The Beach Boys
1974: Capitol D 223559
Ill kick this off by getting to the point: I got this CD for Good Vibrations and thats why Ill have it from now on. Every other track on Endless Summer has been considered and reshelved indefinitely (probably permanently). And what I have to say about this recording wont be news to any aficionado of the Beach Boys or even of this song, and it probably wont be of much help to someone hoping to know more about Good Vibrations, but I do want to express my reactions anyway. You never know what might be enjoyed or helpful.
I only added this to my collection in early summer of 2005, and it was a direct consequence of acquiring the Dos Fallopia abum My Breasts Are Out Of Control, which includes an excruciatingly hilarious medley of surfin tunes (including four from this album) as delivered by Lisa Koch as Ethel Merman and Peggy Platt as Katharine Hepburn. I know thats a lot to imagine all at once, but it truly is sideswipingly funny, especially if youve seen Peggy do her Kate live (and I have and will never forget it). One of the Beach Boys songs briefly included was Good Vibrations, given unforgettably distinctive Hepburnization by Peggy.
After Id played it countless times to get the bulk of the laughter expressed at least for the first round of times, I thought briefly about how drastically recast these songs were in this version. And most of them, being just surfer-fluff, didnt require much consideration: I knew the songs, theyve been radio staples since before I was born after all, and theyre not exactly the deepest lyrics in the world nor the most challenging or evocative of song structures. Still, this is an important piece of musical history, whether its good or not, so having it and considering it is worthwhile if excruciating .
And then there was Good Vibrations. Upon reflection I noticed that while I was *aware* of the song and could immediately think of bits of it, I couldnt actually recall how the song went as a whole. This realization perplexed me and then vexed me, and finally I decided the only way to resolve the issue was to obtain a copy of the standard recording of Good Vibrations and actually listen to it from beginning to end. So, after assessing the array of available options online, I chose to kill two or three birds with one stone and get Endless SummerId get the track I was seeking in its classic form, Id get to consider it in the perspective of its antecedents, and Id have a CD with surfer tunes in case I ever needed them.
When the CD arrived, I sat myself down and listened to it from beginning to end. And I hated almost every minute of it. To reach surfin overload with this album doesnt take long, after all, but to simultaneously suffer the painfully sloppy vocal inaccuracy on top of that is really harsh. Still, I kept my finger off the Fast-Forward button and soldiered on, trying to hear something that would justify this stuff as anything more than the Spice Girls of the day. Nada. In My Room is obviously the exception amid all the disposable sameness, but even it is pretty juvenile. And the falsetto overload oh my god .
And then, at the bitter end, theres Good Vibrations, which absolutely wiped the slate clean and had me sitting up in alarm and confusion after all that pap. Repeatedly. I must have listened to it 20 times in a row before fleeing the apartment to have dinner somewhere I couldnt hear it anymore, and when I returned I played it another 20 or 30. And I spent hours surfing the Web for more info and commentary about it all. I was insatiable, needing to know everything about what Id heard and to answer every question racing through my feverish brain.
Id reacted, responded maybe, but to what? What was so compelling? Not the pastiche structureI didnt like it when Paul McCartney took it to his own extremes with Wings tracks, and although this predated those it wasnt any more magical for me. And the lyrics? No, I dont think so. It was a combination of three things, maybe four: the production above all, the resulting harmonies and their impressions, the vocal performances, and maybe the absolutely unique and startling place this recording had in Pop Musics history.
The recordings structure is the reason I couldnt think of exactly how it went: theres this bit I remember, and that bit I remember, but how do they happen in the same song? Or do they? It was a mystery then, and even now Im disoriented by it all. As I said, its a pastiche: there are bits of songs here all ostensibly linked and themed (some, such as the Gotta keep those lovin good vibrations happenin one, unsuccessfully). But most of the songs disparate elements are so GOOD (or at least viciously catchy) that the pastiche aspect doesnt matter when youre simply hearing the song. I recall reading somewhere that this was voted the best single of the 20th Century by someone or other, and while I dont pay any attention to such generalizations I can at least acknowledge a basis for the accolade. It was astonishing for its time, and its astonishing even now, nearly forty years later.
How so? An example: the unorthodox percussion elements. A relentlessly-sawing cello; a tap-dance step. This is the kind of stuff Björk was using in 2000, and its just as thrilling to hear now as it is to hear that it was used then (and I can only imagine what the contemporary reaction was, if there was any, to that kind of sonic sampling). And then theres the vocal performances, which range from general to loaded. In the latter category are the Oo, bop-bop backup bits which you would think are of absolutely no significance at all; instead their swaggeringly hubristic delivery arms them beefily with the machinery to not just carry the song along but to hammer out a message that this isnt just passive backup-singer stuff. Theyre practically shouting the bop-bop at times, like feral frat boys smirking as they reveal their wilder nature. And yet as they rise into the escalation of sonic joy they fuse seamlessly into the swirl with the other elements, losing all connotations and becoming percussive, tonal contributions to the shining whole.
Of course thats just one element in a constantly-evolving sonic picture, but thats the kind of thing that makes Good Vibrations so astonishing to me. The way the chorus (is it?) rises a full tone after each iteration, and then descends the same way near the end, is equally dazzling. If theres an aspect of superficiality or dismissibility to this track, its the lyric; by the end of the track, do you care? I sure as shit didnt. Im still reeling and asking myself what it was that still has me reeling, and if Im never sure thats O.K. by me.
What a stunning piece of work it is. I may have to dip into Brian Wilsons Smile! in its finally-realized form just to hear how he heard its relevance. Maybe not .
Comments © 2005 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.