Mind of Brian 3: Good Vibrations

by Greg Panfile


As we continue this strange series examining beautiful, strange music from a true stranger, we head to what may be the absolute peak of beauty, strangeness, and even commercial success. In many ways, this song summarizes Brian, musically, lyrically, productionwise, you name it. It's the absolute definitive sophisticated Sixties single, rivaled only by the Beatles' Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields combo. (*Note: the source of this arrangement is the ear, no chord books consulted*) To the hunt...

Chords: Ebm                     Db
Words:  Ah-I  love the colorful clothes she wears, and the

Chords: Abm                             Bb
Words:  way the sunlight plays upon her hair
We're already in some interesting territory here. While there's a good argument for placing this song in the key of E flat minor, the second chord being a VII puts us in a more modal position, and later material will feature one or two modulations. It's a song of love and ecstasy, starting with the minor note of sadness. The first sound you hear is Carl's breath, the quintessential vibration of humanity. And like much of Brian's best work, there will be no story told here, no real plot, no progression or decision made, many of the "rules" of lyric writing broken or ignored. What we have here is the ultimate mood piece, an encapsulated "feel" brought to total realization. The combination of fifth-heavy octave-style bass notes and the staccato Hammond organ with lots of percussion on the attack creates an other-worldly aura reminiscent of surf music's poor cousin, space songs. Listen to the outtakes without vocal overdubs and you can almost imagine this song as the intro to One Step Beyond or some other black-and-white sci-fi anthology series...

The choice of key clearly reveals a song written by a keyboard player, that is a person to whom E flat is not utter anathema as it would be to most guitar players. Brain shows a marked tendency toward these flat keys, perhaps because they're more convenient for adding horns to... there's also something here in relation to Paul McCartney's preference for such keys, as though there's something about them that makes melodist writers choose them.

Chords: Ebm                        Db
Words:  Ah-I  hear the sound of a gentle word

Chords: Abm                                            Bb      Db
Words:  on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air
The verse repeats, as seen directly above, the first four chords, continuing the lyric theme of an immediate, sensory and yet paranormal experience. The concluding V on Bb this time does not take us back around again, but slides modally up to the Db with accompanying drum fill and general feeling of acceleration as we move into the relative major. Let's note in passing the importance of this transitional Db chord and the heavy use of triplets in the drums both times it occurs (at the end of each of the two verses). These triplets get "cashed in" later...

Chords: Gb
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations
The color changes a lot here: the Spector wall of sound, with echo on the drums and so forth, gives a familiar feel to the proceedings, and all would be somewhat as previously experienced in many other BB songs except for that theremin. The odd oo-wooo-oo interval is from a thousand sci-fi radio shows, and seems to symbolize some internal cosmic oscilloscope measuring the incoming signals from the young lady in question. We have entered territory beyond that of Girl Groups and Four Freshmen influences, crossed into a new musical paradigm... what *was* he on when he wrote this, and where can I get some? From the sound here, the transition may have been accomplished by physically splicing tapes, and those tapes could certainly be from different studios, sessions, etc.

Chords: Gb
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations

Chords: Ab
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations

Chords: Bb
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations
The change of color between the verse and this chorus, plus the movement from the key of E flat minor to its relative major, seems to require a repeat on the first chord to get the new "home" established. The repeat of Gb allows the backing voices to enter and vary the sound on the repeat; they move in typical Beach Boys style, featuring primarily suspensions and sevenths outside the chord triad. Rather than move through the more typical chord set of the relative major (which would call for at least one minor chord in this ascent), though, Brian stays with a stepwise progression upward of major chords. Everything, voices and instruments, even the theremin, moves up in concert. The listener senses an identical set of vibrations, moving up in frequency, building toward a peak... which just happens to occur on Bb, allowing us to go back to the beginning and repeat the verse. We already have a great, innovative song here, and we've hardly started. And notice that little phrase from the lead vocal that bridges into the second verse; this'll get cashed in next time around.

Chords: Ebm                            Db
Words:  Close my eyes, she's somehow closer now

Chords: Abm                             Bb
Words:  softly smile I know she must be kind

Chords: Ebm                   Db
Words:  When... I look in her eyes

Chords: Abm                                Bb      Db
Words:  she goes with me to a blossom room
We're in repeated material now, arranged pretty much as before. A good opportunity to note how interesting, nearly unsingable, the vocal melody for this verse is, and how there are actually two different melodies sung over the two halves. We have exhausted the verse lyrics here and the verse will not come around again- sort of surprise, given how nice it is and that such material is almost always brought back "one more time."

But this love song denies time as it acknowledges no real world, no inlaws, no impending death, no jealousy, no crowd of friends, none of the typical conflict-adding stocks in trade of this type of material. It is one pure moment of vibration and attraction, universal in its scope, indifferent to civilization. And despite their source, these lyrics by Mike Love are certainly better than earlier efforts heard in outtakes, and add just enough but not too much verbal content. When the vibrations are right, after all, the words just get in the way, don't they...

