good vibrations and smile

“Good Vibrations” and Smile: A complex album built on a song

Not only does “Good Vibrations” provide a structural template for Smile, it also gives the album its tonal language. Nearly every song or song section is written in one of “Good Vibrations” chords.

There’s this moment in the song “Good Vibrations.” It’s two seconds of pure ecstasy – the kind that only the harmonies of the Beach Boys coupled with the vocal arrangement of Brian Wilson can deliver. It’s the “Ah!” that comes right at the end of the “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her” section. For a moment everything stops. We’re left with nothing but reverb. And then we launch into the final chorus of the song. That “Ah!” is the culmination of the Smile album. It’s what the whole work has been heading towards, and it’s the key to unlocking a great lesson in motivic writing.

A motif (or, if you prefer, motive) is a short musical idea that possesses a thematic identity. (Think of the chromatic figure that underlies the James Bond Theme). Motivic writing uses motifs to either create longer passages of music (e.g. how Beethoven uses that four-note motif to create the entire first movement in his fifth symphony) or to reference other songs in order to create a cohesive statement (e.g. think of how many James Bond title songs use the James Bond Theme).

I touched on using motives in melodies in “What makes a melody great?” and briefly discussed Brian Wilson’s use of motifs for creating melodies in “Brian Wilson’s songwriting tricks and techniques.” But on Smile, Wilson takes the notion of motivic writing further, using several motifs to create movements, unify the entire album, and up the emotional ante.

Smile is an unreleased Beach Boys album recorded from February of 1966 to March of 1967. Though the notion of unifying entire albums became all the rage after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in May of 1967, what Wilson was attempting to do was unprecedented at the time. After all, even though Sgt. Pepper is widely considered a concept album, there is very little musical unity, aside from the reprise of the title track. Rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia would later pursue the notion of introducing motifs in grand overtures and such, but Smile does it in subtler, and more varied ways. (The album was finally given a proper release in 2004, as Brian Wilson Presents Smile.)

For example, back to that “Ah!” in “Good Vibrations”: That is an Eb major (though, because this is Brian Wilson and he loves slash chords, it’s actually an Eb/F, which we’ll delve into later). That Eb major is important because “Good Vibrations” begins in Ebm, so the song goes on a journey from that downer minor chord to its uplifting, parallel major. And this is part of what gives that “Ah!” its power.

That very “Ah!” is echoed throughout the Smile album. The first song, “Our Prayer,” begins on an Ebm “Ah!” voiced in a similar fashion to the Eb major “Ah!” in “Good Vibrations.” More importantly, though, each of the album’s three suites ends on a chord that references that “Ah!” The last note (also an “Ah!”) of “Cabin Essence” is a Bb/C (the dominant of Ebm); and the final chord of “Surf’s Up,” sung on the word “child,” is an Ab/F. All of this only adds to the drama of that final “Ah!” in “Good Vibrations.” (It’s worth noting that on the 2004 release, Wilson includes an extended version of the “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her” section, doubling its length with additional vocals, thus building up the tension to an even greater degree than he did on the 1966 single version. That’s how important that “Ah!” is to Smile.)

Smile is packed with self-reference

I mentioned that there are three suites on the album. Wilson creates these suites by taking motifs and running with them, cross referencing each song within the suite. For example, most of the first suite, which runs from “Our Prayer” through “Cabin Essence,” features that recurring “Heroes and Villains” motif (which, by the way, is in Ebm). That motif is prominently featured in “Gee,” “Heroes and Villains,” and “Roll Plymouth Rock.” The mantra “the child/father of the son,” is featured in three songs in the second suite.

While the most obvious references are intra-suite motifs, Wilson subtly (and not so subtly) sprinkles in motifs from other suites throughout the album. I won’t list them all, but here are some nice highlights.

(Note: all times reference the 2004 release, not the unreleased Beach Boys’ version.)

