By Andrew Walker
Forty years on from the recording of Wouldn't It Be Nice, the legacy of
Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys remains undimmed, despite a subsequent
roller-coaster ride featuring mental illness, mass murderers and serial
Pet Sounds: Brian Wilson's finest hour?
"Wouldn't it be nice," trill The Beach Boys on the opening track of
their Pet Sounds album, "if we were older? Then we wouldn't have to wait so long.
"And wouldn't it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong?"
As a paean to youthful hope and optimism, the song has few peers. But
this iconic anthem of joyous partnership and fidelity, which has featured on the US sitcom, Seinfeld, and in the Doonesbury cartoon strip - Andy Lippincott succumbed to an Aids-related illness while listening to it - was the product of
severe emotional confusion and sexual guilt.
By January 1966, Brian Wilson, still only 23, seemed to have the world
at his feet.
A glittering string of hit songs - including Fun, Fun, Fun, Little Deuce
Coupe, Surfin' USA and California Girls - had established him alongside
Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards as a leading light in
rock music's burgeoning aristocracy.
But, beneath the surface, Wilson - a musical genius despite being
totally deaf in his right ear - was deeply unhappy.
Just before Christmas 1964, the pressures of writing, producing,
arranging and performing had culminated in a nervous breakdown.
The Beach Boys toured without Brian Wilson from 1965
Eschewing the rigours of touring, Wilson withdrew to the privacy of his
state-of-the-art recording studio.
Heavy drug use, especially of marijuana and LSD, led him into a
netherworld of auditory and visual hallucinations, obsessive thoughts
and bizarre behaviour.
As Wilson says in his autobiography, also entitled Wouldn't It Nice: "If
madness is an inability to adjust to the way people are supposed to act,
then I was on my way, since except for functioning in the studio, I was
increasingly unable to get in step with the rules."
Paradoxically, it was this psychological maelstrom, plus the urge to
respond to The Beatles' recently-released Rubber Soul, that contributed
to the album that many regard as Brian Wilson's masterwork, Pet Sounds.
The genesis of Wouldn't It Be Nice was Brian's fixation with his wife
Marilyn's sister, Diane.
Discussing this with his Pet Sounds co-writer, Tony Asher, a UK-born advertising man
with a feel for lyrics, Brian laid his feelings bare.
"Wouldn't it be nice if I could lie down beside her and nestle myself in
her long blonde hair?
"A sensation. A feeling. That's all I need."
"It's not that easy, though," replied a clearly disconcerted Asher.
"Yeah," said Brian. "But wouldn't it be nice if it was?"
As Brian Wilson has it, Asher went away and returned shortly afterwards
with a complete set of lyrics to a song called Wouldn't It Be Nice.
Asher apologised for making them, as he saw it, too personal.
Brian Wilson disagreed, saying "No. that's exactly what I want."
Pet Sounds was Brian's response to The Beatles' Rubber Soul
Pet Sounds was unlike any previous Beach Boys album. Bored with the
"surf sound" which had characterised many of their hits, Brian Wilson
decided on a radical change of style.
Instead of using Dennis, Carl, Al and Mike, he brought in a large team
of virtuoso session musicians, the legendary Wrecking Crew.
Counting among their numbers Leon Russell (keyboards), Hal Blaine
(drums) and Glen Campbell (guitar), the Crew had already enjoyed great
success with Elvis, Sinatra and Phil Spector.
But Wilson realised that one key element of all Beach Boys' songs, their
intricate vocal harmonies, was just too good to lose.
Indeed, by multi-tracking, Wilson built-up a complex, many-layered,
sound which, even today, has lost none of its ability to thrill.
So, with only their voices remaining on the record, plus a little guitar
from Carl and Brian's keyboards, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds can be seen
as the ultimate karaoke album.
Today, the place of Pet Sounds in the pantheon of popular music is
assured - "No one's musical education is complete without hearing that
album," says Paul McCartney - it was not to everyone's taste.
Tracks like Sloop John B, Caroline, No, You Still Believe In Me and,
perhaps greatest of all, God Only Knows, were not enough to convince the
marketing men at Capitol Records that this was, as they say, good
A lacklustre marketing campaign meant that the album did not go gold or
platinum until 2000.
