A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats
I… I love the colourful clothes she wears
While for the most part I am dealing with the Beach Boys’ music on an album-by-album basis, with this song (and one other I shall get to later) it feels wrong. The album this was eventually released on, Smiley Smile, is to my mind possibly the best the band released, yet this track still sits in the middle like a black hole, distorting the feel of the whole album in a profound way.
I have sixty-five different versions of this song in my MP3/FLAC collection, not counting copies on vinyl or CD. The worst is a version by Mike Love and Adrian Baker from the 1980s, the best is the version that was released as a single. For all the live performances, outtakes, covers and alternative versions, nobody has ever beaten the three minutes and thirty-nine seconds of mono glory that came out on October 10, 1966. It may well be the greatest pop single ever released by anyone.
It was certainly the height of the Beach Boys’ commercial and artistic success – it was their first UK number one, but their last (for 22 years, at any rate) in the USA. It took just over five months’ work, from the recording of the basic backing track on February 17th 1966, to the final electro-theremin overdub on 21 September, to create the track. At least two sets of lyrics were written for it, and it spanned the recording of two different albums before being released on a third.
That original, February 17, session has been released in part in various places, most recently on the Good Vibrations 40th Anniversary Single (spotify link), where it’s the beginning part of what’s credited as Good Vibrations (various sessions). You can hear, listening through these session recordings, that the basic verse/chorus of the song was there from the very beginning, but that the rest of the structure took a lot of tinkering and experimentation. Many of the ideas that were thrown out during these sessions (such as the ‘hum-de-ah’ vocal parts) would have been the principal hook for any other band.
We can hear the original conception of the song most clearly on this recording (Spotify), which is the 17th February backing track with a guide vocal put on by Brian the next day.
Listening to it, Brian originally intended the track to be a ‘psychedelic R&B’ track, and already has the verse and chorus music worked out. What we have here, in fact, is very closely related to several Pet Sounds tracks – the arrangement and general feel are similar to that of Here Today, the electro-theremin part is similar to that of I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, while the melody is a cousin of God Only Knows. In fact, the best way of thinking about this track is that it’s taken the lowest common denominator of Here Today and God Only Knows and turned the result into an R&B track. We have the same minor-third key change between verse and chorus we’ve seen throughout Pet Sounds, the same descending scalar chord sequences, the same mobile bass parts, but here, rather than to express melancholy, these things are used in a way that’s as close as Brian Wilson ever got to funky.
However, after those first two verse/choruses, Brian seems to run out of ideas, and much of the rest of the track is more or less vamping. Tony Asher’s lyric, too, is half-formed. The idea’s there – the basic concept of a man ‘picking up’ ‘good vibrations’ from a woman (which came from Brian’s own thoughts about telepathy), but it’s clearly a dummy lyric:
She’s already working on my brain
I only look in her eyes
But I pick up something I just can’t explain
I pick up good, good, good, good vibrations, yeah
I bet I know what she’s like
And I can feel how right/good she’d be for me Brian sings both words on this double-tracked vocal
It’s weird how she comes in so strong
And I wonder what she’s picking up from me
I hope it’s good, good, good, good vibrations, yeah
The result is close enough to the finished version that you can see where he’s going, but at this point it would have been an album track at best.
Fast forward five months and what we have is something very different. Firstly, we have new lyrics by Mike Love. I’m not normally a huge fan of Love’s lyrics, but this time he’s done something quite clever:
I, I love the colourful clothes she wears,
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air
I’m picking up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations
Whereas Asher’s original lyric had focussed solely on the extra-sensory aspects (“She’s already working on my brain” “I pick up something I just can’t explain”), Love here grounds the song in the sensual and earthy before the more ethereal lyrics of the chorus. Note how he manages to work in sight (the colourful clothes, the sunlight), hearing (the sound of the gentle word) and smell (the perfume). This gives the song a grounding in the earthy, the quotidian, which allows the lyric to take the listener into more outrageous places and be sure the listener will follow. Whereas Asher’s lyric alienates, Love’s lyric draws us in.
