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The Story Behind the Making of ‘Good Vibrations’

by joy ellen sauter 4 months ago in history

Brian Wilson teaches us how to experience joy, even during dark times

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It was almost sunset on the sunset strip. The palm trees a shadow in the sky as the winds rolled down the canyon, soft and warm. The end of another sunny day in southern California.

It’s February 1966, and the traffic just a fraction of today. Car exhaust drifting through the air, Brian Wilson headed to another studio to create music with another group of studio musicians. He needed to get the music out of his head. It was the fourth time he was recording music for one song: Good Vibrations.

Brian Wilson was never a surfer, he left that to his younger, better looking brother. Dennis had the chiseled look of an athlete, and the energy to keep up with many girlfriends.

Brian was taller, and quieter. He didn’t feel comfortable around strangers. He didn’t feel comfortable around most people.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her”

Brian spent hours in high school listening to “The Four Freshman.” A jazz vocal group far separated from Elvis Pressley. Brian was obsessed with the four part harmony. Writing each part of the harmony across a giant chalkboard, over and over.

He could hear the harmonies in his head. Four different notes making one unique noise. He could hear all the parts as he played them out on his family piano at home. His dad was a musician who failed to find success.

The harmonies became a sense of calm. Sometimes, Brian got a funny, but dystopian feeling through his heart. Making it pound in his chest so hard he thought it might explode. No one had used the word anxiety, yet.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her”

When he laid in bed at night, the harmonies would help soothe him to sleep. He would mix them up in his head, and the musical distraction calmed his brain enough to fall asleep. Even at school, when his mind would drift off during biology class, the music would help him escape the boredom. The harmonies made the pounding of his heart stop.

Brian taught his brothers, Dennis and Carl a few harmonies one afternoon in the bedroom they all shared. For his 16th birthday, Brian got a reel to reel tape recorder. For Christmas that same year, Brian and Carl each got their own guitar. Their dad encouraged their interest in music, which was a welcome change from the physical abuse they typically endured.

Brian stayed focused on harmonies. He desperately wanted to create the sounds in his head, the ones that were the most calming.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her”

Sometimes his mom joined in, and in time, his dad joined. All of them harmonizing together while his dad played piano. Brian often stopped their living room performances multiple times to correct his brother or mother. Often frustrated their harmony was off, or out of tune with the sound in his head..

His brothers called him Stalin because of his militant perfectionism around their family bonding times. The nickname stuck.

At a family reunion, Brian felt his usual awkward self. He sat on a park bench wringing his hands. Quietly calming his pounding heart. Two distant cousins plopped down on the bench beside him, unaware of Brian’s existence.

Brian leaned over and asked them if they wanted to sing a song with him. The girls, hesitant because of Brian’s abruptness. His strangeness was curious and disarming. They said yes.

Friends and family described Brian as a weird guy, but a guy whose honesty and kindness made him highly respected. His brothers protected him from the rest.

As the three cousins started harmonizing. Another cousin was listening by a tree. Mike spent hours in his bedroom singing along to the latest hits, and he thought he was a great singer. This was his time to show off in front of Brian.

Brian asked him to join his band on the spot.

“Gotta keep those lovin’s good vibrations a-happening with her.”

Brian used emergency food money to buy drums, a bass, and an amplifier. The newly erected band practiced in the brother’s garage, their rudimentary sound bouncing off the walls of the garage. The wind carrying it up and over the freeway. Soft musical interludes, harmonized lyrics. They kept practicing, and got better.

Brian wrote songs about what was important to him as a young man. He liked the car he shared with his brothers, girl watching, and the warm southern California sunshine. The sound of the pacific ocean as it slammed into the sand. The feel of sand on his toes.

The things that calmed his pounding heart.

“Gotta keep those lovin good vibration a-happening with her”

Other people liked Brian’s songs, too. Before long his dad was running around to every record company with a tape of Surfin’ Safari. A record company signed them, and named them The Beach Boys. Nobody cared about the name. The sound was what mattered.

Their harmonies were infallible, and catchy, against the backdrop of a soulful mix of rock and jazz. Brian started to get bored writing, and his lyrics started to talk about not fitting in and an immense sadness.

Brian got depressed sometimes, he knew he had anxiety. The music in his head, though, was happy. Instruments belting out “The California sound.” That’s the name some music writer called it. The carnival piano, sleigh bells, and barking dogs. The sounds of happy times. The sound of beauty. The California Sound.

