(Above: Two copies of the same song, released 50 years apart.)
This week marked the 50th anniversary of, what was at the time of its production, the most expensive rock and roll single ever made. “Good Vibrations” cost a cool $75,000 to produce in 1966 – about a half a million bucks in today’s cash. (By comparison, the Beatles’ Please Please Me LP cost about $800 to create.) Delays in getting the sound just right kept it from being included on the already amazing Pet Sounds LP. Over the years I’ve consistently ranked Pet Sounds as the second greatest album ever made, behind Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. I imagine that if this single had been done earlier, the argument would have been moot.
Much has been written about the group and their songs. I had the opportunity to talk to Brian Wilson a few years ago. I tried my best to not let it be my Chris Farley moment. It was tricky, though, since I so badly wanted to to just say “Remember when you were in the Beach Boys?” In part, though, it may have been because I couldn’t remember a time when the Beach Boys weren’t a part of my life. One of the original singles I managed to get from my parents was “Wouldn’t It Be Nice/God Only Knows,” which makes a strong case on its own for the greatest single ever released. By the fifth grade we had all started to raid our parents’ collections, and the Beach Boys realized a resurgence in the fifth grade at Helen Keller School. (I should clarify: the girls in the fifth grade took an interest in the Beach Boys, and some of us had started to take an interest in the girls in the fifth grade. Therefore, musical tastes were fluid out of necessity.) Singles like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “In My Room” advanced among my favorites.
But “Good Vibrations” stood out from those songs. It was different. Even at ten, I could tell it was different – but it was missing from my collection. It wasn’t until I was in high school, old enough to take Metra into the city, transfer to the #22 CTA bus, watch for the corner of Clark and Deming, and make my way to Second Hand Tunes, a Lincoln Park record store that is long gone. It was there that I landed some of the prizes of my high school collection: a clean copy of the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, a copy of Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be The Day that I have informed my family that I WILL try to rescue in the event of a fire, and – one day in 1984 – the picture sleeve copy of “Good Vibrations” that you see here. Since it wasn’t on any of the albums I had, it was needed for the collection. I rescued it from the store, clutched it as treasure on the train ride home, disappeared to my room (as I did most nights, seeking solace), and dropped the needle.
(Meet the new vinyl – different from the old vinyl. One I’ve owned for 32 years.)
“Good Vibrations” is one of those songs that needed more than one play to absorb. There are complexities to it that a non-musician like myself cannot explain. I know art when I see it, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stuart. And this was art. Several plays through the massive Koss headphones that I also liberated from my parents and I was still trying to pick out all of the Theremin in the song.
Years of working in Oldies radio (see the post about the 300 songs over and over) numbed me to many of these great songs. Maybe that’s why I was so excited when Smile was finally released in 2012. That album contained the original mix of the song, which was 45 seconds longer than the “already too long” 3:35 of the original. It was a revelation, like hearing the song all over again.
For the 50th anniversary release, the song was given the yellow-vinyl 12″ treatment that you see above. I wonder if my students, who are delving more and more into building their own collections of vinyl, are just now discovering this record. I wonder if they are having that same feeling that I had when I was fifteen, thrilled to have my own copy of a record that can’t help but make you happy.