Principal Liner Notes: Riffs from the Schoolhouse

Explaining “Pet Sounds” and the Courage to Change


When I first heard “Pet Sounds,” I was expecting my life to change. It did not. There was much hype surrounding this album back in 1990 when it was first released on Compact Disc. Paul McCartney had stated that this album moved him to tears and served as a direct inspiration for The Beatles to create their magnum opus, “Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I was captivated by the fact that an album by The Beach Boys could move The Beatles. Surf Music serves as the baptism for a bar band from Liverpool? I was ready to step into that world.

I knew the hits off the album: “Caroline, No,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows.” All of those songs had resonated with me in some way. Hearing the album upon first listen I was expecting similar musical baptism as I had with something like “Sgt. Pepper.” It took a few years for that album to marinade within my soul for me to finally understand and appreciate it.

“Pet Sounds” was considered a flop by industry standards when it was first released in 1966 by The Beach Boys. Its influence outweighed the hit-making machine ride the band was on at the time. Time heals critical and popular wounds. Now, “Pet Sounds” tops many “Greatest Album of All-Time” lists. A few years ago, “Pet Sounds” fell at #2 on “Rolling Stone’s” Greatest Albums Ever Made list. Incidentally, The Beatles topped that list with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Much has been written about the technical and musical innovations of what many consider to be a major Concept Album in Popular Music.

Brian Wilson, the arranger, composer and producer of The Beach Boys, is considered to be a musical genius. His innovations with harmony, production and arranging stand as exemplars for studio creativity. He composed the music for “Pet Sounds” at the age of 23. In the midst of this composition, Brian Wilson was battling the fatigues of the road, questionable support from band, partial deafness in one ear and mental illness.

Taking a calculated risk to do something against the grain at the height of proven success is a bold and scary task. Breaking away from a track record of glamorous adulation caused much strife within The Beach Boys during the making of “Pet Sounds.” They sold millions of records based upon a formula of surfboards and fast cars. Brian Wilson had already broken away from touring with the band in order to take a much-needed break to create the sonic landscape percolating within his tortured mind. While the band was away on a tour of Japan, Brian Wilson rolled up his audio sleeves and began composing the musical template that became “Pet Sounds.”

The music of “Pet Sounds” is light years away from the simplicity of Surf Music. He combined instruments and layered sounds to produce what he called …the greatest record ever made.” Anything was fair game for the studio during this process. Piano strings plucked with bobby pins…two bass lines…banjos and ukeleles in different keys…eerie whoops from a Theremin…the sounds of dogs barking. It was album bathed in inspiration and made with sincere love.

Finding the courage to share this musical innovation with the band is something that has always intrigued me. How did Brian Wilson convince the band to go forward with this bold step into a seemingly, dangerous abyss?

In later interviews, Brian Wilson shared how he told the band to trust him and that he had to get this innovative music out of his system. There was in-fighting and much discord within the group. A fear of tampering with a proven formula was put forth as the reason to not move forward with new sounds by some band members. Conventional wisdom was supposed to support a status quo. A path towards innovation was seen as a meaningless jaunt toward commercial failure. Lines were drawn within various factions of the musical organization.

As a leader of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson had a clear vision for the scope and sequence of “Pet Sounds.” He had willing studio musicians and collaborators who believed in the genius of what he was trying to accomplish. They were willing participants in making what many do consider to be “the greatest album ever made.” In essence, Brian Wilson prevailed against negativity and successfully completed “Pet Sounds” with the ethereal harmonies and majestic contributions of The Beach Boys.

What happens when others do not follow the vision of the leader? This is an age-old, universal question in leadership. I have experienced this in my own way as a school principal over the years. There are many books which have traversed this marrow of leaders struggling to inspire a team or organization to change. I have read many of these books to find that answer to securing a joyful buy-in from the members of an organization. Many of these books provide solid insight and steps to framing change. None has provided that all-inconclusive magic answer in my very humble opinion.

I find myself going back to Brian Wilson and how he thrived in the creative workplace of the recording studio as he was laying down tracks for “Pet Sounds.” Those are the beautiful moments in leadership. Unhindered in the freedom of a rare day without a meeting or deadline, the dreams for the big changes that must occur in education seep into the top drawers of my mind. I may even fall into the path of willing collaborator and co-conspirator to create innovative changes in the schoolhouse. The synergy that takes place is contagious when you find others who wish to take bold, giant steps in the name of positive changes for our kids and teachers. Those are the moments when I think that this is what Brian Wilson may have felt like when he was experimenting with bass lines and key changes.

When the naysayers are on the horizon, I often think of the other end of the Brian Wilson spectrum. I shared with a friend recently that sometimes I have to explain “Pet Sounds” to naysayers sometimes. This is just another way of me stating that I have to dig deeply for the courage to withstand that naysayer shrapnel. It is difficult beyond belief for the dreamer in me to do. A leader often stands alone. It is important to lock arms with the other dreamers on the team. Brian Wilson did the same thing and so did countless innovators before and after him.

We all have a “Pet Sounds” within us. It may be the desire to stretch beyond the horizon of our so-called limitations and turn a different corner in the name of innovation. Whether we lead a school, classroom or professional learning team, there will always be the need to take a giant, innovate step.

There will always be naysayers in the midst. I have learned not to ignore them. It is important to hear their words. We must always consider all sides of the equation when it comes to framing change. What is essential for any leader is to hold onto the masterpiece illuminating within each of us. In our noble profession, we sometimes give too much permission to the naysayers who want to give life to mediocrity. I have been guilty of that as principal. We, as leaders at any level, have to hold onto that fact that there is a “Pet Sounds” waiting to be produced and shared with the world.

It takes courage to change. Moreover, it takes courage to give voice to that change. “Pet Sounds” serves as reminder for me that our harmonies can soar above doubt and inspire innovation. Tuning into the inner voice of our courage and speaking that truth is the necessary spark for change.

What “Pet Sounds” are you going to explain next?