Remembering Pet Sounds, and the legacy of the concept album:
Popular music’s first big, coherent statement—The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, released 50 years ago on May 16, 1966—wasn’t an immediate sensation, at least in the U.S. (a worried Capitol Records even rushed out a package of greatest hits, as if to recall to the public the fun, foamy band behind “Surfin’ USA”). Over time, however,Pet Sounds came to occupy the upper echelons of best-of lists—or at least, the lists in magazines like Rolling Stone and Mojo that tended to prefer rock over other genres (and white, male artists over everyone else). Such “rockism” persisted from the 1960s to the 2000s, and during this time, albums fortified by theme, like Pet Sounds, were thought to be more “serious” than one-off singles.
Of course, that year also saw the release of Revolver, the Beatles’ most experimental work up to that time. the Sixties and Seventies were the golden age of concept albums, those sometimes pompous artistic statements by bands aiming for more than the Top Forty. Part of the appeal of a concept album, at least from a listener’s point of view, was that they could be listened the whole way through to tell a complete story, but that could be a problem, too, as such works were less radio friendly, although the lengths of concept album songs were well suited for FM. It was a more personal thing, for both the artist and their intended audience, intimate, even, which also made for a good fit in the late Sixties and early Seventies when everything was about relationships, intimate or otherwise.
But the legacy of the concept album lives on, as witnessed by the late David Bowie’s Blackstar, his final chapter in the saga of Major Tom. In today’s social media world, where people post their artistic ambitions and announcements on Twitter and Facebook, these older musical messages seem to have more meaning, somehow.