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What's That Sound? How The Beach Boys brought us 'Good Vibrations'

America’s fascination with the outer space intensified during the 1950s when contending with Russia in a space race. Although oblivious of the scientific details, the space-age captured the public imagination and created a certain cosmic consciousness in the minds of the citizens. Music being the cultural product of socio-political-economic changes, reflected this fever through the mass production of space-themed albums and songs. The Beach Boys’ 1966 chart-busting single ‘Good Vibrations’ was one such song that shared an invisible link with the universe in more than one way.

The song title was, in fact, inspired by the cosmic vibrations. Brian Wilson, the main architect of this song, traced the source of this specific fascination to his mother: “She used to tell me about vibrations. I didn’t really understand too much of what it meant when I was just a boy. It scared me, the word ‘vibrations’. She told me about dogs that would bark at people and then not bark at others, that a dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can’t see, but you can feel.” He welded this concept with extrasensory perception or what is commonly called the sixth sense.

Being the costliest single of that time, it followed an unruly recording procedure that Wilson developed during Pet Sounds. Instead of coming to the studio with a written song, Wilson wrote it as the recording progressed. “I had a lot of unfinished ideas, fragments of music I called ‘feels’. Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt, and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic,” said Wilson, who preferred to follow an episodic structure while recording these interchangeable pieces of music. Determined to outdo the ‘Wall of Sound’ creator Phil Spector, Wilson pushed himself to the farthest limits of creativity: “I was an energetic 23-year-old. I said: ‘This is going to be better than [the Phil Spector production] “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

Approached by Wilson first, Tony Asher filled words into Wilson’s abstract idea. Asher recalled the jamming days saying, “He started telling me the story about his mother. He said he’d always thought that it would be fun to write a song about vibes and picking them up from other people. So as we started to work, he played this little rhythmic pattern—a riff on the piano, the thing that goes under the chorus.” As a matter of the fact, it was Asher who suggested replacing the “lightweight use” of “vibes” with the less “trendy” word “vibrations”. However, it was Michael Love, Wilson’s cousin and bandmate, who wrote the final lyrics of the song. In an effort to make the song relatable, Love based it on the vibrant Flower Power movement, intending to make it a psychedelic anthem. From Love’s standpoint, the song “succeeds in suggesting the healthy emanations that should result from psychic tranquillity and inner peace.”

Despite having a literally out of the world concept and transcending lyrics, the feature that summoned the public attention was the use of the Theremin. Originally invented by a Soviet physicist Leon Theremin in 1928, it was an electronic musical instrument that operated without any physical contact. The player, who had to be extremely skilled, moved their hands in the air in close proximity to the instrument to produce a vibrating sound. Simply put, it was a real-life manifestation of the imaginary air guitar sorts. The instrument added a brilliant parallel between the song’s theme and its use of a theremin; the player, in the dual sense of the term, never came in contact with the object.

However, The Beach Boys didn’t use an authentic Theremin in the track. The one they opted for was an Electro-Theremin that could be manually controlled with a knob. Developed by the famous trombonist Paul Tanner and the inventor Bob Whitsell in the 1950s, it became a favourite sound in films belonging to the horror-thriller genre. Not only was it easily operable, but also avoided complications that rose in traditional Theremin. 

The band hired Tanner himself to work on the project and even offered him to accompany them on their tours. Tanner, who was the most in-demand trombonist and Theremin player at that time, turned down the offer, jokingly saying: “I’ve got the wrong sort of hair to be on stage with you fellas.” The band never corrected the misconception and encouraged the audience to think that it was a theremin-based song for their own convenience. However disappointing that might be, their use of an electro-theremin changed the band’s soundscape and Western music’s soundscape on the whole.