Watch Lost Studio Footage of Brian Wilson Conducting “Good Vibrations,” The Beach Boys’ Brilliant “Pocket Symphony”

After Bri­an Wil­son cre­at­ed what Hen­drix called the “psy­che­del­ic bar­ber­shop quar­tet” sound of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, he moved on to what he promised would be anoth­er quan­tum leap beyond. “Our new album,” Smile, he claimed, “will be as much an improve­ment over Sounds as that was over Sum­mer Days.” But in his pur­suit to almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly sur­pass the Bea­t­les in the art of stu­dio per­fec­tion­ism, Wil­son over­reached. He famous­ly scrapped the Smile ses­sions, and instead released the hasti­ly-record­ed Smi­ley Smile to ful­fill con­tract oblig­a­tions in 1967.

Smi­ley Smile’s pecu­liar genius went unrec­og­nized at the time, par­tic­u­lar­ly because its cen­ter­piece, “Good Vibra­tions,” had set expec­ta­tions so high. Record­ed and released as a sin­gle in 1966, the song would be referred to as  a “pock­et sym­pho­ny” (a phrase invent­ed either by Wil­son him­self or pub­li­cist Derek Tay­lor). Even the jad­ed ses­sion play­ers who sat in for the hours of record­ing — vet­er­ans from the famed “Wreck­ing Crew” — knew they were mak­ing some­thing that tran­scend­ed the usu­al rut of pop sim­plic­i­ty.

“We were doing two, three record dates a day,” says organ play­er Mike Melvoin, “and the lev­el of sophis­ti­ca­tion was, like, not real­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed at all.” The “Good Vibra­tions” ses­sions were anoth­er expe­ri­ence entire­ly. “All of a sud­den, you walk in, and here’s run-on songs. It’s like this sec­tion fol­lowed by that sec­tion fol­lowed by this sec­tion, and each of them with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. And you’re going, ‘Whoa.’” Wreck­ing Crew bassist Car­ol Kay, who sat in for the ses­sions but didn’t make the final mix, remem­bers think­ing, “that wasn’t your nor­mal rock ‘n’ roll…. You were part of a sym­pho­ny.”

Wilson’s pop sym­phonies were cre­at­ed and arranged not on paper but dur­ing the record­ing ses­sions them­selves, which account­ed for the 90 hours of tape and tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in expens­es, the most mon­ey ever spent on a pop sin­gle. He made cre­ative deci­sions accord­ing to what he called “feels,” frag­ments of melody and sound that formed his avant-garde pas­tich­es. “Each feel rep­re­sent­ed a mood or an emo­tion I’d felt,” he recalled, “and I planned to fit them togeth­er like a mosa­ic.” Not every­one could see the plan at first.

But when Wil­son final­ly emerged from months of iso­la­tion after cut­ting and mix­ing hours and hours of tape, the rest of the band was “very blown out,” he says. “They were most blown out. They said, ‘God­damn, how can you pos­si­bly do this, Bri­an?’ I said, ‘Some­thing got inside of me.’… They go, ‘Well, it’s fan­tas­tic.’ And so they sang real­ly good just to show me how much they liked it.” In the edit­ed footage at the top, tak­en over the six months of record­ing in four dif­fer­ent stu­dios, you can see drum­mer Hal Blaine, organ play­er Mick Melvoin, dou­ble bass play­er Lyle Ritz, and the Beach Boys them­selves all record­ing their parts.

To the press, Wil­son told one sto­ry — “Good Vibra­tions” was “still stick­ing pret­ty close to that same boy-girl thing, you know, but with a dif­fer­ence. And it’s a start, it’s def­i­nite­ly a start.” But the song — which he first want­ed to call “Good Vibes” — is very much meant to sug­gest “the healthy ema­na­tions that should result from psy­chic tran­quil­i­ty and inner peace,” wrote Bruce Gold­en in The Beach Boys: South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Pas­toral. In that sense, “Good Vibra­tions” was aspi­ra­tional, almost trag­i­cal­ly so, for Wil­son, who could not ful­fill its promis­es. Yet, in anoth­er sense, “Good Vibra­tions” is itself the ful­fill­ment of Wilson’s cre­ative promise, an eter­nal­ly bril­liant “pock­et sym­pho­ny” — and as Wil­son told engi­neer Chuck Britz dur­ing the ses­sions, his “whole life per­for­mance in one track.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Mag­ic of the Beach Boys’ Har­monies: Hear Iso­lat­ed Vocals from “Sloop John B.,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” & Oth­er Pet Sounds Clas­sics

The Beach Boys’ Bri­an Wil­son & Bea­t­les Pro­duc­er George Mar­tin Break Down “God Only Knows,” the “Great­est Song Ever Writ­ten”

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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