I, I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air.
I'm pickin' up good vibrations.
She's giving me excitations. (4x fugue)
Each night she's somehow closer now.
Softly smiles, I know she must be kind.
When I look in her eyes
She goes with me to a blossomed world.
[Chorus 4x fugue]
(Ah! Ah my my what elation.)
I don't know where but she sends me there.
(Ah my my what a sensation.
Ah my my heart's elation.
Ah my my heart.)
Gotta keep those lovin' good vibrations
A happenin' with her (3x)
Ah! Good vibrations!
[Sung fugue coda]
Much has been written of Good Vibrations, which strikes many listeners as an important piece of rock music, and even more so in the development of the psychedelic palette. This listener would rank it with Tomorrow Never Knows as one of the earliest successful examples of pop's first leap into using the medium itself as an instrument through manipulation of previously recorded sound. John Lennon & George Martin & Geoff Emerick explored distortion of sound as a sort of avant-garde, while Brian Wilson (mostly, it seems, on his own) explored the possibilities of precision editing of orchestration that spliced several tunes together. Brian Wilson called it “advanced rhythm & blues”, and Dominic Pryore, in his book Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece (2005) connects the Good Vibrations sound with early 1970s R&B orchestral songs like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Isaac Hayes’ Shaft.
I particularly like what Matt Bell wrote about Good Vibrations on the Sound on Sound website: "This is, in Brian Wilson's words, a 'pocket symphony'. It lasts just over three and half minutes but has as many dramatic changes in mood as a piece of serious classical music lasting more than half an hour. Good Vibrations doesn't use a guitar; instead it uses a solo cello and a theremin to build the rhythm section for one section, and in another section doubles a honky-tonk piano with a jaw's harp. The instrumentation changes radically from section to section; the bass plays in some parts but not in others, drums and vocals drop in and out, and the voices sometimes accompany fully developed backing tracks (such as in the chorus) and are in parts almost a cappella. The exotic instruments, the complex vocal arrangements, and the many dynamic crescendos and decrescendos all combine to set this record apart from most pop music. In short, if there's an instruction manual for writing and arranging pop songs, this one breaks every rule." This saves me some descriptive work. Thanks, Matt, I couldn't have said it better.
It strikes me remarkable that the famous theremin passage in Good Vibrations used the same instrument as in the TV show My Favorite Martian and the 1964 movie Strait-Jacket starring Joan Crawford as a madwoman. I'm told that this instrument is actually an Electro-Theremin, also known as the Polk Tannerin. [See Koldo Baroso's blog Intuitive Music]. I've also heard one of the outtakes of Good Vibrations where the Theremin seems to have a more pronounced "horror movie" tone. But that was not the tone that Brian Wilson required, and he found a way to have the same notes transmit outer space rather than insanity. Maybe it's the fact that the Theremin hits definite notes, another singer in the chorus, that helps convince the audience it's a higher level of consciousness that's being alluded to here.
It is well known that Brian Wilson was highly competitive with Lennon & McCartney during this particular period in their musical development. It is interesting to note that Wilson began work on Good Vibrations in February 1966, whereas Lennon began Tomorrow Never Knows two months after. Tomorrow Never Knows was released about two months before Good Vibrations. Both songs seem to have been the first conceived for a new album. With the Beatle's Revolver, Tomorrow Never Knows became the end song for all the others written after it for the album. Originally composed for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Good Vibrations was put aside to be worked on later and the album was released without it. It was a stand alone single until the Summer of 1967, while Tomorrow Never Knows remained an album cut. I would venture to bet that Good Vibrations is the most complex song to ever have made the top of the singles charts.
The production of the Good Vibrations is reported to have spanned seventeen recording sessions at four different recording studios, and used over 90 hours of magnetic recording tape, with an eventual budget of $50,000 (at that point the greatest sum ever spent on a single). The project hired a great many studio musicians and must have had a tremendous payroll. Brian Wilson was serious; he was set on making the most artistic record of pop music, and he was going to make it a hit! It was about this time that Brian Wilson started to think of himself as a genius. I don't think Lennon or McCartney took their musical compositions as seriously as Brian Wilson. Besides, Lennon's music seemed to tend toward confrontational, challenging art, whereas Brian Wilson seemed to be in furtherance of the Western aesthetic of the hip and beautiful, chic as Hollywood.
This was a time that generated a great many clichés in the media, "groovy", "far out", and "good vibrations" among them. At the time of this recording "good vibrations" was a fresh concept delivered straight out of California sunshine. Hippie talk in 1966 had begun to mention "vibrations" as the kind of feeling one intuited about a person or situation. Brian Wilson is picking up from current lingo here, much as Paul Simon had with his song The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy).
Although the woman described in Good Vibrations begins as someone enjoyed by the senses, she quickly seems to become the vehicle of dreams which take them both to a "blossomed world", a nirvana distinct from the singer's everyday reality. The parenthetical stanza (I don't know where but she takes me there) suggests being overtaken by a wet dream and then, in a post-coital glow, trying to hold on to the memory of it.
It should be noted that upon coming close to the finale of Good Vibrations, the music shifts into a comic vaudeville mode before returning to the initial theme and the Theremin. This comic opera closing just before the curtain turns the entire song into a performance, but by taking us out for a moment into traditional Americana, the resumption of the Theremin theme at curtain fall delivers a final eerie thrill before setting out quickly into an immediate fade.