WHAT IS THE BEACH BOYS’ BEST ALBUM? For most people, that’s an easy answer: Pet Sounds. But for aficionados of the group, it’s a tricky question that requires clarification. Fans would want to know does the question refer to the best album attributed to the Beach Boys or to the best album actually created by the Beach Boys as a group.
If the former, the answer remains Pet Sounds for most of us. But Pet Sounds is more accurately a Brian Wilson solo album, his first real work as an auteur of the recording studio. For this article, I am looking at the twelve tracks that Brian intended for the album. I am not considering “Sloop John B,” which Capitol tacked onto the record so the it could boast a hit single.
Okay—those twelve tracks: Brian Wilson wrote the all of the music for most of them and most of the music for some of them. He worked with two lyricists, first Terry Sachen (“Hang on to Your Ego”) and then Tony Asher (eight of the twelve songs). Asher says that he also contributed to some of the music.
Brian began working on his new songs at Western Recorders studio in Hollywood, California, in November 1965. The first official session of what would become Pet Sounds took place at Western on January 18, 1966, and the final session was on April 13, 1966.
Despite the front cover carrying Capitol’s “Full Dimensional Stereo” blurb and emblem at the top, Pet Sounds was not issued in real stereo. Capitol used their patented Duophonic Stereo process to release the album in horrendous fake stereo.
For all practical purposes
Instead of working with the Beach Boys, Brian hired the cream of Los Angeles studio musicians to play most of the instruments on most of the sessions. He actually instructed some of these musicians in how he wanted them to play their parts, as what he was asking of them was so different from what they normally played.
Of course, the other Beach Boys were involved in the singing. Like the musicians, he was asking them to sing parts so different from what they normally sang that he had to direct them on some of their vocal parts.
In the US, Sunflower was a commercial disaster and effectively ignored by the record-buying public. In the UK, Sunflower was hailed as a masterpiece!
Brian arranged all of the instrumental parts for the musicians and all of the vocal parts for his fellow Beach Boys. Of course, he produced all of the sessions.
For all practical purposes, the other Beach Boys served the same role in the making of the album as the hired studio musicians. For a time, some critics made fun of the group, referring to them as Brian’s puppets. A similar arrangement was used during the sessions for the aborted Smile album.
The Beach Boys did not record the instrumental parts on a Beach Boys album until Smiley Smile, released during Summer of 1967. Even then, they were recording Brian’s songs. This was the first album where the group played the bulk of the instruments since All Summer Long in 1964.
Sunflower sported a cover as warm and lovely as the music within. Despite the promotional efforts of Warner/Reprise, in the US the album was a commercial disaster, effectively ignored by the record-buying public. Four singles were pulled from the album, each a flop on the pop charts. In the UK, Sunflower was hailed as a masterpiece and sold enough to reach the Top 30 on at least one survey.
Add some music to your day
The first album that was a group effort—where the other members (Al, Bruce, Carl, Dennis, Mike) had a hand in writing and arranging the songs and producing the sessions—was not until Sunflower, released during the final weeks of Summer in 1970.
Each of the Beach Boys contributed to the songs. Here are the six Beach Boys and the number of songs on the album carrying their credit as a songwriter:
Al Jardine: 3
Mike Love: 3
Brian Wilson: 7
Carl Wilson: 1
Dennis Wilson: 4
While Carl contributed the least to the songs, the album was largely produced by him. Sunflower remains my favorite album of all for how it sounds and feels: clear, full, lush, warm. It is a sonic masterpiece, with a lot of credit due engineer Stephen Desper.
While anyone who listens to this album today will immediately recognize the Beach Boys, such was not the case in 1970. The group had been out of the public’s graces for several years, which was an eternity in the heady, competitive pop music world at the time.
When friends would visit me at my apartment, I’d get them high and put Sunflower on the turntable. They would sit, mesmerized by the opening track, Dennis Wilson’s joyous “Slip on Through.”
My guests would ask, “Who is this? Like, wow, I love it!”
“The Beach Boys,” I would respond.
And they’d gasp, “No way, man!”
Words rarely do music justice, so go and find yourself a copy of Sunflower and listen for your self. Hear one of the best albums to be found in this whole world. Of course, I suggest listening to an LP rather than a CD, but either way, you will add some marvelous music to your day.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was cropped from the SUNFLOWER album and displays the Beach Boys—the first them all six appeared on the cover of an album together—and their offspring. Of course, the harmony on display in this photo masked the incessant squabbling between the guys.
Smiley Smile was a monumental retreat from the creative competition that Brian Wilson felt he was engaged in with the Beatles. Carl Wilson famously called it “a bunt instead of a grand slam.” Reviled by fans and critics for decades, its reputation as an album filled with lovely yet edgy music with a taint of marijuana goofiness has grown demonstrably in recent decades.