Good Vibrations: The Beach Boys; The Cowsills; Kenny Rogers & the First Edition.

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic pop song, Good Vibrations. We will first discuss the original by The Beach Boys. Next, we will review a cover by The Cowsills, and we will finish with a cover by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition.

The Beach Boys and Good Vibrations:

The song Good Vibrations was composed by Beach Boy Brian Wilson in 1966, and recorded in a series of sessions from February to September of that year.

During this period, Brian Wilson was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, writing and arranging virtually all of the Beach Boys material. The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds had been released in May, 1996, and Good Vibrations was intended to be a cut on the next Brian Wilson/Beach Boys album, Smile.

Below we show the record cover for the single Good Vibrations. L to R: top: Brian Wilson and Dennis Wilson; bottom: Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine.

Embed from Getty Images

For this song, Wilson continued using a technique that he had employed with several of the tunes from Pet Sounds. He recorded a series of short musical fragments along with the Beach Boys, and also with a group of West Coast session musicians who would shortly be called the Wrecking Crew.

The recording process leading to Good Vibrations was unprecedented in its scope and cost. Over 90 hours of tape were recorded during many sessions at four different West Coast studios. Those tapes would be worked and re-worked by Brian, combined with one another and amalgamated into the final product. At this point in time, Good Vibrations was the single most expensive single song ever recorded.

The song would become one of the most influential tunes of its time. The tremendous complexity of the song influenced the genres of progressive rock and psychedelic rock, and the efforts in the studio and in the mixing process provided a new focus on avant-garde recording techniques.

While the composition of the song and supervision of the recording process was almost entirely due to Brian, the lyrics were a collaborative effort between Brian and Mike Love. The lyrics reflected the “good vibrations” theme, and emphasized the trippy, psychedelic nature of the tune. Here, the background vocals are provided in parentheses.

I, I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air

[CHORUS] I’m pickin up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations
I’m pickin up good vibrations
(oom bop bop good vibrations)
She’s giving me excitations
(oom bop bop excitations)
Good good good good vibrations
(oom bop bop)
She’s giving me excitations
(oom bop bop excitations)
Good good good good vibrations
(oom bop bop)
She’s giving me excitations
(oom bop bop excitations)

Close my eyes, she’s somehow closer now
Softly smile, I know she must be kind
When I look in her eyes
She goes with me to a blossom world

Brian Wilson described his ambitions in constructing this piece.
“I had a lot of unfinished ideas, fragments of music I called ‘feels.’ Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt, and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic.”

So here is video of the Beach Boys in the studio while they were recording Good Vibrations.

This is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Beach Boys rehearsing their epic song. Musicians Hal Blaine (drums) and Lyle Ritz (double bass) from the legendary West Coast session group The Wrecking Crew are providing instrumental backup, together with (I believe) Larry Knechtel on organ. Carl Wilson is the only Beach Boy playing an instrument here (rhythm guitar).

Brian Wilson is directing the process. Mike Love provides the lead vocals on the song, while Brian, his brothers Carl and Dennis, and Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston are singing on the chorus.

You can see that Brian was intensely involved in coordinating with the Wrecking Crew instrumentalists on the song. And now here is the audio of the finished single Good Vibrations.

The net result is quite amazing. It has rightfully been acclaimed as one of the best songs of the 60s. The song has been described as a series of interlocking episodic musical movements, much like a classical sonata. You can find many more details regarding Good Vibrations here.

The Beach Boys signature close harmonies are harnessed to an extremely complex series of chords that are beautifully balanced by a phalanx of musical instruments. Perhaps the most famous instrumental contribution is the electro-theremin played by Paul Tanner (this produces the spooky electronic sounds associated with horror movies).

But, as you can see from the video clip of Brian Wilson in the studio, Brian spent hundreds of hours of studio time employing instruments such as cellos in novel ways, utilizing echo chambers, and introducing novel chord changes. The result is a staggering accomplishment that sounds totally original, but is still recognizably pop music.

Released in October, 1966, Good Vibrations was nominated for a 1966 Grammy Award (it lost out, for heaven’s sake, to “A Man and a Woman” by the Anita Kerr Singers — WTF, Grammys??). Despite not winning this award, Good Vibrations was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It is also ranked #6 on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

For sheer complexity, Good Vibrations was also an inspiration for later“art pop” songs by other groups. The Beatles kept close track of innovative songs from the Beach Boys. We know that some of the impetus behind the Sgt Pepper album was a response to the Beach Boys’ highly original Pet Sounds project.

Later complex pop songs such as the Beatles A Day In The Life and Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen were clearly influenced by Good Vibrations. And it is claimed that this song had a significant effect on psychedelic rock efforts from groups such as the Grateful Dead and The Who.

So here are the Beach Boys in a live performance of Good Vibrations.

This took place in 1968. The Beach Boys do the best they can with the instruments at their disposal (no cellos, double bass, harpsichord, piccolo or theremin here), and as always their harmonies are impressive, but the net result is only a pale imitation of the studio result.

Just as in the studio version, Carl and Mike Love take care of the lead vocals. I have seen the Beach Boys live in the last couple of decades, and by now they incorporate some taped versions of various instruments, so that they can obtain a reasonable facsimile of the record in their “live” performances.

Good Vibrations marked a watershed moment for Brian Wilson, and sadly, it was not a happy one. Good Vibrations coincided with some serious drug use by Brian. This was coupled with (and probably exacerbated by) significant psychological issues.

As you can see from the video clip of Brian in the studio, the production of Good Vibrations was marked by a flood of improvisational electronic work in the studio, and the incorporation of experimental instrumental sounds.

Brian was determined to top this with his next album project, Smile. That album was intended to build on the use of experimental tape clips, novel sounds, and melodic structures that had appeared in both Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations.

However, Brian’s hyper-intense psychological state and his grandiose ambitions soon sent the ‘Smile’ project off the rails. A truly ominous sign was Brian’s purchase of $2,000 worth of hashish to complement his stash of LSD and Desbutal. Next, he moved a grand piano into his living room and shipped in a truckload of sand to create a giant sandbox there.  The photo below shows Brian Wilson with his grand piano in a sandbox, composing songs for the ‘Smile’ project.

Brian Wilson composing songs for Smile, with his grand piano set up in a sandbox.

Brian’s ambition was to create a series of individual musical fragments that he would record in the studio, and then laboriously re-work into the 12 songs for the album. Many regarded this process as more akin to making a movie than a record album.

Unfortunately, the combination of Brian’s drug use, deteriorating psychological state, and his obsessive personality turned out to be fatal for the project. This was exacerbated by a number of collaborators brought in on the project. While some of these were first-rate creative musicians, others turned out to be useless distractions, or even worse, serious druggies.

After he recorded 50 hours of studio work, Brian then missed several deadlines for the album project. Eventually the Smile project was discarded in May, 1967. It would finally be “completed” from myriad individual fragments and released in 2004 to serious critical acclaim.

Ethnomusicologist David Koop listed the following artists as inspirations for various musical patterns in Smile:
Frank Sinatra, the Lettermen, the Four Freshmen, Martin Denny, Patti Page, Chuck Berry, Spike Jones, Nelson Riddle, Jackie Gleason, Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, the Penguins, and the Mills Brothers.

Unfortunately for Brian Wilson, from 1967 his psychological state seriously declined. He was admitted to a mental hospital where he may have been administered lithium and/or electro-convulsive therapy.

After leaving the psychiatric clinic, Wilson began taking copious amounts of cocaine and heroin. He also began exhibiting significant signs of schizophrenia. Brian gained a disturbing amount of weight, became a chain smoker, and engaged in some serious self-destructive behavior.

At the urging of his wife and various family members, Brian became a patient of radical psychotherapist Eugene Landy from 1975 to 1976. Landy employed unusual and highly controversial tactics with Wilson. He surrounded Brian with bodyguards, isolated him from his siblings and fellow musicians, and took control of Brian’s activities. Much of this period is rehashed in the 1998 biopic Love and Mercy.  The photo below shows Brian Wilson with Eugene Landy during a period when Brian was severely overweight.

Brian Wilson with Dr. Eugene Landy outside The Hollywood Palladium, 1977. (Photo by Mark Sullivan)

Even forty years later, Landy’s methods are still the subject of much debate. Did Landy’s unconventional treatment methods get Brian off illegal drugs and get his weight under control? Or was Landy a dangerous control freak whose treatment methods may have actually exacerbated Wilson’s condition, and who was unprofessionally enriching himself at Brian Wilson’s expense?

Given the vehement criticism of Landy and his methods, Brian Wilson himself has been surprisingly positive about his former therapist. “I still feel that there was benefit. I try to overlook the bad stuff and be grateful for what he taught me.”

Today, Brian Wilson is off drugs and apparently much improved. He continues to write music and occasionally performs. We remember Good Vibrations as one of the greatest and most influential pop songs of the 60s. Good, good, goooood, good vibrations!

The Cowsills and Good Vibrations:

The Cowsills were a musical family pop group. The family patriarch Bud Cowsill initially taught his children to play musical instruments and had them performing at church functions and other events in the Cleveland, Ohio area.

The family then moved to Newport, Rhode Island where they formed a band in the mid-60s. Initially, this included brothers Bill and Bob Cowsill on guitar and Barry on drums. After that beginning, another brother John joined and played drums, while Barry moved over to bass.

In 1967, this group was joined by siblings Susan and Paul Cowsill and then their mother Barbara. By the way, this family ensemble was the inspiration for the 70s TV show The Partridge Family.

Below we have a late-60s photo of the peppy, cheery Cowsill family singers.

Embed from Getty Images

The Cowsills family band was performing a number of Beatles covers in the Newport area, when they were signed to a record contract by MGM Records. They had their first big breakout hit, The Rain, The Park & Other Things. That song shot up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and propelled the Cowsills onto the national pop music scene.

So here are The Cowsills in a live rendition of Good Vibrations.

Well, The Cowsills are certainly an energetic bunch. However, as regards their musicality, they don’t bring much to the table. For comparison, The Cowsills appeared just a year or two before the Jackson Five, and the difference between the two groups is really stunning.

The Jacksons featured Michael Jackson, soon to become the King of Pop. In addition, the other Jackson brothers formed a talented and extremely tight instrumental combo, and their vocal harmonies were very impressive.

On the other hand, the Cowsills don’t feature any really competent vocalists, and their instrumental work is pedestrian at best. At some point in the video, the camera zooms in and out, which I find really annoying. So, I give them low marks for musical talent. However, the audience appears to enjoy them greatly.

The song for which The Cowsills are best remembered is their cover of the title song from Hair. At some point in the future I will review this song. The Cowsills fashioned a cover of Hair where each member of the family had a brief solo. That song went to #2 on the Billboard pop charts and ended up being the group’s most enduring hit.

Alas, The Cowsills disintegrated fairly rapidly. Apparently their father Bud, who served as the group’s manager, was a control freak and a genuine pain in the butt. Following a dispute in 1969, Bud fired Bill from the band. The group soldiered on for three more years, but a series of personal disputes ensued, and eventually the family stopped touring and performing together.

Several of the individual Cowsills continued to pursue careers in the music industry. Bill Cowsill moved to Canada, where he performed as a solo artist and with a couple of bands in Vancouver. Susan Cowsill performed with a couple of bands before forming her own group, The Susan Cowsill Band. She continues to perform today.

Over the past few decades, several members of the original Cowsills family band have united to perform on “oldies” tours. For example, The Cowsills have toured with The Turtles on their “Happy Together” tours over the past few summers

One interesting development (relevant to this blog post) is that John Cowsill has ended up as one of the musicians in the current Beach Boys lineup (!) John plays drums and keyboards, and even sings lead vocals on a few of the Beach Boys tunes.

Alas, several of the Cowsills have passed away. The parents Barbara and Bud died in 1985 and 1992, respectively. Barry Cowsill apparently drowned in 2005 during the Hurricane Katrina storm in New Orleans; Bill Cowsill died in 2006; and Dick Cowsill died in 2014.

So, to the surviving Cowsill family members, we wish you the best of luck and hope that you are “happy together.”

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and Good Vibrations:

Kenny Rogers has had a long and distinguished musical career. He was born in Houston in 1938, the fourth of eight children. Kenny’s musical career began in the late 50s.

Kenny Rogers bounced around for a few years as a songwriter, session musician and producer. During that period he worked for country artists such as Mickey Gilley and Eddy Arnold. Then in 1966, Kenny joined the ensemble The New Christy Minstrels as a singer and bass player.

After a year, Kenny became disenchanted with his prospects with the Christy Minstrels, so he broke away with bandmates Mike Settle, Terry Williams and Thelma Camacho and formed The First Edition. They were subsequently joined by Kin Vassy, making the group a quintet.

Below is a photo of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition; Kenny is in the front.

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Over a nine-year span, the First Edition was rather successful, scoring a number of pop-country fusion hits. And in recognition of Kenny’s leadership, they morphed into Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.

So here are Kenny Rogers and the First Edition in a live performance of Good Vibrations.

In the early 70s, I was a postdoc in Cleveland, Ohio. I remember seeing a program on Canadian TV called Rollin’ On The River. It was a musical variety show featuring Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. They would bring on musical guests who would perform and be interviewed, while Kenny and the First Edition would sing covers of pop hits.  I believe that the ‘Good Vibrations’ clip was from that show (note the “riverboat” logo in the background).

Well, Kenny and his First Edition mates give a bouncy presentation of the great Beach Boys hit, but I am not blown away by the quality of their performance. This First Edition clip features some of the cloying cheeriness that I associate with their previous group, the New Christy Minstrels. And although they get high marks for effort, it seems that the First Edition presentation was somewhat amateurish.

The First Edition persisted from 1967 to 1976. They were initially a rock and roll band with folk-music roots, but they shifted their focus towards country music. In 1969, this paid off when their cover of the Mel Tillis song Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town hit #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

In 1976, the First Edition broke up when Kenny Rogers set out on his own as a country singer. It is astonishing to me that Rogers, who was a competent rocker but by no means a star, became a legend in country music.

Over his career, he has sold more than 100 million records. Monster country hits like Lucille and The Gambler (“you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”) followed. Rogers subsequently hit the jackpot in collaborations with country music starlets such as Dottie West and Dolly Parton. Below is a photo of Kenny Rogers, silver-haired country legend.

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In 1985, Kenny Rogers was one of the featured artists on the charity song We Are The World, which contributed its profits to African famine relief. Rogers made a bundle in the early 90s when he co-owned the Grand Palace Theater in Branson, Missouri and spent a period headlining at that venue.

Kenny has placed over 60 records in the top-40 charts, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. In September, Kenny Rogers announced that he was retiring from touring to spend more time with his family. We salute Mr. Kenny Rogers, one of the greatest country artists of the 20th century.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Good Vibrations
Wikipedia, The Beach Boys
Wikipedia, Brian Wilson
Wikipedia, Smile (the Beach Boys album)
Wikipedia, The Cowsills
Wikipedia, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition
Wikipedia, Kenny Rogers

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Classic Rock, Pop Music, Progressive Rock, Psychedelic music, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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