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.”