This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
In the dregs of the dismal winter of 2021, approaching the anniversary of the first COVID lockdown, I had the idea to start a podcast about Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ belatedly acclaimed 1966 orchestral-pop record. At my family’s vehement recommendation, I’d just seen the 2014 biopic Love and Mercy, part of which mythologizes the album’s genesis; I was also listening to the album itself a lot, because I’ve done that since becoming a Serious Music Critic at age 13, specifically a Serious Critic of Any Music Tangential to the Beatles. But the album was a fixture in my life before then — watching the film, I realized I could sing every note, vocal and instrumental. And the pandemic had supplied me with the time and energy to create the kind of podcast I’d spent the last couple of years fantasizing about.
Thence was born Pod Sounds. Confident as I was in my ability to perform a season’s worth of compositional and lyrical analysis, I knew I would need to research to fill in my understanding of the band’s peculiar dynamic and of its mixed-up maestro, Brian Wilson, with whom Pet Sounds is synonymous. What I unearthed over the course of that first season gave me the sense, as a good education does, that there was more to know than I could ever learn. And the more I learned about how much there was left to learn, the more worthwhile the whole undertaking became.
Even after wrapping the season, I keep happening upon more writing. It turns out almost everybody has an opinion on Wilson’s supposed genius, or on Pet Sounds as evidence of it, or both. That people have not stopped generating literature and ancillary art in response to Wilson and his masterstroke speaks to the sustained relevance of his contributions to pop music and its environs. With the artist’s 80th birthday approaching in June, here is a sampling of such reflections.
Brian Wilson Isn’t the Type of Genius You Think He Is (Grant Wong, Slate, January 2022)
Wong, occasioned by the release of the 2021 documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, parses the myth shrouding the bandmates’ creative partnership, of which he feels Wilson is generally assigned too large a percentage. He not only provides context for many of the band’s best-known and least-known works (“Caroline, No” from Pet Sounds, was released on Capitol Records under “Brian Wilson” rather than “The Beach Boys”) but also assesses the often distorting effect that the cumulative story has on our impressions of Wilson versus the rest of the family.
The Beach Boys were always a vocal group at heart, a rock ’n’ roll choir. The very core of their sound was built upon complex harmonies that required a great deal of coordination and mutual understanding. Brian Wilson’s falsetto was but one part of the band’s vocal blend; every member was needed to unlock the potential of their collective sound.
Life’s Work: An Interview with Brian Wilson (Alison Beard, Harvard Business Review, December 2016)
As part of the HBR’s “Life’s Work” interview series, Beard talked with Wilson to commemorate the release of his autobiography I Am Brian Wilson. The conversation ranges from the unique pros and cons of a family-band relationship to the lessons Wilson has learned from the various lyricists with whom he’s collaborated over a decades-long career. Wilson also reflects on various health challenges, including the deafness in his right ear and his ongoing battle with symptoms of schizoaffective disorder. At the end, he still circles back to being proudest of Pet Sounds.
“I wanted to grow musically, so I experimented. I wasn’t the type to sit around and be satisfied with an accomplishment, especially not in the studio. And I had ideas coming into my head all the time. Many had to do with using instruments as voices and voices as instruments. I would put sounds together to create something new. Some ideas didn’t work, because they were too difficult to achieve at the time. But most did. And then I immediately moved to the next thing.”
Writing About Brian Wilson in 2016 (Chad Peck, Talkhouse, November 2016)
Peck, of the band Kestrels, reports on attending the Pet Sounds 50th-anniversary tour, including a meet-and-greet with Wilson himself. He might once have been a “lazy Beach Boys fan,” lavishing all attention on the Pet Sounds era at the expense of the long periods preceding and succeeding it. But he’s since repented: this series of vignettes evokes a nation still able to be united by music even in a moment as polarizing as late 2016. What shines through is his unreserved affection for the artist: for his songwriting technique, for his refusal to self-aggrandize. It’s almost as if, when referring to “I Know There’s an Answer” by its first provisional title — “Let Go of Your Ego” — Brian was trying to say something about himself. Again.
Popular music is inherently narcissistic; the theater was full because of Brian Wilson, and his self-negation on a night (and tour) that celebrated his highest achievement was entirely endearing.
Racializing Rock: The ‘60s and the White Sounds of Pet Sounds (Joshua Friedberg, Pop Matters, September 2016)
Friedberg centers Pet Sounds as he explores how “rock ‘n’ roll” became “rock” — or, how it drifted away from its Black American roots to be co-opted by white men. The Beach Boys, and Wilson as their composer, were complicit in this evolution even prior to Pet Sounds: think of the “Johnny B. Goode” riff interpolated into “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But Friedberg isn’t here to condemn the band or the album. Instead, he contextualizes their ascent within a pop sphere that was becoming increasingly autonomous and posits their seminal record as the inevitable zenith of a creative period marked by both considerable talent and considerable privilege. The examination embraces literature, economics, geography, and more. It’s a reminder that art cannot exist in a vacuum, and cannot be a vacuum in itself, despite its best intentions.
