Rock ‘n’ roll has a sad tradition of geniuses who’ve succumbed to mental illness and addiction. Some of them have, paradoxically, produced some of the best music of their careers during periods of decline. We’d have to mention Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, Moby Grape’s Skip Spence, Big Star’s Chris Bell… all of whom recorded strange, intimate, and heartfelt solo albums after leaving their respective bands. Then, of course, there’s Brian Wilson, whose 1966 Pet Sounds re-invented pop, and laid the groundwork for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Wilson is said to have been inspired by Rubber Soul). We may know Pet Sounds as a Beach Boys release, but it was really Wilson’s record. In the video series here, “Behind the Sounds,” we get a unique listen in to the creation of the album by way of early takes, lots of studio chatter, and pop-up video style factoids in the Pet Sounds cover’s Cooper Black font over behind-the-scenes photos.
At the top, hear behind the sounds of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Just above, hear the making of “I Know There’s An Answer,” and below, hear Parts 1 and 2 of the creation of “God Only Knows,” the lush, self-effacing ballad whose harpsichord and French horn intro clearly inspired the orchestration in songs like “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” See videos for the rest of Pet Sounds’ songs at the “Behind the Sounds” Youtube channel.
Pet Sounds has been named the greatest album of all time by NME and Mojo magazines and ranks at number two in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, right behind Sgt. Pepper’s. Wilson wrote the songs with lyricist Tony Asher during a time when he was pulling away from his sunny surf-pop group and expanding his repertoire of studio techniques in unprecedented ways. The songs can sound superficially like breezy Beach Boys pop, but reveal themselves as complex, baroque orchestrations that hold enough instrumental surprises and lyrical subtleties for a lifetime of listening. It’s a record both thoroughly of its time and thoroughly timeless.
Unlike many a tragic rock composer, Wilson has survived and recovered (many times over) into old age, recording and touring on and off with the Beach Boys and opening up about his darker times. And unless you’re spending this week under a rock somewhere, you’ll catch the BBC’s star-studded video re-make of “God Only Knows,” just below, circulating all over the ‘net. Both a promo for the more than two dozen musicians involved and a benefit single for charitable organization BBC Children in Need, the glamorous production features Wilson behind his piano, looking stately and healthy. For more on the making of Pet Sounds, see this 2002 BBC documentary, Art That Shook The World: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. And please, amidst this flurry of Pet Sounds goodies, don’t forget to listen to the album itself, best appreciated, says Wilson, with “earphones, in the dark.”