By then, the Beach Boys had changed radically. Dennis drowned, aged just
39, in 1983, still guilty about his brief late-60s friendship with a
would-be songwriter called Charles Manson, whose Never Learn Not To Love
features on the band's 1969 album 20/20.
Carl succumbed to cancer in 1998, and relations between the surviving
Boys have been tainted by a series of high-profile court cases.
Back from the brink: Brian on-stage at Glastonbury in 2005
Currently, Mike Love, who co-wrote Pet Sounds with Wilson and Asher, is
suing Brian - who he says is "vulnerable to manipulation" - over a
promotional giveaway of a CD of Beach Boys hits.
But today Brian, who descended into severe mental illness in the late
1960s, is back on the road, performing both Pet Sounds and his "lost
masterpiece", Smile, to the delight of audiences around the world.
His marriage to Marilyn long over, Wilson's relationship with Melinda
Ledbetter, his wife of 10 years, has brought contentment to his life.
Despite the turmoil of much of the intervening 40 years, it seems that
the hope, so clearly expressed in 1966, might just be turning into
They produced some great tracks, and the surf sound from their early recordings still sound great.
Karl Chads, London, UK
I found this extremely interesting as I was not a Beach Boys fan until recently as I was married and working and not a teen at the time they were so popular. I am American and was living in the US at the time they came on the scene. I became interested after seeing Brian Wilson after watching him at the Queen's Jubilee at Buckingham Palace. The past and present information was very important to me and has given me a far better understanding of Brian and the rest of the band.
Joyce, Lewes, England
Permit me to de-bunk some myths:
-Pet Sounds wasn't "unlike any previous Beach Boys album" (see Today! and Summer Days)
-Brian Wilson had been using "the wrecking crew" for 3 years prior to Pet Sounds
-The Beach Boys stopped singing about surfing in 1964; 2 years before Pet Sounds
-A Capitol records audit revealed that Pet Sounds actually went gold around 1967.
Stephen Grainger, Nottingham
For once I agree with Sir Paul. The album really is essential listening. I wasn't even born when the album came out. That can make it difficult for my generation, and those that have followed, to appreciate the genius in the production and how innovative it was when it was made. Its musical and vocal arrangements remain as impressive and beautiful today as, I'm sure, they did when it was first released. The album and the Boys continue to be an influence on today's music. One need only listen to "Don't Get Lost in Heaven" on the Gorillaz' latest offering, "Demon Days". In these days of media hype, it is important to remind ourselves what genuinely constitutes greatness. And the Pet Sounds most definitely does.
i have always been a huge fan of the beach boys, from the early sixties. my view is that nearly every record that has been produced with thier name on it will always recall a mispent youth, warm thoughts and songs that you can always sing along to. just wish that brian had not been so misguided by some people only trying to line their own pockets. just think of the music he could have created had he not been high on drugs. even so his music still sounds as good today as it always has
I am now 51 and have loved The Beach Boys since I was about 12! I saw them at The London Palladium when I was 15 and met them backstage, it's a high spot of my life! Their music is just wonderful, I have never not been moved in some way by listening to them. It's certainly not just the surfy type songs but they produced some intense and personal lyrics that a teenage Londoner could relate to despite never having been to Southern California at that stage ( I married a guy from LA and have since visited many of the spots they sang about). The only sadness is that there are so few of them left and those that are have estranged relationships with each other.
A true masterpiece by Brian Wilson, which went unnoticed for so many years, but its timeless nature helped its emergence into listeners' attention and appreciation.
Armond Hovanesian, Pacific Palisades, USA
Re: the song "Woudn't It Be Nice". I always associate it with the Evian advert with all of the older people jumping into the water. Proof, if any be needed, that you don't have to be young to be bursting with energy! Just one more thing - The Beach Boys ROCK!!!!
LH, Tyne & Wear, UK
I enjoyed your article on Brian Wilson but I would like to add that he has hit his high point with the realease of the SMILE album which is trully in competetion with the album Pet Sounds!!! One only wonders where Brian would have taken music if he had support rather than everyone fighting against him back in 67!!
