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ANATOMY OF A HIT: THE BEACH BOYS’ ‘GOOD VIBRATIONS’

Each month, I’ll take a look at the arrangement of a well-known record to see what makes it tick. To start with, let’s consider ‘Good Vibrations’, recently voted the greatest single of all time by the readers of Mojo magazine.

This record is more than a mere classic, it’s the Holy Grail of pop. Recording commenced mid-February 1966 at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, towards the tail-end of sessions for The Beach Boys’ most influential album Pet Sounds (although ultimately, it was not included on that album). After a shaky and uncertain start, it took six weeks of recording time, spaced out over several months, to complete the track. Moving the session between five different studios, bouncing from a 4-track machine to a stereo mix on one of the early 8-track machines, and slicing multitrack tape as he went, Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ founder, producer and principal composer, gave ‘Good Vibrations’ a godlike sound.

On the finished record, ‘Good Vibrations’ is in the key of G flat major (six flats) and starts with the verse descending from the relative minor: E flat minor. It was probably played in the key of F (one flat) with the verse starting on the chord of D minor and sped up at the mixdown stage. Typical pop songs of that era (or indeed any era) usually have a basic groove running throughout the track which doesn’t change a great deal from start to finish. Not so ‘Good Vibrations’; this is, in Brian Wilson’s words, a ‘pocket symphony’. It lasts just over three and half minutes but has as many dramatic changes in mood as a piece of serious classical music lasting more than half an hour, moving from the delicate opening verse (bass, vocals, and organ only) to the soaring vocal harmony sections on the chorus and bridge, and then, in the middle of the track, dropping right down to the simplicity of a church organ pad accompanied solely by a tambourine. Of course, much of the atypical structure is due to the way the track was recorded in completely different-sounding sections, and then edited together later.

As well as the unconventional structure, the instrumentation used is, to say the least, dangerously exotic. This was a period when pop records were either guitar, bass and drum combos or traditional orchestrated arrangements for vocalists. For one thing, ‘Good Vibrations’ doesn’t use a guitar; instead it uses a solo cello and a theremin to build the rhythm section for one section, and in another section doubles a honky-tonk piano with a jaw’s harp. The instrumentation changes radically from section to section; the bass plays in some parts but not in others, drums and vocals drop in and out, and the voices sometimes accompany fully developed backing tracks (such as in the chorus) and are in parts almost a cappella.

The beat, although the standard four-in-the bar, has a triplet feel (1 2 3 / 2 2 3 / 3 2 3 / 4 2 3) — some people call it ‘threes over fours’, others ‘a shuffle beat’. This is the same feel as Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ and Billy Ocean’s ‘When The Going Gets Tough’ and many other lesser number one records. For the casual listener, the most prominent triplet figure is the part played by the cello, which saws away on the root note of the chord during the chorus.

The very first thing you hear is the angelic voice of Carl Wilson, Brian’s brother, singing the word ‘I’ a triplet quaver before the downbeat. The first eight bars of the verse feature a heavily phased organ passed through a Leslie rotary speaker (for more on this, see the Hammond feature starting on page 40 this month). The organ plays the chords on the beat, accompanied solely by the tight bass guitar sound of Motown and Country music session giant Carole Kaye playing super-cool triplet figures. The second eight bars have a broken but rigid drum pattern played by session drummer extraordinaire Hal Blaine (alleged to have played on more hit records than any other musician ever) in tandem with a tambourine splash and a counterpoint descending French horn laid beautifully in the distance.

The 16-bar chorus was edited into the multitrack master tape at some point during the construction of the track. Like all the other edits that made up the finished record, this one is partially masked by vast reverb decays added at the mixing and sub-mixing stages. Rhythmically, the chorus is stable, but instrumentally it’s wild; the throbbing cello is stretched over a straight bass and drum framework accompanied by a back-beat tambourine, and the whole arrangement is topped off by a gentleman called Paul Tanner playing a theremin — most unusual for pop music of the time.

The chorus vocals are split into four 4-bar sections. The first section is the ‘I’m picking up Good Vibrations’ hook line, the second section adds an ‘oo bop bop’ figure (years before those Hanson boys were a twinkle in their parents eyes), the third section adds a gorgeous high harmony to the ‘oo bop bop’ part and the fourth section adds an even higher harmony. The structure of these vocal parts and their harmonic framework may not be the kind taught in the Royal Academy of Music, but the excitement they generate in the listener is equal to anything scratched on a piece of parchment by a long-dead composer.