The other major change suggested by Love is, of course, the good vibrations/excitations lyric. This is exactly the kind of dumb-but-brilliant idea Love was so good at, at his best. Taking the fairly low-profile bass part and turning it into a hook was a stroke of genius.
The finished recording is a patchwork, but somehow manages to be amazingly coherent. Let’s go through the different sections and see what’s going on.
We start with the sixteen-bar first verse I quote above. Coming straight in on the first word with no intro, we have Carl singing over just organ (played by Larry Knechtel) and bass (presumably either Carol Kaye or Ray Pohlman – I can’t find a copy of the session logs for the Feb 17 session online, and so am going by the logs from April 9 onwards – this verse recording sounds to me in fact like it comes from that very first session. Flute (Jay Migliori) and drums and percussion (Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine) come in on bar nine, which also helps to disguise one of the more interesting edits on the record.
Listen again to that line “I hear the sound of a gentle word” and you can tell it isn’t just Carl singing. The first half of the line – “I hear the sound of a” is in fact Brian, sounding a lot like Carl but clearly more nasal and less breathy (in fact it *MAY* be Brian doubling Carl. There are two voices there with different timbres – one may be Carl, but the more prominent is definitely Brian). The same thing happens on the line “when I look in her eyes” in the second verse.
This is an odd decision to make, frankly, as Carl could hit those notes (although they were to the top of his range). One can only presume that he just had difficulty with them – this being, after all, only his fourth real lead vocal. Listening to concert recordings, Carl would be doubled by someone (I *think* Bruce) on very early live versions of this song (e.g. the Michigan performance on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of the Beach Boys box set. Brian doubles him on the widely-booted Lei’d In Hawaii shows, when Bruce wasn’t present) but by late 1967 (e.g. the ‘concert rehearsal’ take on the Endless Harmony rarities collection) Carl was singing the line solo.
Either way, it’s something that, once you’ve noticed it, you can’t unnotice, but manages to escape most people’s attention…
Harmonically, this section is just a scalar descending pattern in Ebm, going down from the tonic to the dominant twice, before the second time it goes into the subtonic leading into the chorus.
The chorus starts with Mike Love singing, solo, the line “I’m picking up good vibrations/she’s giving me excitations” over a two-chord shuffle in F#. This two-chord vamp seems to come from Can I Get A Witness by way of the Ad-Libs’ The Boy From New York City (both of which are songs the Beach Boys had referenced before, on Carl’s Big Chance and The Girl From New York City), and this is obvious in the basic backing track, but the jazz-tinged bassline/vocal part disguises this somewhat, and the ‘cellos playing triplets (a suggestion of Carl Wilson) make the resemblance seem distant. But listen to Can I Get A Witness and you’ll see you can sing this line over the top easily. However between the ‘cello part and the electro-theremin (played by Paul Tanner) this sounds like nothing else on Earth.
(Well, almost nothing – it’s been suggested that this section of the song bears more than a slight resemblance to Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme. According to Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s About Time series of guidebooks, Carl Wilson used to watch the show in his dressing room before gigs in the UK. However, looking at the dates, prior to the recording of Good Vibrations the band had only been in the UK for one broadcast of Doctor Who – Planet Of Giants episode two – and they were on BBC TV themselves that day, though I’ve been unable to find out precisely what time, so it seems extraordinarily unlikely that any of them had ever seen the show, still less seen it often enough to remember the theme tune).
We then repeat this line, but with a three part harmony (sounding to me like Brian, Carl and Al) girl-group answering phrase (“ooh bop bop, good vibrations, bop bop excitations”).
We then depart from the original version – the whole thing then moves a tone up, and we add another, falsetto, Brian singing “good, good, good, good vibrations, ah”. This falsetto Brian part is actually the original chorus melody, but here it’s just a final element in an intricate tapestry of music and vocals. We then move another tone up and repeat this last line. This movement of a two-chord chorus vamp up in stages of a tone at a time is something that Brian is reusing from California Girls.
There’s then a hard edit into the second verse on the last “excitations”, and we repeat the verse and chorus musical material almost exactly, but at the end of the second verse we go into a completely different section.
