There are few artists as intrinsically linked with ‘the sounds of the sixties’ than The Beach Boys maestro, Brian Wilson. The singer and composer has had a hand in some of the decade’s best tunes and inspired plenty more to boot. But perhaps one of his most potent and everlasting creations came straight from the heart and the words of his mother.
A number one hit is all well and good but you only really know you have a timeless classic when it’s allowed to age—gracefully or otherwise. It’s fair to say that The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ is certainly in that category. Not only is it a cheery pop song but also a subversive piece of artistic prowess. Wilson created the song following his interest in what his mother once determined as “cosmic vibrations” and how dogs would bark at people with bad vibrations. It was enough to spark some of the most well-known lyrics of all time.
‘Good Vibrations’ is one of The Beach Boys most ubiquitous tracks. Going a long way to help popularise the phrase, Wilson’s pop masterpiece from the Smiley Smile LP, the song, took a lot of learnings from Pet Sounds and saw Wilson try to enact his own version of the Wall of Sound. With help from Tony Asher, he got the lyrics moving too. “Brian was playing what amounts to the hook of the song: ‘Good, good, good, good vibrations.’ He started telling me the story about his mother,” Asher recalled. “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.
Wilson, at this time one of the world’s most cutting edge songwriters and composers, was enamoured with the track. It may have been the most costly single recording of all time when it was released but it was worth it. But aside from the complex arrangements and gyrating sonic landscapes Wilson was creating, the real moment of joy came from the vocals of Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Brian himself as they deliver a perfect piece of harmonisation.
It’s hard to get a flawless vocal track, Wilson recorded the vocals in three different studios, always seeking his layered wall of sound. But what we do have is a glimpse into the soaring heights the Wilsons and Love possessed in their singing voices. It was a vocal performance amply backed in the studio, something Wilson took a great deal of time over.
Backed by his band The Wrecking Crew, Wilson was at the peak of his creative powers but that didn’t mean he was speedy, by any stretch of the imagination. “By that time, Brian was showing a lot of genius writing,” says Carol Kaye, a Wrecking Crew bassist. “He was growing all the time and we didn’t know where it would end. I didn’t know about the drugs until later on, but he did start doing things in a piecemeal fashion. It was like he was scoring a movie. But 12 dates on ‘Good Vibrations’ – at three hours a date – is a long, long time to spend on one song. It was very unusual.”
It would be a word Wilson would become rather familiar with. Not only would his later personal life see him struggle with the perceived lack of normality around his situation, but in his style when creating music. He would sue a host of different instruments, ‘Good Vibrations’ naturally using the suddenly chic theremin to devastating effect. Wilson would often create fragments of music piece them together to make interesting shapes and patterns on the sheet. The method would see Wilson spend nearly seven months recording, arranging and finessing across four Hollywood studios, all for one song. It was dedication bordering on obsession.
It was worth it. The track remains one of the most textured, cultured and delicately balanced pieces of pop music you will ever hear. As poignant and poetic as it is catchy and luscious. It is without doubt one of the finest piece of pop music ever composed and a mark of the sheer genius, Brian Wilson had in his mind and at his fingertips, if he was only given the time.