On February 17, 1966, Brian Wilson rolled tape on take one of “Good Vibrations” and the song went onto be the Beach Boys third #1 hit single and one of their greatest of all time. Six months, four studios and $50,000 later, he finally completed his three-minute-and-thirty-nine-second symphony, pieced together from more than 90 hours of tape recorded during literally hundreds of sessions. There is no mistaking that the Beach Boys had a distinct sound from the very beginning but it was Brian Wilson who brought his phenomenal songwriting and production talent to the group. Without him, songs like “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” might have been their greatest legacy. While the rest of the band toured during their mid-60s heyday, Wilson lost himself in the recording studio, creating the music for an album—Pet Sounds—that is widely regarded as one of the all-time best, and a single—”Good Vibrations”—on which he lavished more time, attention and money than had ever been spent previously on a single recording.
Brian Wilson began “Good Vibrations” that February night in 1966 with the intention of including it on Pet Sounds. Harmonica player Tommy Morgan recalled how those sessions would work:
“You’d sit with a music stand with a blank piece of paper, waiting for Brian to give you your notes. He knew exactly what he wanted. He had every note in his head.”
The problem was that Wilson had an awful lot of those notes in his head—notes for different keyboards, different strings, different percussion instruments and, most famously, notes for the most “different” instrument ever to appear on a pop record: the otherworldly electric theremin, an early electronic instrument previously heard only in movies like It Came From Outer Space. Brian was building “Good Vibrations” into a massive wall of sound, and the further he went with it, the more it became clear that his vision for the record was too great to rush. Pet Sounds was released without “Good Vibrations,” which Wilson returned to in earnest several months after his initial sessions.
When the rest of his fellow Beach Boys finally heard the track that Brian Wilson had been working on in seclusion for more than half a year, they were extremely enthusiastic, and “Good Vibrations” went on to become their third #1 hit single. It also turned out to be the last Beach Boys recording that Brian Wilson would fully participate in for years to come, as drugs, depression and mental illness derailed his career in the late-1960s.