"Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys' 1966 entry into the best-single-of-all-time sweepstakes, announced the coming era of pop experimentation with a rush of riff changes, echo-chamber effects, and intricate harmonies, plus the very first theremin ever heard on a pop record. The natural grace of the song belied the months of recording and mountain of tape reels it required, however. Though Brian Wilson's self-described "pocket symphony" was his masterpiece, its creation effectively put the coda on his production career and he was never the same again.
"Good Vibrations" began its long journey through popular culture in February 1966, more than ten months before it was released. It was originally slated for the Beach Boys' brilliant 1966 LP Pet Sounds, though, by April, Wilson realized that he couldn't possibly devote the time he needed to finish the song for the album deadline. After Pet Sounds appeared in May 1966, the Beach Boys were praised around the world as the ambassadors of truly intelligent pop music. American record-buyers virtually ignored the album, though, leaving Wilson no choice but to prove to everyone that the Beach Boys -- not the Beatles -- were the most forward-thinking rock & roll band on the planet. He worked feverishly during the summer and fall, recording dozens of takes to create hundreds of individual musical snippets that eventually resulted in 15 to 20 different versions of the song. Wilson moved from studio to studio -- Western, RCA, Goldstar, Columbia, then back to Western -- searching for the right sound, and used more than 90 hours of recording tape. In the end, "Good Vibrations" cost over 50,000 dollars to produce, making it one of the most expensive singles recorded up to that point.
Finally released in October, "Good Vibrations" immediately stormed to the number one slot, driven by sales reported to have reached almost 100,000 records per day in the first week (with an additional tens of thousands back-ordered). It eventually sold over 1,000,000 copies. The single is so catchy it's no wonder radio stations played it to death, but "Good Vibrations" is an amazingly free-form song. It's just barely connected to the verse-chorus-verse standard for pop songs, continually switching from section to section -- all of them just partially related -- in a fragmented style that allies it with the cut-and-paste efforts of '60s experimentalists like William Burroughs. It utilized every one of the session-master instrumentalists Wilson had collected during the previous few years, plus a few unlikely instruments including cellos and a theremin. The latter, an electric instrument whose invention dated to 1919, produced an eerie, high-pitched tone that modulated its pitch and volume based on the player's hand movements above and next to the instrument. Radio listeners could easily pick up the link between the title and the obviously electronic riffs sounding in the background of the chorus, but Wilson's use of the theremin added another delicious parallel -- between the single's theme and its use of an instrument the player never even touched. Though its influence has been lasting, "Good Vibrations" was rarely reprised by other acts, even during the cover-happy '60s. Its fragmented style made it essentially cover-proof, and artists attempting to try have usually stamped their own style on the song -- from Groove Holmes to the Troggs and Charlie McCoy to Todd Rundgren and Psychic TV. Also, Wilson himself revisited it in April 2004 when recording a new version of SMiLE.