Wilson claimed that he was searching for a “white spiritual sound” with the album, but Pet Sounds is viewed as a timeless, immaterial piece of art separate from the social conditions of its creation. In that sense, the album and its later canonization show how rock music became white, because the moment that rock became white was the moment that it became immaterial, timeless, and difficult—to be listened to repeatedly in solitude, rather than for dancing. This music is no less great because of its racial implications, but it’s essential to reexamine various “timeless” texts in relation to the material conditions of their production and reception.
Fifty Years Ago This Week, Two of Rock’s Greatest Albums Were Released on the Same Day (Liel Leibovitz, Tablet, May 2016)
For a fanatic, the only thing more inconceivable than the layered brilliance of Pet Sounds is the idea that it appeared contemporaneously with Bob Dylan’s double opus Blonde on Blonde, twin stars to illuminate the whole of the sky. Therein ends the comparison — or does it? (That I began an immediate and passionate romance with Blonde on Blonde as a teenager, while continuing to regard Pet Sounds as an important yet platonic friend, speaks to the indefinable space they both occupy between similarity and dissimilarity. And speaks to my lack of control.) Leibovitz juxtaposes the timelines with cinematic flair: Dylan is in a Nashville studio laying the foundation for “Visions of Johanna” at the same time a Los Angeles ad man named Tony Asher gets what he thinks is a prank call from Brian Wilson. These albums, the author argues, encapsulate a mercurial brand of mid-‘60s magic that could never have lasted, and stand in eternal testament to that fleeting magic. For as often as our subject is mentioned in the same breath as its Beatles counterparts (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper), Leibovitz calls to our attention another record — and artist, and atmosphere, and sensibility — to which Pet Sounds owes not a little.
Listening to Blonde on Blonde or Pet Sounds today is like strolling through the ruins of a formerly great civilization: never without a tinge of regret for seeing the great pursuits of our ancestors reduced to polite plaques commemorating dates and names half-forgotten, but also never without a spark of hope that great things can be built, done, and recorded once again.
This is Your Brain on Pet Sounds (Tim Sommer, The Observer, May 2016)
A personal turn amid the music-crit hullabaloo that heralded the album’s 50th birthday, Sommer’s essay mulls over his experience — almost too on the nose to be true — of experimenting with the album and LSD concurrently one night at 23 (incidentally, or not, Wilson’s age when the album was released). He’s the first to admit that “[his] one ride had been too perfect,” but his subsequent abstinence from psychedelics has made his description of the album’s lingering effect no less flowery. He terms it a “God Album,” a harmonic convergence of divine aspiration and mortal perception. And he welcomes “Good Vibrations” under its umbrella, too, the so-called pocket symphony that bears Pet Sounds’ sonic stamp even if it never made it onto the track listing.
I sat in a giant puppy-soft chair of unknown but likely ironic origin and watched the tie-dyed purple midnight sky turn the color of a roseate diamond. I observed the ducks in a thrift-store painting fly out of their frame, and I was gently remanded for attempting to step out of the open window and test the blur between life and death. But mostly, for hours that had no minutes, I lived inside the exotic Dixieland ta-das, Summer Place sad strings, turn-signal-tic guitars, angel-glow harmony stacks, Loving Feeling heart-beat bass and chiming radio-century vibes of Pet Sounds, a life-changing piece of music that became a friend for life and said you are home now, you have found the Mother of All Records.
How Pet Sounds Invented the Modern Pop Album (Jason Guriel, The Atlantic, May 2016)
Guriel’s classification of Wilson as the “author” of Pet Sounds, and of the album as “Wilson’s Bildungsroman,” tells you all you need to know about just how embedded the aforementioned creation myth is. He meditates on successive bands and artists who are indebted to Wilson and the Beach Boys, from Guns N’ Roses to R.E.M. to Beyoncé, and credits Wilson with cementing the notion of both the seminal album and its hermetic gestation period, shrouded in mystery — the product and the hype, or lack thereof, surrounding it.
Swap out the Hollywood studio peopled with unionized musicians for a laptop loaded with sound files, and the author of Pet Sounds looks a lot like the godfather of the current age—the first to assemble hits from fragments, the first to turn an album into an occasion. His approach was especially impressive when you consider that what he was splicing together was tape.
