I think I remember, presumably around the end of 1966, watching The Beach Boys play Good Vibrations on BBC TV’s pop music programme, Top of the Pops. I liked the song partly because it was quite unlike any other pop record I’d heard. This wasn’t a beat group with two guitars, bass and drums, nor was it a vocalist backed by a small orchestra. From the opening rhythmic organ and bouncy bass through to the complex vocal harmonies and the otherworldly glissando of the electro-theremin every sound was different. The song had an unusual structure, too. It had several distinct sections with different instrumentation which were pieced together like a mosaic; Brian Wilson, who wrote the song, subsequently described it as a “pocket symphony”. But it was still very much a pop song: a tune for the charts and for singing along to.
When Top of the Pops first aired in 1964 artists would mime to their records. Sometimes this was obvious and the faulty lip-sync was mildly distracting but most of the time it worked pretty well. The Musician’s Union, however, objected to this policy and in 1966 miming on TOTP was banned. From then on Crotchety Junior assumed that instruments and vocals were truly live; what we saw and heard on the TV was what was happening in the studio at that very moment. I was often puzzled, though, by the programme’s uncanny knack of reproducing exactly the same mix, tone and phrasing as on the record.
Wikipedia has a lot to say about Good Vibrations (about a dozen screenfuls on a good-sized computer monitor). On that page you can read about its use of innovative recording techniques, how long it took to cut the track, how much it cost, the impact it had at the time and its lasting legacy. By the time Crotchety Junior was able to watch a performance on the TV it had already been described as a song that, because of its complexity and special effects, couldn’t be performed outside a recording studio. So, how, I wondered could The Beach Boys play it ‘live’ on Top of the Pops?
Staring intently at the black and white pictures and listening with pricked up ears Crotchety Junior tried hard to solve the puzzle. It sounded like the record and it looked as though it was being played live. On the other hand we could have been watching a pre-recorded promotional video; there were none of the usual shots of the TOTP audience or any other indication that the band were in a BBC TV studio. Somewhat disappointed, Junior concluded that the broadcasters had cheated, although he wasn’t sure how. One thing was clear, though: Good Vibrations could certainly be played live by a 5-piece band without losing anything essential.
I was never a big fan of the Beach Boys. They made a few excellent singles (Sloop John B, God Only Knows and, of course, Good Vibrations) but their signature surfing songs always seemed to lack depth and substance. I’d happily listen to the current Beach Boys single on the radio, especially on a bright sunny day, but I’d never consider buying any of their albums. There’s something special about Good Vibrations, though. How else could a “pocket symphony” get to be number one on both the US and the UK charts?
Crotchety Man’s memory is, like a treasured pair of jeans, old and faded. Looking back 50 years, as I do here, the scenes that were once fresh and vibrant now shift and shimmer like ghostly black ink blots. It’s easy to see whatever my imagination can conjure up. I can find no evidence that The Beach Boys performed Good Vibrations on Top of the Pops, in 1966 or at any other time. And yet, the puzzle of the song that couldn’t be played live is clearly visible in the swirling fog of recollections, solid and undeniable.
Perhaps the scenes I can recall are false memories constructed from later broadcasts or wholly fabricated by random ripples of thought in a muddled mind. Who knows? Wherever they came from they look and sound uncannily like the YouTube clip above. And that’s good enough for me.