10 Things you didn’t know about Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

Anna Walker

Inspiring everyone from The Beatles to Bowie, from R.E.M to Radiohead, it’s hard to escape the influence of Brian Wilson’s masterpiece. As Pet Sounds turns 50, here are 10 things you didn’t know about the ground-breaking pop album.

1. A copywriter wrote half the album

Tony Asher Brian Wilson
Tony Asher and Brian Wilson writing together. Image via Rock Cellar Magazine

In January 1966, a 23-year-old Brian Wilson approached 26-year-old advertising copywriter Tony Asher with a proposition.

Asher was writing jingles for advertising firm Carson Roberts at the time and happened to meet Wilson at a watercooler in Western and United Records' studio.

Wilson had previously played Asher three demo tracks and asked for his thoughts. His opinions turned into idea-swapping, which later turned into a surprise phone call; Brian asked him to help write the new album.

Speaking to Rock Cellar Magazine, Asher recalled Brian saying: “'Listen, I have to finish this album. The boys are in Japan touring and I don’t have anybody to write with and besides, I don’t want to write with anybody I’ve written with before anyway, I want to do something new’ He didn’t say, ‘Do you want to try writing one song’, he said 'Do you want to write this album with me.’”

The writing duo was so well suited that they wrote "God Only Knows" in just 45 minutes.

 

 

2. "Caroline No" was originally called "Carol, I Know"

Brian Wilson wife
Brian and Marilyn Wilson in 1967 when she was pregnant with their first child, Carnie. Image via Tumblr

When Brian Wilson heard Tony Asher’s lyrics sung for the first time, he misheard them as 'Caroline no’. The pair rewrote the lyrics, deciding that the new title added a degree of earnestness to the song. 

There’s some contention between Wilson and Asher as to who originally inspired the song. According to Asher, it was written about his high school girlfriend, Carol Mountian.

“I had recently broken up with my high school sweetheart who was a dancer and had moved to New York to make the big time on Broadway. When I went east to visit her a scant year after the move, she had changed radically. Yes, she had cut her hair. But she was a far more worldly person, not all for the worse. Anyway, her name was Carol.”

Brian Wilson had also fancied a girl named Caroline at school but maintains that the song was mainly inspired by his first wife Marilyn, “We were young, Marilyn nearing 20 and me closing in on 24, yet I thought we'd lost the innocence of our youth in the heavy seriousness of our lives. [Tony] took a tape home, embellished on my concept, and completed the words."

 

 

"You want this man to talk about you, and he was talking about all his old girlfriends."

- Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford

 

 

Marilyn had her own thoughts about the track, however, and struggled with the idea of Wilson writing about old flames. 

"That was just a hard song for me. First of all, his first crush in school was for a girl named Carol. So I thought he was writing this song about her. One thing about Brian, he constantly remembers his past and still relates to it and everybody in it. And that's another thing at seventeen years old that was hard for me to understand. You want this man to talk about you, and he was talking about all his old girlfriends.

"And then, it was one of the most beautiful songs I ever heard. He brings home the acetate, and he's playing it and I wasn't ready for how intense it was. Those are, in my opinion, intense lyrics, from a romantic standpoint, which is the way I was thinking in those days.

"I thought it was about me, because I had cut my hair. I think I wrecked it, bleaching it or something. He always used to talk about how long hair keeps a girl feminine. So the combination of the other girl's name and me cutting my long hair and me being totally insecure in our relationship."

Bonus fact: The dog barks heard on the track belonged to Wilson’s pets Banana and Louie.

 

 

3. "Let’s Go Away for Awhile" was the most satisfying song Wilson ever wrote

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson recording Pet Sounds. Image via Pitchfork

In 1967, Brian Wilson said that "Let’s Go Away For Awhile" was by far the most satisfying thing he had ever written and recorded.

“I applied a certain set of dynamics through the arrangement and the mixing and got a full musical extension of what I’d planned during the earliest stages of the theme. The total effect is… "Let’s Go Away for Awhile" which is something everyone in the world must have said at some time or another."

“Most of us don’t go away, but it’s still a nice thought. The track was supposed to be the backing for a vocal, but I decided to leave it alone. It stands up well alone.”

 

 

4. The album features a scary instrument

"I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times" documents Brian Wilson’s first use of a Theremin, an electronic instrument controlled without physical contact. His most famous use of it is probably in "Good Vibrations".

On the track notes to Pet Sounds “, he reveals: "I was so scared of Theremins when I was a kid, something about the ‘40s mystery movies where they had those kinds of sounds. I don’t know how I ever arrived at the place where I’d want to get one—but we got it.” 

