When I think of the beginning of progressive rock I usually think of bands such as, the Beatles, with their album Sgt. Pepper or artists like Procol Harum or the Moody Blues. I wouldn’t ordinarily give a thought to the Beach Boys – they of surf and hot rod ode fame. However, listening to Brian Wilson’s 1966 opus Pet Sounds I am struck by just how progressive it sounds.
Just listen to the vocals in You Still Believe in Me and you can hear The Beatles on Because from Abbey Road. The orchestration, the plucked, treble toned bass lines like on That’s Just Not Me, along with the classically inspired organ backing and reverb drenched guitar octaves wouldn’t be out of place on an early Yes album not to mention the the guitar on the title track which sounds like it is being played through a Leslie unit.
The use of flutes, oboes, vibraphone and strings is very unlike previous syrupy pop orchestration, it is uniquely suited to the songs. It presages much of Sargent Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Remember that this was recorded before the Beatles’s album Revolver. It has been related that the Beach Boys Bruce Johnston played Pet Sounds to Lennon and McCartney before it was released and after hearing it the duo went into the studio to write Her There and Everywhere.
That Brian Wilson created this masterpiece with Phil Spector’s “wrecking crew” is very fitting. If we were to go further back into the evolution of progressive rock we would arrive at the point when Spector was creating mini rock operas such as Uptown, He’s A Rebel, and Spanish Harlem. The iconic “wall of sound” is very evident throughout the album as well.
Growing up, the only contact I had with this album was hearing Sloop John B on the radio. I always loved that dark tale of an ill-fated voyage (based on an old Jamaican folk song). I later heard God Only Knows, another beautiful tune with amazing harmonies. Little did I know that radio stations in the Southern U.S. had banned it for blasphemy. It would be an understatement to say that Capitol Records was reluctant to promote this album. It was just too different, too progressive. As Brian Wilson admitted on the record, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.
If you are not already familiar with Pet Sounds, or even if you are, you should get the 50th anniversary edition CD which contains both mono and stereo editions as well as outtakes. I can’t believe that I ignored such an epic work for so long. I thought that Sloop John B and Good Vibrations were the few worthy songs that Brian Wilson did until I heard from him again on Surf’s Up. I never bothered to investigate what all the fuss was that Paul McCartney made over this album.