“All of a sudden, this kid had become this genius composer and producer,” says bassist Carol Kaye, a former jazz musician who was part of the Wrecking Crew. “Brian was wise beyond his years and totally in charge of those sessions.”
Lyrically, Wilson was still writing mostly teen love songs. But musically, he was taking bold leaps, from the unorthodox chord changes of “I Get Around” to the intertwining bass guitars of “Salt Lake City.” For “California Girls,” he devised a slow, dreamlike introduction that was more akin to Bach or Beethoven than it was to the pop hits on the variety show Shindig!
But it was all just an appetizer for Pet Sounds, universally regarded as the Beach Boys’ greatest album. Awed by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album in late 1965, Wilson vowed to “beat the Beatles” and holed up in the studio for months, mixing French horns with oboes, zithers, sleigh bells and anything else that tickled his fancy. The music grew deeply melancholy, and the lyrics followed suit.
Working with co-lyricist Tony Asher, Wilson stared into his turbulent heart for one of rock’s first concept albums — a song cycle about the growing pains of becoming an adult. The standout tunes were “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows,” a ballad that Paul McCartney told the BBC in 2007 “reduces me to tears every time I hear it.”
McCartney, George Harrison and Beatles producer George Martin have all pointed to Pet Sounds as a catalyst for the anything-goes sound of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet Wilson claims he can’t hear the influence of Pet Sounds on Sgt. Pepper.
“I think Paul McCartney was just being kind when he said that,” Wilson says. “How could the Beatles have learned from us with all that original music they wrote?”