Appearing later in the Steve M Martin documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, he said, “it sounded like one of those scary movies where—OOH—a weird trip, you know. Weird facial expressions. It’s almost sexual.” 

 

 

5. "God Only Knows" is Paul McCartney's favourite song

Brian Wilson Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. Image via JME Shel

Speaking to journalist David Leaf about his love for "God Only Knows", McCartney said, "It's a really, really great song—it's a big favourite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top ten favourite songs for a Japanese radio station… I didn't think long and hard on it, but I popped that on the top of my list.”

“It's very deep. Very emotional. Always a bit of a choker for me, that one. There are certain songs that just hit home with me, and they're the strangest collection of songs."

Pet Sounds blew me out of the water... it was Brian's writing. I love the album so much.”

“I've bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs… I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. It's that kind of an album for me.” 

The pair collaborated on "A Friend Like You" (above), a track on Wilson's 2004 album Gettin In Over My Head. Asked by Billboard if the relationship felt like a rivalry in the 1960s, Wilson replied, "It was. Now we're just friends."

 

 

6. "Pet Sounds" was supposed to be a James Bond theme

The title song, "Pet Sounds", was originally recorded as "Run James Run". It was written as a James Bond-style song, but Brian Wilson aspired to see it become the real thing.

“We were going to try to get it to the James Bond people. But we never thought it would happen, so we put it on the album.”

The unique instrumentation on this track includes drummer Ritchie Frost playing on two empty Coco-Cola cans.

Above, Wilson explains the history of the song before playing a live rendition.

 

 

7. After the album, the band considered changing their name

Beach Boys
The Beach Boys wearing Pendleton shirts in the early 1960s. Image via Pendleton USA

Since Pet Sounds had moved The Beach Boys away from the surf songs that had made them famous, they briefly considered changing their name to the more enigmatic 'Beach’.

It wasn’t the first time the band had played around with their name. Before they settled on The Beach Boys, they were called The Pendletones in homage to the surfer-favoured Pendleton shirt, which was a popular style at the time.

When Candix Records pressed the original single for their first hit, "Surfin", the label decided to rebrand them The Beach Boys to capitalise on the surf trend. The band couldn’t afford to change it back on their small budget, so the name stuck.

 

 

8. There’s a right and wrong way to listen

“When you listen to Pet Sounds, use earphones, dark. When you listen in the light, you look around and you see things, but in the dark, you can hear it all.”

This is how Brian Wilson opens the fascinating BBC documentary Art That Shook The World: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

 

 

9. Brian disappeared after the album’s release

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson recording Pet Sounds. Image via Tumblr

Soon after the release of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson all but disappeared. He was only 24, and his next album, Smile, was never completed.

He’d had a complicated relationship with his family—especially his father, Murry Wilson, who he “loved because of his songwriting” but disliked because “he used to beat us up”. Music was the only way he could gain his father’s approval. Murry even chose the band’s original clean cut look and striped shirts.

 

 

“I was an insecure little guy. I was a chicken."

- Brian Wilson

 

 

By the time he wrote Pet Sounds Wilson was standing up to his father’s strict rule, after having fired him as their manager two years before.

However Brian's fragile mental state meant couldn’t he handle touring life, one day collapsing on a plane and screaming. Many have called this a nervous breakdown. “I was an insecure little guy. I was a chicken. I wanted to sit at the piano and write songs for them while they were out touring.”

His consequent recluse from society and damaging relationship with his psychologist Dr Eugene Landy—who misdiagnosed Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic—is documented in the acclaimed 2015 film Love and Mercy

 

 

10. Nobody can agree on why they called the album Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds
Another album photoshoot outake at San Diego Zoo. Image via U Discover

Several claims have been made by different members of the band about where the album title came from.

Brian Wilson has sometimes claimed that it was a tribute to his hero Phil Spektor by matching his initials, PS.

 

 

"It was just so much more than a record; it had such a spiritual quality."

- Carl Wilson

 

 

Mike Love claims the title was his idea, saying: “We were standing in the hallway in one of the recording studios, either Western or Columbia, and we didn't have a title. We had taken pictures at the zoo and… there were animal sounds on the record, and we were thinking, well, it's our favourite music of that time, so I said, 'Why don't we call it Pet Sounds?'"

Carl Wilson however, recalled that: "The idea [Brian] had was that everybody has these sounds that they love, and this was a collection of his 'pet sounds'… It was just so much more than a record; it had such a spiritual quality. It wasn't going in and doing another Top Ten. It had so much more meaning than that."

 

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Feature image via Brooklyn Vegas