How the Beach Boys Created Their Pop Masterpieces: “Good Vibrations,” Pet Sounds, and More

If you ever decide to listen through the Beach Boys’ entire studio discography, one album per week, it will take about six months. I know because I just finished doing it myself, beginning with their simple celebration/exploitation of early-60s youth beach-and-car culture Surfin’ Safari and ending, six months yet half a century later, with the lushly elegiac That’s Why God Made the Radio. Between those points, of course, came the songs everyone knows, the hits that made the Beach Boys “America’s Band.” But as many times as we happen to have heard them, how well do we really know, say, “Good Vibrations” or “God Only Knows” — let alone the definitive artistic statement of an album that is Pet Sounds?

We can get to know them better through the work of the music-oriented video essayists of Youtube, who in recent years have turned their attention to the Beach Boys catalog. Not that true pop-music obsessives ever really turned away from it: surely, at some point in your life, you’ve met the kind of exegete intent on convincing you of the artistic glories of the miniature symphonies to teenage longing composed by the band’s mastermind Brian Wilson. But today they can incorporate visuals into their argument, as well as passages from and elements of the music itself, to more clearly reveal the formidable inspiration and craftsmanship that went into these ostensibly straightforward odes to love and good times.

Whether in 1966 or today, even an inattentive listener can sense the scale of ambition present in a song like “Good Vibrations.” As noted in Polyphonic’s analysis, its production cost between $50,000 and $75,000 ($370,000-$550,000 today), making it the most expensive single recording to date. But in its three minutes and 39 seconds, “Brian Wilson managed to put together a song dense enough that you could teach an entire course on it, all while maintaining a devotion to radio-friendly, ear-catching hooks.” The motivation to do this, so the legend has it, came from the Beatles, who earlier that year had redefined the very form of the album with Revolver — a response in part to Pet Sounds, itself fired by the earlier innovations of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul.

This friendly (if high-stakes) competition constitutes the background of the normally Beatles-oriented channel The HollyHobs‘ video essay on “God Only Knows,” a song so glorious that even Paul McCartney names it among the best of all time. And it counts as but one of the highlights on Pet Sounds, an overview of which you can hear in this Pitchfork “Liner Notes” video. That video emphasizes Wilson’s central role in the production, something that would be difficult to over-emphasize: when former Beatles publicist Derek Taylor signed on with with Beach Boys, he based his whole campaign on the claim that “Brian Wilson is a genius.”

What makes that true is the subject of the video above by music-and-film Youtuber Jeffrey Stillwell (He’s also created another video looking at the “lost years,” when a psychologically struggling Wilson began to withdraw from the band, but kept on making music.) Only those who listen to the the entire Beach Boys discography can fully appreciate what Wilson brought to the band, and perhaps more importantly, how his work was enriched by the contributions of the other members. These include, among others, the original core of Wilson’s brothers Carl and Dennis, Al Jardine, and even the oft-vilified yet ultimately indispensable Mike Love — not that “Kokomo” is going to inspire a video essay any time soon.

Related Content:

Enter Brian Wilson’s Creative Process While Making The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds 50 Years Ago: A Fly-on-the Wall View

Hear the Beach Boys’ Angelic Vocal Harmonies in Four Isolated Tracks from Pet Sounds: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B” & “Good Vibrations”

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd Get Brian Wilson Out of Bed and Force Him to Go Surfing, 1976

The Story of “Wipe Out,” the Classic Surf Rock Instrumental

How “Strawberry Fields Forever” Contains “the Craziest Edit” in Beatles History

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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