How Brian Wilson recorded Pet Sounds and reinvented music

Brian Wilson in the studio making Pet Sounds
Brian Wilson in the studio making Pet Sounds (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

"I believe that without Brian Wilson’s inspiration, Sgt Pepper might have been less of the phenomenon that it became,” Beatles producer George Martin is quoted as saying in Charles L Granata’s book Brian Wilson And The Making Of Pet Sounds. “Brian is a living genius of pop music. Like The Beatles, he pushed forward the frontiers of popular music.” 

Martin and the Fab Four weren’t the only ones whose minds were blown in summer of 1966 by the Beach Boys’ great leap forward with Pet Sounds. Bruce Johnston – who the band had brought in to replace Brian Wilson for gigs, after the latter’s nervous breakdown in 1964 and subsequent retreat into the recording studio – remembers being the emissary on Pet Sounds’ release. 

He took an acetate of the album to London on a trip designed to spread the word among rock’s hiperati, and in a hotel suite played it to, among others, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Moon, and Mick Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, all of whom were awestruck by what they heard. Soon the cream of British rock musicians were in thrall to Wilson’s masterwork. 

Over half a century on, Brian Wilson is still proud of his achievements with Pet Sounds. “Well, yeah, of course,” he says. “Wouldn’t you be proud too?” 

In Wilson’s view, and also that of Beach Boys super-fans, the group actually made their first tentative steps towards the sort of sophisticated music on Pet Sounds with the 1965 album Today!, whose second side comprised a suite of intricately arranged ballads. 

“I don’t remember the sessions, but I do remember we had a good time doing it,” he says of Today!, an album for which a large number of musicians were brought in to realise his grandiose symphonic dreams: Hal Blaine on drums, Carol Kaye on bass, and all of the other session players who made up what was known affectionately as the Wrecking Crew, who over the years worked their magic on countless hit records.

But they were used to most spectacular effect on Pet Sounds. And despite being something of a mad professor, and his later reputation for dysfunction and mental debility due to prolonged drug use, the Brian Wilson you hear barking (no pun intended) commands on the 1997 Pet Sounds Sessions box set, on which you can hear the tracks evolve, is in full control of proceedings as he marshals the multitudes before him.

“I used to refer to him as the Stalin of the studio,” laughs Mike Love, Wilson’s cousin and who sang on many of the Beach Boys hits. “He was totally in command up to Pet Sounds and Smile [the legendarily aborted project Wilson undertook after Pet Sounds, with collaborator Van Dyke Parks]. After that, the influence of LSD made him withdrawn, a recluse almost.” 

Wilson talks in terse monosyllables, at this moment eager to be anywhere else but here being interviewed about his most famous and most lauded work. At times he can seem like a fidgety, barely interested kid at school – Adult Child is the name of an unreleased album that Wilson worked on simultaneously to Smile (another unissued Wilson album, which came out in bootleg form in 1992, was titled Sweet Insanity) – but he focuses in fits and starts as he recalls the highlights of that momentous period. 

Wouldn’t It Be Nice might have been the opener on Pet Sounds, but side one closer Sloop John B was the first track to completed. A cover of an old folk song, it was the anomaly on this song cycle about love and hope, regret and sorrow, and yet its lustrous orchestration was typical of the album. 

The other Beach Boys – Brian’s brothers Carl (guitar) and Dennis (drums), plus Johnston, Love and Al Jardine (guitar) – may have barely contributed instrumentally to the album (That’s Not Me was one of their few showcases as musicians), but their signature vocal harmonies throughout are stunning: on the hymnal You Still Believe In Me they sound like a choir; the chord sequence for Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) was so affecting it reduced Brian’s then-wife Marilyn to tears; I Know There’s An Answer was originally going to be called Hang On To Your Ego, but it was Love who apparently deemed it too weird and druggy and insisted on the change; I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times was the perfect title for this staggeringly beautiful song about alienation. 

There were two instrumentals on Pet Sounds: Let’s Go Away For A While, which nodded to that other sublime 60s melodist Burt Bacharach, and the title track, briefly mooted as a James Bond theme (with the title Run James Run). Finally, there was Caroline, No, a deeply autobiographical song – the only one on the album to have lyrics written by Brian – full of yearning for a girl, and a past, that could never be recovered. 

It was actually released as a Brian Wilson solo single, but, as he recalls, it barely charted. “It didn’t go over very well,” he says. “But it was a very pretty tune.”

Many of the lyrics on Pet Sounds were written by a young advertising copywriter called Tony Asher, who managed to express succinctly Wilson’s feelings. Was he Wilson’s surrogate therapist? 

