We’re nearly at the end of 1966 now, and it’s been great to hear the quality, innovation and strength of so many brilliant number 1 singles. Like 1965, at times it’s been classic after classic. I envy anyone who was young and into pop at the time, it must have been incredible. We may well already be at the peak year of the number 1 singles from 1952 to the present day. And there’s one more classic to cover. One of the best, in fact. There’s certainly an argument that Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys is the high watermark in pop invention. How did they get to this point?
Brian Wilson was born 20 June 1942 in California. Growing up in Hawthorne, by the time he was 16 he was sharing a bedroom with his brothers Dennis (13) and Carl (11). Their father Murry was a pianist, and his appreciation of music rubbed off on his sons, in particular Brian, who would teach his brothers how to sing harmonies.
The elder Wilson’s life changed forever that year when he received a reel-to-reel tape recorder for his birthday. Soon he was recording he, his mother Audree Neva and Carl singing, and overdubbing himself on piano, along with Carl and their neighbour David Marks on guitars. Brian began to write songs and through family gatherings got to know his cousin, Mike Love. While attending Hawthorne High School, the duo got to know Al Jardine, and before long the trio, along with Carl and Dennis (who was always the most reluctant to join in), had formed The Pendletones, with a tough taskmaster in Murry as their manager.
Dennis may not have been too fussed about The Pendletones, but it was he who suggested Brian write songs about surfing, as he was the only avid surfer in the group. Brian came up with Surfin’ and he and Love wrote Surfin’ Safari together. The former became their first single, on Candix Records in November 1961. The label wanted to call them the Surfers, but that name had been taken, so they dubbed them The Beach Boys. The release was so successful, Candix couldn’t cope and were made bankrupt, and that New Year’s Eve, The Beach Boys played their first gig.
Six months later they signed with Capitol Records and Surfin’ Safari was their new single and title track of their debut album, released in October. Jardine left the group to become a dentist, to be replaced by Marks.
1963 may have been the year of Beatlemania in the UK, but The Beach Boys were a US phenomenon once third single Surfin’ USA hit the top 10. The album of the same name swiftly followed and they were away. Brian started to begin showing an interest in the studio, choosing to double track their vocals to beef up the sound. The Beach Boys may have seemed like a one-trick pony at the time with their sun-kissed hymns to the surf, but they were certainly prolific, releasing two more albums that year – Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe, and Christmas single Little Saint Nick. Jardine returned, and Marks left a few months later.
1964 was a transitional year, and the British Invasion was a big reason for this. Suddenly surf music was out of fashion. The fact they were signed to the same label as The Beach Boys in the US won’t have helped either. Brian was rattled, and wasn’t as keen on the Fab Four back then, preferring the complex production skills of Phil Spector. Murry was sacked, and Brian hit back with I Get Around, which became their first US number 1. The album that followed, All Summer Long, was meant as a goodbye to the surf sound of old, and the instrumentation was becoming more exotic. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album rounded off the year, but Brian’s mental state was deteriorating.
1965 began with Wilson announcing his retirement from touring after an anxiety attack. He was replaced by Glenn Campbell, and instead he would concentrate on songwriting and production. This coincided with him developing an interest in drugs. Next album, The Beach Boys Today! in March, featured uptempo tracks on side one, and ballads on two. Brian’s lyrics were now focusing on his neuroses and insecurities. California Girls and Help Me Rhonda featured on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). At the end of the year, their live-in-the-studio album Beach Boys’ Party! featured their hit cover of Barbara Ann, and standalone single The Little Girl I Once Knew showcased where they were headed next – Pet Sounds.
Their most famous album, with words from jingle writer Tony Asher, raised the bar both sonically and lyrically, and contained some of their greatest songs – some of the most beautiful songs of all time in fact – namely Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and especially God Only Knows. A song so good, some friends and I named our club night after it, and some guy called Paul McCartney called it the greatest song of all time. Pet Sounds was released in May 1966, and Brian Wilson was now being hailed as a genius. What the public didn’t know was that he was already at work on a single like no other.