Tom Brady, Lindenhurst New York, USA
i've loved "pet sounds" since i first heard it in the 60's; when i was younger it was the hits "sloop john b" and "god only knows" or the more up-tempo "here today" that i replayed the most. but the album is so rich that as time passed and my appreciation of its depth and range grew, my favourite songs kept changing. it always sounds fresh to me, and i can't say that about many albums. these days it's probably "you still believe in me" that gets to me the most and i remember that when my mother first heard it she said, "they sound like angels singing".
saman asif, besançon, france
A chapter or two could also be written about what most pop prodigies have to endure: an ambitious Dad, who apparently had the morals of a pimp where his talented children were concerned.
William Parker, New York NY USA
The greatest pop album of all-time by the greatest pop genius of the last century. Brian Wilson's creativity grew just too fast and too quickly for his own good that he could never top this seminal recording.
A McIntyre, Crewe, Cheshire
Pet sounds is a great album :)its amazing how good it sounds when compared to modern albums the sounds quality is pretty much on a par, even if it was deliberately recorded in mono (due to Brian Wilson's partial deafness).
Pete, selby north yorkshire
Thanks for such a nice story on the Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" lp. For some unknown reason the Beach Boys have never really been appreciated here in their native country as they have been in other countries..especially the UK...I have no idea why..but clearly this album changed music forever..and no one can listen to this album and not be touched deeply and spiritually..it's truly an amazing piece of music.
Barry, Missouri, USA
I was raised on the music of The Beatles and did not discover Pet Sounds until well into my 30's. What I discovered was music every bit as complex and beautiful as anything put out by the Fab Four. I was lucky enough to see Brian on his Pet Sound Tour and was overwhelmed! The music has aged like a fine wine and the performance was nothing short of ethereal. Brian Wilson IS a genuis !
Laurence A. White, Clinton, Ct. U.S.A.
hi, nice article, but you need to check some of your facts. for example: 'sloop john b' was included despite brian's protests for commercial purposes by capitol records as it was already a hit single. also, mike love did not 'co-write Pet Sounds with brian' he merely contributed a few lyrics to songs such as 'wouldn't it be nice' and even then, the majority of the lyrics for that song were done by tony asher. sorry to burst your bubble - or at least, change the shape of it.
tristan glenn, reading, england
Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys and Pet Sounds are fantastic. Wilson's musical genius and sensitive demeanour, is expressed throughout the songs, in a wonderfully inspiring way - I love it.
Dr George Fieldman, London, England
I recall "Wouldn't It Be Nice" featured prominently in the 1975 movie "Shampoo" starring Warren Beatty and your country's incomparable Julie Christie. At the end, she leaves him for Jack Warden, the scene fades, the credits roll, and the song, in its way, announces the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Steve, West Palm Beach, Florida , USA
A wonderful songwriter and a great inspiration for the mentally ill.
I have never been impressed by Pet Sounds. It is cleverly done, and I saw them live around 1970, but there is no guts or spontaneity about it. Revolver is on a much higher level, Sgt Pepper is done much better, and these tow are still much more listen-able than Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson is fuelled by nostalgia rather than musical merit. He should have left Smile amongst the ashes of his old studio.
guy cudmore, bourne, lincolnshire
Nice to see the Beach Boys music gaining the plaudits it deserves, however from a personal point of view, Sunflower is a better album. It also showcases the talents of the other Beach Boys more who played just as crucial a part as Brian.
Adam Camm, Maidenhead
I saw Brian Wilsons performace at last years Glastonbury festival and having being a big fan of the Beach Boys for a number of years I was thrilled to hear him sing some of the classic Beach Boys tunes, he also managed to bring some of that Californian sunshine with him. I can honestly say that is the first time a have actually seen real crowd surfers, surfboards and all.
It's impossible for anyone who wasn't around to appreciate just how different this ground-breaking album was back in 1966.
There was nothing like it before, but so much influenced by it since.
Genius is an over used adjective, but not where Brian Wilson is concerned. Pet Sounds truly is a masterpiece.
