Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 16: The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations"

Artist: The Beach Boys
Song: "Good Vibrations"
Album: Good Vibrations (single)
Year: 1966

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When a band finds themselves in a "zone," when literally everything they are creating musically is amazing, the door is often open for the most strange and surprising things to occur.  Whether it is some sort of musical "breakthrough" that ushers in a new era of music, or simply something inexplicable, it is often within these times that the most exciting musical events are to be found.  Then of course, if you add a certain level of "genius" into the equation, all bets are off, and in one case, the complete idea of "how" one records music was completely rewritten.  The year was 1965 and The Beach Boys were putting together a musical masterpiece that would become their album, Pet Sounds.  With Brian Wilson clearly overflowing with new ideas on music and harmonics, he spend much of 1965 and 1966 in the studio, and it is his unique vision that would lead not only to the sheer brilliance of Pet Sounds, but to a strange, album-less single that followed.  With Pet Sounds released in May of 1966, Wilson went back to a composition that he had been working with on and off again in different studios for many months.  The track, which in early 1966 was simply labeled "#1 Untitled" could not be completed in time for Pet Sounds, and strangely enough, once completed, it would be almost immediately released, pre-dating the groups' next full length album.  The fact that by this point, The Beach Boys were already a household name, and the "singles era" was largely over, the fact that the song was released without a full length record is a true anomaly.  Regardless, it only takes a second of listening to understand how truly special a song lives within The Beach Boys monumental 1966 single, "Good Vibrations."

Simply put, there has never been another song anywhere else in music history that even remotely sounds like or compares to the amazing sonic presence of "Good Vibrations."  In some ways, this is understandable, as Brian Wilson made his reputation as a musical perfectionist around this song.  Taking a few hundred hours and more than 50 different takes, as well as parts being recorded in a  number of different studios, it is "Good Vibrations" that solidified the idea of using the recording studio itself as an instrument, as Wilson used the different sounds that each studio brought to create deeper textures within the music.  This "sonic collage" of the different sessions was unlike anything else previously recorded, and The Beatles cited the sound of "Good Vibrations" as a massive influence on songs of theirs such as "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day In The Life," which employ the same musical approach.  Perhaps the most unique aspect of the music on "Good Vibrations" is the prominent use of an electronic theramin.  There have been claims that this single part of the song alone cose upwards of $15,000 to record, yet it gives the song such an amazing mood and in many ways can be seen as one of the most important innovations of the psychedelic music movement.  The quivering sound of the theramin, combined with the perfectly toned, bouncing keyboards play a brilliant compliment to one another, and there has truly never been another song that sounded quite like "Good Vibrations."

As was their signature aspect throughout their entire career, one simply cannot overlook that on "Good Vibrations," the harmonies from The Beach Boys are nothing short of stunning.  It is due to songs like this that one can make the case that The Beach Boys were the finest and most creative group when it came to harmonies, and to this day, few groups have even come close to the blissful sound of their shared vocals.  The way in which the vocals echo and soar across the song make this easily the greatest song in The Beach Boys' amazing recorded catalog, and Wilson himself often described the song as a "pocket symphony."  With Wilson and Mike Love handling the lead vocals, "Good Vibrations" perfectly sums up everything that makes The Beach Boys so fantastic, as the song works just as well in getting a listener up and moving as it functions as a relaxing song.  Along with the gorgeous vocal work on "Good Vibrations," the song also happens to contain some of the most beautiful lyrics ever penned.  Moving far beyond the love songs that had been written to that point, it is the way in which Wilson and Love created such vivid imagery through their words that made the song so special.  The songs' opening verse, punctuated by the lines, "...I hear the sound of a gentle word, on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air..." remains one of the most beautiful yet simple lines ever composed, and the way in which it is presented, the listener can almost smell this scent coming from the record.  Simply put, the absolutely phenomenal vocal work that The Beach Boys placed overtop the extraordinary musical arrangement places "Good Vibrations" high atop the list of the greatest songs ever recorded.

In many ways, "Good Vibrations" has a history like no other, from the lengthy recording process, to the fact that it was not released as part of an album, to the fact that during its first week of release, it sold at a rate of more than 100,000 copies per day.  While in modern times, it remains a radio staple and easily one of the most recognizable songs in the world, it is a bit odd, as the song itself is about as "free form" a composition as has ever been recorded, and the loose nature of the music and vocals defy any type of categorization.  The song is not rock, it is not folk; it simply is "The Beach Boys."  It is this aspect that makes the song all the more impressive, as in many ways, Brian Wilson was "creating from scratch" on "Good Vibrations," and it is also much the reason that there has not been a similar song since.  Also from this fact, one can make the argument that The Beach Boys were the most "forward thinking" and innovative group of the 1960's, though this is a title that is often given to a number of other bands of the era.  Whether it was using the theramin on record or "turning" the studio spaces into actual "parts" of the music, one cannot say enough about how much "Good Vibrations" forced other musicians to reconsider how they approached their musical creation.  Adding the unparalleled vocal dexterity for which The Beach Boys are best known, and one must remember that although they have certainly heard the song countless times, there has simply never been another song quite like The Beach Boys' monumental 1966 single, "Good Vibrations."

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