Guia Cortassa argues, more than those releases ‘Pet Sounds’ deserves all the praise it’s been getting half a century later.


If you happened to be alive and of a music-loving age in 1966, then you could have experienced some sort of magic from April to October. In a six month span, a collection of records that would heavily transform the history of music hit the shelves, changing many lives among musicians and listeners. There was The Rolling Stones’ ‘Aftermath’, released on April 15, ‘Pet Sounds’ by The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’, both released, somewhat unbelievably, on the same day, May 16, and The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’, arriving a couple of months later on August 5. Finally, ‘The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators’ released on October 17.

It was a series of artists in their early twenties getting inspired by each other and competing to write the best album ever. It was the time when The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” and Dylan was an electric traitor of traditional folk, Jagger and Richards penned their first album as songwriters and a 18-year-old Roky Erickson officially used the word “psychedelic” in relation to music for the first time, in the title of his band’s debut.

Brian Wilson, in the meantime, sent his bandmates touring in Japan and locked himself in the Western studio, working with complete freedom on the music that was taking shape in his mind to eventually become ‘Pet Sounds’. If The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ openly inspired Dylan and Wilson to work on their 1966 releases, then ‘Pet Sounds’ became one of the turning points for Paul McCartney, who drew from Wilson’s songwriting both for ‘Revolver’ (writing ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ after hearing ‘God Only Knows’) and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ the European answer to the Californian concept album.

Wilson had a clear vision of the music he wanted to make and his natural talent in arranging and producing allowed him to use the sound and the space in a strikingly new way, layering bars of different elements, mixing keys, tones and timbres to create a multi-dimensional soundscape that felt all-consuming despite its Spector-inspired mono mixing. The intimate lyrics, written with Tony Asher, counterbalanced the magnificence of the score, offering an insight into the mind and the heart of a boy in love in an unprecedented manner. It was a peak in pop music that no one had reached before.

Fifty years on, it’s almost impossible to find a musician who wouldn’t claim to have been influenced by the Beach Boys’ opus, but then, in 1966, ‘Pet Sounds’ was the least successful of all the aforementioned albums – as they say, truth is the daughter of time. Hated by Wilson’s bandmates, with Mike Love trying to boycott the very personal verses and new sound, it was unsupported by Capitol Records, who promptly decided to release a “greatest hits” collection alongside the album to avoid financial losses. It was too complex and edgy to appeal to longtime band fans, used to the surf mood of the the band’s previous records. ‘Pet Sounds’ was some kind of a failure, fuelling Wilson’s paranoia and impostor syndrome and sending the band spiralling downward.

The Beatles kept on being the Beatles, Dylan continued doing whatever he wanted to, the Rolling Stones never left the stage, Roky Erickson became a psychedelic guru despite his mental health problems. Brian Wilson tried to prove himself again with ‘SMiLE’ but the project derailed and was dismissed, shutting him in the background and locking him into addiction, forcing him away for a long time.

That’s why seeing his name on a marquee now and watching him on stage sitting at his piano at last week’s ‘Pet Sounds’ show at London’s Palladium, eager and proud to perform live the album he knew could change the course of music but “just wasn’t made for these times,” feels like the long-awaited recognition of a true musical genius has arrived at last. Because, Brian, we all still believe in you, and we always did.