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Meaning

Surf Rock to Production Savant

For their first five years, The Beach Boys were really were just that. They sang about sun and surf, “so tanned” Californian girls and “stroked and bored” muscle cars. They were labeled America’s answer to the British invasion, but really they were California’s ambassadors to the world, the poet laureates of the SoCal scene, fantasy makers for the great-grandchildren of men who had nursed a different California dream.

But by 1966, the band’s biggest talent, Brian Wilson, was ready to move on. Far less a sun-happy beach bum than a troubled young man, he no longer toured with the band that had once been like a family to him. (Actually, most of the band WAS family to him. Members Carl and Dennis Wilson, now deceased, were his brothers, and lead singer Mike Love is his cousin). Studio musicians—first Glen Campbell (“Like a rhinestone cowboy!”) and then Brian Johnston—took his place on the road while he stayed in LA writing songs. Separated from the others and locked in the studio, he moved gradually away from his old surf and sun style. He experimented with reverb and electronic instruments (and drugs), and he incorporated dozens of sounds that he brought in from the street, like barking dogs and smashing cans. He also surrounded his melodies with orchestral arrangements that made use of more than just the usual drums and guitars.

Brian Wilson gave Beach Boys fans a taste of his new style in the 22-second introduction to “California Girls,” a twelve bar symphonette that incorporated an organ and vibraphone, saxophones, brass, and percussion. But the more complete expression of the new Wilson was Pet Sounds, an innovative album that many believe among the most influential in rock history. The album was critically lauded, but it received only a so-so response from the public. One track from the album’s recording sessions, though not included on the release, gave The Beach Boys their third #1 hit. Titled “Good Vibrations,” the multi-layered, production-heavy tune would eventually be recognized as The Beach Boys’ greatest contribution to music, Brian Wilson’s “crowning achievement,” and according to Rolling Stone, the sixth greatest song of all time.

Mama Wilson’s Dog

Brian Wilson later explained that the song was rooted in his childhood. His mother had talked to him about vibrations—invisible forces that filled the air. She illustrated the lesson by pointing out that dogs barked at some people and not others because they picked up “bad vibrations” from them. The whole thing terrified Brian; invisible currents floating around the cosmos and sending out messages to people and animals was spooky stuff.

But then there was a lot of scary stuff in the Wilson household. Brian‘s father, who served as The Beach Boys’ first manager, was physically and emotionally abusive. “Our father beat the $%!# out of us,” recalled brother Dennis. “His punishments were outrageous.” Invisible vibrations that could send a dog into a frenzy were probably the least of Brian’s problems.

But Brian Wilson carried these vibrational memories into adulthood, and when he and Mike Love sat down to write a song in 1966, he contrasted these invisible, “extrasensory” perceptions with the sensual sights, sounds, and smells that fill an encounter. The more tangible perceptions may strike us first—“the colorful clothes she wears, and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair . . . the sound of a gentle word . . . her perfume through the air”—, but this sensory input was complemented by sensations less tangible—the “good vibrations” that, when coupled to sight, sound, and smell, produced “excitations.” (We’re not gonna get into exactly what kind of excitations. You can ask your parents about that one.)

We Don’t Know Where, but Brian Wilson Took Us There

Wilson knew he was dealing with something sort of edgy here, so he tried to match the thematic concepts with some innovative music. And he was helped, he said, by an acid trip shortly before going into the studio. His earlier experiences with LSD had been bad, but this trip, Wilson said, was “four hours of enlightenment and spirituality." It left him with a sense of the “grand, Spector-like” possibilities of the song; “Good Vibrations” could be “the summation of my musical vision.”

Wilson recorded the song in four different studios, because they all had their “own marked sound” (Rolling Stone, 4 November 1976, 43). He used dozens of studio musicians and even more sound effects and atypical instruments—a Jew's harp, sleigh bells, a harpsichord. For the eerie vibration effect, he used a Theremin—at least, according to some. Among those who know the difference, there’s some debate as to whether it was a Theremin, a Tannerin, or, more mysteriously, “The Box.” What’s certain is that it was a funky electronic device used to produce sound effects for sci-fi movies and television shows.

The entire recording process spanned six months and consumed almost 100 hours of tape. More than fifteen recording sessions and an unheard of $50,000 were spent producing the final three-minute song (allegedly the Theremin production alone cost a cool $15,000). But by the fall of 1966, Wilson believed he had completed his masterpiece. “It was a feeling of power, it was a rush. A feeling of exultation. Artistic beauty. It was everything” (Rolling Stone, 4 November 1976, 43).

Bad Vibrations?

Unfortunately, not everyone liked the song. The Who guitarist Pete Townshend was among those who worried that “Good Vibrations” was part of a trend toward over-produced music. Even among the other Beach Boys there was resistance to the new direction the song represented, and it was understandable. “Good Vibrations,” Pet Sounds, the recording bells and whistles—these were not the same old Boys. Some of the guys liked their old style and old role as avatars of the SoCal surf scene. That was the tone that had made them the number one American band of their day. This new sound threatened to change their brand. The simple celebrations of California surf, girls, and cars may have faded, but it’s easy to argue that “Good Vibrations” was still California—just a different California.

New age-like ideas about good and bad vibrations, extrasensory dogs, and invisible cosmic forces? A vision fed by psychedelic drugs? Hollywood technology used to create an eerie mood more commonly heard in a budget sci-fi flick than a rock song? These weren’t exactly The Beach Boys that America had grown to love.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a fun bit of trivia for you: the Theremin/Tannerin/Box/whatever that Wilson used to make audible the world’s cosmic vibrations was later used in Lost in Space and My Favorite Martian. And like many Hollywood stars, it lived fast and died a distinctly Californian death: it was destroyed in an earthquake.

Moreover, from this point forward, The Beach Boys’ story followed what many would consider a “California script.” Brian Wilson sunk deeper into mental illness and drugs, only to be pulled back from the brink by unorthodox psychologist Eugene Landy. His “milieu therapy,” which incorporated everything from Gestalt theories to dousing patients with cold water and locking the refrigerator door, was a hit among Hollywood head cases. And he did help the struggling Beach Boy through his darkest phase. But beyond his 30k monthly fee, Landy also managed to secure producer credits on one album and a lucrative place in Wilson’s will. Eventually, Wilson took Rasputin to court, and eventually Landy’s license to practice was suspended.

The life of Brian’s younger brother Dennis contained equally dark chapters. He battled alcohol and drug addiction for years, and he drowned in 1983 after a day of hard drinking. An even more sinister and bizarre episode occurred in 1968, though. After befriending two female hitchhikers, Dennis’s home became the crash pad for Charles Manson and his “family.” Both Dennis and Brian thought Charles had some songwriting talent; Dennis introduced him to industry friends, and Brian let him use his home studio. Over time, however, Dennis grew afraid of the soon-to-be mass murderer and eventually disassociated himself from the group. But Manson had already picked up a batch of new connections from the Wilsons that would lead directly to the murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others.

Of course, California is not really all about new-age ideas, LSD, Hollywood sci-fi, and murderers and mind-fixers preying on the rich and famous (or at least not ALL the time). But it was never all about surf and sun either. The tragedy in The Beach Boys’ story is that, having helped craft one part of the California stereotype, they fell victim to another, even as they tried to forge a new direction for their music.
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