When Brian Wilson recorded the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds in 1965-66, he didn’t simply raise the bar for nuance, quality and care put into the making of a pop-music album. He set a new standard of quality that would inform the work of countless artists who would come after him. The former Beach Boys songwriter and leader is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds with a world tour. That tour includes a date at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center on Aug. 25.
When Wilson made the decision to move beyond the subject matter of much of his previous work for the Beach Boys — songs that glorified sunny California, girls on the beach, muscle cars and surfing — he realized that he could do with some help.
Wilson’s more ambitious musical arrangements called for similarly adult lyrics. As Domenic Priore (author of two books on the Beach Boys, as well as related album liner-note essays) tells CP by phone, Brian Wilson had been deeply impressed by the music and lyrics on The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man album and The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. “For Pet Sounds, Brian knew he had to take his lyrics into another area than they had been before,” Priore says. For a collaborator, Wilson went in what must have seemed to those around him a most curious direction, choosing a 26-year-old advertising-jingle-writer named Tony Asher.
The way Wilson recounts the tale — no doubt answering a question he’s fielded hundreds of times —it was all very simple. “I met [Asher] one time at a party, and he told me if I ever needed someone to write lyrics, he could do that,” he says in a separate phone interview. “So he came over and we wrote Pet Sounds.” Priore adds, “Asher worked for a very hip advertising company called Carson/Roberts. Something was going on in New York in advertising during the ’60s, but California was like the Wild West and had crazy, progressive ideas.”
Wilson’s collaboration brought out the best in him and Asher, resulting in classics like “God Only Knows” (often cited as Paul McCartney’s favorite song), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the heartbreaking “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
With the Beach Boys out on tour without him (session guitarist Glen Campbell replaced him on several dates), Wilson hunkered down for the better part of a year in L.A.’s top studios to make Pet Sounds.
On being the subject of the 2015 biopic Love and Mercy, Wilson readily offers, “I liked it when Paul Dano portrayed me as a record producer in my early 20s.” Wilson is justifiably proud of the work he did in the mid-1960s; his command of the studio — essentially treating it as an instrument in and of itself — remains a marvel. Long circulated among hardcore collectors (and eventually spotlighted on various official expanded-version reissues), Pet Sounds session tapes show a man completely in control.
Working with Los Angeles’ top session men and women (later dubbed “The Wrecking Crew,” themselves the subject of a 2015 documentary of that name), Wilson aimed for — and got — the performances he heard in his head. “I had in my mind exactly what I wanted when I got to the studio,” he recalls. “I told the musicians what to play.”
Pet Sounds would spawn three hit singles, including a double-A-side and the album’s sole cover tune, “Sloop John B.” But live onstage, the Beach Boys weren’t really in a position to recreate Pet Sounds’ lush, deeply textured studio sonics. Priore insists that “in 1966, had anybody taken rock seriously enough, you could have put all of those same instruments up on stage at the Hollywood Bowl the way you would have at a Tchaikovsky spectacular. The problem was, nobody took rock ’n’ roll seriously enough back when Pet Sounds came out.”
Times have changed in the ensuing 50 years. With a large group that features guest musicians Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin — both former Beach Boys themselves — Wilson leads a production that faithfully recreates Pet Sounds start to finish. And Wilson says that this tour will mark the final performances of the landmark 1966 album.
So what’s next for Brian Wilson? “We might record an album,” he says. “We don’t know what kind of music, but we might try to write some songs.” Whatever he chooses to do, Wilson can proceed safe in the knowledge that he has already created one of the most important and enduring albums in all of popular music.