Next, the "chorus" repeats again, just as it did before:

Chords: Gb
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations

Chords: Gb
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations

Chords: Ab
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations

Chords: Bb
Words:  I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me the excitations
Having gotten this far by repeating some strong and innovative material twice, the song takes off into new territory by staying on the V of Ebm, although arrived at as a III of Gb. There's a major color change in the arrangement, which while Spectorian in its busy-ness is still very Brian in its use of interesting, overlapping sounds.

ta-tions, ooh-ooh-ooh ooh-ooh
Actually this passage goes on for quite some time, with a pedal Bb in the bass, and lots of suspensions working around the Eb note. One senses the piano coming to the fore in the mix. These type of scatted passages, with overlapping rondo-style vocals along the lines of the end of God Only Knows, are certainly the hardest phenomena to describe in these text-only notes and I'm not going to delve too deeply.

B flat continues for eight measures, all with scat vocals and suspensions, until we burst forth in a great moment to E flat major:

I don't know where but she sends me there
This chord lasts four measures of its own, and as with the B flat chord there is a lot of action around the flatted seventh melodically. The addition of these extra sort of jazzy notes is a hallmark of Beach Boys harmony and reflects as one might expect the influence of the open-harmony boy groups usually cited as Brian's inspirers, Four Freshmen et al. And having moved into the parallel major, it could safely be stated at this point that the vibrations transmitted have transmuted our author from sad to happy, minor to major.

My, my what an elation.
Four more measures on Bb, the last nearly silent, conclude this foray into the ethereal realm of the major key. Next comes an exquisite piece of thievery, Brian stealing the pattern from Walking In The Rain or Be My Baby, but starting on the major II of the key, that is on F in E flat:

F           F                  Gm           C
    Gotta keep those love good vibrations a happening with her
The change in the arrangement here is another high point. Having reached a space of major key intensity, things settle down and while remaining well within the Spector sound realm, indeed quoting two major hits directly, a churchy feel comes in with the dominance of the organ and the lower tones in the highly syncopated (offbeat) vocals. The tempo starts to pick up as the bass enters (one could write an essay on the pure sound and arrangement of this song's bass line alone!); the little melody line the organ plays almost but not quite evokes the oscillations suggested earlier by the thermin line. After four repeats, a very interesting transition comes by way of starting this little pattern yet again but changing the destination...

F     F      Eb     Eb
Triplets, three to the beat on the first measure of Eb and a whole note on the first beat of the second measure, complete the declaration of the major that started so long ago after the second verse... and link us rhythmically to earlier triplets on Db coming out of the verses. We'll never see E flat minor or any other minor chord after this, and we're almost done.

Structurally it's of great interest to me at least that while the song began rather conventionally with two repeats of a fairly standard verse/chorus structure, none of that material gets repeated again. Since then we've seen two new parts, one of which ends in a sort of unique transitional moment, and are about to see variations on the chorus and a final chord and fadeout almost impossible to anticipate based on the beginning material and standard pop music practice.

Bb                                  Ab
Good, good, good good vibrations... Good, good, good good vibrations

(vocal tacet)
Notice that what we have here is the chorus progression backwards, going down rather than up through these three chords. The triplets we've seen scattered throughout appear in the forefront as the cello saws them out over the tacet Gb chord. The backwards chorus is completed in the next section, as Gb is held with a new scat vocal melody (the third in all counting the chorus and the previous section) over a minimal instrumental accompaniment, recalling the somewhat sparse feel of those two verses which by now seem to have happened an eternity ago. The melodic choices as always remain in key, or at least in chord, but do lean heavily on ninth, fourth, and sixth tones outside the root triad.

Gb                     Ab                     Bb
Nono nono no nono no   Nono nono no nono no   Nono nono no nono no
Nono nono no nono no

(vocal tacet, theremin on octaves of the fifth and flatted fifth with
triplets on cello)
Having wrought just about everything it's possible to wreak from this material, we descend into a rather quick fadeout. While the chorus, and the two chorus-derived sections just presented, seemed to lean more heavily on the Gb and Bb chords than Ab, it turns out that where we end up is in the middle, on the chord that's basically been used all along to connect the two others. It is almost as if the author and the love object are represented by Gb and Bb and a two way progression or connection between the two arrives at the Ab middle ground in an ethereal realm of aural communion.

The theremin repeats that sci-fi cliche line while the cello grinds out ostinato triplets on the root over a very Spectoresque percussion and keyboard background with a faint hint of horns. The overall progression, therefore, takes us from Eb minor to Ab major... the vibrations have modulated us from sad minor to happy major, and elevated us up a fourth.

Words obviously can't convey what a wondrous recorded accomplishment this song is. There are very few other pieces in the world of pop that are even comparable in either ambition or realization... for all their relative genius, Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison as two examples could never get anywhere near this. Only the Lennon-McCartney-Martin axis achieved comparable results, in the aforementioned double single and even moreso on cuts like A Day in the Life and I Am the Walrus. This is the pinnacle, and only the most talented and veteran climbers can take breath up here. Thank heavens they made recordings to make this world audible to us below.

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