Behind the Song: The Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations”

“Good Vibrations” written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Recorded by The Beach Boys
Peak Chart Position #1 U.S. Billboard Hot 100

Videos by American Songwriter

Released in 1966 on a 7” single, the song, “Good Vibrations,” has a long and rather complicated story. In some ways, it’s emblematic of The Beach Boys’ fascinating and at times-tumultuous history. But we won’t distract with tawdry tabloid fodder here – no latter day lawsuits need complicate things. Instead, we’ll focus on the musical aspects of the illustrious, significant, influential and inspiring composition.

Written by Brian Wilson with lyrics by Mike Love, the music for “Good Vibrations” was stitched together from bits sonic movements Wilson had previously created. Putting them together, Wilson masterminded a complex sound like no other popular song. This was balanced by the pop, hippie girl-focused lyrics from Love (who is, incidentally, Wilson’s first-cousin).

At first, “Good Vibrations” was not well received by critics who expected more sunshine pop from the band, but those opinions quickly changed. Since then, outlets like Rolling Stone have gone on to say that “Good Vibrations” is one of the best and most significant rock ‘n’ roll songs of the 20the century. Here, we talked with Love, co-writer of “Good Vibrations.” We asked him about the track’s origins, what he thought of the song at the time of its creation and more.

When The Beach Boys were writing, did you keep in mind this idea of the “California Sound”? Or was that something that people talked about afterwards?

I think it was applied after. What it is, our sound, the way we sound when we sing, Brian had the amazing falsetto. I had that lead. We loved the harmonies. Carl had the guitar down. Dennis would bash out the drums. Al has really great voice in terms of harmonizing. So, that harmony was inspired by – the blend was inspired by the Everlys. But the complexity of the harmonies was inspired by the Four Freshmen, there’s no question.

It was a combination of rock and roll, the sophisticated, four-part modern harmonies, or jazz harmonies, along with the rockabilly timbre of the resonance and the harmony. So, it all came together. They call it the “California Sound,” but I think the falsetto singing really became an important part of that sound, and that was Brian on the top, unless he sang lead, like he did on “Don’t Worry, Baby,” which was amazing.

But the end of “Fun, Fun, Fun” when he took off at the end with that falsetto part, I said, “Oh my god, that’s going to inspire a lot of tickets written by the highway patrol.” It’s such a great song. You’re cruising along and here’s “I Get Around” or “Surfin’ USA” or “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Oh my gosh! It was just really, you know, increasing the heartbeat.

Did you really write the lyrics for “Good Vibrations” on the car ride over to the studio one day?

That is true. Brian had done several different versions of “Good Vibrations” and finally the composite, which was to become the track for the single, was arrived at. We had the sessions and I had not written – I came up with the chorus, “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations. She’s giving me the excitations.” I’d come up with that part but I hadn’t written the verses.

So, I’m driving to the studio and I told my then-wife, Susanne, who’s the mother of two of my children, Haley and Christian – Christian’s now in the band – but I said, “Take this down. I went, ‘I – I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.’” So, I dictated the words to her on the way to the studio. She has really nice handwriting. We showed it to Brian. Carl got a hold of it, sang the lead and then we did the chorus.

It had the structure of the track that had been refined and worked on, developed over several months. And then it had the spontaneity of the lyrics, which just came to me. During ’66, there was the Flower Power thing going on. Peace and love and all that kind of thing. So, I just envisioned a girl who was all into peace and love and harmony and all good things. That image of that spirit and that girl was what inspired the lyrics. Because the song itself was so unique, so avant-garde with that theremin part and the chord progression and the harmonies, I thought it called for a lyric that was of the times and inspired by the times.

When did the phrase “Good Vibrations” come to you and the band?

My cousin told me that my aunt, his mom, Aunt Audrey, said that dogs pick up vibrations, you know? They can hear different ranges than we can and they pick up vibrations. So, that’s where the song’s “vibrations” originally came from. But in the actual lyric, it’s “good vibrations,” which was inspired by this vision of a lovely young lady.

The music for the song was composed in these little parts. When Brian brought that to you, what did you think about it at the time?

I thought it was pretty amazing! I definitely said, “Well, this needs some unique lyrics to go with it, to compliment the song. To communicate the uniqueness of that song. So, I wrote the set of lyrics that he really liked. My cousin Carl sang the lead, we all did the chorus and it went to #1. It was our biggest-selling single in the 60s, surpassed only by “Kokomo” in 1988.

The song was so critically acclaimed. Did you have any idea its potential?

Not at the time. You always – if you’re in a group and you’re creating a song, you’re always hoping it goes #1. But there’s a lot of competition out there. So, it doesn’t always do that. But we felt it was completely unique and avant-garde. It was totally different. In fact, Cousin Brucey, who was the #1 DJ in America at the time on ABC in New York City said when he first heard “Good Vibrations” he didn’t like it. But he got to like it. Because it was so unlike “California Girls” and “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Surfin’ USA” and “Help Me, Rhonda” and all that. So, it took some getting used to. But, it certainly caught on and it was appropriate for the time. It was our psychedelic anthem.

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