  • At 4:44 of “Heroes and Villains,” a woodwind gives us a preview of the “Canvas the town and brush the back-drop” part of “Surf’s Up.”
  • “Song For Children” gives us a preview, at 0:36, of the “na na na” part of “Good Vibrations,” played as a sort of Sousa march.
  • In the final section of “Surf’s Up,” we get prominent use of that “Good Vibrations” Eb/F chord.
  • The chorus of “On a Holiday” brings back the chorus of “Roll Plymouth Rock.”
  • A section of “Our Prayer” shows up again, not only in “Heroes and Villains,” but also right at the end of “In Blue Hawaii,” leading us into “Good Vibrations,” and thus bringing the whole album together.

“Good Vibrations” as Smile‘s structural template

When creating “Good Vibrations,” instead of recording an entire song in one session, Wilson recorded small segments of music, or “feels” as he called them, and then tried various ways of putting them together until he had created the song we know today. The idea behind Smile was to take the methodology of “Good Vibrations” and run with it. So each major song on Smile features at least two drastically different sections, throwing out traditional song structure along the way.

“Good Vibrations” as Smile‘s harmonic palette

Not only does “Good Vibrations” provide a structural template for Smile, it also gives the album its tonal language. I mentioned how the album mirrors the song, beginning in Ebm. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Nearly every song or song section is written in one of “Good Vibrations” chords.

Below I list all the chords used in “Good Vibrations,” and below each chord, the songs or sections that are written in that key. Of the chords used in the song, only one (Cb) is unused.

Ebm
– Our Prayer
– Heroes and Villains (chorus)

Db
– Wonderful
– Heroes and Villains (first section)

Cb
No songs/sections

Bb
– Cabin Essence (“Over and over” section)

Gb
– Heroes and Villains “In the Cantina” section
– Old Master Painter
– Workshop

Ab
– Barnyard
– Song for Children
– I’m in Great Shape
– Surf’s Up (“Dove nested towers” section)
– Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (second half)

Eb
– Gee
– Cabin Essence (first section)

F
– Roll Plymouth Rock
– Cabin Essence “Who Ran the Iron Horse” section
– I Wanna Be Around
– Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (first half)
– In Blue Hawaii (fourth section, “Down in Blue Hawaii)

Gm
– Surf’s Up (first section)
– Roll Plymouth Rock (“Bicycle Rider/Ribbons of Concrete” and “Mahalo lu lai” section)

C
– Cabin Essence “Have you seen the Grand Coulee” section
– On a Holiday
– In Blue Hawaii (third section, “I could use a drop to drink”)

There are a few outliers:
– You are my Sunshine (Abm)
– Child is the Father of Man (Gbm)
– Surf’s Up, “A children’s song” section (Fm)-Although I’ve already mentioned how this section repeatedly uses the “Good Vibrations” Eb/F chord.

You could argue that these songs are written in keys that are at least related to the chords in “Good Vibrations.” (For example, Fm is the relative minor to Ab.) However, that’s not the case for the outliers in the third suite.

The third suite

It’s curious, I think, that in the final suite, the one that actually culminates in “Good Vibrations,” we find three more outliers; songs written in keys that aren’t even closely related to “Good Vibrations.” They are:
1. Vegetables (E)
2. Wind Chimes (Dm)
3. In Blue Hawaii (first section, Bm) (second section, Em)

“Wind Chimes” is especially interesting. Although it’s harmonically distant from “Good Vibrations,” the song features some beautiful and subtle references to the opening suite. At 1:18 the singers echo the background singing from the chorus of “Heroes and Villains,” though while that section of “H&V” was in Ebm, this section is in its relative major G. Also, at 1:40, we get a tinkling piano and harpsichord nicely recalling a similar section at 0:38 in “Roll Plymouth Rock.” Thanks to these callbacks, the song never feels like an outlier.

As much as “Good Vibrations” gives us the structural, harmonic, and motivic template, it’s a testament to Wilson’s creativity he was able to build an entire album from one song without having any of the songs sound like lesser versions.

