How the Beach Boys Created Their Pop Masterpieces: “Good Vibrations,” Pet Sounds, and More

If you ever decide to lis­ten through the Beach Boys’ entire stu­dio discog­ra­phy, one album per week, it will take about six months. I know because I just fin­ished doing it myself, begin­ning with their sim­ple celebration/exploitation of ear­ly-60s youth beach-and-car cul­ture Surfin’ Safari and end­ing, six months yet half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, with the lush­ly ele­giac That’s Why God Made the Radio. Between those points, of course, came the songs every­one knows, the hits that made the Beach Boys “Amer­i­ca’s Band.” But as many times as we hap­pen to have heard them, how well do we real­ly know, say, “Good Vibra­tions” or “God Only Knows” — let alone the defin­i­tive artis­tic state­ment of an album that is Pet Sounds?

We can get to know them bet­ter through the work of the music-ori­ent­ed video essay­ists of Youtube, who in recent years have turned their atten­tion to the Beach Boys cat­a­log. Not that true pop-music obses­sives ever real­ly turned away from it: sure­ly, at some point in your life, you’ve met the kind of exegete intent on con­vinc­ing you of the artis­tic glo­ries of the minia­ture sym­phonies to teenage long­ing com­posed by the band’s mas­ter­mind Bri­an Wil­son. But today they can incor­po­rate visu­als into their argu­ment, as well as pas­sages from and ele­ments of the music itself, to more clear­ly reveal the for­mi­da­ble inspi­ra­tion and crafts­man­ship that went into these osten­si­bly straight­for­ward odes to love and good times.

Whether in 1966 or today, even an inat­ten­tive lis­ten­er can sense the scale of ambi­tion present in a song like “Good Vibra­tions.” As not­ed in Poly­phon­ic’s analy­sis, its pro­duc­tion cost between $50,000 and $75,000 ($370,000-$550,000 today), mak­ing it the most expen­sive sin­gle record­ing to date. But in its three min­utes and 39 sec­onds, “Bri­an Wil­son man­aged to put togeth­er a song dense enough that you could teach an entire course on it, all while main­tain­ing a devo­tion to radio-friend­ly, ear-catch­ing hooks.” The moti­va­tion to do this, so the leg­end has it, came from the Bea­t­les, who ear­li­er that year had rede­fined the very form of the album with Revolver — a response in part to Pet Sounds, itself fired by the ear­li­er inno­va­tions of the Bea­t­les’ Rub­ber Soul.

This friend­ly (if high-stakes) com­pe­ti­tion con­sti­tutes the back­ground of the nor­mal­ly Bea­t­les-ori­ent­ed chan­nel The Hol­ly­Hobs’ video essay on “God Only Knows,” a song so glo­ri­ous that even Paul McCart­ney names it among the best of all time. And it counts as but one of the high­lights on Pet Sounds, an overview of which you can hear in this Pitch­fork “Lin­er Notes” video. That video empha­sizes Wilson’s cen­tral role in the pro­duc­tion, some­thing that would be dif­fi­cult to over-empha­size: when for­mer Bea­t­les pub­li­cist Derek Tay­lor signed on with with Beach Boys, he based his whole cam­paign on the claim that “Bri­an Wil­son is a genius.”

What makes that true is the sub­ject of the video above by music-and-film Youtu­ber Jef­frey Still­well (He’s also cre­at­ed anoth­er video look­ing at the “lost years,” when a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly strug­gling Wil­son began to with­draw from the band, but kept on mak­ing music.) Only those who lis­ten to the the entire Beach Boys discog­ra­phy can ful­ly appre­ci­ate what Wil­son brought to the band, and per­haps more impor­tant­ly, how his work was enriched by the con­tri­bu­tions of the oth­er mem­bers. These include, among oth­ers, the orig­i­nal core of Wilson’s broth­ers Carl and Den­nis, Al Jar­dine, and even the oft-vil­i­fied yet ulti­mate­ly indis­pens­able Mike Love — not that “Koko­mo” is going to inspire a video essay any time soon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter Bri­an Wilson’s Cre­ative Process While Mak­ing The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds 50 Years Ago: A Fly-on-the Wall View

Hear the Beach Boys’ Angel­ic Vocal Har­monies in Four Iso­lat­ed Tracks from Pet Sounds: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B” & “Good Vibra­tions”

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd Get Bri­an Wil­son Out of Bed and Force Him to Go Surf­ing, 1976

The Sto­ry of “Wipe Out,” the Clas­sic Surf Rock Instru­men­tal

How “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er” Con­tains “the Cra­zi­est Edit” in Bea­t­les His­to­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (4)
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  • John Egan says:

    Decades ago, I had to dri­ve back to the Bay Area from Los Ange­les and a DJ spent about 2 to 3 hours devot­ed to the writ­ing and refine­ment of Good Vibra­tions… It began with a sim­ple ‘dum dum da da .. dum dum da da’ on the piano and was struc­tured from that using the LA stu­dio musi­cians, the Wreck­ing Crew.. The guy had all the tapes and by the time the tune was done in stu­dio, the rest of the band walked in and learned to play the var­i­ous parts so they could per­form on stage.. it was a bril­liant radio seg­ment. You can get a glimpse of that radio show on Youtube like this 4 minute seg­ment: The Wreck­ing Crew — Mak­ing of Good Vibra­tions — YouTube

  • John says:

    How could any­one write a piece about the beach boys , stu­dio bril­liance and not men­tion how the influ­ence of the wreck­ing crew effect­ed the record­ing sound of Bri­an Wil­son , it real­ly was­n’t the beach boys it was Bri­an and the wreck­ing crew , do your research .

  • Hélio Rocha says:

    Nice! But that IS actu­aly an
    essay on Koko­mo, by a Guy called Todd in the shad­ows.

  • tom brady says:

    Well In 1967 his next project would have changed was Smile which could have had a affect on the Bea­t­les mak­ing a album to top it which could have changed music total­ly. How­ev­er the one song from Smile which was released in the ear­ly 70’s was Sur­f’s Up which is a mas­ter­piece in its self. Anoth­er song which was release in the 70′‘s and is a beau­ti­ful song is Till I Die.
    G/V how­ev­er I feel is total­ly unrat­ed by the gen­er­al pub­lic and the music world. It may have been the best sin­gle made in the 1960’s.

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