Ever since he was a child, Brian Wilson had been fascinated by the concept of ESP. David Marks’ mother had claimed psychic powers, and impressed many of the people in their community, including the Wilsons, when Brian was growing up. But when he came to write a song about it, he didn’t think of Marks’ mother, but of his own. He had asked her, when he was a child, why dogs seemed to like some people and be angry at others, seemingly with no reason, and she had told him that dogs picked up “vibrations” from people — some good, some bad.
So when in February 1966, Brian went into the studio to record a song about ESP, the obvious title was Good, Good, Good Vibrations, especially since he was currently recording an album that would end with dogs barking and that was titled Pet Sounds — because sounds are, of course, a type of vibration too.
But the track he cut wasn’t quite right — it had the basic structure of a decent pop song, somewhere in between God Only Knows and Here Today from the album he was working on, and with the electro-theremin he’d used on I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, but slightly funkier than any of those. But that’s all it was, a decent pop song.
What Brian Wilson had in his head was something more complex than that — not just a pop song, but a “pocket symphony”, a piece of music that would be at least as complex and interesting as Rhapsody In Blue, with distinct movements and changes, but in a three minute span.
He worked at it intermittently over the next few months, going into the studio every few weeks to cut a new version of his track, with different permutations of instruments — maybe a Hammond organ instead of the harpsichord? Maybe a bass harmonica? — but never getting the sound he wanted.
He put it aside for a while, eventually convinced that he just couldn’t get the record out of his head and onto vinyl, and considered offering it to an R&B artist like Wilson Pickett, whom he thought the song might suit — presumably thinking that the two-chord shuffle of the chorus as it was originally conceived (although even in the earlier versions, the song goes up a tone halfway through the chorus, a trick Wilson reused from California Girls), which was clearly inspired by Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness?, would better suit Pickett’s stye than the Beach Boys’. However, a few months later Wilson’s friend David Anderle asked if he could have the song for Danny Hutton, a new singer with whom he had been working. Persuaded of the song’s commercial possibilities, Wilson returned to it.
But there was a problem. He needed a set of lyrics for the song. Tony Asher, the lyricist for much of Pet Sounds, had come up with a set of lyrics for him to sing to get a feel for the track, but those lyrics (“she’s already working on my brain/I only look in her eyes, but I pick up something I just can’t explain”) were only scratch lyrics, far too on the nose, and Asher had never got round to finishing them before going back to his advertising job.
Around this time, Wilson encountered Van Dyke Parks, a young session musician and arranger. Parks was younger than Wilson, but he had already had a rather extraordinary life — among other things, he had played music with Albert Einstein as a child, had appeared as Tommy Manicotti in The Honeymooners [FOOTNOTE: He was one of multiple actors to play the role, and isn’t the actor in the surviving episodes, but definitely appeared in at least one episode, and probably more.], and had been the arranger on The Bare Necessities for the Disney film The Jungle Book.
Parks was a hyper-intelligent, astonishingly talented man, and he and Wilson quickly hit it off and began writing new, experimental, songs that were wildly different from anything the Beach Boys had done before, with allusive stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Parks refused to write new lyrics for Good Vibrations — he didn’t want to get involved in a song that had already had seven months’ studio time, off and on, and thought it best that it be completed without him — but he did suggest the final missing element for the song. Carl Wilson had already suggested a cello be used in the choruses, but Parks’ suggestion that the cello be playing fast triplets gave the chorus the rhythmic impetus it needed.
Wilson eventually edited together an instrumental track using bits of five different sessions — the verses from the very first session in February, the quiet organ bridge from a session in September, and so on — and rather amazingly, it all came together perfectly. The result was a perfect mixture of psychedelia, R&B, and sunshine pop, a glorious, euphoric rush, but evoking almost religious feelings in the extended bridge section, and with a strange, haunting, eeriness in the chorus. It’s a perfectly-structured song, and a lesson in dynamics that puts Phil Spector to shame.
It still needed lyrics, however, and Mike Love eventually came to the rescue, writing the lyrics in the cab on the way to the studio for the final vocal session. Love’s lyrics are far, far cleverer than they’re normally given credit for, grounding the listener in the real, sensory world in the first verse, talking about how the woman in the song looks (“the colourful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair”), sounds (“the sound of a gentle word”) and smells (“the wind that lifts her perfume through the air”), before the chorus and its extra-sensory concerns, and the altogether stranger second verse. It’s still a boy/girl love song, but it’s infinitely more well-crafted than the original, clunky, lyrics. Love is not always the most original lyricist, but when given really good material he can rise to the challenge, and this is his finest moment, and every bit the triumph for him as it is for Wilson.
Carl Wilson took the lead beautifully (with Brian dropping in the phrases “I hear the sound of a” and “when I look”, which go out of Carl’s comfortable range — luckily at this point the two brothers were practically indistinguishable vocally, and most people can’t hear the edit until it’s pointed out to them), and Love’s doo-wop bass vocal part instantly became one of the most memorable hooks of the Beach Boys’ career.
The song became their third US number one, and their biggest hit to date. To this day it often tops critics’ lists of the best singles of all time. The Beach Boys were on top of the world, and with these new songs Brian and Van Dyke had been writing, things could only get better…
Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Line-up: (NB, this lineup contains everyone who played on any of the sessions that were used for the final master. Some of them may have, for example, only played on the choruses on a take where only the verses were used) Brian Wilson (vocals, tack piano, Carl Wilson (vocals, Fender bass, rhythm guitar, percussion), Dennis Wilson (vocals, organ), Al Jardine (vocals), Mike Love (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, Bill Pitman, Jimmy Bond, and Arthur Wright (bass), Larry Knechtel, Don Randi, Al de Lory, and Mike Melvoin (keyboards), Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon (drums, percussion), Frank Capp, Tony Asher, Terry Melcher, and Gary Coleman (percussion), Paul Tanner (electro-theremin), Plas Johnson, Jay Migliori, Steve Douglas, Jim Horn, and Bill Green (woodwinds), Tommy Morgan (harmonica, bass, harmonica, jew’s harp), Jesse Erlich (cello), Emil Richards (vibraphone)
Original release: Good Vibrations/Let’s Go Away For A While, The Beach Boys, Capitol 5676
Currently available on: Smiley Smile UMG CD, plus innumerable compilations.