The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations”

HIT #1: December 10, 1966

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

In 1976, Francis Ford Coppola disappeared into the jungle. Coppola, charged with goodwill after the success of the first two Godfather movies, wanted to tell a version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness that was set during the Vietnam War. He had a budget, and he was going to use it. But there were problems. Storms destroyed expensive sets. Marlon Brando was off in a whole different zone when he showed up. Martin Sheen had a severe nervous breakdown. Coppola spent years on this movie, going way over budget, and most of the people who knew about the movie assumed that he had a disaster on his hands. But when the movie came out in 1979, it was Apocalypse Now, and it was a masterpiece.

That, in effect, is the story of “Good Vibrations.” No studios got destroyed by typhoons during the creation of “Good Vibrations,” and Dennis Hopper did not foam formlessly into a microphone at any point, at least as far as we know. But “Good Vibrations” was a triumph of one man’s single-minded, possibly self-destructive obsession. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson had this idea of a song, but he hadn’t finished conceptualizing it when he started writing it. So he spent months in studios, finding sounds and discovering new ways to patch them together. He spent tons of money. He tracked down obscure electronic instruments. He alienated some of the people in his life. But when the song came out, it was “Good Vibrations,” and it was a masterpiece.

For a while, “Good Vibrations” was the most expensive song ever recorded. There’s no clean way to figure out how much its recording cost, since it was spread out over multiple sessions, in multiple studios. The people involved now put the price tag at somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000, which might not be enough to buy you a G-Eazy verse today. But at the time, when even the world’s most popular bands were expected to knock out multiple songs in a studio session, “Good Vibrations” was an almost unimaginable indulgence.

Brian Wilson didn’t write “Good Vibrations” in any conventional way. Instead, he shaped the song as he was recording it, using tape-splicing to edit pieces of tracks together. The song starts out verse-chorus-verse, but then it explodes into all these different little mini-movements. (Wilson called them “modules.”) And there are sounds in there that just weren’t on rock songs: seesawing staccato cello hums, reverb-drowned harpsichords, the eerie whine of the primitive synth known as the electro-theremin. Someone, most likely the Beach Boys publicist Derek Taylor, dubbed the song a “pocket symphony,” and it turns out to be a wonderful way to describe a pop song this devoted to transcendence.

“Good Vibrations” could’ve easily turned out to be an ungainly, puffed-up disaster, and plenty of Wilson’s peers thought that’s what it was when they first heard it. (Pete Townshend and Phil Spector have both gone on record talking shit about “Good Vibrations.”) But what’s remarkable about “Good Vibrations” is how it works. It has one hell of a chorus, for one thing, and as far as the song might dissolve into frippery, it snaps back into glorious focus every time that chorus comes roaring back in. And anyway, the group is singing about being newly and deliriously in love, and so the song’s atomized structure mirrors that feeling of disorienting euphoria. It really captures that moment where nothing makes sense and everything is beautiful, where the inside of your skull is some kind of spinning fuzzy kaleidoscope.

Wilson’s cousin and bandmate, notorious dickhead Mike Love, wrote the song’s lyrics, possibly while driving to the studio. He was dubious of the whole idea, but he went along with it. (Decades later, Love sued to get himself a co-writer credit.) And credit where it’s due: Love’s lyrics, which never get a whole lot of focus when people are talking about “Good Vibrations,” are pretty essential to the whole enterprise. The central idea of the song belonged to Wilson; he says the idea came from when his mother told him that dogs would bark at some strangers but not others because those other strangers gave off bad vibrations. Wilson was fascinated with this whole idea of extra-sensory perception, something that probably only got more interesting once he discovered weed and acid. But that two-word phrase is just the seed. Love had the unglamorous task of turning that into a workable pop lyric, and he aced it.

It’s such a great opening line: “I, I love the colorful clothes she wears / And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.” It’s loose and dreamy and lost. The other lyrics, like the bit about the blossom world, are less revelatory, but they all get that same point across. And Carl Wilson, who sang lead on the song because Dennis got sick, delivers them with a confused-but-contented sigh, the sound of a man at a loss to explain his own happiness.

“Good Vibrations” was, of course, a vastly important song. It came out after both Pet Sounds and Revolver — as well as all the Phil Spector records that Wilson so admired — so the world was already figuring out that the studio could be an instrument. But it must’ve blown people’s minds to hear that whole idea executed so brilliantly. (Imagine hearing “Good Vibrations” on pop radio for the first time.) It also set a whole new standard for psychedelic pop music, for the way it could conjure whole new colors and shapes. Prog came into existence pretty soon afterward, and “Good Vibrations” probably had something to do with that. It probably had something to do with more and more people using synths on pop songs, too.

All this historical importance wouldn’t mean anything if “Good Vibrations” weren’t a good song. But it is. It’s a fucking masterpiece. And a masterpiece is always worth a trip into the jungle.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the climactic and spoilery final scene from Cameron Crowe’s 2001 movie Vanilla Sky, where Tom Cruise discovers that his entire life is a lie as “Good Vibrations” beams ironic dreaminess all over the soundtrack:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the aforementioned G-Eazy rapping infuriatingly over a “Good Vibrations” sample on his 2011 track “Endless Summer”: