While the other Beach Boys were busy performing in early 1966, Brian began putting together songs for what he hoped would be “the greatest rock album ever made.” The Beatles' Rubber Soul had just been released worldwide, and it was a revelation to Brian and rock and roll fans everywhere. Brian decided he would try to top the Beatles' achievement. His album would contain what he called “spiritual music,” revolving around the theme of the loss of innocence.
Loren Schwartz had introduced him to Tony Asher the year before, and Brian discovered that the young ad copywriter also wrote songs. Instead of using his most reliable collaborator, Mike Love, Brian invited Tony to the studio to write the words to his masterpiece. As Mike said in a 1992 interview, “I didn't participate in a lot of the stuff that was going on there, because I just didn't think the psychedelic route was the way to go.” (In the end, he did contribute to “Wouldn't It Be Nice” and “I Know There's an Answer.”) Despite Brian's inability to start work before noon, he and Tony finished the songs in just three weeks. The two would discuss ideas for songs during the afternoon, and Tony would go home and write the lyrics overnight. As he put it years later, “The general tenor of the lyrics was always [Brian's] … I was really just his interpreter.”
Next, Brian hired the top session musicians in Los Angeles to record the backing music for the songs. This featured such diverse instruments as harpsichord, accordion, and theremin (an early type of synthesizer). By the time the rest of the Beach Boys returned home from a tour of Japan, Brian was ready for them to record the vocal tracks. They weren't happy about being made to feel like hired singers, but Brian was persistent. The group sang their parts—including a memorable lead vocal performance by Carl on “God Only Knows”—and Capitol was informed that the album, called Pet Sounds, was finished. The title came from a joke Mike had made about how some of the instruments in the album's mix could only be heard by dogs' ears.
The record company was dissatisfied with Pet Sounds and feared that it had strayed too far from the Beach Boys' established sound to be successful. Though hardly a failure when released in May 1966, the album didn't sell as many copies as their earlier LPs. It reached number eleven on the album charts, while the singles “Caroline, No” and “Sloop John B” hit number thirty-two and number three respectively. Everyone involved was disappointed, but music critics in the United States and especially England raved about Pet Sounds. Even Paul McCartney of the Beatles was a fan. Reminiscing about the first time he heard it, the former Beatle said, “I just thought, ‘Oh dear me. This is the album of all time. What are we gonna do?'”
Hoping to recover the group's popularity, Capitol released The Best of the Beach Boys compilation only eight weeks after Pet Sounds. It was an instant success. Brian was discouraged, but he quickly turned his attention to a song he'd been working on for a few months called “Good Vibrations.” This “pocket symphony,” as he called it, took seventeen sessions, six weeks, and four studios to record. When “Good Vibrations” was released late that summer, it became the Beach Boys' most successful and best-loved song yet. It was a number-one hit by Christmas.
With this happy occurrence spurring him on, Brian was ready to begin the even more ambitious follow-up to Pet Sounds. Finishing the album, however, would prove to be impossible.