This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #201: Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys.
When the list of all-time great bands is compiled, The Beach Boys certainly rank right up there with the best. During the heart of the 1960s, they enjoyed a string of hits that rivalled the best of the “British Invasion” bands. In fact, I have always maintained that, in many ways, the career trajectories of The Beach Boys and The Beatles are very similar.
For instance, The Beatles began their career at a church picnic while being teenagers. The boys in the band became friends through their teens and well into their twenties. The Beach Boys were a family of brothers (Carl, Brian and Dennis), with boyhood friends, Mike Love and Al Jardine. They bonded as teens and stayed a family-like group throughout the bulk of their early, hit-making career. Both bands started out with perfect Pop gems; The Beatles with “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do”. The Beach Boys with, “Surfin’ USA”, “Be True To Your School”, “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe”. The Beatles early rise was dubbed, “Beatlemania”. “The Beach Boys early rise was dubbed, “The Surf Sound”. After achieving mass success, both bands veered “off-course”, as the public may have thought, by beginning the early stages of experimentation with the use of new instruments, of introducing new sounds into their songs and, finally, of employing new recording techniques. For The Beatles, this resulted in ground-breaking albums such as “Rubber Soul”, “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper”. For The Beach Boys, it resulted in “Pet Sounds”. By the time The Beatles were releasing the likes of “Rubber Soul”, the boys in the band were dipping their toes in the waters of Eastern Mysticism. For The Beach Boys, this was the time that Brian Wilson asserted creative control and took his ideas to the level that straddle the line between genius and madness. It was at this phase of his music career that the idea of a song called “Good Vibrations” came to be. This was a song meant for inclusion on an album (called “Smile”) that was to be the follow-up to “Pet Sounds” but, which never saw the light of day. It also turned out to be the single most expensive song ever to produce; running into the tens of thousands of dollars and driving a permanent wedge between Brian Wilson and the rest of the band.
All through the career of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson was the creative heartbeat of the band. The Beach Boys were, initially, managed by Murry Wilson, father of the Wilson Brothers. At first, all was peachy as The Beach Boys harmonized their way into the hearts of all those who believed in the “California Sound” that they were promoting with their songs about girls and cars and surfing and school. But, as Brian began becoming more aware of the innovative steps The Beatles were taking with their music, he started dreaming of incorporating his increasingly artistic vision for his own music. So, when he first started to create the songs for “Pet Sounds” (which many people claim is, actually, a Brian Wilson solo project), the first thing he did was to stop live touring and become a studio-centric producer. He sent the rest of the band out touring with their greatest hits show and he stayed in his studio and began the process of revolutionizing how records were made. His father hated the new direction Brian was headed in. The acrimony that ensued went a long way toward some of the mental instability Wilson experienced in the years that followed.
In any case, Wilson began playing with the way The Beach Boys famous harmonies were recorded. He started to bring their voices in and fading them out at differing times. He added echo effects, as well as, adding new sounds altogether. He patterned what he was doing around Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique and, as such, Brian Wilson caused the harmonies of The Beach Boys to take on an almost human quality; breathing in and out, coming from all directions at the same time. There was nothing like it anywhere in the world at the time. As “Pet Sounds” unfolded, it also changed the focus of their music from the creation of individual singles, aimed at radio airplay and onto a thematically-cohesive concept-type album. When the rest of the band returned to the studio to hear what Brian had been up to, there were many arguments; not about the quality of the new songs but, about the commercial viability of what he had created as well as, about how they would replicate on stage what he had recorded in studio.
With this in mind, when Brian Wilson began formulating what he would do for a follow-up to “Pet Sounds”, he ignored his critics within the band and took his desire to experiment with sounds even further. “Good Vibrations” may seem like a typical Beach Boys song at first blush but, it is anything but. “Good Vibrations” was conceived as a means of describing the energy that humans give off as they live their lives in the world. If you remember, Pete Townsend of “The Who” tried to create an entire rock opera called, “Lifehouse” around this notion of cosmic vibrations. *(You can read that post, here). Brian Wilson was tapping into the same train of thought with “Good Vibrations”. To record it, he recorded thousands of individual snippets of songs, sounds and instrumentation from the band and from session players he hired specifically for this song. He recorded these fragments of sound at four different studios and then retreated into his own studio to assemble it all together; as would an artist using broken shards to create a mosaic tiled picture. In many ways, what Brian Wilson was doing with “Good Vibrations” was foreshadowing what Hip Hop artists would later perfect when it came to sampling and scratching and, which groups like “Radiohead” and artists like “DJ Shadow” have done with digitized sounds and recording techniques. For Wilson to have had the vision to manipulate sounds to produce cohesive harmonies, waaaaaay back in the 1960s, is just one example of his genius at play. The man was a prodigy in every sense of the word.
Well, by the time “Good Vibrations” was officially recorded, production costs had run into the tens of thousands of dollars, the time delay was well beyond what The Beach Boys were used to and the resulting song was something that was incredibly difficult to replicate live, on stage. By now, the schism that had begun growing between Brian Wilson and the rest of the band, blew wide open. A divorce, of sorts, took place. Brian Wilson descended into mental illness and a life bordering on the abusive and the bizarre. The rest of The Beach Boys tried to carry on without Brian Wilson but, were only a shell of their former selves without him. They have been a touring nostalgia act for quite awhile now; playing their early hits (along with a few later gems such as “Kokimo”) for adoring audiences who can’t get enough of that California Sound they are famous for.
As for Brian Wilson, he is enjoying a bit of a quiet renaissance. There is a new documentary about his life set to debut soon. I will include the trailer for his movie below. In the meantime, let’s all take a moment to watch and listen to “Good Vibrations” with a slightly more of a critical ear. The song that is washing over you is actually comprised of thousands of moving sound particles, all dancing together in a harmony that only a true artist, like Brian Wilson, could conjure. Here is “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys….a Brian Wilson Masterpiece…..enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, can be found here.
The link to the video for the new documentary on the life of Brian Wilson, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Beach Boys, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the best sounds by the best creators out there. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.