American Culture

Random thoughts about the record album – part 3: the Beach Boys and the album as art and artifact

Sgt. Pepper’s gets a lot of credit for launching the “concept album,” but it never would have happened without Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds.

“We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach. We were not boys, we were men … and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.” – Paul McCartney on the impetus behind Sgt. Pepper

(Read Part 1, Part 2)

Brian Wilson (image courtesy imdb)

Once the Beatles’ Rubber Soul moved the rock audience to begin buying albums rather than singles, artists felt emboldened to make their own attempts to create albums with thematic unity and all original material. Record companies, impressed with Rubber Soul’s sales figures, felt emboldened to allow artists to attempt to duplicate the Beatles’ sales.

And thus rock’s album era was born.

The term most people throw around when discussing thematically unified music collections from this era is concept album. It can be a tricky term, and critics sometimes argue about whether a particular album qualifies or who did/did not implement the form in rock history (it is widely conceded that Woody Guthrie created the genre with his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads).

There is consensus about one fact: whether rock’s first concept album was Little Deuce Coupe (1963) or Pet Sounds (1966), the guy who deserves credit for making the concept album rock music’s statement of choice is Brian Wilson.

While Little Deuce Coupe is a work that in retrospect is conceptually brilliant in its celebration of California, adolescence, and the American obsession with cars, Pet Sounds is a deeper, more mature work whose influence makes its release the real beginning of the concept album craze that swept through rock. In part it is an extension of Brian Wilson’s great theme, American adolescence and the transition into adulthood. In part, though, Pet Sounds is an iconic expression of possibilities, real and imagined, fueled by both hippie philosophy and psychedelic drugs. It is thus both firmly of its time and transcendent of its time – most people would accept that as a pretty good definition of art.

Pet Sounds CoverThe record company was afraid of it. Hell, the other Beach Boys were afraid of it, fearing that it was too deep, not accessible to fans of “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Their fears seem foolish in retrospect given the album’s lofty status – influential and iconic both on its own merits and because of the works it inspired from other musicians. And the album was loaded with hit singles – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” “God Only Knows.” All were top ten hits (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” served essentially as a Double-A side). As product, as artifact, both the record company and Brian Wilson’s band mates would have to admit, even if grudgingly, that Pet Sounds  was successful – if not quite as much so as previous Beach Boys albums.

As an influence, its success was /is nearly limitless. The most famous case is best explained in an anecdote:

[McCartney stated that Pet Sounds inspired the Beatles to] “expand the focus of the Beatles’ work with sounds and textures not usually associated with popular music”. McCartney thought that his constant playing of the album made it difficult for Lennon to “escape the influence”, adding: “It’s very cleverly done … so we were inspired by it and nicked a few ideas.” [George] Martin stated: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened … Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”

After Sgt. Pepper, the deluge. The Moody Blues released a widely recognized masterpiece, Days of Future Passed. The Rolling Stones countered with Their Satanic Majesties Requestan album that music critics and fans are still arguing about. The Kinks followed with a masterpiece less widely known, The Village Green Preservation Society.  There are too many more to list, some of which rose to the level of art, lots of which sold hugely as artifacts of the record buying public’s embrace of the album form.

Millions of albums were sold and the single began its descent. It would take decades for it to recover as a viable product, and then only in a new technological format.