We start with a continuation of the ending chorus vamp between Bb and Eb/Bb, but this time played on tack piano (Al de Lory), bass and jew’s harp (Tommy Morgan), with ‘ah’ vocals and flute (piccolo?) coming in part way through. We briefly move to vamping between Bb and Ab for Mike’s “I don’t know where but she sends me there” and Brian’s “Oh my my what a sensation”, before returning to the original vamp for Mike’s answering “Oh my my what an elation”. All this material is still based on the chorus, but sounds stunningly different.
We then have a simple, almost churchlike, three-chord section in F, with Dennis playing the organ, hand percussion (Blaine?) and piccolo. This starts out instrumental, and then Mike comes in with “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations happening with her”. After this line, the bass comes in, and Brian sings the same line in falsetto, harmonising with Mike. They sing the line again, but their vocals fade out, replaced by Tommy Morgan’s harmonica, which continues playing the same phrase until the held F chord and “ah” vocal from the entire band.
There follows a brief reprise of the chorus material, but this time instead of going up in whole tones, it moves rapidly downward, ending up on B.
We then have a single, pulsing, bass note under a falsetto “na na na na na, na na na” (which actually doesn’t sound like Brian’s falsetto to me, strangely enough – I suspect this is actually sped up, and may be Carl or Al). We move up a tone, continuing this falsetto melody while Mike answers underneath with “ba ba ba ba ba, ba”, move up a tone again and have someone in the middle (Carl?) singing “do do do, do do, do do”, move back down a tone continuing this (note the constant obsession with whole-tone movements here), before suddenly everything drops out the ‘cello and electro-theremin come in, and they repeat the chorus riff to fade, with the other instruments coming in, staying in the key of Ab (the same key as the third line of the chorus).
That’s, by my count, at least seven distinct sections in this three and a half minutes of music, all variations of at least one of two ideas – whole tone steps and two-chord shuffles. As a *song*, Good Vibrations barely exists – it’s not something you can sit down with an acoustic guitar or piano and play and expect it to sound particularly good – it’s something rather different, a play with theme and variations in a way one doesn’t normally get in pop music, an experiment in production, the combination of instruments, and the use of the studio to create sounds one could never otherwise hear. Everything is hammering home the idea of ‘vibrations’ – the church organ, the jittery triplet ‘cellos, the ethereal electro-theremin, all sounding spectacularly different from almost anything.
Nothing like this had ever been recorded before, or ever would again.
“cellos playing triplets (a suggestion of Carl Wilson) ”
Carl suggest that a cello was needed on the chorus, but the triplet idea came from Van Dyke Parks.
i recall some fine *clarinet* section – collected either on the Bonus disc of the 30 yrs box set or on “Hawthorne CA” . almost .. klezmeresque, ha!
“As a *song*, Good Vibrations barely exists – it’s not something you can sit down with an acoustic guitar or piano and play and expect it to sound particularly good ”
yeah, yeah — so.much of the essence of the song is in its *particular* construction (i.e., there’s no Platonic ideal of GV floating around for anyone to dial into). one reason it doesn’t lend itself to covers at all. i’m a yooge fan of the “Smiling Pets” tribute-type product released on Sony Japan / a-and it all works pretty well ‘cept for, yeah, the take on GV. one realises it simply it isn’t a good idea for anybody (including studio hermits like Todd Rundgren) to even try ..
Absolutely (I love Smiling Pets, though I lost my copy in a hard drive crash – must get it again, especially the tracks by Melt Banana and Seagullscreamingkissherkissher). It’s odd that the album it was kinda-sorta intended for, Smile, *only* exists in a Platonic Ideal form, and that every attempt to reify it by the band (Smiley Smile, the GV box set, Brian Wilson Presents Smile) has been greeted with “yes, but when’s the *real* Smile coming out?” Whereas with GV, even a true stereo mix is physically impossible – the multitracks don’t exist – and so we have something that is exactly what it is and can never be other.
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Excellent deconstruction of my favorite pop single in history. My second favorite would be Strawberry Fields Forever. But it sure doesn’t have that positive ‘vib’ (lol) of Good Vibrations. Is there any song that even comes close?