Hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time upon its 1966 release and battling it out with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for critical supremacy ever since, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was such a triumph that its writer-arranger-producer and lead singer, Brian Wilson, drove himself to the brink of madness trying to top it. Capitol Records has just released Pet Sounds: 40th Anniversary. This new set includes the album in the original mono, in stereo, in 5.1 surround-sound, and in Hi-Res stereo, plus a bonus DVD with a Pet Sounds making-of documentary, a retrospective on its impact, previously unreleased footage of Wilson and Beatles producer George Martin analyzing the master tapes for "God Only Knows," and more. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Brian Wilson to get his take on the writing, recording, and repackaging of his magnum opus.
The A.V. Club: It's been 40 years since Pet Sounds was released, and we're still discussing it. At the time, did you know that you were creating a masterpiece?
Brian Wilson: I knew when we were recording it. I knew it was going to be a milestone in musical history. And I knew we were on to something very, very good. The love vibes in Pet Sounds were very good.
AVC: You've said that just as Sgt. Pepper was The Beatles' response to Pet Sounds, Pet Sounds was your response to Rubber Soul.
BW: It really was. I heard Rubber Soul one night in my house here in L.A., and I was so blown out that I said, "I have to record an album as good or better than Rubber Soul. If I ever do anything in my life, I'm going to make that good an album." And so we did.
AVC: You and Paul McCartney seemed to have a competition going on.
BW: It wasn't really competition so much as it was mutual inspiration.
AVC: At the same time, Pet Sounds doesn't really sound like Rubber Soul, or anything before it. What inspired you to write those songs, and what guided you in the studio while you recorded them?
BW: Well, the gist of it was that Carl [Wilson, Beach Boys guitarist and co-vocalist] and I wanted to bring some love to people, you know? 'Cause we figured the missing ingredient in life was love. So we said, "We want to create an album that has a lot of love-vibes in it, to make people feel loved." That's all we wanted to do. We weren't trying to prove anything musically. We just wanted to bring some love to people.
AVC: Getting into the nitty-gritty of that record, there are so many revolutionary things. Paul McCartney has said he was blown away by the way you scored the bass tracks, because they didn't revolve around the root note. They really milked those transition notes.
BW: Right. Motown was responsible for some of that, too. I learned from Motown's bass players.
AVC: Where did you get the idea for the layers and layers of things? Phil Spector? Classical music?
BW: Well, the arrangements came from the concept of a Phil Spector-type of a vibration. Coupled with the loving voices of The Beach Boys, it gives you an album called Pet Sounds.
AVC: You're deaf in one ear…
BW: Yeah. I'm deaf in my right ear.
AVC: So when you originally mixed Pet Sounds, you did a mono mix.
AVC: So what do you get out of the new stereo and surround-sound mixes?
BW: What do I get? I don't get to hear it! I only have one ear, so I don't get to enjoy the stereophonic thing.
AVC: It's initially hard to interpret Pet Sounds in mono. There's so much going on. But the stereo mix…
BW: Quite a sound, huh? The listeners are in for a real treat with the stereo mix, you know? It should be great. And I hope they all enjoy it with their two ears.