(I still prefer Sunflower and Surf¿s Up though).
Philip Jones, London
Pet Sounds is genius. What more can you say? I am 27 years old and consider this to be in my top 10 Albums of all time. You will never see Robbie Williams or any of those other idiots compose something as amazing as 'Wouldn't it be nice' or 'God only knows'.
Martin Parker, Luton
This is an amazing album and an amazing song. I'm not a fan of the Beach Boys and like my music heavier (usually) but somehow this song (and album) have become part of the soundtrack to my wife and I's life.
Wouldn't it be nice was the first song played at our wedding in 1999 due to the words which helped us keep our heads up during the early days of living together (the second was Follow You Follow me by Genesis again, for the lyrics!)
Ian Doherty, Erith, Kent.
I saw Brian perform at a gig for Yahama dealers in Anaheim, California on 20th January 2006 and he was dreadful. He has a TV screen with the lyrics on and he sits behind a keyboard (but doesn't play it). He hardly spoke to the audience and looked like he'd rather have been somewhere else. His backing band were fantastic but his vocals were truly awful. He surely doesn't need the money. Give it up!
Joe, Hull, England
Um., the Beach Boys weren't very good in my opinion.
Mike Beasley, La Laguna, Tenerife
They were, and are, simply the best. The music reached out to all and felt like Summer all year long and the harmonies have never been replicated. Great to still see and hear Brian after all the problems he experienced.
Brian Wilson - the 'Beethoven'of pop - whose music has brought me so much joy over the last 40+ years. Wouldn't it be nice? It has been more than that. Thank you!
Elizabeth, Sheffield UK
Brian Wilson genius his songs sounds as fresh and modern as the day they were written.
Andy Bullough, Sheffield
It was good to see a commemoration of this great album. I always have the CD in my car and play it when I need cheering up. 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' is indeed joyful, although I didn't know the story behind the lyrics, and I believe Sir Paul McCartney once suggested that 'God Only Knows' was the most beautiful song ever written. Still true forty years after it was released? I think so...
Richard, Brussels, ex-UK
Pet Sounds is the greatest album of all time. Staggeringly personal lyrics, soaring harmonies, and spot-on musical precision. It is Brian's greatest work, as good as the resurrected SMiLE is. Bless Melinda for getting Brian back together, back from madness, and back on the road. Mike Love is right about Brian being easily manipulated, but now he has been manipulated back to a level of mental health and able to produce music other musicians only dream about being capable of.
Randall, Pennsylvania USA
My favourite Beach Boys album is "Holland". "Pet Sounds" comes second in my list.
Peter de Meteor, Bristol, England
I have had the privilege of seeing Brian Wilson twice on his recent outings & both times have been thrilled & moved by his music. His current band is excellent & knows both when to let him use the limelight & when too step in if it all becomes too much, as it still sometimes seems to. These gigs rank with the best I have ever seen.
Carolyn Middleton, Aberdeen, Scotland
Brian Wilson's performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 was the greatest concert I have ever attended. From old gits like myself, to the 10-year-old boy bellowing the harmonies to 'Fun Fun Fun', the audience was united in the realisation that this man, for all the pain he's suffered, is touched with a rare, beautiful genius. And 'God Only Knows' still makes me cry.
Tim Footman, Bangkok, Thailand
Pet Sounds, and latterly SMiLE, show that Brian Wilson was the only person capable of going head to head with Lennon & McCartney and not to come off second best. Writer/composer/arranger/producer Brian Wilson ? Genius. Pet Sounds ? Masterpiece.
Brendon Parsons, Blackpool, UK
I have ALWAYS loved Pet Sounds from the first time I heard it. It holds up and for the last 20 years "Wouldn't It Be Nice" has been the song I play on my birthday, for a variety of personal reasons.
Brian Bednarek, Woodbrige, NJ, USA
It still amazes me that you can walk into high street record shops and pick up Pet Sounds on CD for about 5 or 6 quid. It seems to be on permanent sale. And yet, in terms of musical and emotional value, this album is absolutely priceless. From start to finish Pet Sounds is a magical journey into some of the very best melodies and harmonies ever recorded. Wilson's finest hour is awash with lush strings, innovative basslines and heartbreaking vocals. Everyone with a pair of ears and a pulse should have it somewhere at home.
