The Beach Boys to The Beatles to “Good Vibrations” and Beyond

Ever feel surprised that you are in an argument? You’re just talking. You and your friend stumble upon opposing viewpoints, and then all of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, you find yourselves neck deep in full blown disagreement. War between nations can like that too. One country believes one thing, another country believes the opposite. Conversations and negotiations quietly ensue, and then all of a sudden Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in his car, and we find ourselves neck deep in World War I.

Much has been made of the creative battles between the great rock bands of the 1960’s. The Beatles release the album Rubber Soul, their first truly great creative statement, in December of 1965. The Beach Boys then release the amazing, orchestral masterpiece Pet Sounds in May of 1966. Not to be outdone, The Beatles then release Revolver in August, 1966. Combined with Rubber Soul, this double shot makes for one of the finest two album releases in a row by any single band in rock history.

The Beatles and The Beach Boys were not formally at war, but they were definitely engaged in battle. Paul McCartney was a big fan of Pet Sounds, and often referred to “God Only Knows” as his all time favorite song. It was clear Beach Boys auteur and creative guiding force Brian Wilson was carefully listening to the great music coming out of England, letting it inspire his creative output.

The two groups seemingly went back and forth, constantly looking for new ways to express themselves through creative lyrics and instrumentation nobody had tried before. They used full orchestras, the sitar, the harpsichord, tubas, penny whistles, and even the occasional Electro-Theremin (more on that later).

They were not in a vacuum. Music was changing everywhere. Culture was evolving. The mid to late 1960’s brought a veritable explosion of psychedelia, folk-rock, experimental electronic music, and even the beginnings of heavy metal. The idea of rock and roll was expanding, and the great musical groups of the day found themselves in a creative arms race of talent and ideas. Who would fire the next shot? Who would win the war?

The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Beach Boys. The Who. Bob Dylan. Everyone was listening to each other. Everyone was finding inspiration. Everyone was exploring, experimenting, stretching to showcase their creativity, to inspire whoever and whatever would follow.

At only 23 years old, primary Beach Boys writer and auteur Brian Wilson was already a seasoned hitmaker. Having released lovely masterpieces like “Don’t Worry Baby,” “California Girls” and “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” the world recognized Wilson for the creative force he had become.

The critically acclaimed Pet Sounds album had just been released in May of 1966, widely regarded as one of the finest albums of all time, and Brian Wilson showed no signs of slowing down. He got right back to work.

While the Beach Boys group was touring the world in 1966, Brian Wilson leaned into his expanding reclusiveness and stayed back home in California to record “Good Vibrations.” Spanning over 50 sessions from February to September 1966, Wilson worked and worked until he got it right. Exactly right. Precisely Right.

As a young boy, Wilson’s mother often talked to him about the “cosmic vibrations” in the world, and a dog barking is often in response to a person’s bad vibrations. With lyrics written by both Wilson and Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love, Brian Wilson wanted to create a magnum opus about good cosmic vibrations. Brian’s brother Carl sings lead, and the song begins with no introduction. The first thing we hear is the trademark falsetto Beach Boys sound. Time is kept by a Hammond organ fed through a spinning Leslie speaker and a repeating counter melody on the bass.

I, I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that left her perfume through the air

A snare drum kicks in with the third line with accentuating sleigh bells, and we are brought into the chorus. But this just isn’t any chorus, this is the chorus to “Good Vibrations!” This is the chorus where the song finds its footing while breaking all the rules. This is the chorus that harkens back to the vocal groups of the 1950’s while somehow sounding like something from the future. This is the chorus that has cellos, full tonal steps with every line, and a kick-ass rock band in the background moving everything a long at a rapid clip. Mike Love sings the bass part to start things off, then we hear the comfortably familiar shimmering Beach Boys harmonies coming in behind him, sounding just like a doo-wop group standing under the corner street lamp.

I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations (Oom bop bop)
I’m pickin’ up good vibrations (Good vibrations, oom bop bop)
She’s giving me excitations (Excitations, oom bop bop)
Good, good, good, good vibrations (Oom bop bop)
She’s giving me excitations (Excitations, oom bop bop)
Good, good, good, good vibrations (Oom bop bop)
She’s giving me excitations (Excitations)

And floating above everything is the other-worldly sound of the Electro-Theremin, played by its inventor Paul Tanner. Harnessing electric currents to make sometimes unpredictable noises, the Theremin turned out to be the perfect counter-weight to the 16th notes being played by a cello underneath. Voices come in, layered on top of each other. Traditional rock band and vocal group stylings. Futuristic Theremin noises, beautiful orchestral sounds. In the wrong hands this could have been a sloppy mess, but everything here works. The sounds are logically layered on top of one another, woven together to create a complete sound, escalating to a crescendo until it stops with a sudden tape splice, and we hear Carl Wilson singing by himself for the next verse. The Hammond organ returns, and we hear the now familiar bass melody.

Close my eyes, she’s somehow closer now
Softly smile, I know she must be kind
When I look in her eyes
She goes with me to a blossom world

Again we hear Carl Wilson’s plaintive voice starting out alone. Again we hear those shimmering melodies coming in at the third line. The lyrics are poetic. Words are bent and shaped to fit the melody, adding to the mystique and mystery of the song.

After another chorus, a chorus filled with futurist 50’s call and response, beautiful harmonies and a killer backing rock band, we come to the bridge, a bridge that leans hard into the ethereal landscape only hinted at in the first and second verses.

The first part of the bridge evokes the first and second verse, but somehow sounds completely different. An aural salad is spinning around in our heads, everything is background, only with the line “I don’t where, but she sends me there” in sharp focus, completely clear and distinct from all else that his happening. Wilson is pounding the piano into smithereens, the cymbals are crashing, the Theremin is wailing.

(Ah, my my, what elation)

I don’t know where but she sends me there
(Oh, my my, what a sensation)
(Oh, my my, what elation)
(Oh, my my, what)

And then, again, everything stops. Only a quiet tambourine with the organ playing whole notes underneath. Very quiet, very subdued. One voice. Then a bass. Then more voices. Then then very high notes on the organ. The voices fade.

Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her
Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her
Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’

A chorus of harmonic voices comes in as the music comes to as the music stops, and then we are back to the full throated chorus which then dissipates into the rockingest cellos you’ve ever heard. The harmonies return as transition to the fade out ending of the song.

At 3:34 long, “Good Vibrations” is relatively short by today’s standards, but in 1966 it pushed teh envelopes of duration, structure, and instrumentation. Rock and roll music was forever re-defined as a platform for new ideas. For stretching preconceived notions. Embracing the past while mapping the future. There were new rules, and the World War of Rock and Roll was forever won by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Forget about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Listen to Who’s Next, but then move on. Blonde on Blonde is a truly monumental album. But everything begins with “Good Vibrations,” and people have been trying to catch up ever since.

“Good Vibrations”
Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Performed by The Beach Boys
Released October 10, 1966

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