In February 1966, the Beach Boys began to record their most ambitious album to date—a project called Smile. Following in the wake of the Beatles' Rubber Soul (released in December 1965), Smile was to be the Beach Boys' game-changer, an ante-raiser that would be a sequel to their Pet Sounds album released in May 1966. [Pictured: Hal Blaine, the Beach Boys' studio drummer]
You're about to see an amazing videoclip of the Beach Boys and members of the Wrecking Crew in the studio in 1966 recording tracks for Good Vibrations. But first, some background.
Brian Wilson's [pictured] goal from the start was to take the Pet Sounds vision to the next level and leave every major rock group scrambling to figure out how the magic was done.
But Smile was never completed, and the strain took a toll on Brian's health and the band. Only in 2011 was Brian finally able to cope with assembling the parts and release the album he had envisioned 45 years earlier. So Smile isn't really an album as much as it is an uncompleted album project. Yet even as a project newly assembled, it remains one of the most outstanding psychedelic pop-rock works of the 1960s, leaving many to wonder whether the Beatles heard the shelved tapes prior to composing and recording Sgt. Pepper's.
The big hit recorded for Smile between February and May 1966 was Good Vibrations. The song shimmers with hallucinogenic energy and can be considered the Continental Divide between the folk-rock era and rock's LSD years.
To this day, the song makes Brian uneasy. As he told me during my interview with him at his home in Los Angeles last year, the song brings back too many jarring memories of the unrealized masterpiece that was Smile.
In truth, the Beach Boys were largely a studio vocal group, with Brian in charge of composing, arranging, production and the sound of the finished product. On recording sessions as far back as the early '60s, the instruments you heard were played by the Wrecking Crew—a group of highly skilled and inventive Los Angeles studio musicians who became the most in-demand session players in the pop-rock years of the '60s and early '70s. [Pictured above: Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco and drummer Hal Blaine]
Here's what Hal had to say about Good Vibrations...
I don't know where that Good Vibrations footage came from. I've never seen it before. Maybe Brian had it and someone got a hold of it. I have no idea.
It's hard to remember specifically what was going on during the sessions you see in the clip. They're a composite of many different dates. Remember, the Wrecking Crew musicians were recording all the time, seven days a week, in studios all over Los Angeles. [Pictured above: Wrecking Crew guitarist Glen Campbell and Hal Blaine]
As a tight-knit group of musicians, we had started in the early '60s making demos—two for $35. We used to call them two-fers." Then we joined the union, and all of a sudden we were making $1,000 a day. That's why we were buying big homes.
We began backing the Beach Boys in the studio from the start. At that point, the music seemed rather infantile to me. But as we grew with Brian and his brothers, the music became increasingly sophisticated. When we recorded Good Vibrations in 1966, the music was hugely sophisticated.
We were laying down instrumental tracks for Good Vibrations over seven months. So each day, we were hearing just portions of it, sometimes just four measures. We rarely recorded with the other Beach Boys. It was almost always an instrumental session with just Brian at the piano or on bass. [Pictured: Brian Wilson]
There were times when Brian would ask me to contract for a Good Vibrations session, I'd bring in the guys, and we'd play with Brian for maybe 10 minutes. Brian didn't see music—as fully composed music on paper. He heard and felt it, so there were times when he had to hear what he heard in his head so he could come up with new ideas and make adjustments.
If Brian had a little section of music he wanted to hear, he'd sketch out a chord sheet, run off copies in the secretary's room and hand it out. We'd run it down, and Brian would talk about changing the trumpet to a sax or the sax to a trumpet and other shifts. It was as though he was sculpting a song out of thin air.
I don't remember what Brian was saying to me in the clip. He would often say things like, Let me hear a big smash here" or Do your own thing." Why? We didn't know but it wound up sounding great. Brian often would come over to me in the studio and ask me to help him make a great record, so maybe he was saying something like that to me then.
Brian loved coming up to my house in the Hollywood Hills. I used to live at the corner of Castilian Drive and Outpost Drive. I had a great old Baldwin grand piano in my living room, and Brian sat there and played music with my young daughter Michel on his lap. Brian loved the feeling of home. Eventually, he bought a magnificent home in Bel Air, and the first thing he did was paint his house purple. But the community group there went nuts and made him repaint it.
In the video, I recognize the engineer Val Valentin and Mike Melvoin on the organ. Mike was one of the great keyboard players and composers. He died earlier this year in February. So sad. Carl Wilson is on the electric bass.
Brian would never accept a take until he called me in to hear it back. If I thought it felt good, we had a take. The beat was essential. Remember, most people heard them on the radio but they were made as dance records. The single had to feel solid and make people want to get up and move. That's why people bought them.
When I heard Good Vibrations in its final form, I was amazed. I had heard only pieces over the seven months we recorded. When all the pieces were in place, it was an amazing work by Brian. I spoke with the Beatles soon after the single came out and they went nuts for the song. They couldn't believe it. George Harrison especially."
JazzWax note: For my Wall Street Journal interview with Hal Blaine, go here. For my JazzWax interview, go here.
JazzWax tracks: The Beach Boys Smile—an album assembled last year from the 1966 and '67 master tapes—is available here. Outtakes of Good Vibrations appear on the deluxe edition and the box set.
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