FEATURE: God Only Knows What We’d Be Without You: The Endless Beauty and Relevance of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds




God Only Knows What We’d Be Without You

COVER PHOTO: George Jerman  

The Endless Beauty and Relevance of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds


I know one does not need to mark every big album’s...

IN THIS PHOTO: The Beach Boys during Pet Sounds’ photo-shoot in February 1966/PHOTO CREDIT: George Jerman

birthday with a feature or piece of writing. It can be a bit tiring seeing every slightly decent album being celebrated and pushed like it is the best thing ever! I know this but, with certain albums, you need to mention them; bring them to fresh ears and open new eyes! In the case of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, how could only let its anniversary slip by without tipping the hat and investigating its best moments?! On 16th May, 1966, The Beach Boys released the staggering and hugely iconic album, Pet Sounds. The year before, The Beatles released Rubber Soul – an album Brian Wilson adored and, to this day, maintains it’s his all-time favourite. I love that Beatles classic and I can see where he was coming from regarding the follow-on from Rubber Soul. That album (from The Beatles) was a mix of gorgeous romance and self-examination, some deeper themes and true emotion. It was a bit of a revelation in 1965 and a big shift in assuredness and quality from The Beatles. Beach Boys’ Party! arrived in 1965 and one can see how The Beach Boys wanted to change their sound and move in a new direction. Pet Sounds’ arrival was a distinct movement away from the beach-themed, party-sounding scent and an embrace of something new. It is hard to describe how big a leap the band took and how wonderful Pet Sounds is.

It is not a shock Brian Wilson (music) and Tony Asher (who co-wrote eight of the album’s thirteen songs) could create such masterpieces. They had always promised it: Pet Sounds was the summation of biblical revelation that transformed music in the 1960s and would go on to influence countless artists. Pet Sounds blew minds because it was blending sounds and instruments one would not find with any other Pop group. Not that The Beach Boys were ‘Pop’, per se, but a ‘popular act’, I guess. The heavenly orchestrations and mix of unusual blends – Coca-Cola cans and flutes among them! – was highly inventive and unexpected; the scope and ambition of the album a wonderful thing. Inspired by a Wall of Sound-style production (pioneered by Phil Spector), this was The Beach Boys in a new light. There is simplicity and accessibility through Pet Sounds but one can hear a move from the tighter and breezier songs before and the ornate, layered and intricate songs that were born on their eighth album. Brian Wilson and Tony Asher would discuss women are their experiences and, whilst Asher maintains his musical contributions were minimal, it was clear he provided Wilson with huge inspiration and guidance. I will talk about Pet Sounds’ legacy and brilliance (more) later but, when framing The Beach Boys in 1966, one must consider tensions that were bubbling. In some ways, Pet Sounds is more a Brian Wilson solo album that full band production.

The touring lifestyle and demands were putting a strain on the group and Wilson’s new songs caused some splits. A big move from their earlier direction, there was in-fighting and near-insurrection. Although Pet Sounds has gone down as this legendary and masterful work, it was a bit of a risk and ambitious pitch back in 1966. Like The Beatles growing and becoming more ambitious by 1965 – that was heightened in 1966 and 1967 –, The Beach Boys’ leader, Wilson, felt the group needed to bolden their approach and move on. The rest of the band were not too sure and, before a single song was recorded, there were splits and strains. It is remarkable to witness such beauty and grace considering this once-brotherly band was starting to fall apart. If the rest of The Beach Boys were miffed by some of the lyrics and complex arrangements, Wilson was not going to compromise and be talked down! It is a shame there was disharmony in the band because Pet Sounds is a natural move from a band who covered pretty much everything beach and party-related. I can understand their desire to stick with that formula but Pet Sounds’ tenderness, human spirit and collective autobiography was far more powerful and nuanced than anything they had ever written. Wilson was heading to new heights but he knew people/their label wanted something commercial – lest the band be condemned to falter and be isolated by their fans.

