1966 was a staggering year for great music, with The Beach Boys and The Beatles jockeying back and forth on the charts, and as The Beatles had done with several of their singles, “Good Vibrations,” rising out of the Pet Sounds sessions, was not released as the album single, but rather put out there to stand on its own merits.
While the song was written by the brilliant Brian Wilson, with lyrics penned by Mike Love, the music for “Good Vibrations” was laid down by the legendary Wrecking Crew, who backed more artists than anyone realizes, though this band of musicians were never given the credit they deserved, as their contributions often were insightful, and could make or break a song. The recording of “Good Vibrations” was remembered by Wrecking Crew member Denny Tedesco, who said, “This single took eight months to record and cost more than the entire album Smile. There were reports that Brian Wilson, who wrote the music, had considered giving the song to Wilson Pickett or another R&B artist, and you know, it just may have worked out well in that setting. Can you imagine Wilson Pickett with an electro theremin! This song made clear that Brian Wilson was much more than the leader of a surf music group … unquestionably one of the most iconic songs in all of pop history.”
This extraordinary pocket symphony actually cost between $50,000 and $75,000 in 1966, which would float in at about a half million dollars today. The song existed on many levels, with the title being derived from Brian’s fascination with the vibrations of the cosmos, being an interpretation of something his mother once told him as a child, that dogs will sometimes bark at people as a response to their “bad vibrations,” a notion had shows up in various manners in several of Brian’s numbers. “Good Vibrations” revolutionized all that pop songs could be, taking them to an entirely new level, here using modal and key shifts, rhythms that tumbled, multi layering, untried instruments, and what I can only refer to as a zest for the surreal, where Brian nearly created a musical lysergic trip, that when stacked against Love’s vocals, established the elusive central character [focal point] and story of being intoxicated with the look and colourful vibrations an imaginary woman was giving off.
Yes, while The Beach Boys were on tour singing about fluff and surfer girls, the world shifted on its axis for Brian Wilson, who became enamored with production and webs of textured sound and arrangements … a spiritual awakening if you will, all spurred by LSD and marijuana. Ninety hours of tape from nearly twenty separate recordings went into making this three minute shimmering psychedelic opus, delivering a song that would resound for all time, a song of merit, a song that defined the Summer of Love in all of its splendid glory and youthful aspirations … resulting in the greatest Beach Boy hit of all time.
I can not emphasize enough the contribution that The Wrecking Crew made to his song, as members of The Beach Boys would have never been able to both understand and interrupt Brian’s vision, yet alone play with the perfection need to breath life in his concept. Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye said, “By that time, Brian was showing a lot of genius writing. He was growing all the time and we didn’t know where it would end. I didn’t know about the drugs until later on, but he did start doing things in piecemeal fashion. It was like he was scoring a movie. But twelve dates on “Good Vibrations” at three hours a date is a long long time to spend on one song. It was very unusual. But the way he kept changing the music around was interesting. We knew he was trying to perfect a great hit. And we knew it was gonna be big. Brian had all the sounds in his head. He knew what he wanted and wrote out the bass parts for me. They were written crudely, it wasn’t the work of an educated person, but we could read it. Brian was a really sweet guy, but he could be cocky when he wanted to be. It was that cockiness that comes with youth. But he was sharp, with very good ears. And he was completely engrossed in what he was doing.”
It would be easy for me to finish this review by saying that the rest is history, though “Good Vibrations” is far more than a spot on a musical map, the song lives on still, it stands as an inspiration to others, and with its creation showed the world that pop songs needed to be taken more seriously, and delivered with more reverence.