Why Brian Wilson Tried To Be 'Effeminate' On 'Pet Sounds'

17 February 2016 | 10:18 am | Steve Bell

"I knew what I was after before I went in there and we did one song at a time."

The Beach Boys' 1966 opus Pet Sounds is regarded by most as the prime example of singer-songwriter Brian Wilson's indubitable genius, but in some ways the classic album nearly broke the spirit of the legendary entertainer.

The Beach Boys had ridden a huge wave of global popularity atop the 'California Sound' they'd helped pioneer since arriving on the scene as precocious talents in late-1961, armed with incredible pop nous and a seemingly endless string of sun-drenched odes to surf, cars and girls. They pumped out three albums a year between 1963 and 1965, and by this time Wilson was growing tired of this formulaic approach to writing and keen to explore new sonic frontiers.

"I wanted to grow musically and do something different than the car songs and the surf songs."

Indeed by the end of 1965 he'd quit touring with the band altogether to focus on songwriting and production. That year The Beach Boys released the moderately experimental records Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), but Wilson's new desire to push sonic boundaries manifested fully with Pet Sounds. Progressive to the point that it can almost be considered a precursor to psychedelic rock, Pet Sounds was written, arranged and produced entirely by Wilson, utilising a then-unprecedented budget of US$70,000 (well over half a million in today's money).

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Yet although Pet Sounds — which for all intents and purposes is the first Brian Wilson solo album — has been lauded by many prestigious publications (MOJO, Uncut, NME, The Times et al) as the 'greatest album of all time', upon its release it fared relatively poorly on a commercial level, charting lower and selling less than the band's past releases. Far ahead of its time with its innovations and unconventionality, this wasn't pop music for dancing — it was high art — and Wilson was stunned that the masses (and critics) didn't latch on immediately.

"I think it was a well done album, I think the songs were good and the harmonies were good," he reflects. "I wanted to grow musically and do something different than the car songs and the surf songs. I didn't think it was a risk, I wanted to do an album that people would like.

"It took a couple of months. It wasn't that hard to do, even with that old technology. I knew what I was after before I went in there and we did one song at a time — we'd write a song and produce it, then write another song and go produce that one."

He'd long been engaging in a trans-Atlantic battle with The Beatles to see who could expand musical possibilities the furthest, their 1965 Rubber Soul album in particular inspiring Pet Sounds (with both Paul McCartney and George Martin later conceding that Pet Sounds in turn inspired 1967's Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the only album listed above Wilson's masterpiece when the pair topped Rolling Stone's 2003 list of 'The Greatest 500 Albums Of All Time').

"Oh yeah, when I heard Rubber Soul I couldn't believe it," Wilson marvels. "I said, 'I'm going to make an album just like that, a really good album.' We were always trying to outdo each other from a distance."

It's staggering that he was still in his early 20s when waging his solo war against the Fab Four, but Wilson's songwriting chops had blossomed in his teens.

"I took to songwriting very well — I wrote Surfer Girl in 1961 and I wrote Surfin' Safari with Mike [Love] and we just learnt right away how to write songs," he recalls. "We used to do three albums a year, the songs were coming thick and fast. When I'm inspired to write a song the song comes very easily. First the chords come, then the melodies come and then the words come last. I work on the words with a lyrical collaborator. We have an idea for a theme and then we work together to bring that to life."

Wilson explains that the Pet Sounds sessions were the first time he really tried to use the studio as an extra instrument: most of it was recorded on 4-track by necessity, but Wilson — inspired by Phil Spector among others — incorporated a vast array of peculiar sounds among the album's incredibly complex and meticulous arrangements, including water jugs, bicycle horns, barking dogs, vibraphones and even soft drink cans.

"There's no way that you can explain the lyrics just on their own — to experience it you listen to it."

"That was really fun, I never really got that into music until we did Pet Sounds and it was quite an experience to see the musicians play what I'd written down on a manuscript," Wilson chuckles. "It was quite amazing to hear them play and for all those ideas to come to life. It's a great feeling.

"We used echo on there quite a bit which is quite common now but not back then. It was fun — each record that I produced I got a little better at producing, and I really learned quite a bit about production when we did Pet Sounds. Making the music is the part that I like the best, when we go into the studio and we play and we sing and we do the arrangements."

The rest of The Beach Boys were busy touring overseas while Wilson was ensconced in an LA studio piecing together his creation, so the bulk was recorded by the loose coalition of top-notch session musos known as The Wrecking Crew.

"We worked with the Wrecking Crew and I wrote out arrangements for the musicians, and it did feel a bit different recording with The Wrecking Crew rather than The Beach Boys," Wilson muses. "It was quite a great experience, and they're very good musicians."

Legend has it that Wilson wrote the bulk of Pet Sounds at night, but some of its highlights came during daylight hours.

"We wrote some of it at night, but some of it came during the day — for instance God Only Knows was written during the day," he recalls. "That one actually came very fast — it only took about an hour and a half to do. We knew we were writing a special song with that one."

There are classics aplenty on Pet Sounds — including Wouldn't It Be Nice and Sloop John B — and another special moment is the somewhat cryptic I Just Wasn't Made For These Times.

"It's just like a social statement and it's there in the title — I guess I just wasn't made for these times," he smiles. "The lyrics don't make that much sense — but you have to listen to it to experience it. There's no way that you can explain the lyrics just on their own — to experience it you listen to it."

Indeed the bulk of the lyrics and themes on Pet Sounds — while wide enough to stay open to interpretation — are of an extremely personal nature.

"Very much so, yeah," Wilson concurs. "I sang most of my songs on the record very effeminately, because I needed to express my effeminate side. I'd sung that way before on [falsetto-heavy 1964 single] Don't Worry Baby and stuff like that, but the effeminate side of me came out very good on Pet Sounds."