2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of “Pet Sounds.” The universally acknowledged masterpiece of Brian Wilson’s long career was not a big seller upon its initial release in 1966, however, and fellow band-member and baseball-cap enthusiast Mike Love thought the ode to love and confusion was a flop. So Brian Wilson, mid-1966, was feeling the pressure to rescue the Beach Boys from the post-“Pet Sounds” funk that negated their previous run of chart success, and he had the music in his head for what would become the group’s biggest hit (at least until “Kokomo” in the mid-eighties, and the less said about that one the better). Perhaps in keeping with “Pet Sounds,” the idea was that dogs could pick up on the vibrations that humans put out without knowing it.
“Good Vibrations,” then, is a masterpiece of a single from an era when Wilson’s peers (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and so on) were focusing on full-length albums thanks in no small part to “Pet Sounds.” It became a huge success, so huge that it gave Brian carte blanche to follow it up with whatever he damn well pleased. He would attempt an ambitious ode to Americana, entitled “Smile” (or “SMiLE”), which would almost completely destroy him. He would slip into the grasp of drug addictions and into the “care” of Eugene Landy, a quack who took over Brian’s life and came close to ending it. He would re-emerge in the 1990s as an elder statesman of rock, whose band never really got over the loss of middle brother Dennis in 1983 and was dealt a further blow by the passing of Carl in 1998. The Beach Boys made beautiful music, but the sunshine and happiness of their best songs rarely translated into sunshine and happiness in the personal lives of the Wilson boys thanks to their awful human being of a father, Murry. A brutal abuser in even the most fair-minded accounts of the band’s formation, the elder Wilson was a terror to all around him. Between his father and Landy, it’s a wonder that Brian Wilson is still alive at all.
The Beach Boys rode the wave of surf acts that topped the charts in the early Sixties, right as the Beatles came on the scene. They were sold as surfers and hot-rod guys, when Brian was really a sensitive soul who practiced harmonies with his brothers and his cousin Mike Love at the insistence of manager-from-hell Murry. The band hit upon a formula that served them well until Brian retreated from the road and decided to create music with the legendary “Wrecking Crew” in Los Angeles while his band toured. That divide between his two groups (the studio musicians and the Beach Boys) was the focus of much of the recent biopic “Love & Mercy,” which I only recently saw. “Pet Sounds” was a masterpiece, but it was a failure, and Brian Wilson didn’t want to let his band of brothers down. So he created a “teenage symphony to God” that had all sorts of amazing, creative, and bizarre musical chord changes and effects going on for something that was essentially meant to be a song that people would hear on the radio and hopefully feel like buying. They bought “Good Vibrations,” and it achieved the goal of rescuing the Beach Boys’ financial fortunes just in time for Brian to attempt his “masterpiece” of “Smile.” The rest, as they say, is history, brutal and tragic but ultimately redemptive.
When I was a kid in the Eighties, we had morning exercises that we performed awkwardly to music piped into our classrooms, and I always remember “Surfer Girl” as the one we did some sort of arm-rolls to (in fact, to this day I can’t hear it without thinking about moderate exercise). So it’s fair to say that I knew of the Beach Boys before I even knew that I’d like music, indeed love it, and that it would be an important part of my life. Brian Wilson’s story is perhaps the most compelling in all of American popular music, for the disconnection between the happy sounds his band made (and which he first heard in his head, trying desperately to transcribe them for his band-mates and fellow musicians) and the life that he led for the bulk of his time on the planet. But he is a survivor, he is still around, and his music still has power. There is still power in “Good Vibrations,” and there will always be a need for it as a reassurance that life can be saved by art.
Trevor Seigler is a graduate student and TA at Clemson University, currently working on a Master’s Degree in English and looking to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing after graduation. He is a native of Walhalla, South Carolina. Among his favorite authors are Charles Portis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Barry Hannah, and Thomas Pynchon.