October 10, 1966, was a big day for my personal musical obsessions. The Monkees’ first album was released, and on the same day the Beach Boys released possibly the finest single ever released, “Good Vibrations”.
I’ve written possibly too much about both here, over the years, but had to acknowledge the fiftieth anniversary. But it’s the Beach Boys song I’m going to talk about here — the Monkees’ true greatness wouldn’t come for a few months yet.
I’ve talked about Good Vibrations a lot, of course — there are actual chapters on it in two of my books — about how it was made, the structure of the record, the sound of it, how it affected the Beach Boys’ career, how it influenced other musicians. But what I’ve not done, much, is talk about how the record affects me.
It’s certainly a record that has a lot of memories attached to it. I remember sitting round with various friends, when I was about twenty, the only non-stoned person in the room. We’d been listening to Lumpy Gravy, one of the strangest albums ever to be released by a major record label, and everyone was so stoned they were just accepting it as normal music. I then put on “Good Vibrations”, and after a minute or so a couple of people actually started *screaming*, saying “get it off! It’s in my head!”
It is, without a doubt, the single strangest record ever to reach number one in the UK. The catchy chorus belies a really *bizarre* structure, arrangement, and production.
But it’s also — and this is why I’ve not talked much about my feelings about the record — a hard record to truly love. It’s a record I *admire*, one I *enjoy*. It’s a record I, as an occasional musician, aspire to emulate, one whose pleasures are lasting, one I’m still learning from today, more than twenty years after I first paid proper attention to it and fifty years after it was released.
But it’s not a record I can truly engage with emotionally. Which is surprising for Brian Wilson, who has described his writing as putting together “feels”. He’s normally the most emotional of songwriters, and even in so intellectual a song as Surf’s Up or Wonderful, there’s a sense of aching there, a sense of longing, but also a sense of comfort.
There’s none of that, to my mind, in Good Vibrations, at least as it sounds on the finished record. It’s brilliant — and again, I want to emphasise this is one of my favourite records of all time, and one of the pinnacles of the history of recorded sound — but it’s a distanced, unemotional, brilliance. If the feeling of Brian Wilson’s other best work is like a friend comforting you, or hugging the person you love the most, the feeling from Good Vibrations — the feeling *I* get, at least — is more like contemplating Turing’s paper on the halting problem. There’s an astonishment at the cleverness and the beauty of it, but no real emotional connection to the record.
But that’s the record. Live is a different matter, and the live performances of it may hold the key both to why it’s such an astonishing record and why it’s one that’s so hard to connect with.
I’ve made the point before, but there is a huge difference between the way Mike Love’s current touring Beach Boys play the song and the way that Brian Wilson’s band play it — even though they’re playing the same song, in largely the same arrangement. Both bands “sound like the record” — if you saw either band play it live you’d be impressed by how much like the record they *did* sound, in fact — and even the few changes they make are made by both bands (for example singing “tay-ta-tations” instead of just “tations” before “I don’t know where…”)
Yet Mike Love’s version evokes emotion all right. It’s a scary, exciting, song, throbbing and pulsing away. When you hear the touring Beach Boys play the song live, you can understand the “it’s in my head” response. It’s all juddering dadada dadada triplets, screeching theremin, and garage band intensity.
And Brian Wilson, when he plays it live, evokes a totally different feeling. In his band’s hands it’s a warm, meditative, contemplative, almost prayerlike song, all flutes and organs and gentleness.
Again, they’re playing the same notes, in the same arrangements, give or take the larger size of Wilson’s band. It’s just they’re putting different eyebrows on the notes (to use a very useful phrase of Frank Zappa’s). Tiny differences in emphasis and nuance — in what elements of the recording to stress given the limitations of reproducing it on stage — lead to what sound to me like very different outcomes.
(As with all things Beach Boys, this may reflect bias on the listener’s part. But this is a difference I’ve noticed in every Wilson or touring Beach Boys show I’ve seen since at least 2008. The 2012 reunion tour sounded more like Wilson’s version than Love’s.)
And I think this may be the key to the record’s not having — for me — the same emotional resonance as God Only Knows or Til I Die or even something like Honkin’ Down The Highway. Those records were trying to evoke a single emotion, and succeeded. Good Vibrations, I think, is trying to evoke *all* the emotions. It’s trying to encompass literally everything. It’s Brian Wilson’s masterwork and he’s going to try to put the whole of human experience into three minutes and thirty-six seconds.
The result is, paradoxically, a record that’s so great it doesn’t touch me, so admirable it’s hard to love. But introduce a flaw into it, by trying to reproduce the irreproducible live, and a record containing everything collapses down into a performance that contains just *something* — and that something is utterly spectacular.
At a conservative estimate, I’ve listened to Good Vibrations — the single, as it was released in 1966 — a thousand times in my life. I hope to live to listen to it a thousand more. If I do, I will enjoy every one of those listens. It’s an amazing work.
And tomorrow, I plan to review the autobiographies of the two men who wrote the song, along with the autobiography of a friend and occasional collaborator of theirs…
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