If love could be described in song, it would be Pet Sounds.
Wess, Notts, England
Without doubt the greatest album ever made. To think Brian made it at 23 astounds me, at 23 I was listening to it but never be able to make it! Everthing including the Beatles sounded different after this album and the legacy still grows by each year just try listening to bands like Stone Roses, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips who have all been influenced.I am so happy that Brian has made a comeback recently and is still good as then.
Michael Tanner, Banbury
being only 19 i cant remember the beach boys, but i was lucky enough to see brian wilson on his recent tour. despite the fact i was supposed to be working i had a prime view of the stage and a top spot to see the genius himself. i had started listening to their albums a couple of months before, so to see them live is an experience i will never forget. his music has the ability to cheer me up, no matter how much it rains. (but wouldnt it be nice if it didnt?!)
emily phillips, bristol
I have been a Beach Boys fan since hearing "I Get Around" on the radio in England circa 1965. I saw the group perform a number of times when I moved to Canada but only twice was Brian there, and then obese and spaced-out. Then I went to see him about four years ago performing on a double bill with Paul Simon at an amusement park near Buffalo, New York State. His patter and physical gestures were a little unusual -- in some ways, he really is a child in a man's body -- part of what is endearing about him -- but those songs, man oh man ... It really was like being in the presence of God. I'll never ever forget that feeling. He and his songs make the spirit soar.
alan west, Ottawa, Ontario, canada
Beach Boys? What vapid trash.
todd kulik, clifton, nj usa
Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. Fantastic talent. Does anyone remember "Toys in the attic" or am I mistaking this as another bands song. I was in Canada from 1959 Til 1962 and remember the song when I returned to England. Brian wrote songs that will always stand the test of time.
Roger Pearce, Birmingham England
In my eyes, Smile is one of the greatest. It literally does make you SMILE!!
Jonny Sprigens, Hinckley
Wilson's genius can never be overstated. Even though the album is twice my age, it's timeless and shouldn't ever be far from mainstream pop culture - without it's influence we wouldn't have had half the bands we have today. Brian Wilson's 2004 'Smile' is close to pop music perfection - released in its time, it would have bettered not only 'Pet Sounds' but also 'Sgt. Pepper'.
This story symbolized the 1960's, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Roberto, Miami Florida
A very cool, concise and well written story. BBC, Best news service ever!
Leonard Howell, Lexington, Kentucky, USA
The whole point, surely, about "Wouldnt it be nice" is that it is a parody of the old Beach Boys.
The sentiments speak of the perfect west coast nirvana they had propogated in their previous muse.
After that song things get cynical in a hurry.
Songs of paranoia, loss, dysfunction and broken dreams. Even the narrator of "Sloop John B" speaks of being "So broke up, I wanna go home".
Finally the perfect surfer girl becomes "Caroline No" because all innocence is lost.
The album ends with a train in the distance and a dog barking. it is night. The isolation is complete.
This is why the album was disturbing then, and why it retains its power today.
Its not the music that unsettled, it was the thoughts and who was saying them.
Rarely does popular music combine such sublime music with such brutal poetic honesty.
It is the greatest album ever made.
Colin Taylor, Accra, Ghana
'Wouldn't it be nice?' is still a v v happy, summery song! Think it will remain so - testimony to Brian Wilson's musical genius.
Carole Young, Glasgow, Scotland
When you compare Wilson with Lennon/McCartney you really have to make that Lennon/McCartney/Martin (and even Epstein) because Wilson had none of the musical and moral support that the Beatles enjoyed. It makes his output all the more amazing. The Beach Boys were really an a capella group who played a few riffs; Pet Sounds is where the riffs became as important as the vocals (the Beatles reached the same point from the opposite direction)so the music is beautifully balanced. I would put Sloop John B as top track ever.
The Beach Boys, along with Beatles, the Band and the Byrds, represent the greatest groups of the sixties. Pet Sounds is one of the greatest, most ambitious pop records ever.