When the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in May 1966, neither the band’s fans nor the music world in general were ready.
Brian Wilson, the band’s frontman and main songwriter, will be performing the album in its entirety on Saturday, March 18, at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino.
Pet Sounds today is considered one of the greatest rock albums ever made, and a significant milestone in psychedelic music. For the Beach Boys, a group that had previously written songs about fun, surfing, the beach and the California lifestyle, Pet Sounds was both a departure and a turning point.
Brian Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown while on a plane during the band’s 1964 tour; after that, he opted not to tour with the band. While the band performed in Japan, Wilson began recording the album with session players, most of which were part of the legendary Wrecking Crew, including bassist Carol Kaye, country singer Glen Campbell on guitar, drummer Jim Gordon and others.
“They were all great musicians,” Wilson said during a recent phone interview. “They read the manuscript, and it just worked perfectly. (Their participation) was very beneficial.”
Wilson is a notoriously tough interview, and he gave me brief replies to all of my questions during a recent phone chat.
Pet Sounds was unlike anything ever recorded. Wilson used real dogs to contribute some of the sound effects; the rhythm section used Coca-Cola cans and orange juice jugs as instruments; and some of the musicians—the bass players, for example—each played in different keys.
Wilson explained the most difficult aspect of the recording of Pet Sounds.
“The roughest part was doing the vocals,” he said. “We had to keep concentrating on it until it was perfect.”
When the rest of the Beach Boys—Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine—returned home to record their vocals for the album, they were not prepared for the change in direction.
“They really had to reach for those notes,” Wilson said.
The album’s initial reception in the United States was lukewarm. It peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard albums chart, and initially sold just 500,000 copies. But in the United Kingdom, the album shot to No. 2 on the charts, stayed in the Top 10 for six months and was the strongest-selling album in the final quarter of 1966. Later, the album eventually went gold and then platinum.
Wilson said Capitol Records executives were not initially fans of the album.
“They didn’t like it, and they thought it was too advanced,” Wilson said. “A couple weeks later, they said, ‘OK, we’ll release it.’ So they released it. We knew we were onto something great, so we just kept writing and writing.”
The Beatles previously said that Pet Sounds was an influence for them when it came time for the Fab Four to record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“I was surprised,” Wilson said. “Paul (McCartney) called me and told me loved the sound of Pet Sounds. The music was inspired by it, but Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s are two entirely different albums.”
Wilson said that while it might be possible to record an album such as Pet Sounds today thanks to digital production techniques, it wouldn’t be as authentic.
The album that was supposed to follow Pet Sounds, titled Smile, was interrupted and later shelved due to Wilson’s mental illness. The Beach Boys released a stripped-down version of the album, Smiley Smile, in 1967; Wilson eventually went back and finished Smile in 2004. Could Wilson do the same touring for Smile as he’s currently doing for Pet Sounds?
“We don’t know yet. We were thinking about it, but we don’t know for sure yet,” he said.
Over the past year, Wilson has been on tour with Al Jardine and former Beach Boys guitarist Blondie Chaplin, performing the album in its entirety for its 50th anniversary. He’s calling these shows the final performances of the album in its entirety.
The late Carl Wilson said the Beach Boys had turned down offers to perform the album in its entirety because it was too complex, and that Brian Wilson couldn’t sing the original parts of the album. However, Brian Wilson said that performing the album isn’t difficult for him.
“It’s not difficult, but it’s very cumbersome. You have to keep trying until you get it just right,” he said.
Wilson said he’s pleased by the responses he’s gotten during live performances.
“People seem to like it. They always do standing ovations,” he said.
Brian Wilson will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 18, at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, in Indio. Tickets are $49 to $89. For tickets or more information, call 760-342-5000, or visit www.fantasyspringsresort.com.