 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beach Boys on tour in 1966/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Maybe the scores and arrangements were a bit different but the themes were not: universal statements of broken lovers, yearning and the power of hope. In some ways, The Beach Boys’ early innocence, youth and lack of responsibility was replaced by new realisation, responsibilities and soul. Even if Pet Sound was recorded and released when Psychedelic music was relevant and popular, too many people have read too much into a lot of the songs’ lyrics (Sloop John B’s “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” has been linked to acid culture and the scene at the time. Reviews in 1966 were hugely positive – although some were shocked by The Beach Boys’ changed sound and took time to adjust! – and retrospective reviews have done what some contemporaries failed to do: give the album time and appreciate its true genius! This review from AllMusic praises Pet Sounds’ beauty:

The spiritual quality of the material is enhanced by some of the most gorgeous upper-register male vocals (especially by Brian and Carl Wilson) ever heard on a rock record. "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows," "Caroline No," and "Sloop John B" (the last of which wasn't originally intended to go on the album) are the well-known hits, but equally worthy are such cuts as "You Still Believe in Me," "Don't Talk," "I Know There's an Answer," and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." It's often said that this is more of a Brian Wilson album than a Beach Boys recording (session musicians played most of the parts), but it should be noted that the harmonies are pure Beach Boys (and some of their best). Massively influential upon its release (although it was a relatively low seller compared to their previous LPs), it immediately vaulted the band into the top level of rock innovators among the intelligentsia, especially in Britain, where it was a much bigger hit”.


SLANT, in this review talked about the label, Capitol, showing resistance (in addition to the band themselves) and Brian Wilson’s determined visions:

“…Still, even with stiff resistance from his bandmates, his record label, and potentially even his fans, Brian soldiered on, pulling these pet sounds from his head and painstakingly putting them to tape. And we’re a much better world for it. Imagine a world without Carl Wilson’s sublime, gentle reading of “God Only Knows” (the first song to include the word “God” in the title, according to folklore). A world without the impossibly gorgeous vocal harmonies stacked sky-high in the closing of “You Still Believe in Me.” A world without the giddy, heart-bursting optimism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” or the silly musical mischief of “Sloop John B.” I can’t imagine living in such a world, and thank God (and Brian Wilson) we don’t have to”.

It was great to see this friendly – maybe subconscious – competition between The Beatles and The Beach Boys. 1966’s Revolver almost took a lot of attention from Pet Sounds. Many people, when that album arrived, forgot how impotent Pet Sounds was and why Brian Wilson wanted to do something different.  It would take a while for the most stubborn fans to come around but, with the passing of time, few can deny the gravitas and power of Pet Sounds! The sheer sophistication of the album helped push genres likes Pop, Punk and Jazz; the unusual directions and blends of Pet Sounds compelled other bands at the time and gave them food for thought!

Articles like this give you some cool facts about Pet Sounds but, when we think about the impact of Pet Sounds upon its release and how it has translated and inspired since then, it takes your breath. This piece from udiscovermusic examined the way Pet Sounds influenced and moved The Beatles and why it (Pet Sounds) is such a sonic work of art:

On Monday, 16 May 1966, the day of Pet Sounds’ US release, Bruce Johnston arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport carrying a copy of the album. The following day, in his suite at the Waldorf Hotel, Bruce played the album in its entirety for John Lennon and Paul McCartney – not once, but twice. After the two Beatles left the Waldorf they went straight back to Paul’s house and there, inspired by Brian’s incredible music, they worked on the introduction to their song ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, which later appeared on Revolver.

“Pet Sounds blew me out of the water,” Paul recalled in 2003. “First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life – I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard this album.”

Just what is it that makes Pet Sounds so amazing? The vocals include Brian’s most poignant ever performance, on the sublime ‘Caroline No’; Mike Love shines on ‘Here Today’; and Carl Wilson turns in a heart-stopping tour de force, ‘God Only Knows’. If you get a chance, listen to the a cappella mixes of the songs included on the most recent box set reissue of the album


IN THIS PHOTO: Brian Wilson in the studio during Pet Sounds’ recording/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

The complexity of the arrangements are staggering, and yet the band were all so young. Brian himself was still only 23; Mike, the oldest member of the group, had turned 25 during its recording; Carl Wilson was still only 19, Dennis Wilson was 21 years old; and Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine were also both 23.

