ALBUM (1966)

Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album became one of the greatest of all time

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm

Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys
Capitol Records


While on the road in 1964, Beach Boy Brian Wilson suffered a panic attack. He retreated to California to write, recuperate and record instrumentals while the rest of the band continued to tour the world. When they returned, vocal recording began. The studio sessions for Pet Sounds were intensive; the band spent a week laying down the vocals for Wouldn't It Be Nice alone.

It seems unbelievable now, but executives at Capitol Records did not want to release Pet Sounds. Musically, it seemed too much of a departure from previous Beach Boys albums. Capitol held off on releasing singles and instead put out The Best of the Beach Boys just two months after; it was, in their minds, a form of damage control to placate fans.

However, to their surprise, Pet Sounds became a No1 hit in Britain. In the US, it reached No10 on the charts, while The Best of made it to No8.

Wilson, who was 23 when he wrote Pet Sounds, was inspired by the Beatles' album Rubber Soul. The Fab Four responded the next year with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rolling Stone later proclaimed Pet Sounds second on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, with Sgt Pepper's first.

Is there a more perfect pop song than the eighth track on the album, God Only Knows? Once, before playing it in concert in 2013, Wilson said: "Now we're going to play, I think, the best song I ever wrote."

Last year, BBC Music brought together 32 singers, musicians and TV presenters - including Wilson, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams and Lorde - to perform the song with the BBC Concert Orchestra in a whimsical video.

In the mid-1970s, the Langley Schools Music Project, a group of Canadian primary school students in suburban Vancouver, led by music teacher Hans Fenger, recorded one of the most unsettling and charming covers of the track. (Let's just pretend the version Mandy Moore did for the movie Saved! does not exist.)

God Only Knows has been used extensively in film: the final montage of Boogie Nights, in which we see how life goes on after a career in porn; the cloying epilogue to the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually, in which the ensemble cast all gather in the arrivals hall of an airport for their happy ending; and as a recurring motif in My Life Without Me, which features Sarah Polley as a woman dying of cancer who keeps her illness a secret from her family.

It's the same song, but its effect in each movie ranges from bittersweet to sappy to heartbreaking - due to the complexity of the music coupled with the deceptive simplicity of the lyrics and Carl Wilson's killer delivery of "God only knows what I'd be without you".

As a soundtrack to real life, the album has the same effect: it can underscore all our emotional highs and lows, to double as a record to play at a wedding or to listen to after a difficult break-up. What would we be without Pet Sounds?