A common way to develop a song arrangement is to add something to the second verse. Again, ‘Good Vibrations’ deviates from the norm; the second verse and chorus adhere to exactly the same patterns of instrumentation and harmony as the first time through, and the verse section is never repeated again in the song. Furthermore, the song then moves into a section that is completely out of left field; a honky-tonk piano plays with half-time feel accompanied by an on-beat bass drone, a different tambourine (shaken, not hit), a jaws harp, and more theremin low in the mix. After eight bars, there’s a four-bar vocal crescendo (‘aaaah’); the third and fourth bars vocally counterpointed with an angelic ‘Oo my my my’, which takes us into the middle eight.

Musically, the middle eight changes from the relative minor to an E flat major and instrumentally adds a sleigh bell. The vocal arrangement (‘I don’t know where but she sends me there…’) has four separate parts which interweave so divinely the Spice Girls or Boyzone couldn’t even dream them properly.

From a half-time middle eight, most people would go straight into a big splash hook-line section. Brian Wilson decided to slow the track even further, moving into a 23-bar section of church organ and tambourine by means of the most savage edit in the track. Most arrangers would steer clear of this kind of drop in pace, on the grounds that it would be chart suicide, but not Brian. This section is split into six sections of four bars (my maths is fine, just give me time to explain). The first section is vocal-less. The second section adds the line ‘gotta keep those loving Good Vibrations happening with her’ and at the end Carole Kaye’s fat, round bass strikes up, leading into the third section which has blissful vocal harmonies and a bass line. The fourth section adds a harmonica and over the course of these four bars all the vocals fade out (again, an unconventional move). The next section is vocal-less, with just the church organ, tambourine, bass root and harmonica, as is the first two bars of the sixth and last section. On the third bar there’s a crescendo vocal ‘aaaah’ which stops with everything else on the down beat of the last bar, decaying with delicious, distorted, ultra-analogue spring reverb to near-silence, before the next surprise: an eight-bar coda of ‘Good good good, good Vibrations’. This time, there’s no ‘Oo bop bop’ vocal accompaniment, just straight root-third and fifth block harmony, but once again, all these vocals fade out in time for the final two bars of the section, leaving the cello and bass prominent before the final piece of singing on the track: eight bars of rapturous barber shop-type vocal harmonies. There are no words, just ‘dos’, ‘bas’ and ‘oos’. As if this wasn’t unexpected enough, the final playout is then heralded by two bars of just cello and very prominent theremin before the drums and bass kick in for the final two-bar fade-out with full instrumentation. The exotic instruments, the complex vocal arrangements, and the many dynamic crescendos and decrescendos all combine to set this record apart from most pop music. In short, if there’s an instruction manual for writing and arranging pop songs, this one breaks every rule.

MANIPULATING YOUR DIGITS

I’m working on the assumption that you’re not a classically trained pianist or a gifted jazz ivory-tickler, and that you input your musical information through that new-fangled MIDI thing, by means of a keyboard. Here’s a handy chord-playing tip. In short, instead of having one chord shape that moves up and down the keyboard, never changing, try using different inversions. If the chords you play are (C) (F) (G), rather than playing the notes in the order C E G / F A C / G B D, where the fifth note of the chord stays in the same position, try playing C E G / C F A / B D G.

To create a mere interesting bassline, use notes from within the chord other than the root. You’ll be playing like Liberace before you know it. (For chords with more than three notes, see ‘Posh Chords’ box).

THE NASHVILLE NUMBER SYSTEM

In the last decade of the 18th Century, the centre of the music world was Salzburg, Austria. Two hundred years later there is no more productive music city on the planet than Nashville, Tennessee. Whether you like country music or think it’s a pile of twanging nonsense, the fact remains that there are more studios, producers, arrangers, composers and musicians making music every day in a square mile there than anywhere else on earth.

