One August afternoon in 1966, Beach Boy Mike Love climbed into his lemon yellow Jaguar XKE (similar to the one he’s wedging himself right into now) and took off for a recording session in Hollywood. Along the way, he came up with the lyrics to the psychedelic masterpiece “Good Vibrations” – a track that forever changed rock music.
“I don’t remember there being this much traffic,” Love announces five decades later while recreating what has to be one of pop culture’s most awesome work commutes for PEOPLE.
In Love’s new biography, aptly titled Good Vibrations, he writes of how the words to the global smash, released in October 1966, came to him during his 10-mile drive from Studio City to a Sunset Boulevard sound studio on the day the band was scheduled to record the vocals to the song.
“I literally dictated the words to my [former] wife Suzanne on the way to the session,” says Love, 75, as he pulls out into afternoon traffic onto Coldwater Canyon Drive. “She had a notepad with her and wrote up the words as the poem came to me.”
Love co-founded the iconic rock group with his cousins Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, along with their high school pal Al Jardine. Brian, the group’s genius composer, producer and arranger, reportedly wrote the music to “Good Vibrations” during an LSD trip. He eventually spent eight months and 90 hours of studio time, calling upon a fleet of top session players – including Glen Campbell on lead guitar – to create the complex soundscape. Pioneering the “modular” recording technique, Brian painstakingly spliced together short sections of tape, similar to a director editing a film. By the time he was finished, it was the most expensive single that had ever been produced.
It was August when Brian finally captured the melody and bass line he’d been looking for. Love, who had penned the words to nearly three dozen of the group’s biggest hits, spent several days listening to the rough cuts of the song, but still had nothing on paper in the hours leading up to the recording session.
“I’ve been known to procrastinate,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh shoot, no more screwing around. I have to get busy with this.’ I was concerned about everybody waiting on the words, so there was a lot of energy riding on it.”
Wilson had originally become interested in creating a song about “vibrations” after hearing his mother talk about how dogs had the innate ability to sense if someone was a good or bad person. Love, however, wasn’t particularly interested in writing a song about the psychic abilities of canines and opted instead to make it a “boy, girl thing,” focusing on that mysterious romantic force that attracts one person to another.
“There was a lot of stuff going on, cultural changes,” says Love concerning the collective mood that influenced him. “LSD made its debut around this time and even though I had nothing to do with it, there was this sense of unbounded creativity in the air, the psychedelic era, the summer of love and all the stuff that went along with it.”
Driving through the chaparral-covered canyon that eventually intersects Sunset Boulevard, his “poem” came tumbling out of him as his wife scribbled down his words on her notepad. The whole process took a mere 20 minutes.
“Lyrics are my bag,” he says. “It doesn’t take me a lot of time if I know what I’m saying.”
And clearly Love, who claims he was writing about a “girl who was into peace, love and flower power,” did.
“I start it with the line, ‘I, I love the colorful clothes she wears,'” he explains. “It sounds almost like an exhalation. I could have simply said, ‘I love the colorful clothes she wears.’ But that has such a robotic, pedantic feel to it.”
Love works the stick shift as he steers the Jaguar over the twisting two-lane road, reciting bits and pieces of the song and the story behind how they came to be.
“‘I hear the sound of a gentle word,” he says, repeating some more lines. “‘On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air.’ I was debating whether to put either ‘perfume’ or ‘incense’ in there, but I figured ‘incense’ was a little much for middle America. I chickened out, even though I loved incense.”
Just before heading east on Sunset Boulevard on the last stretch of his drive to the Columbia Studios, Love talks about the two words that got nixed from the song.
“‘Softly smile, I know she must be kind,'” he says, reciting another section of lyrics. “‘When I look in her eyes, she goes with me to a blossom world.’ I originally wrote, ‘She goes with me to a blossom world we find,’ but Brian dropped ‘we find’ because he wanted to feature the bass line. Those are the missing two words from ‘Good Vibrations.'”
Nearly 50 minutes after starting out from Studio City, he pulls up the address of the Hollywood studio where he and a bunch of his twenty-something-year-old pals forever changed music. “I’ll be darned,” he says, peering through the Jaguar’s tiny windshield at the building. “There’s no longer a studio there anymore.”
Love shakes his head for an instant, then roars off down the road into the haze of the setting sun. “I think it fit the times,” he says of why “Good Vibrations” achieved its monster success. “It fit the mood and came together beautifully. It’s just one of those songs that transcends time.”