I read an article once, on The Guardian, about how 1966 was the best year in the history of pop music. You can check it out here. And, as we reach the penultimate #1 of the year, you look around and pretty much have to agree with them. Yes, the standard of chart-topper has been ridiculously high since mid-1963, while 1961 was eclectically fun and there were a few months in 1957-58 when every rock ‘n’ roll legend around was lining up for their moment in the spotlight… But 1966 beats them all. Because 1966 has this song.
Good Vibrations, by The Beach Boys (their 1st of two #1s)
2 weeks, from 17th November – 1st December 1966
How to even contemplate writing a post on ‘Good Vibrations’? How to say anything remotely original, anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. The genius of Brian Wilson… The hundreds of hours of tape… The synthesisers… The expense…. You’ve heard it all before.
So let’s listen to it, then, as if it were the first time we were ever hearing this hot new single from America’s biggest band. The follow up to their smash hit ‘God Only Knows’. Is this the disc to give them their long-overdue 1st British #1…?
It comes in all dreamy, and echoey. Angelic vocals and a shimmering backing track. I, I love the colourful clothes she wears… It’s trademark Beach Boys – high-pitched harmonies – but completely different to, say, ‘Barbara Ann’. And when the drums come in, like a drunken horse clomping around its’ stable, it’s gorgeously woozy.
Then woosh! We’re into the chorus. Not hanging around. That insistent bassline. The UFO stylings of the Theramin. I’m pickin’ up good vibrations, She’s givin’ me the excitations… Perfectly nonsensical pop lyrics. More harmonising. Good – ba-ba – Good vibrations – ba-ba…
Verse II. Snap back to woozy bliss. I… I look in her eyes, She goes with me to a blossom world… Trips? To different worlds? Is that a drug reference I smell? Are you boys smoking pot down there…? It’s the summer of love come six months early. Repeat the chorus. You can tell that they were stitching different pieces of music together, in the way that the song swerves this way and that, but it never sounds forced.
Then another sharp turn, into jingle-jangly Baroque pianos. Things get woozier. I don’t know where but she sends me there… We’re mid-trip, but we don’t have time to relax. Because now we’re at a funeral. At least, there’s a funeral organ, and a plaintive chant: Gotta keep those love-good, Vibrations a-happenin’ with her… Which fades away and is replaced by a home-on-the-range whistle, and a throbbing bass… Aaaaaahhhhhh!
Good, good, good, good vibrations…! And then by the time you get to the layered na-na-na-nas you just want to say ‘Alright, boys, you’re just showing off now…’ Cue the fade-out, with the Theramin to the fore, as the aliens come and beam us all up. Phew.
It’s still The Beach Boys; but in a dimension we’ve never been to before. And it’s still a pop song; but one from a planet we’ve not managed to reach yet. The sonic shock you get when you hear it, alongside its contemporaries, is similar to that felt from ‘Telstar’, in 1962. Another record from another planet.
That was fun! I have to admit that for years I’ve viewed ‘Good Vibrations’ as a sort of museum piece – a work of art to be admired, but not enjoyed. Best viewed from afar. That happens with ‘The Classics’. ‘Good Vibrations’ would never crop up in any of my playlists. But maybe it should. Maybe I’ll add it today. It stands up as a pop song. At heart it’s a ditty about falling in love at first sight. Musically, it’s outrageously creative without being pretentious. Perfect.
I love that this was The Beach Boy’s first UK #1. Slamming right in at the top with a little disc called ‘Good Vibrations’… Of course, it wasn’t their first hit. In 1966 alone, they’d had two #2s, with ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Sloop John B’. In their native US they were huge, and had been for years. The only reason they took a little longer to take off in Britain is that their early surf-rock songs didn’t resonate on an island where any attempt at surfing usually ends in frostbite.
‘Good Vibrations’, and the ‘Pet Sounds’ album that preceded it, was a line in the sand. The Beach Boys were upping their game, and were ready to take on the British big boys: namely John and Paul. Anyway… You can read hundreds of more sophisticated analyses of ‘Good Vibrations’ – the record that changed pop music. You know where to find them. If, though, for reasons best kept to yourself, you have never heard ‘Good Vibrations’ before (or even if you’ve heard 1000 times already) press play on the link below, and get yourself some excitations…