There is an unspoken rule in entertainment, that generally holds true for TV, movies, books, radio; in fact just about all of the arts.
It’s the ‘Law of Heaven’s Gate’, which states that the longer a project takes, the more people involved, and the more money hoovered up in the making of the project, then the bigger the failure that venture will be.
That, somehow, Brian Wilson, in between two eras that saw him having such a massive panic attack on an airplane that he stopped playing live for decades, and a period in which he ingested vast amounts of drugs and food, that left him both obese and mentally ill, produced the finest piece of recorded work of a generation is remarkable indeed.
Potentially, Good Vibrations was Wilson’s Heaven’s Gate. It took nine months to complete, cost $100,000, of which $15,000 was spent on one instrument – the newly popular (in 1966), and handily psychedelic sounding, theremin.
It should have been a disaster. It was recorded in so many stages that, at the time, those involved lost count. Nineteen musicians played on the finished track.
In the 1960s the press liked to follow an easy route by describing The Beach Boys as the ‘American Beatles’ and whilst this is an absurd comparison in many ways, the story arc that took The Beatles from ‘She Loves You’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is a similar trajectory to that which took the Beach Boys from tales of surfing and car races to ‘Heroes & Villains’ and ‘Hang On To Your Ego’.
Whether it was Paul and John that inspired Wilson, the other way round, or a bit of both, it is clear that in 1966, Brian Wilson held a magic wand as he conducted those nineteen players through the most startling piece of music, which, even in 2015, still makes the listener shiver when it suddenly shimmers through the radio.
Good Vibrations is symphonic without pomposity. It’s a love song which contains as many na-na-nas and do-do-dos, as reflections on the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.
If we read the lyrics, but had never heard the song, we might very well consider Good Vibrations was a leading example of bubblegum disposable pop.
Brian Wilson has a predilection for getting the vocal going within the opening bar of many of his songs, and Good Vibrations follows that rule.
Carl Wilson’s angelic “I, I love the colourful clothes she wears…” is accompanied only by Paul Tanner’s theremin, and Carol Kaye’s beautiful bass runs. At the twelve second mark they are joined by the player who contributes arguably the greatest slice of drumming you will ever hear on a pop record.
If Hal Blaine had never played the drums again after this recording, it should still have been plenty enough evidence to install him in the Hall of Fame, and for grateful nations to carry round banners and statues of his image every year on his birthday. Blaine has the wonderful talent of keeping metronomic time, whilst still adding in nuances, fills and spills, of which others can only dream.
Good Vibrations was an autumnal hit that both threw back to the summer just passed and gave a glimpse of the summer of love, the dawning of psychedelia, and the Laurel Canyon misty mornings of the coming months.
It heralded that brief moment in time, before Charles Manson and the Kent State shootings killed the dream, when anything seemed possible. Lyndon B. Johnson was consumed with his domino theory, and college kids were being sent to kill or be killed in Vietnam, but the alternative culture was showing a new way. Not just on Haight-Ashbury but in New York, Paris, and London.
Young people were beginning to believe there was an alternative.
Somehow, Brian Wilson captured that perfume and placed it into a three minutes and thirty-five seconds bottle of harmony and bliss. The song moves elegantly from the Carl Wilson/Tanner/Kaye/Blaine simplicity of the verses to the blessedness, the euphoria of the ‘Good, Good, Good Vibrations’ section.
“I don’t know where, but she sends me there”
The middle eight isn’t eight bars and it isn’t in the middle; but it is a wave of harmony echoing round a huge Phil Spector-ish cavern of sound.
It was as if Brian Wilson had climbed the Santa Monica Hills and returned with a new set of musical commandments.
Ninety hours of tape, seventeen sessions at four different recording studios, each part recorded at different times with as many different personnel.
It could so easily have been a Heaven’s Gate. Instead, Good Vibrations is the most influential pop single ever produced.
You can listen to the journey of the making of Good Vibrations, and nine different versions, from the earliest takes to the finished work at our Good Vibrations Spotify playlist
It’s a glimpse into heaven.