The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ at 50: A Masterpiece of Emotion as Much as Science
There’s little disputing the status of The Beach Boys’ pioneering psych-pop concoction “Good Vibrations” as one of the most well-liked songs of the rock era. A No. 1 hit on Billboard‘s Hot 100 upon its release in 1966, the reputation of the single (which turns 50 today) has only grown in the five decades since, held up as a marvel of production, composition and innovation — the crown jewel of principal singer/songwriter Brian Wilson’s towering discography. A regular fixture on greatest-of-all-time song lists, music-crit aggregation service Acclaimed Music currently has it ranked No. 4 on their list of the best-rated songs ever, behind only Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
There’s a difference between being well-liked and beloved, however, and for as much praise as “Good Vibrations” has received over its half-century of existence, the song has found itself on the left side of that divide with surprising frequency. A number of pop and rock luminaries of Wilson’s contemporary — some of the only dudes who could really be considered his peer — have been strikingly tempered and qualified in their praise for his most legendary A-side.
Phil Spector, whose work on the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” Wilson to top with “Vibrations,” expressed his admiration-not-affection for the work with an Alfred Hitchock analogy: “It’s like, Psycho is a great film, but it’s an ‘edit film.’ Without edits, it’s not a film; with edits, it’s a great film. But it’s not Rebecca. It’s not a great story, it’s not a beautiful story.” Paul McCartney, whose Beatles had a friendly recording rivalry with The Beach Boys in the mid-’60s, called it “a great record,” but added that “it didn’t quite have the emotional thing that Pet Sounds had for me” — referring to the LP of confessional symphonies that preceded “Good Vibrations” in 1966 to significantly less commercial success, but which has endured as their full-length masterwork.
McCartney’s sentiment is particularly telling, as it really gets to the heart of why a good number of rock fans keep “Good Vibrations” at a relative distance. Because there’s clearly no denying the song’s structural ingenuity, which places it as something like the Fallingwater of pop music. From the in-media-res beginning through its melodic mood swings and stunning tempo changes — encompassing heart-racing cellos, spine-melting harmonies and pop music’s most famous theremin hook (which wasn’t actually played on a theremin) — “Vibrations” is radioactive with brilliance throughout, in a manner essentially unprecedented for a Top 40 hit at the time.
Is it as emotionally resonant as the proto-emo anthems on Pet Sounds, though? It certainly doesn’t hit the same notes of grown-too-fast insecurity that make “That’s Not Me” or “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” so upsetting and recognizable. You can’t really get married to it, as you conceivably could with love-of-a-lifetime ballads “God Only Knows” or “You Still Believe in Me.” It’s not as heart-rending as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” or as stomach-punching as “Caroline No.” Indeed, if you were going to associate a body organ with “Good Vibrations,” it would undoubtedly be the brain; an obviously cerebral 3:39 that takes the Jackie Treehorn approach to love-song writing.
But writing off Wilson’s masterpiece of the mind as being fundamentally heartless is reductive and inaccurate. The true brilliance of “Good Vibrations” comes in the juxtaposition of its architectural perfection with its absolute emotional incoherence. Sonically, as orchestrated by Wilson, the thing is immaculate and considered enough that the term “pocket symphony” basically had to be invented for it. Lyrically, as penned by Beach Boys lieutenant Mike Love, it’s almost total mush, with mumbled couplets you couldn’t pick out of a lineup (“When I look in her eyes / She goes with me to a blossom world”) and notable over-reliance on the is-that-really-even-a-word “excitations.” “‘Good Vibrations’ was probably a good record but who’s to know?” The Who maestro Pete Townshend once groused about the song. “You had to play it about 90 bloody times to even hear what they were singing about.”
That’s kind of the point, though: “Good Vibrations” finds its power through communicating love’s elemental inarticulateness. The entire song echoes the synapse-firing confusion of being emotionally short-circuited; oscillating wildly between the creeping tension of the verses and the head-rush wooziness of the chorus, as a jumble of thoughts and feelings fight each other for space in an over-stimulated inner monologue. It mostly reads as a mess, because of course it does. The music of “Vibrations” is as carefully crafted and cleverly persuasive as you could ever hope to be when expressing your feelings. The words of “Vibrations” are as garbled and confusing as they tend to actually come out.
However, Wilson and Love do get head and heart to match up on one single occasion in “Good Vibrations,” and appropriately, it’s saved for the clangorous mid-song climax: “I don’t know where, but she sends me there.” It’s a simple line, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a much better one throughout pop’s entire back catalog, at least when it comes to conveying how the emotional rush of young love exceeds the mental capacity for cognitive processing. The Beach Boys don’t know what they’re feeling on “Good Vibrations,” but they certainly know that they’re feeling it, and that disconnect should be as relatable to anyone listening as anything Wilson ever wrote about getting angry at his dad or being totally dependent on his girl.
You could teach an entire college course on “Good Vibrations,” analyzing Wilson’s many-sided jewel from a countless number of perspectives, but that one lyric is all you really need. Some love songs try to write from the head, and some from the heart, but “Good Vibrations” is one of the only ones daring enough to do both simultaneously, attempting to reflect the human reality of never being able to totally turn off one or the other (or to cut off communication between the two). That it does so successfully is the real reason we’re still talking about it half a century later.