55 Years of Good Vibrations – and now SMiLE! (Part Two)

55 Years of Good Vibrations – and now SMiLE!


A journal entry from Jobst Liebrecht

(Part Two)

Brian Wilson’s SMiLE symphony opens with an a cappella choral movement called “Our Prayer.” The track evokes a religious church choir in the key of E-flat Dorian, but with a witty subtext, as the flawless vocal harmonies within this quiet hymn immediately call to mind the “brand essence” of the classic Beach Boys sound— all in all a surprise right off the bat:



Every parameter of this brief minute of music is reduced to its essential. The ensemble sings without lyrics. The shaping of the voices is subtly modulated—at first one might be reminded more of Stockhausen’s Stimmung (1968) than of a California pop band.

With the reception of SMiLE, certain aspects that we might think of as American were repeatedly emphasized. And it is true, America is indeed a historically religious country. Even the agnostic Charles Ives began his fourth symphony with the chorus “Watchman, tell us of the night.” Religious hymns in America constitute the earliest trove of musical experience, the basis for making music together. For Wilson and the Beach Boys, the entirety of their music-making came directly from such collective singing.

Looking in the classical literature for a comparable opening to a musical work, the hymn-like choral of high strings in the Prelude to Verdi’s La Traviata comes to mind.

Here in “Our Prayer,” however, basic music material is set out very precisely—for what pop connoisseurs like to call Brian Wilson’s “modular writing” or “mosaic” structure of SMiLE.


In the three main pieces that establish the architecture for the entire development of SMiLE—beginning with “Heroes and Villains,” then “Surf’s Up” in the middle, and finally “Good Vibrations” as the finale—the elaborated motif of the fourth descending from the root to the dominant in Dorian E flat at the beginning of “Our Prayer” comprises the backbone upon which the melodies are built.  The initial spark, in my opinion, was “Good Vibrations.” It predates SMiLE and was originally intended to be part of the Pet Sounds album. Wilson’s two main themes (which will be accompanied by sub-themes) can be stated simply as:

  1. The famous riff in the chorus (Wilson himself calls it the “hook”)



and b ) the beginning of the song with the verse:

If you sing the first three notes and then the last note of the “Good Vibration” chorus, you will hear (in G-flat) this very same elaborated descending fourth from “Our Prayer,” the beginning of SMiLE! And at the beginning of “Good Vibrations,” the verse is not only in the same key of E-flat minor, but is likewise based on this fourth motif! Now, if you sing the second bar of the verse from “Good Vibrations” backwards, you have the form of the refrain of “Heroes and Villains,” which is also in E-flat minor, even though the track actually starts in C-sharp major!

This is extremely interesting and fuels my suspicion that Wilson was proceeding according to a plan when he then once more simplified the “Heroes and Villains” refrain into a variant (see fig. at right) in which only the central E-flat appears together with its leading tone and the dominant. This simplified variant is then incorporated into other songs in SMiLE—voiced, for example, by a harpsichord-like keyboard—or used as a transition phrase.

In many of these built-in transitions and motifs that mechanically revolve around a few notes, SMiLE sometimes almost sounds like an anticipation of Steve Reich’s tonal language.

The fourth also plays a major role in the 7th track, “Surf’s Up,” the heart of the entire work.

Brian Wilson had the honor of recording this song solo on piano for a television special hosted by Leonard Bernstein in 1966, which fortunately has survived as a wonderful historical document:


(note: the video is currently disabled on youtube)



In „ Surf´s Up“ beginnt im Refrain die melodische Erfindung so:

The fourth again, albeit in an entirely different light from the minor third, the root and underlying seventh filled in by F minor—and followed by another series of leaps in fourths.

Given how the melodies of the three central songs of SMiLE relate to the musical material and to each other, the entire work can be woven together out of the elements of the individual songs. Wilson, as anyone hearing SMiLE for the first time immediately recognizes, quotes these melodies in varying form again and again in the course of the piece. You can describe it as “modular writing,” but in practice it was more a matter of Wilson recording these melodies again and again in various forms—he typically called them “feels.” The new studio technology gave him the opportunity to blend and interweave these fragments —absolute pioneering work using just a few tracks, everything done by hand.

“Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to the Smithsonian. The records I used to listen to and still love, you can’t make a record that sounds that way. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.” (Bob Dylan)

For the symphonic conceptualization of SMiLE, this reduction of the melodies to their basic form is of the utmost importance.  When compared to the Beatles, for example, these distilled melodies suffused throughout the entire work can sometimes appear simplistic or even impoverished. Not that Wilson couldn’t have done otherwise! He had, after all, just released Pet Sounds, his masterpiece of melodies and musical timbres in all their variety. In SMiLE, however, he was concerned philosophically, I would say, with a depiction of something more “primal,” of a nexus or continuity in the world; during production, the tabloids were already referring to Brian Wilson’s  “religious turning point,” which in its speculative aspects reminds me just a bit of Charles Ives.

With “Child Is Father of the Man,” Wilson and Van Dyke Parks quote a line from William Wordsworth’s poem “The Rainbow” in the title. The experimental material and language exploration of such and other numbers emerges most clearly in an approximately eight-minute montage compilation that contains only the Beach Boys’ background vocals for SMiLE and offers a listening pleasure of its own:



Perhaps the best way to approach the artistic quality of SMiLE is to acknowledge that:  NOTHING HERE IS AS IT IS OR PRETENDS TO BE.  Ambiguity and continual metamorphosis are the rule.

The opening chorus of “Our Prayer” begins devoutly enough, but then leads attacca into the utterly mundane opening nonsense syllables of “Gee.”

“Heroes and Villains” revolves around the development of two musical ideas that take turns stepping on each other’s lines, so to speak, like performers in a vaudeville routine, only to suddenly and unexpectedly blossom out near the end (4:17) in a completely crazy variety orchestra sound—a passage that, as a “breakthrough,” to briefly reference Adorno, can hold its own with Mahler.

“Do You Like Worms? (Roll Plymouth Rock)” begins with a stereotypical American blues vamp in F that couldn’t sound more boring, but into which the “Heroes and Villains” refrain is then suddenly dropped again and again before the sudden cut, at 2:34, to a spaced-out Hawaiianesque hymn of meditation.

And so it goes in all of the tracks. I could give endless examples.

In this ambiguity lies the great emotional contrast that is emphasized in SMiLE. Although based on exceedingly fervent, solidly constructed melodies that, as Wilson himself noted, were always meant to bring love to the people, SMiLE incorporates an unimaginable richness and disparity of musical sounds throughout the work that in an almost Grand Guignol style repeatedly flare up and speak to us, along with joie de vivre and youthful ardor, of great turmoil, compulsion, fear and hardship. This happens mainly in the transitional episodes. Here we can admire, for example:

In track 6, “Barnyard,” sheep and other animals bleat in the background, under the singers. In no. 13, “I Wanna be Around / Workshop,” the entire ensemble hammers, taps, and saws. The crudités-gnashing on track 14, “Vegetables” (the natural food movement was just beginning at the time), I already mentioned in part one of this article. The most unsettling acoustic agglomeration is the collage of sounds and noises on track 17, “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow),” for which Wilson had the entire ensemble don fireman’s helmets.


It is this very amalgam of carefully arranged and structured elementary melodic material—strictly tonal, like all pop music—and also wildly anarchistic raw sounds that I personally still find so appealing and apt, even today, when, as a composer I seek to engage the listener.

For me, to disregard or even renounce the melodic in music is simply unimaginable. With a melody—though perhaps not as ingenious as one by Franz Schubert or Brian Wilson or the Beatles—I have a melodic structure upon which to base the architecture of a work.

Yet at the same time, the modern concept of music has set “noise” free.  Every new music performer and listener today knows just how fascinating these unusual “non-musical” sounds can be. The adventures of Partch, Cardew, Cage, Varése—they also were there in the pop music of the 1960s. And perhaps in a more childishly naive, playful way, which I happen to find very approachable.

Finally it is delightful to think that at about the same time as Helmut Lachenmann in the cello cadenza of his Notturno (Musik für Julia) was venturing out into his world of musique concréte instrumentale, two cellists in a studio in southern California were madly sawing away at their instruments to produce the rough and wild bass triplets under the siren melody in the final chorus of “Good Vibrations.”  And to think, we all thought it was just synthesizers as we danced to it as teenagers with the feeling that we were about to blast off into space!

(Jobst Liebrecht, February 2021)

Translated by Kevin Pfeiffer


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