Having watched the BBC4 broadcast of the Classic Album's documentary on Pet Sounds, and gone back to the album for fresh listening, here's some quick thoughts:
I forgot how pronounced the Phil Spector influence is on the sound, but Brian Wilson added a fragility and sincerity missing from the Wall of Sound.
Is there a glaring missed opportunity? It seems that the relatively cool commercial reception in the U.S. (the LP made #10, predecessor Beach Boys Party! had hit #6 around six months earlier) put paid to Tony Asher collaborating with Brian on more material (he worked on early drafts of Good Vibes, helping rename it to Good Vibrations). This is a shame, as I feel he could have brought coherence and continuity from Pet Sounds to the Smile project.
Brian Wilson and Tony Asher at work.
In retrospective's such as the Classic Albums documentary and Charles L. Granata's book I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, the positive UK reception to the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds in 1966 is covered but almost as a footnote. In the British charts, all releases from the Pet Sounds hit number 2. Sloop John B held it for one week, kept from the top spot by Manfred Mann's Pretty Flamingo). God Only Knows stayed there for two weeks, with The Beatles double A-side release of Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby at the summit. The album itself was held off the top of the UK LP chart for three weeks by The Sound of Music. In fact, only 2 albums temporarily removed the Julie Andrews OST from the top of the album listings during the whole of 1966; Revolver by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones' Aftermath.
So I feel the "the Brits loved it but it didn't sell" is tired. The group's peers and public both enjoyed it and only bad timing (going up against the Fabs) kept God Only Knows from being a richly-deserved number one.
The music papers were firmly on-board with Brian as musical genius coverage, for example this 21st May 66 edition of Melody Maker.
One exception to the pop elite praising Brian was Mick Jagger, who in the Melody Maker (4th June 66) was asked his thoughts on the group. I've pasted the paragraph below, it's good value:
Jagger on the 'soft, naive' Beach Boys lyrics.
Final thought; I always feel a bit sorry for Bruce Johnston. He's on the album as a vocalist (including the harmonies central to the beautiful tag of God Only Knows) but wasn't allowed to be photographed on a Beach Boys album cover sleeve until 1967 due to "contractual agreements". This seems especially harsh as he actually was on location for the album cover sleeve (below and at the top of the blog page). Although given the amount of session musicians used to create the album, better to be able to say you're singing on such a crafted piece of work I guess.
Bruce Johnston (far left) gets ready to forward roll out of the album sleeve shot and posterity.
Finally, all listens to Beach Boys music centres on Brian Wilson - the heart and soul he put into music. The obsessive drive for perfection he sought, to push himself further. On 'Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)' Brian sings 'let's not think about tomorrow' - impossible, with the legacy of his creativity and the long shadow of influence cast by Pet Sounds.
Brian pulls the strings: from 12th November 66 edition of Melody Maker.