On ‘God Only Knows’ it is just Carl, Brian and Bruce singing. When they finish their vocal on the a cappella version, a voice asks, “How was that? Was that cool?” It’s Bruce Johnston speaking, and it is the perfect coda for not just the song, but also the album itself.

Pet Sounds is arguably the coolest record of all time. The kind of record that makes life worth living, reaffirming the notion that pop music is the most admired art form in the world.

And Pet Sounds is art”.

There are countless remarkable moments on Pet Sounds. How many better opening tracks are there than Wouldn’t It Be Nice?! The song announces the evolution of The Beach Boys in one two-and-a-bit-minutes song; a brief but spectacular symphony that sticks in the mind with its catchiness but remains there forever because of the musical sophistication and purity of the vocals. There is a perfect balance between the more spirited and hopeful songs and those that call for open arms and understanding. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) – track four – is an emotional and stunning song that contains little of the fanfare and sunshine of (some of The Beach Boys’) songs and shows a more mature and sensitive soul.

Sloop John B is a definite standout and, together with songs like Wouldn’t It Be Nice, there is enough of the ‘old Beach Boys’ to please their fans. If I’m Waiting for the Day and Let’s Go Away for a While are not as immediate and memorable as some of the other tracks on Pet Sounds, they reveal new sides and colours the more you listen. Everything fits purely together and, whereas there is not a clear concept on Pet Sounds, all the songs, in a way, document different sides of love and relationships. It would do The Beach Boys a disservice to compare it to Rubber Soul in the sense of being a fraternal ally. In many ways, Pet Sounds provided greater inspiration to The Beatles post-1966 than Rubber Soul did to The Beach Boys from 1965 to 1966. Some prefer albums like 1967’s Smiley Smile – containing, as it does, Good Vibrations – but there are few greater albums from The Beach Boys, or any artist, than Pet Sounds. As it turns fifty-three today, it will provide a new opportunity for young ears to discover an album that, whilst hugely influential, still occupies its own universe after all this time! I still haven’t talked about the jewel in the crown of Pet Sounds: God Only Knows. It comes two-thirds of the way through the album and is flanked by Sloop John B and I Know There’s An Answer. It is, perhaps, the band’s most-famous song and one that sort of defines the album.

After the brightness and uplift of Sloop John B, we have this gorgeous, hymnal and truly stunning song. With Tony Asher’s lyrics elevating The Beach Boys’ sound to new heights, it is perfect blend of insightful, incredible lyrics, sublime vocals (Carl Wilson on lead) and that peerless composition (from Brian Wilson). God Only Knows is as affirmative as anything on the album. That rawness and honesty regarding the importance of love and how the hero would fare without his girl – even if, as one of their finest lines explains, he might not always love her. From those incredible notes and movements in the introduction – the horns sway elephantic in their grace; there is an elegance hard to disguise – through to the indelible chorus, it is a song to behold! I do worry whether, without classic album series and music T.V., future generations will discover albums like Pet Sounds in a less productive and explorative way; stumbling upon them or not finding them at all. Radio stations play songs from Pet Sounds but how often does one hear the album in its entirety?! I’d like to think there are young fans picking up the record and listening to it the whole way through. It is fine listening to the odd song or two - but you need the full effect of the thirteen tracks to get the big hit. From Wouldn’t It Be Nice leading us in with the familiar-yet-evolving to the brilliant Caroline, No at the end…Pet Sounds is a true masterpiece that warrants acclaim and love for the rest of time! Maybe celebrating Pet Sounds three years after its fiftieth anniversary is a bit lame and redundant but, as I said at the top, every pioneering record like this benefits from a bit of exposure every year; to remind people of its greatness and, yeah, give people like me a chance to give thanks. Go listen to the album (in full) when you can and I am sure you will agree that, in the pantheon of music, there are few creations that match…


 IN THIS PHOTO: An outtake from The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds photoshoot/PHOTO CREDIT: George Jerman

THE dreamy and wondrous Pet Sounds.