Good Vibrations was inspired by his mother. Andree would talk to Brian about vibrations when he was a child, and it would both fascinate and frighten him at the same time. He played what became the chorus to Asher on the piano to see if he could add some lyrics, but his ideas were discarded. He did however manage to steer Wilson away from calling it Good Vibes, wisely suggesting that ‘Vibrations’ wouldn’t date. Van Dyke Parks, who worked on the ill-fated SMiLE album, was also asked, but declined. Although the track was still in its formative stages, Brian knew he wanted an Electro-Theremin from its early stages. It’s not a true theremin as such – the instrument is controlled by a knob, rather than hovering your hand over it to produce that brilliant sound.
At the time, Good Vibrations was the most expensive song ever produced. Unusually, Brian Wilson crafted a single song as though he was working on a whole album, recording fragments of the track here and there, without an overall idea of how the song would even finsh up. Work began in February, with a full instrumental version finished in March. But it was very different to the finished version, and sounded like a funky R’n’B version. For instrumentation, The Beach Boys used members of the famed Wrecking Crew session musicians, who had already played on many number 1s, with more to come.
Work was paused for a spell while Wilson finished up producing Pet Sounds, and he returned to the single in April. At times, the nervous, sensitive Brian wondered what he was doing, and considered either letting Wilson Pickett record it or abandoning the song altogether, but was persuaded by his friend David Anderle to commit to it being the band’s next single. Understandably, some other Beach Boys members were reticent too, and worried that Brian’s ditching of accessibility would result in a resounding flop.
Normally I’d have put money on Mike Love being the most ardent critic, because, as we all know, Love has proven himself to be a dick on many occasions. However, Love was spot on in recognising that this ‘pocket symphony’, as their new press spokesman Derek Taylor (who also worked for The Beatles) called it, could have real appeal to the rising hippy movement. The lyrics he crafted were perfect.
Indeed, you can slate Love all you like, but that opening couplet, sung by Carl Wilson (Dennis was supposed to be main vocalist but fell ill with laryngitis so Carl stepped in), is spine-tingling. ‘I, I love the colourful clothes she wears/And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair’ sets the tone and, combined with the organ notes, you just know that you’re going to hear something really special. By playing with psychedelic imagery that matches the sound, yet grounding its theme in a love song, he makes the track appeal to everyone – no mean feat, as the track goes off on weird tangents like no hit single ever had. Also central to the tune’s brilliance is that wonderful, classic Beach Boys chorus. The Electro-Theremin still adds an electricity to the track, but those vocals, led by Love’s bass vocal, hark back to all their early surf songs.
At 1.41 you get the first tape splice. Some say it’s, by today’s standards, rather primitive, but not me. Suddenly, we’re in unchartered territory, and the tune loosens up and trips out as Love sings ‘I don’t know where but she sends me there’ over magical sounds made by cellos, organs, sleigh bells – so much is thrown into the mix it’s hard to really know.
Then, my favourite section. At 2.13, just when you think the track may revert to the chorus or a verse, everything comes to a halt, save for a maraca and low organ. We’re a long, long way from the orchestral ballads of the early 50s, from rock’n’roll, from Beatlemania, from everything. This could have caused the song to completely cave in, but Wilson times everything perfectly. Eventually the vocals kick in again, but it stays low key, with a harmonica joining in. And then, as we approach the three-minute mark, we get a blissful ‘aaaaah!’ and the chorus finally returns. Love the cello sound we hear soon afterwards – I’m a sucker for cellos.
Then, just as we think this symphony could go absolutely anywhere, the song fades out abruptly, and all too soon. That’s my only issue with Good Vibrations, that end fade. Well, that, and I love the extra, wordless vocal you get before the final chorus on some versions, and left in the new version Wilson included on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, released in 2004. That remake is an interesting listen, incidentally. I’m not sure if it’s due to the fall-out with Love, but Wilson opted for very different lyrics in the verses. They’re good, and the remake is very good in general, but they don’t beat Love’s.
You could argue that Brian Wilson paid the price with Good Vibrations and the aborted SMiLE, and was never the same again. But his loss was our gain, and how. All pathways were now open. The Beach Boys were on a creative par with the Beatles, and so began a psychedelic friendly war between the two groups that would result in Wilson losing his mind.
Written by: Brian Wilson & Mike Love
Producer: Brian Wilson
Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 November)