Brian Wilson’s sound. An easier time. A slower time. Music taking the day off, and soaking up the sun. A day without a plan, or responsibilities.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with you.”

The Beach Boys went on tour, and played on every TV show, and every city with a stadium. Without a routine, without a way to shut out the world with four part harmony, Brian started to suffer. Mental illness works this way. Brian had an anxiety attack on a plane ride to Texas.

He heard a voice telling him he was going to die. His brothers held him in their arms as he cried. When the plane landed they called their mom. She flew out to take Brian home.

At home he didn’t want to rest. He wanted to escape. Disassociate from it all. Sail through the sky with the sound of his music. Just live in the music wrapping him safely like a cloud. Away from people. Away from The Beach Boys

He didn’t tell anyone about the voices.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening to her”

Brian wasn’t depressed. He had the calming music in his head. He hired a band called “The wrecking crew” to play his music in the studio. Despite their name a seemingly monstrous heavy metal band, they were actually studio musicians behind most of the 1960’s girl group singles, and Phil Spector’s wall of sound.

It was a mix of sometimes twenty three different orchestral instruments, from French Horns, to the flute, and a mix of rock instruments. Brian knew the sound he had in his head, the driving force behind much of his previous music. It was the music that made his arms spring up high above his head. A smile, sometimes, and the tapping of his foot.

It was beyond the sound of California. It was the sound of turning it off, and tuning it out. A collection of happy notes that lifted Brian out of his sadness, quieting the voices in his head he was still secretly experiencing.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her”

The “Wrecking Crew” often referred to Brian as “dog ears” because he seemed to hear music no one could hear. He spent tireless takes, sometimes hours on one percussion section.

“The joy, sadness, pain, and anger of growing into an adult”

Brian kept recording the calming music in his head, even bringing a horse into the studio for the sound of its hooves. The sound wafting through the tiny studio, filling the sound booth like an ocean breeze. Cocktail in hand. Meeting the California sun with the cool night, warm breezes blowing your hair, the smell of oranges.

The melancholy lyrics filled in the spaces where the music was quiet, waiting for instructions from a soulful and sensitive voice. Sparks about crying, lost love, not fitting in, depression, and longing that ached his heart.

The first track, “Wouldn’t it be nice” seems like a song about young love. It is also a yearning for rock and roll music to be older. It’s a calling for the entire music industry to grow up. Moving Rock and Roll music from simply popular singles on the radio, to an enduring piece of art.

A permanent place in time, pushing the boundaries of social dialogue and activism, but also a reflection of the world each artist was experiencing.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a -happening with her”

Halfway through making music, Brian recorded “God only knows” a quintessential love song that is universal in its love language. Lyrics are soft, but determined to press forward with a life and death experience of love.

A simple love song written to music itself. Brian couldn’t imagine living without the music living in his brain. The music, the instruments, each and every one was heard individually in his mind. It was the only way to keep going.

It’s the sound of love, tapping your foot to the ideas of what makes you happy. What keeps anxiety and depression away. Brian often called them good vibes, or the vibes that dogs can sense about people. Their vibrations.

Top down in the California sun, Brian drove to four different studios to record Good Vibrations. He used “The Wrecking Crew,” but also used various studio musicians and produced ninety minutes of music. In various keys, tempos, and octaves, Good Vibrations became four songs in one.

The sound of music in Brian’s head, The joyful sound meant to keep the voices away. The sound he heard as he drifted to sleep, and woke up every morning. The mix of it. It’s a celebration of musical diversity, put together so separately but so together.

“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her”

Pet Sounds is a window into the open and vulnerable ideas that simply changed the world. A love letter to music itself through an existential lens.

Nobody liked it at first, except Paul McCartney. He cried when he heard it. It inspired Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was the answer to Brian’s feelings of not fitting in, and his sadness.

It’s incredible to image The Beatles “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and “Fixing a Hole” as a personal message to Brian.

Brian couldn’t keep the voices in his head under control, deteriorating in his illness. He could no longer make new music. He didn’t need to- he was forever loved for sharing the calming music in his head.

Those good vibrations that help all of us find the positive, the inspiring, the heart of living every day.

joy ellen sauter
joy ellen sauter
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joy ellen sauter

Joy lives in Seattle, Washington, but is a native east coaster. She has kids and dogs- all adopted through foster care. She writes about mental health, history, pop culture, foster care, trauma, human rights, and parenting.

See all posts by joy ellen sauter

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