting of his two brothers, cousin and childhood friend, to give voice to the sounds he heard in his head and the emotions he felt in his heart. The result was an album that had leading musical figures struggling to match his technical innovation, lyrical depth and melodic genius. Half a century later, it’s questionable whether anyone has.
Pet Sounds has become shorthand for a fully realized artistic vision that owes little to trends and everything to the soul. “We were trying to capture spiritual love that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world,” Wilson has said. In doing so, he gave popular music one of its finest touchstones.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the seminal album’s release, here are some little known facts about Pet Sounds‘ creation.
1. Pet Sounds‘ lyricist penned jingles for Barbie dolls, Max Factor cosmetics and Gallo wine.
In an effort to craft material that moved beyond the Beach Boys’ lightweight fun-fun-fun-in-the-sun fare, Brian Wilson sought to work with a lyricist from outside the band’s usual circle. In late 1965, he tapped Tony Asher, a copywriter at the prestigious Carson-Scott advertising agency, who had written campaigns for Mattel toys (“You can tell it’s Mattel – It’s swell!”), as well as Max Factor, Gallo Wines and a host of other high-profile clients. The pair was loosely acquainted through mutual friends, and had recently crossed paths in the recording studio where Asher was producing advertising jingles. The meeting was short and uneventful, but the urbane and articulate ad man stayed on Wilson’s mind.
“A few weeks later, I got a phone call, ” recalled Asher in an interview for the Pet Sounds 30th-anniversary box set. “And Brian said, ‘Listen, I have an album that is overdue. Would you want to help me write it?’ I thought it was somebody in the office playing a joke on me.'” After confirming it wasn’t a prank, Asher secured a leave of absence from his job and reported for duty at the pop star’s Beverly Hills home several days later. Though it may sound like an unusual pairing, Asher’s experience turning long meetings with ad clients into crisp copy and memorable slogans made him an ideal partner for Wilson. Most of their writing sessions began with abstract conversations about life and love, which would inevitably seep into their work. As Asher relayed to Nick Kent: “It’s fair to say that the general tenor of the lyrics was always his and the actual choice of words was usually mine. I was really just his interpreter.”