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In May of 1966, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, their eleventh album, and by far their most ambitious work to date. In fact, the Beach Boys were not thought to have been ambitious in their music at all, regularly churning out wonderful harmonies about surfing, cars, and girls. It was, in fact, hard to find any song that they had previously recorded that didn't involve surfing, cars, or girls!

But after a crippling anxiety attack, Brian Wilson decided to let his brothers Dennis and Carl, his cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine continue to tour without him. Bruce Johnston was his usual replacement on the road. Brian's panic attacks did nothing to thwart his ambitions. He spent his time in the studio transforming music in revelatory ways. Some of the change can be attributed to Brian's experimentation with LSD. Some of it came from his desire to take pop music to a different place. He had had enough of the summer fun ditties that had produced gold record after gold record for the band. To be sure, there had been moments in the early recordings that reflected a musical depth and vision that had heretofore been untapped. The opening bars of one of those pop tunes from 1965, "California Girls", remain

for me the greatest opening notes of any popular song ever. It was composed following Brian's first acid trip, for whatever that' s worth.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on those opening 26 seconds of Carl on his 12-string backed by a horn section: "California Girls" begins with an orchestral prelude which biographer Peter Ames Carlin called "as spare and stirring as anything by Aaron Copland".[12] It was advised against by Brian's father, Murry Wilson, who felt it made the song excessively complex.[13] Music theorist Daniel Harrison compared the song to a later Brian Wilson composition, "God Only Knows", as it both avoids a root-position tonic and suppresses a cadential drive.[14]Author Maury Dean writes: "Musically, 'California Girls' is an adventure in chromatics; any garage band trying to follow their bizarre ♭VII tidal wave of dipping and swooping chromatic major chords will have to buy the sheet music, or hire Sherlock Holmes to find the missing chords."[15] Musicologist Walter Everett identifies the use of ♭VII — IV in the chorus to suggest a chromaticized major key with minor pentatonic inflections.[16] The refrain alternates between the I and ii7 without ever meeting the expected V. During this, the relationship between the music and text is reflected in the lyric "I wish they all could be California girls", which is also never fulfilled to the narrator.[17]! (I added the exclamation point).

So, the leap for Brian must have started a year earlier--a year in which he ensconced himself in the studio with lyricist Tony Asher and some of the West Coast's greatest studio musicians. It was Brian's wish to write about youth and growing up and dealing with adolescent anxiety and hopes and dreams. He wrote the breathtaking harmonies without his fellow bandmates around. Under his direction, the rest of the Beach Boys recorded the vocals upon their return from touring. They were somewhat baffled by the unusual tone and strange lyrics. Some of the boys argued that they were drifting from what had made them successful, although there was general agreement that Brian had forged a new path.

There were two compositions on the album that could warrant AM radio airplay ("Sloop John B" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice"), a must for recording artists during this time. But much of the album baffled the public. While it made it to #10 on the Billboard charts, it was considered a disappointment by the Capitol Records execs and they rushed out a greatest hits compilation just eight weeks after Pet Sounds was released!

Many think that "God Only Knows" was the album's masterwork. Here's a clip of the band (minus Brian) performing (or rather lip-syncing the track). You can see why it was impossible for them actually to perform the tune live, given the density of the musical layers, the string section, the use of unusual instruments (French Horn, Harpsichord, Accordion, Sleigh Bell) and backing sounds. According to Brian and Tony the song took less than an hour to write. Likely, though, all kinds of amazing rhythms and sounds and musical motifs had been percolating in Brian's skull for some time. No less an authority than Paul McCartney declared "God Only Knows" his "favorite song of all time." If "God Only Knows" was the perfect pop tune, the rest of the album was perfectly complementary.

I bought the album in the spring of 1966 and was blown away. I don't know how many times I played it. I even made my father listen to it because, though he reviled pop and rock, I thought he might respond to the three-part harmonies. (He didn't). The album often made me sad...or wistful. Many of the songs tapped into adolescent insecurity. Look at the song titles: "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and "That's Not Me" and "I'm Waiting for the Day" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice".

The album concludes with the sad song "Caroline No", about an unrequited love. Following the coda, Brian added the sounds of dogs barking and a train roaring past and you were immediately transported to small-town America somewhere on a summer night. (It wouldn't take long for the Beatles to recognize the possibilities of blending their music with layers of ambient sound). Just listen to "Good Morning" or "A Day in the Life" on Sgt. Pepper. Below is the recording of "Caroline No".

Here's a link to a few minutes from the wonderful Soundbreaking PBS series on the significance of Pet Sounds. It also includes another song, perhaps the Beach Boys' greatest song, "Good Vibrations", which was recorded during the Pet Sounds sessions but released as a single. I got three different 45 recordings of "Good Vibrations" for my birthday that year!

Here's another link to a Rolling Stone article about the making of Pet Sounds.

Here's a link on a wonderful "Making of...Pet Sounds" documentary that came out earlier this year. You can watch it on Showtime or Netflix. It's really wonderful.

If you can't devote that time (shame!), below is a shorter clip on the making of the album.

Pet Sounds is a true masterpiece of popular music. When the Beatles heard it, they realized they'd have to up their game. They did. Sgt. Pepper next.

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