Stray Observations

That Eb/F chord. Another way of looking at that slash chord is that it is an F11. This makes sense, because it leads right into the final chorus, which begins on Bb, making that F11 a dominant chord. But it’s pretty ambiguous, and the other notes in F major aren’t voiced (A and C). It seems to play both roles, as an F11 and also as an Eb major. But for argument’s sake, let’s just call it a pseudo-eleventh. These pseudo-elevenths appear all over Smile. “Cabin Essence” ends on a Bb/C, or C11. “Child is the Father of Man,” though being tonally far from “Good Vibrations,” begins on an E/F#, or F#11, and that chord is featured heavily throughout the song. The “children’s song” section of “Surf’s Up,” though being in Fm, features that very same Eb/F chord as the second chord in that repeated outro progression. Elevenths (or even these pseudo-elevenths) are not the most common of chords in rock, so the prevalence of that chord throughout the album is yet another way of unifying all the songs.

It’s interesting how much Wilson’s harmonic palette on Smile is different from Pet Sounds, especially since he began Smile almost before he had finished Pet Sounds (“Good Vibrations” was initially considered for inclusion on Pet Sounds). Where Smile features those pseudo-11th chords, Pet Sounds does not have even one. (“California Girls,” from the previous album, features an A/B chord prominently in the verse.) Pet Sounds does, however, feature a slew of half-diminished chords and several kinds of ninth chords; Smile does not have any of either type of chord.

I’ve mentioned that Smile is presented in three sections. That seems to have been Wilson’s original intention, though it’s unclear exactly how that would have played out on a two-sided vinyl LP. As far as I can tell, Smile was never going to be a double album. That seems like kind of a fundamental flaw.

Flashing back to the post on Wilson’s inspired arrangements, he is at his creative peak on Smile. Note his arrangements instantly convey each of the elements in the third suite, and the sense of the wild west in the first suite.

Speaking of flaws, one of the reasons often given for why Smile failed in the late ’60s is that Wilson didn’t have the support of his band mates, most famously Mike Love. Listening to the 2011 Smile Sessions release (which I highly recommend), I actually came away with a little sympathy for the Boys – and I love Smile. Here’s a collage from that album, featuring some heavenly harmonies and incredible vocal gymnastics by the group, but also some of the strangest noises I’ve ever heard any professional singers commit to tape. I can kind of understand the band’s concern that their leader may not have been the world’s most stable genius, to use a current term. For example, check out 6:25 in the video below. I can only imagine Wilson forced them to do that section several times to get it “just right.” “But Brian,” one might have asked, “will it play in Peoria?”


Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors.

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13 thoughts on ““Good Vibrations” and Smile: A complex album built on a song

  1. Very insightful, thought provoking with lots of pertinent points. In short i love the whole idea of Smile and it is sad it never saw the light of day. One of the pertinent points you make is just how tough and downright wierd some of the stuff they were trying to achieve was. I mean everyone paints Brian’s band mates as villains (esp Mike Love) but if you’re used to singing songs about girls and love, suddenly being asked to make animal noises or sing beautiful but abstract words must have been a shock. Anyway i have 2 queries which i perhaps you can help on?
    1. I always thought that Surf’s Up was supposed to end the album but the 2004 had GV…what do you prefer and which was the original intended closer (if any)?

    2. Ive always loved Cool cool watrr but this was not part of the original sequence, instead Love to say dada was. However i have a 1.13 short piece of CCW, i think from Good vibrations box set, why was this not part of the 2011 release? Perhaps as it was post May ’67? (Note i am not referring to the sunflower 5min version of CCW). It just baffles me why they didnt use this 1.13 min version as its beautiful and would fit perfectly into the ‘Elements’ section. Instead they used the “wawa” of the Love to say dad da track instead of the “Cool cool water” refrain which to my ears is even better.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I too always thought Surf’s Up was supposed to be the last song, especially since it was the last song on the later Surf’s Up album. Seems like a great and sad closer, which, in hindsight, seemed especially poignant given Brian’s mental health issues. And as another commentator has mentioned, we really don’t know what Brian had in mind for the original release. He probably didn’t know what order the songs would be.

