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.
The Non-Traditional Instrumentation
Sasami Ashworth of Cherry Glazerr
I discovered Pet Sounds when I was a middle school french horn player and was desperately trying to find any non-classical music that featured the horn. “God Only Knows” was obviously one of the most famous examples, and I remember telling anyone around who would listen whenever it came on the radio. It really connected with me in college when I was spending all of my time playing in orchestras and studying music theory but listening to punk and oldies and feeling this disconnect between what I knew about music and what I liked about music. Pet Sounds bridges all of those gaps. It perfectly combines how theory and orchestration can be so magical and how certain melodies, beats, chords and lyrics are just fucking cool — like when you find out a friend has a Cool Mom, but they have a respectable job so your parents will still let you sleep over at their house.
Cam Boucher of Sorority Noise
They were one of the first bands to really take that step into the wild world of pushing instruments past their intention and making instruments out of things not intended for music in the slightest. From this came sampling, and it brings us to where we are today. Modern pop wouldn’t exist if not for this band.
The Musical Arrangements
Joey Siara of The Henry Clay People
It’s just pop music — but elevated. The arrangements feel incredibly modern and inspired. I am a total sucker for the Wall of Sound production. The album makes me excited to go into the studio and throw out the rule book.
Photo: Claire McKeown of Honey Child poses with the Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary vinyl. McKeown organized a Beach Boys tribute performance at LA’s Echo on 5/15/16.
Claire McKeown of Honey Child
Pet Sounds has influenced me by showing me that you can create music that is beautiful, melodic, and also push your listener into a musical world that is deeper and more challenging than most pop music. As a classical musician, this is very important to me. I must be honest that I still don’t know what key “God Only Knows” is in. Brian Wilson seems to be hiding the tonal center, and just when you think you know where you are, he throws you into a different world with no reasoning of how you even got there. This mystery is what keeps me obsessed. This said, you can just let go of your mind and bask in the beauty of the melody.
Nick Bockrath of Cage the Elephant
Pet Sounds is absolutely one of my favorite records in my collection, and it’s just as amazing every play because of the sheer depth of production. The arrangements and level of musicianship is insane. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in those sessions. When the drums come in on “I’m Waiting for the Day”, it’s pretty much one of my favorite moments in recorded music.
The parts, instrumentation, varying moods, and feelings of all the sounds have long sparked a lot of excitement in me as a musician. The songs and chord changes that sound traditional or simple on the surface tend to have something else going on, like complex harmony, specific melodicism, counterparts, and interesting timing. All of it is musically exciting and to me transcends genre. To me, it’s not a rock album, a pop album, a classical album, or a folk album, but instead just seems like a very passionate musician’s combination of loved sounds into a delicate and pure musical experience.
The Cultural Impact
Sameer Gadhia of Young the Giant
It was the first time that I began to understand that a band’s relationship with an audience is not static. It is a continuous dialogue of success and failure: reinventing, flailing, until eventually, new ground is reached. And that, in its purest essence, is Pet Sounds. The fresh beginnings of art-rock and psych in the Californian music scene; the nascence of the headphone album, and for me, most inspiring, the daring to fight against the borders the world sets for you. In the years since my first listen, and as Young the Giant’s narrative evolves now into our upcoming third album, The Beach Boys’ evolution in Pet Sounds, just as Sgt. Pepper, Ziggy, or Kid A, inspires me and all of us to dig further into the Heart of Great Creative Darkness, to believe in the magic of songs, and to wade beyond the borders that have been set for us. Always and, hopefully, forever.
Dean Tzenos of Odonis Odonis
My dad was a big Beach Boys fan, so growing up I soaked it all up through osmosis. It wasn’t until Smile came out that I would revisit Pet Sounds as an adult and find out how crazy and intricate it was. It pushed pop music to a new level of experimentation and in turn pushed The Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper’s and beyond. Like most forward-thinking records, the industry types surrounding it had very little faith in the power of Pet Sounds and really tried to derail it. And yet here we are 50 years later, still singing its praises. In my honest opinion, it redefined pop music for years to come.
Jasamine White-Gluz of No Joy
Psychedelic pop music wouldn’t exist without this album. The story of the recording process and the issues surrounding the band during the production are legendary. I always found it fascinating that, although Brian Wilson is responsible for the album, it is still credited as a Beach Boys album. There’s something I connect to about his “wizard behind the curtain” approach, as I write the songs in No Joy but choose to credit them as a band.
Natalie Hoffman of Nots
Two years after I moved to Memphis, after I had played in a couple of bands and was becoming completely addicted to writing music with other people, a couple of close friends showed me Pet Sounds. I, like many people, had only heard the Beach Boys’ oldies station radio hits — “Surfin’ USA”, “Barbara Ann”, that song “Kokomo” – and I had no clue about the complexity, the incredible nuance, and the outright pop genius of the band. I listened to Pet Sounds on repeat over a couple of months. My friends who played music with me at the time and I became immersed in trying out harmonies ourselves and trying our best to make those harmonies — and our songs — layered, more complex, and just less predictable. And don’t get me wrong, none of us were what you would call anywhere near a classically “good” singer, so we had no idea what we were doing. But we became completely enthralled with this idea of pop music with these unsettling, articulate layers that we saw so evident in Pet Sounds. This was 42 years after the album was released, and it had that much of an effect on a group of 20-year-olds living in Memphis making music after work together.
I think the trajectory of pop after Pet Sounds shows a reaction completely akin to the one we had — it’s almost like the required response to the album! The standard, the predictable, catchy, overly-simple, sugared, and sold way of making an album was challenged. The end of the record is a statement in itself — like the stark ending of a film. It fades out of a song about loss and change into trains roaring and dogs barking and throws you back down into what could be your living room, your front porch, and you look at yourself and realize that this isn’t an ending at all. This is pop music in motion. Everything you thought you knew about it roars away with that train, and you have the plain and liberating realization that nothing can stay stagnant after hearing this.
Andy Gill of Gang of Four
Clearly, The Beatles learnt 90% of what they did in the mid-to-late ‘60s from this album. Pet Sounds is not a knowing record. It’s innocent, but so many rock bands took it as a green light to get clever — to start playing with the time signatures, to go prog. You know, “Let’s put a french horn in there!” Before you know it, you’ve got Queen.