When the Beach Boys‘ Pet Sounds was released in May, 1966, few listeners could have predicted its enduring legacy. Continuing his musical departure from that group’s earlier songs about cars and surfing, songwriter/producer Brian Wilson crafted an album that dealt with relatively more “adult” themes like love and loss. Now, more than 50 years later, the post-Beach Boys Wilson and his band are bringing a live performance of that historic album — billed as one of the final Pet Sounds performances — to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Thursday, Aug. 18.
Wilson understands and accepts that countless listeners have been moved to tears by the music and lyrics of songs like “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows,” the latter sung on Pet Sounds by his brother, Carl. “I think the spirituality, the vocal harmonies, the melodies and the lyrics all appeal to people,” Wilson says.
Modern-day listeners might be surprised to learn that on its original release, Pet Sounds was considered a commercial disappointment in the U.S.; it fared much better — both chart-wise and in critical reviews — in England, where it was almost immediately hailed as a masterpiece. The Beatles readily admitted that Pet Sounds was a major inspiration for the musical adventures of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released just over a year later. Wilson doesn’t pretend to understand why the British embraced Pet Sounds so warmly, other than noting, “I think the people in England were more sensitive to Americans’ music; they were more in tune with it.”
Pop-music historian and Beach Boys scholar Domenic Priore, author of Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, points out the influence Pet Sounds would extend both overseas and at home. “In England, Pet Sounds got accolades from the members of the rock cognoscenti,” he notes. Priore also credits the album’s arrangement and production qualities as influences upon mainstream pop such as Petula Clark’s “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” songs by the Association (“Along Comes Mary”) and many other hits. “Those were all grandiose productions that could have only happened because of Brian Wilson’s production of Pet Sounds,” he says.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Pet Sounds second — bested only by Sgt. Pepper — on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” But within the half-century-plus career arc of The Beach Boys, the group’s ambitious music of that era hasn’t always been embraced. Priore notes that in the early 1970s — a time when Wilson was largely absent from the group — the Beach Boys worked a significant portion of the Pet Sounds material into their live shows. “They would do a lot of college touring, trying to convince people that the Beach Boys were, indeed, worthy of counterculture respect. Eventually [American audiences] started saying, ‘Hey, this Pet Sounds, maybe there is something behind this.’”
But with the release of a two-LP retrospective focusing on their early surfing and car songs, the group turned its back on ambitious music, becoming and remaining an oldies act. “They blew this all in 1974 when it became nostalgia with the release of Endless Summer,” Priore says. Moreover, Wilson — who was suffering from improperly treated manic depression and schizoactive disorder — was nonetheless brought back into the fold for numerous “Brian’s back!” publicity events that did little to burnish the group’s reputation.
In the 21st century, Wilson — working with his own group — doesn’t shy away from his ambitious studio creations of the mid 1960s; in fact, he embraces them. In 2004, he recorded a new version of SMiLE, his legendary unreleased 1966 follow-up to Pet Sounds. Meanwhile, his former group remains a strong draw, playing “Surfin’ Safari,” “California Girls,” “Kokomo” and the like.
Still, these days Wilson — who tours with a large band that includes former fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin as well as longtime members of critical-darling band Wondermints — doesn’t really go in for deep musicological analysis of Pet Sounds or the contemporary performances of that music. Asked about the touring band, he’s straightforward. “I like the way my band members play their instruments,” he says. “And they sing great, too.”
WHO: Brian Wilson’s 2016 Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour
WHERE: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, 87 Haywood St., uscellularcenterasheville.com
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 18, 8 p.m. $59.50-$115