Few pop songs are as revered for their technical prowess as this post-Pet Sounds October 1966 release by the Beach Boys. With lyrics by Mike Love and writing and arrangement by Brian Wilson, who also produced, it was at the time the most expensive single ever made.
The song’s provenance was Wilson’s longstanding preoccupation with cosmic vibrations – a concept apparently introduced to him by his mother. After several mis-starts, Love claims to have written the lyrics on his drive to the studio. He wondered how the band’s fanbase, wooed by early hits such as Surfin’ USA and Help Me, Rhonda, would greet this new avant-garde production. His masterstroke was the familiar tale of boy-meets-girl at the heart of Good Vibrations – one simply recast in the haze of the psychedelic and flower-power movements then emerging along America’s west coast, to tell of “colourful clothes” and a “blossom world”.
Back when most pop singles were finished in a couple of days, Good Vibrations became an unwieldy creation. Between February and September that year, Wilson recorded numerous short musical pieces with his bandmates and a clutch of session musicians across four different studios in Hollywood, producing 90 hours of tape that could then be spliced together. It was an early example of an artist using the recording studio itself as an instrument. Wilson was building on the work he had begun on Pet Sounds, in which songs were crafted out of musical fragments he referred to as “feels”. “Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt,” he explained, “and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic.”
That mosaic was a startling thing: comprising frequent shifts in key and texture, a diverse range of influences including the work of Stephen Foster, the Crystals’ Da Doo Ron Ron and a chord progression known as “Andalusian cadence”. Alongside its polyphonous vocals it included cello played at a triplet beat, jaw harp, Hammond organ, bongos and electro-theremin. Wilson has spoken movingly about the sensation of finishing the track: “It was a feeling of power, it was a rush,” he said. “A feeling of exhilaration. Artistic beauty. It was everything.”
Often referred to as a “pocket symphony” (a phrase allegedly coined by the band’s publicist), Good Vibrations’ structure is divided into six distinct sections, from verse to coda, via refrain and episodic digressions, over three minutes and 35 seconds – then deemed an epic length for a pop single. You can hear some of its legacy in the unlikely structure of songs such as the Beatles’ A Day in the Life, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
The song had its critics: many felt it lacked the emotional heft that had carried much of Pet Sounds. “It’s like Psycho is a great film but it’s an edit film,” the producer Phil Spector said. “Without edits, it’s not a film; with edits, it’s a great film. But it’s not Rebecca … it’s not a beautiful story.” But others saw those edits as an emotional expression in themselves. Good Vibrations was at once the mumbled inarticulacy and heightened feelings of love, but also the sound of a culture changing – almost in real time. In this collision of sound and sentiment, Wilson and his bandmates succeeded in capturing the moment when everything we thought we knew about pop songs dissolved.