“When you listen to Pet Sounds, use earphones in the dark.” So said Brian Wilson of his 1966 masterpiece. And if that’s true – I’d wager it very much is, for the record – then follow-up single ‘Good Vibrations’ is a vivid, expansive masterpiece that needs to be heard in the blazing sun, with palm trees a-swayin’ and endless blue skies above. Everything about it is extraordinary, and the word technicolor doesn’t do it nearly enough justice.
This a capella version is currently doing the rounds on Twitter. Stripped of the incredible backing track (which was mostly played by legendary LA session team The Wrecking Crew, more of whom later), it’s a beautiful standalone piece of music in its own right:
Except… it’s a fake, diligently and expertly recorded by a fan and uploaded to YouTube at the beginning of March. Still though, at the very least it serves a purpose by offering a little insight into the mind of Wilson at his mid-’60s best. Like all The Beach Boys’ most impressive material, he helmed the ‘Good Vibrations’ sessions, and in this case they were mammoth – spanning six months of 1966 and leaving him with over 90 hours of audio on tape to whittle down to just over four minutes of released music. “The room had a spirit to it,” Wilson once said of his studio work on the song, but he’s modest and that’s only half the story.
“You knew that this kid was into something really, really great,” said session musician Carol Kaye of working with Wilson a few years back. In an interview with Jas Obrecht, the Wrecking Crew guitarist and bass player expanded on that sentiment, adding that in the 60s the whole team were “constantly” being amazed by his technical prowess and god given eye for melodic bliss. “He’s the one that arranged it all, and he came up with all the ideas and everything,” she said of him. “We met the other Beach Boys – they were really nice and all that – but it was Brian’s talent, really, that did all that stuff”.
Check out this clip from Denny Tedesco’s fine 2008 documentary about The Wrecking Crew of Kaye talking about the ‘Good Vibrations’ sessions, and Brian’s legendary bass line (which she played, superbly) in particular:
I interviewed Wilson a few years ago for NME, in a fairly soulless hotel room in London. It was a little tough at times – his speech wasn’t quite at 100 percent – but I found that whenever we pushed the conversation towards the music that inspired him most, he would suddenly jerk into life, becoming animated to the point where at one stage he was banging on the table and singing ‘Rock Around The Clock’ really loudly. It was great. Several times throughout the conversation he’d come back to the ’50s US vocal group The Four Freshmen, carefully explaining how important they were to him growing up. The group were progressive, blending big band sounds with intricate, ahead-of-their-time jazz harmonies. You can hear that right there, in spirit, on the glorious vocals of ‘Good Vibrations’, and highlighted in the YouTube effort I posted above.
There’s a whole wealth of real vocal-only Beach Boys stuff out there, if you were wondering, and it’s all a treat. For me, the a capella version of ‘Pet Sounds’ (the entire album), released in 1997 under the name Stack-O-Vocals tops them all. It’s a companion piece to the finished article, but it pushes those tracks you were born knowing and loving like ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and ‘God Only Knows’ in a completely new direction.
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Best of all from those sessions is ‘You Still Believe In Me’, which is completely mesmerising. Definitely listen to it in the dark with earphones.
One more thing: Wilson was just 22 and 23 when he made all this stuff. Makes you sick, doesn’t it? Don’t miss him when he plays what sounds like it will be his last UK tour here next month. There’s also this mammoth reissue of Pet Sounds, complete with rarities and outtakes, set for release on June 10.