by Randal Hill
“We’re gonna have either the biggest
hit in the world, or the Beach Boys’
career is over.”
– Beach Boy Bruce Johnston
Only Brian Wilson believed in it; everyone else in the group hated “Good Vibrations.” It wasn’t what their fans expected, they argued. It ran too long for radio airplay. Mainly, it was just plain weird. The Beach Boys had become superstars with hits about surfing, hot rods, summer fun and romance. Why mess with a winning formula? But leader Brian insisted he knew what he was doing, that they were all on the verge of something really, really big! Still, Mike Love put off writing the “trippy” lyrics until the day he drove to the recording studio.
In his autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Brian explained his interest in cosmic vibrations. “My mom told me dogs discriminate between people. They like some because the people give off good vibrations. They bite others because they give off bad vibrations.” Early in
1966, Wilson felt he could create a masterpiece about some good, good, good, good vibrations.
When the other Beach Boys hit the tour road that summer, Brian stayed behind. Now he had the time to stretch out in the recording studio, push beyond boundaries, perhaps set new standards with his music. Into his mix went such eclectic musical instruments as a fuzz bass, a clarinet, a cello and a harp, as well as an eerie-sounding electronic device
called a theremin, a forerunner of the synthesizer. He later admitted, “I threw everything I could think of into the stew.”
With no lyrics to guide him, Wilson spent six months in four different studios with a rainbow of new sounds swirling in his head, everything wrapped around rich Beach Boys harmonies.
“Good Vibrations” unfolded in three elaborate, highly textured phases that required numerous studio musicians, as the Beach Boys played no instruments this time. Randomly taped chord changes and whimsical musical bits and pieces melded into a mosaic of fragments that he called “feels.”
Dennis Wilson rehearsed the lead vocal, but when he contracted laryngitis, brother Carl stepped in at the last minute – and nailed it. Later, Brian mixed the track four different times. When he had finished, “Good Vibrations” clocked in at an extremely long 3:35. The tune, which began as 70 disjointed hours of recorded tape, cost Capitol Records a whopping $50,000 – over $350,000 in today’s money – and became the most expensive single ever recorded.
In the end, though, Brian proved himself right. Released that October, “Good Vibrations” moved 100,000 records in its first four days, shot to Number One in both the United States and across the pond in England. To date, “Good Vibrations” has reportedly sold
16 million copies.
This was not just another seven-inch plastic disc of music but a sonic masterpiece and one of the finest pop-music productions ever. With its ethereal layering of melody and harmony, “Good Vibrations” showed the world how rock ‘n’ roll could be elevated to a valid
art form, the indisputable proof being found in Brian Wilson’s now-iconic psychedelic symphony.