Why Brian Wilson Tried to Be “Effeminate” on Pet Sounds (Steve Bell, The Music, February 2016)
When Bell calls Pet Sounds “for all intents and purposes…the first Brian Wilson solo album,” he is speaking to the intensely personal nature of its lyrical contents, which, as devotees know, were written largely by Tony Asher, a collaborator Wilson had recruited from the outside, an interloper in the familial structure of the band. Bell constructs Wilson’s mindset as he conceived the skeletons of the songs on his own, brought Asher in for fleshing out and refining, and enlisted the help of L.A.’s finest session musicians while waiting on the crucial, sound-making piece — his bandmates — to return from a Japanese tour and enter the studio. Through the steady piling-on of hands, though, Wilson remains the central figure, armed with a vision and an inscrutable but ultimately effective means of communication.
Wilson explains that the Pet Sounds sessions were the first time he really tried to use the studio as an extra instrument: most of it was recorded on 4-track by necessity, but Wilson—inspired by Phil Spector among others—incorporated a vast array of peculiar sounds among the album’s incredibly complex and meticulous arrangements, including water jugs, bicycle horns, barking dogs, vibraphones and even soft drink cans.
The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the musicology of record production (Jan Butler, Art of Record Production, 2005)
Butler’s paper, coming on the heels of the then-newly-completed Smile project, traces record companies’ seismic shift in priorities from a cultivated clientele of artists to “an entrepreneurial mode of production.” By the late ‘60s the album-as-work-of-art became gospel for producers and consumers alike, due to efforts by the Beatles and the Beach Boys — more to the point, Wilson singularly — to prove the inherent conceptual merit of the album. This portrait of Wilson is of a pioneer among pioneers, a frontiersman who appeared fearless in the studio even as he crafted an LP that reckoned with deep-seated fears.
Brian Wilson was one of the first recording artists also to become an entrepreneur producer, dutifully recording three albums and at least four singles every year from 1962 for Capitol, most of which at least charted in the top ten. The influence on Wilson of his label-mates the Beatles peaked in 1965 with the release of Rubber Soul…With Capitol’s confidence stemming from his past hits, Wilson could work unencumbered in the studio, using the latest technology to create new sounds as he wished. From this point, the so-called production race was on, and the result was Pet Sounds.
~ Coda ~
An Interview with Tony Asher (Album Liner Notes, 1997)
This long-form conversation between Wilson collaborator Tony Asher and an unidentified interviewer gives fans as comprehensive a sense as we’ll ever get of the forces that led Wilson to seek Asher out and subsequently led Asher to pen some of the most essential lyrics in the Beach Boys catalog. Asher, London-born and Los Angeles-raised, had met Wilson through a friend and received a surprise call from Wilson in late 1965 with a request to work together on a few songs. As with all art, the process of hammering out the final material had very little of the romance that is projected onto it — owing perhaps in part to Wilson’s temperament — but the way their paths crossed has a satisfying stuff-of-legend ring to it.
“The reason that I thought [Brian’s call] was a joke, of course, was because it was such an absurd notion. He didn’t really know anything about my writing abilities except that I had—we had exchanged some ideas on songs when I was in the studio with him. He was playing a song, and then I played a couple of things that I was working on. Apparently he had some input from some mutual friends about my abilities as a ‘wordsmith,’ as a copywriter and as a lyricist, so it wasn’t all that absurd. But for me, it seemed like it was out of the blue and it was just quite hard to imagine.”
See Outtakes from the Iconic Beach Boys Pet Sounds Photoshoot (Lily Rothman and Liz Ronk, Time, May 2016)
The cover photograph, taken at the San Diego Zoo, is a famously divisive one — the band members chalk it up to their being a group of young guys with no better idea than to feed apples to goats, and everybody beyond them thinks there must be something else to it but disagrees as to what that something else is. Though not a “long read,” it’s an enduring image Rothman and Ronk paint of the day that culminated in the image’s capture, a slice of pop-culture history that manages to stand out in an oversaturated pop-culture era.
Was it a reference to “pet,” meaning “favorite,” musical sounds? Was it a tribute to the PS in Phil Spector? Was it a dig at the idea that only a dog would hear the pitches the band played? Regardless, the album’s famous cover art takes the title completely literally…
Cecilia Gigliotti is a New England-born writer, podcaster, musician, and photographer based in Berlin, Germany. She holds an MA in English Literature from Central Connecticut State University and a BA in Creative Writing from the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Women* Writing Berlin Lab Magazine (wearewwbl.com) and has published short fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art in numerous collections, anthologies, journals, and newspapers, both print and digital. Her projects can be found at https://linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti.
Want more recommendations? Sign up for our weekly #LongreadsTop5 email, sent to your inbox every Friday.