Photo: The Henry Clay People pose with the Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary vinyl
What makes an album classic? Better yet, what does that word even mean? Is there some mathematical equation (heady concept + legendary producer + 200 mg of psychedelic drugs, maybe) that only works if you carry the zero at the exact right moment in history? Or is it messier than all that — a bunch of elements measured haphazardly, thrown into a blender, and left out to ferment in the shifting airs of pop culture? One thing’s for sure: However you define the word, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is a monumentally classic album, one that has weathered the slings and arrows of time for half a century and emerged all the better — all the more timeless — for it.
When Pet Sounds turned 50 last month, we figured we’d do the obvious thing and go straight to the source. In our interview with Brian Wilson about his magnum opus, the notoriously reserved songwriter had trouble putting his finger on why the album has come to be one of the most treasured artifacts in pop music history. Was it the drugs? “The album itself is mostly not psychedelic,” he explained. Is it the way the songs have aged over time, never losing their luster? “I still feel the same way about it.” Pressed to name one quality that distinguishes Pet Sounds from its peers, he could only shrug and offer his favorite aspect of the album. “Pet Sounds is mostly about harmonies. The good-sounding harmonies.”
Of course, that’s the beautiful thing about an album that’s had 50 years to steep in the cold Pacific waters of our imaginations. Every listener, whether it’s Wilson or the thousands of musicians The Beach Boys have influenced, will have a different answer to the question of what makes Pet Sounds so damn classic. Some might say it’s the Wall of Sound-style production, while others might land on the lyrics or the unconventional arrangements.
With this in mind, we decided to ask some of our favorite modern musicians what they love most about the album many consider the greatest of all time. Artists from all genres and eras answered the call, from legendary post-punks Gang of Four to alt-rockers Cage the Elephant to indie singer-songwriters like Torres and Avi Buffalo. We knew that their answers would be vastly different, but we also suspected that, when collected, they might present a more complete picture of Pet Sounds than even its creator could dream up.
The Title and Cover Art
Jasamine White-Gluz of No Joy
[The album cover] is iconic because it seems effortless. Like, they were just feeding some goats one day and someone snapped a pic, no big deal. It’s a very humble picture and kind of humorous, which makes the whole record even more dizzying because the album isn’t particularly funny, so it’s almost like, “Is this all a joke that I’m not in on?” If I had to choose a goat, though, it would be the little black one in the right corner who isn’t getting any food but instead getting his pal’s butt in his face.
Cam Boucher of Sorority Noise
I’m quite partial to right goat. I think what makes the cover so iconic is that the goat to human ratio is an even 1:1, and can you begin to think of another album that does something with even close to that ratio?
Jeffrey Novak of Savoy Motel
I like the photos on the back more, with them wearing kimonos and trying to look Japanese. When I was little, my whole family used to say “Sloop John B” was about me because I always just wanted to go home.
Laena Geronimo of Feels
I’ve always loved the song “Hang On to Your Ego”. I love the vocal melody over the chord progression so much, and the sentiment of the lyrics and the controversy over them is so interesting to me. He’s talking about LSD and spirituality and how you can try to have control, try to be this separate self-contained entity, but ultimately it’s impossible. I’m not very familiar with LSD, but to me the message has a broader perspective, especially in today’s egocentric world of selfies and followers. In our daily lives, we question the meaning of personality, what really divides us … But what’s gonna happen when you die? Will it matter that you have 100K insta followers? Hang on to your ego, but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight.
Video: Feels perform “Hang On To Your Ego at a Beach Boys tribute performance at LA’s Echo on 5/15/16.
Andy Gill of Gang of Four
This record should be my least favorite record of all time, in many ways. As readers may know, I love drums — for the most part drums are barely audible on this record — and never mind that the volume of the drums is so low, the record doesn’t groove. It meanders along in one direction for a few bars and then there will be a pause, maybe a change in time signature, then a change in tempo, and off it goes with another vibe. And yet, and yet … If “God Only Knows” does nothing to or for you, then…
It’s really very like the way classical music works, like a classical opera, say Lakme by Delibes (the music that British Airways has appropriated). The melody rises and falls while the echo of that melody, sung by another voice, intertwines with it. Then it goes back to the verse, with its own melody, which is a variation on the chorus melody. As that is sung, the background voices provide an abstract, disconnected harmony. All the time, upfront, is the poetic heart of the lyric. It’s a love song, yes, but again, echoing its classical forebears, there is something not quite secular about it. Yes, “God Only Knows ” is a common, casual phrase, but in this context it feels much more literal. I can’t think of any other “pop love song” that is pinioned between a febrile, almost desperate desire and fear and its opposite, a contented contemplation of a harmonious relationship.
Jess Weiss of Fear of Men
I’ve been obsessed with The Beach Boys since hearing this record for the first time when I was about 18. Previously, I’d only heard their singles like “Surfin USA” and thought they were fun but not too interesting. When I properly listened to this record, I was blown away by the depth and the darkness underneath the sunshine.
Their level of precision [with harmonies] is unparalleled, and it’s so inspiring when you see footage of them all around the mic recording in one take. That’s a kind of skill that is so, so rare. Harmonies are often my favorite parts of songs; they offer the layers to really appreciate the melody. I tend to write harmonies in the opposite way, recording almost without thinking about it and then going back to sort them out as I like them to feel quite free and intuitive, but I love their structured approach very much too.
The isolated vocals from this record are unmatched by any other music I’ve heard. I remember the first time I heard “God Only Knows” when I was in middle school. It was so sexy, but also melancholy. It made me long for something unidentifiable — I hadn’t heard any music like that before.