In late November 1965, The Beach Boys released “The Little Girl I Once Knew” as the follow-up to “California Girls,” the record on which Brian Wilson finally matched Phil Spector for orchestral grandeur – albeit with a more subtle layering than the towering Wall of Sound. “Little Girl” pushed Wilson’s ambition even further, not only instrumentally but structurally. Between the verse and chorus, where a bridge might normally go, Wilson instead illustrated the song’s theme of missing time by completely dropping all voices and instrumentation for a couple of bars, resulting in stark stretches of near silence. The Beach Boys’ most overtly experimental single yet also became the group’s lowest charting since 1962 – #20 for a group that almost never peaked outside the Top 10. Less than a month after its release, Capitol Records rushed out “Barbara Ann,” a throwback doo-wop cover from the Christmas market cobble-up LP Beach Boys Party!. It went to #2.
Undeterred, Wilson pushed forward with work on the ambitious, gorgeously-crafted album Pet Sounds. For all its subsequent plaudits as one of the greatest albums ever made, at the time its reception in the US was more muted, though the accompanying singles “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” restored the group to the upper ranks of the charts. Having successfully honed his elaborate-yet-pristine production style, Wilson returned to the structural experimentation of “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” but with a more radical bent. Spector may have referred to his own records as “little symphonies for the kids,” but beneath the orchestral ornamentation lay traditional pop framework. Wilson, in contrast, strove to create something symphonic not only in arrangement, but in form. Assembling songs in terms of classical movements would permit him to pursue his musical imagination in whatever direction it took him, rather tying him down to the repetition of the verse-chorus cycle. It also reflected the contemporary, proto-postmodern fascination with assemblage: William S. Burroughs’s cut-ups, Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, Bruce Conner’s montage films. While The Beach Boys and their collaborators constructed each of the elements they’d weave and mash together, Wilson would treat them almost as found sound. The band’s first attempt at this type of symphonic form took 17 recording sessions over a six month span; its $50,000 price tag made it almost certainly the most expensive single up to that point in time. Fortunately, it paid off.
“Good Vibrations” is a collage of six discrete sections, strung together in a form that can roughly be mapped as A-B-A-B-C-D-B′-E-F. The immaculate arrangements and harmonies within each individual selection collide with the dramatic shifts between them. (There are even audible seams between the first verse and chorus, and in the middle of the word “excitations” at the end of the second chorus.) Yet for all the unexpected musical left turns, it still manages to tell a coherent story, albeit with a sort of daydream logic. The narrator begins by admiring a girl’s beauty from afar; having recognized some sort of encouragement from her (real or imagined), his mind swirls into a spiral of fantasy scenarios.
A – “I, I love the colorful clothes she wears” – The minor key places our narrator as pining for the girl from afar, but the insistent rhythm hints that something’s building up. Both Carl and Brian Wilson sing on these verses, but their vocal lines are cut together to sound like one lone boy.
B – “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations” – Perhaps the girl’s shown a sign of interest in the narrator; perhaps he’s just got a feeling that today’s his day. Regardless, the song shifts into a major key, with busier backing vocals representing both joy and reciprocation. The teen-angel tenor of Carl/Brian is swapped for Mike Love’s grounded baritone: imagination gives way to reality, the boy grows up to be a man. The wobble of the Electro-Theremin spells out the weird-but-nice sensation of the title, but it’s the cellos sawing away on the bottom end that produce tactile vibrations.
C – “I don’t know where, but she sends me there” – The Beach Boys go psychedelic, at least in terms of what psych-rock meant in 1966 – i.e., Indian and Middle Eastern frills. But rather than shopworn sitars and tablas, this instrumentation is so exotic it can scarcely be identified. (I’m still not sure whether that barely audible whir in the background was produced by a musical instrument or a human voice.) The loping rhythm imagines a camel ride and predicts reggae. The key lyric is particularly apt.
D – “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her” – A moment of hushed solemnity with organ, soft shakers and the Boys at their most church choirly. The single lyric is chanted over and again, as if invoking a holy ceremony. Their voices briefly give way to harmonica, that symbol of ’60s authenticity and gravitas, before one last ecstatic, heavenly “ahhh.”
B′ – In sonata terms, the modified recapitulation of the primary theme. Note that while in its earlier iterations, each harmony line rose up a step, this time they descend – a settling down.
E – Wordless vocals and hardly any instruments, apart from tambourine. Language has reached its limits in describing this sort of joy. Maybe it’s even baby babble.
F – The vibrations get the last word. (Theory: the overt sci-fi weirdness of the Electro-Theremin acts as a Trojan horse for the song’s subtler structural weirdness, giving listeners something more familiarly strange to pin those unsettling sensations on.)
Perhaps one of the most mind-bending aspects of “Good Vibrations” is how it manages to pack all these elements into a brisk three and a half minutes. Yet for all its ambition, it never seems show-offy in a way that its imitators sometimes do. Instead, it feels like a genuine attempt to express a specific emotional progression, and does so in a way that never sacrifices the pop elements inherent to The Beach Boys’ sound (doo wop backing vocals, hooks galore). “Good Vibrations” marks the difference between psychedelic “expanding your mind” clichés, and music that truly ventures into unmarked territory, granting free rein to a fertile imagination.
While Wilson had managed to recover from the relative commercial disappointments of “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and Pet Sounds, the frustration and self-doubt of trying to follow the path set out by “Good Vibrations” would ultimately break him. The proposed LP Smile was supposed to best the relentless innovation of The Beatles; instead, Wilson burned himself out and more or less gave up. The Beach Boys, with Brian in a reduced role, continued to release (often terrific) music, but they had lost their breakneck creative and commercial momentum. “Good Vibrations” would end up as not only the group’s last number-one of the ’60s, but also their last Top 10 hit for a decade. The single that finally returned them to the upper reaches of the charts would be a flat cover of “Rock and Roll Music” – perhaps a conscious return to their appropriation of Chuck Berry on “Surfin’ USA” in 1963, back before they got mixed up with that experimental arty stuff. But even if “Good Vibrations” ended up as something of a dead end for the Boys themselves, countless of the group’s contemporaries and followers learned its lessons, concocting elaborate productions and stringing together musical ideas into an open-ended, free-flowing composition. Yet it would be a rare few who would manage to conduct the same electrical charge of The Beach Boys’ single, a record as exciting for its freshness and emotional verity as for the potential it represented for a new kind of pop music. 10
Hit #1 on December 10, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
176 of 1027 #1’s reviewed; 17.14% through the Hot 100