The Making (and Remaking) of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Arguably the Greatest Rock Album of All Time

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd Get Bri­an Wil­son Out of Bed and Force Him to Go Surf­ing, 1976

The Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er Demos: The Mak­ing of a Bea­t­les Clas­sic (1966)

Watch Doc­u­men­taries on the Mak­ing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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