      But, I really do love having GV be the last song, for all the reasons I lay out in the article. The sequence of the 2004 release is just wonderful. It really seems the whole work is building up to the beautiful climax that is Good Vibrations. Though, I guess it depends on how you feel the album should end, on the poignant downer or the hopeful hit. I kind of like the arc of the 2004 version, though maybe I would have felt differently 20 years ago.

      (As much as I love the 2004 release, I do prefer the original recordings. They’re rawer and denser. Plus you can’t beat the BB’s harmonies.)

      Per “Cool Cool Water,” that one and “He Makes Speeches” are two of the songs that didn’t make the final cut for the 2004 release. I think he just didn’t know how to fit it on the original recording it, and for the 2004 release, he probably felt that it had been better actualized on Sunflower, though of course he uses the Wa-wa chant for In Blue Hawaii.

      Ultimately, I think Brian was undone by the seemingly limitless possibilities of all the pieces he had created and all the numerous ways in which they could be combined. Understandable, I think.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful detailed analysis of Brian Wilson and Beach Boy’s classic Smile release. I sure will sit down with your notes and listen closely to the Smile CD. I was always a fan of the less well known of their releases like Sunflower, Friends, and Wild Honey, with Sunflower being a particular favorite. One of the stand out tracks on that LP was “Cool Cool Water”, which is reminiscent of the opening vocals on your compliation to my ears. It makes sense because according to Wikipedia, “Cool, Cool Water” was first attempted in June 1967 and October 1967 during the sessions for the Smiley Smile and Wild Honey albums.[5]”
    Awesome awesome song, can’t imagine why “The 1967 recording did not make it to the final track listing of these albums and was discarded.”(Wikipedia) . So glad it was kept alive and released on Sunflower.

    1. Sunflower is fantastic. I wish more people knew it. Our Sweet Love sounds like a lost track from Pet Sounds to me. And This Whole World is a masterpiece.
      I also enjoy about half of the Surf’s Up album, with Feel Flows, A Day in the Life of a Tree, the title track, and Til I Die being as great as anything they ever did.

  3. Congratulations and thanks. The sample music you included has convinced me that I have no need for or interest in hearing anymore of this album. The closest things I can think of for comparison are a jazz combo warming up, or perhaps an inferior version of Stan Kenton’s recording of Robert Graettinger’s “City of Glass” (an album which I highly recommend). No thanks, Brian.

    1. Ha. Yeah, Smile’s not for everyone, though to be clear that sample is only a compilation of vocal backing tracks. Those are mostly all buried down in the mix. The album does have actual songs. It’s worth giving it a listen some time. But I’ll understand if it’s not for you. Cheers.

  4. I don’t know why people still think that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is a concept album. It started as a concept album for sure, and that was the idea when the production process started. But the idea was scraped later during the process. The first two tracks show what the concept was about, but it simply ends there and there was no further interest in developing it, aside from putting a reprise of the title tune. But from “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” on, and excluding the aforementioned reprise, it’s a regular album with absolutely unrelated songs.

  5. Just to be clear, I would stand in front of a bus for Brian Wilson. But as I recall, he didn’t have the foggiest notion of the sequence for Smile back in the 60’s. As a matter of fact, the cover was printed without a track list, referring one to the sequence on the disc label, which never was pressed. For the 2004 release, a very important member of Brian’s band (and musical director), Darren Sahanaja was instrumental in helping Brian sequence the tracks. Brian is a genius for sure, but to believe that he originally envisioned the album as it came out in 2004 is probably wrong. Thanks for you excellent analysis, though.

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