Though this is more to do with songwriting than arranging, there’s a most remarkable thing about the way that music is made there, which can be of great benefit to musicians of all tastes: instead of musical notation and chord progressions, they use something known as the number system. Numbering the notes of the scale from one to eight (the latter being an octave higher) and applying those numbers to chords means that a song is seen as a numbered pattern of chord changes, regardless of what key the song is in. It may seem an odd way of looking at music, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it — whatever flavour of music you deal in. It makes learning new songs easier, changing the key to a song a doddle, and understanding what makes other great songs flow so well more straightforward. It would be completely out of order of me to suggest that looking at a number of great songs by other artists as a set of chord numbers, and picking the bits you want to use as a blueprint for your own song in your own comfortable key is a good way to start a new song. If only because this article is about arranging and not songwriting.

Anyway, every musical key is numbered in the table below. A number on its own signifies a major chord; in the key of C, a 1 is read as C major. Other “flavours” of chord are created by a simple shorthand; for example, if you want a Bb minor in the key of C, a minor chord based on the flattened seventh degree of the scale, if would be written as b7-. Nashville convention implies a particular kind of chord for each step of the scale, although this is always fully notated to avoid ambiguity:

1 = major

2 = minor 7th (2-7)

3 = minor 7th (3-7)

4 = major

5 = major

6 = minor (6-)

7 = 7th (7/7th)

So while the 6 chord would normally be minor (notated as 6-), you might want it to be a major or major 7th (6 or 6/7th). And remember, changing a chord from major to minor and vice-versa could make the difference between a massive hit and just another song.

Incidentally, the 6- chord is the relative minor of the key. (In the key of C it would be A minor.) Which means that the same notes are used in the relative minor key of A minor as are used in the major key of C. This may not seem that interesting, but if you use it in the correct way it can make you as rich as Eric Clapton. (Eric Clapton has based his entire guitar-playing style on exclusively using relative minor scales, and he’s not the only one, by a long shot.)

POSH CHORDS

Here’s a list of every chord used in music, ever. They’re only in the key of C. To find out what they are in other musical keys, either use your musical transposing skills, or the transpose button on your keyboard or sequencer. Try them out — you’ll sound like a musical genius. MINOR

&Mac198; = MAJOR 7th

+ = AUGMENTED

o = DIMINISHED

C6 = C E G A

C6/9 = C E G D A

C+9 = C E G D

C&Mac198; = C E G B

C&Mac198;(13) = C E G B A

Cmj9 = C E G B D

Cmj13 = C E G B D A

C7 = C E G Bb

C9 = C E G Bb D

C13 = C E G Bb D A

C-6 = C Eb G A

C-6/9 = C Eb G A D

C-+9 = C Eb G D

C-7 = C Eb G Bb

C-7+11 = C Eb G Bb F

C-7+13 = C Eb G Bb A

C-9 = C Eb G Bb D

C-11 = C Eb G Bb D F

C-13 = C Eb G Bb D F A

C-&Mac198; = C Eb G B

C-9&Mac198; = C Eb G B D

C-7b5 = C Eb F# Bb

C-9b5 = C Eb F# Bb D

C-11b5 =C Eb F# Bb D F

Co = C Eb F#

Co7 = C Eb F# A

Co7+&Mac198; = C Eb F# A B

C+ = C E G#

Csus = C F G

C7sus = C F G Bb

C9sus = C F G Bb D

C13sus = C F G Bb D A

C&Mac198;b5 = C E F# B

C&Mac198;5 = C E G# B

C&Mac198;11 = C E G B F#

Cmj9#11 = C E G B D F#

Cmj13#11 = C E G B D F# A

C7b5 = C E F# Bb

C9b5 = C E F# Bb D

C7#5 = C E G# Bb

C9#5 = C E G# Bb D

C7b9 = C E G Bb C#

C7#9 = C E G Bb Eb

C7b5b9 = C E F# Bb C#

C7#5#9 = C E Ab Bb Eb

C7#5b9 = C E G# Bb C#

C7#11 = C E G Bb F#

C9#11 = C E G Bb D F#

C7b9#11 = C E G Bb C# F#

C7#9#11 = C E G Bb Eb F#

C13b5 = C E F# Bb D A

C13b9 = C E G Bb C# A

C13#11= C E G Bb D F# A

C7susb9 = C F G Bb C#

C13susb9 = C F G Bb C# A

Csusb5 = C F F# B

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TAJ MUSIC TEAM


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