“Yeah,” says Wilson. “Exactly!” 

And despite Asher’s involvement, and that of the rest of the Beach Boys and all the other musicians, given the fact that he wrote all the music and produced it, was Pet Sounds really the first Brian Wilson solo album? 

“Yeah, kind of,” he says, warming to the idea. “In a way, yeah.” 

He cites God Only Knows as the song where he knew Pet Sounds was going to be special. He wasn’t the only one who thought it was a cut above. 

Paul McCartney said he thought it was the best song ever written,” he says, noticeably still delighted. 

Wilson remembers listening to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and the work of producer Phil Spector in the run-up to recording, as well as Bacharach. The first gave him the impetus to create an album that cohered as a whole, the second taught him everything there was to know about building a gorgeous wall of sound, and the third encouraged him to pursue a baroque direction. 

When asked if he was intimidated by all the violinists, saxophonists, cellists and other musicians ranged before him in the studio, he laughs uneasily and says: “It was exciting and scary both”. 

As for whether he got the results he wanted, he replies: “Oh, yeah.” 

Is he aware of the impact that his lushly experimental music had on the rock scene? “Not at the time,” he says, “but just lately I’ve become aware of how much Pet Sounds has influenced musicians.” 

Were his experiments with mind-expanding drugs crucial to the development of the music? 

“Well,” he considers, “it taught me how to be better at making music.” 

During the making of Pet Sounds, apparently Wilson was particularly enamoured with a philosophical treatise by Arthur Koestler called the Act Of Creation. What did he learn from it? 

“I learned that humour was more important to a person than art or science,” he says.

Mike Love, who wrote the words for many of the Beach Boys’ songs before Pet Sounds, was a voracious reader himself. Although as a lyricist he’s best known for early hits such as Fun, Fun, Fun and California Girls, which crystallised the idea of the Beach Boys as frothy pleasure seekers, it was Love who, having listened to Wilson’s deeply sad music for the pre-Pet Sounds ballad The Warmth Of The Sun, wrote a poignant lyric for it about loss (it was written on the eve of the assassination of US president John F Kennedy). And it was Love who wrote the words to Pet Sounds songs Wouldn’t It Be Nice, I Know There’s An Answer and I’m Waiting For The Day, which essayed a sort of pop existentialism.

“I was reading just about every kind of philosophy there was, from Rosicrucian to Vedic, and poets such as Emerson,” Love recalls of the time. “I guess that’s what made me the songwriting partner for Brian, because I had a natural affinity for concepts and lyrics.” 

Love would write the lyrics to Wilson’s next sonic departure, Good Vibrations, a boy-girl love song wrapped in LSD clothing, all psychedelic imagery and flower-power vibes. He notes the two factions in the Beach Boys: those who experimented with stimulants (the Wilson brothers), and the Love/Jardine/Johnston axis that didn’t. 

Nevertheless, it was Love who became a proponent of Transcendental Meditation, grew long hair and a beard and travelled to India to meet the Maharishi, and in 1971 became a TM teacher. Has his reputation as the ‘square’ Beach Boy, the one resistant to Wilson’s progress, been overstated? 

“There was no resistance to Pet Sounds,” he says, not angry at the thought, but rather hurt. “There was a ‘them and us’ culture with regard to drugs, but I never was against Pet Sounds. That’s somebody’s fabrication that has become popular over the years. I actually named the album, because at the end of it there’s a dog barking and a train going by. 

"And I went with Brian to present the album to [record label] Capitol, who didn’t know what to do with it, because they were expecting more songs about hot rods and surfing. But I was not unfavourable to Pet Sounds at all. I and the rest of the guys worked hard to make those harmonies perfect."

Love is, however, in accord with the rest of the world in acknowledging that on Pet Sounds Brian Wilson “was at the top of his game”. He also considers the music on it to be “as avant-garde as pop has ever got”. 

“It’s purely experimental,” he decides, before adding: “With zero regard for commerciality.” And yet there it was, voted second only to Sgt Pepper in a Rolling Stone poll to decide the 500 greatest rock albums of all time. Wilson wasn’t aware of that list. But he’s delighted when he finds out. 

“I’ll be gosh darned. I didn’t know that,” he says. Did he ever imagine that people would still be talking about it more than half a century later? “I never did, no.” 

As for Love, he says jokingly of a vote that placed the Beach Boys as runners-up to The Beatles: “I demand a recount!” 

Has he ever played both albums back to back, to determine which really is best? “No, I haven’t,” he says, then adding drily: “But I’ll get right on it."

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.