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Ideas

The Electro-Theremin’s good vibration

Where Paul Tanner’s strange instrument (almost) took pop music

Paul Tanner at his Electro-Theremin in the late 1960s.

David S. Miller via The New York Times

Paul Tanner at his Electro-Theremin in the late 1960s.

Paul Tanner died on Feb. 5, at the age of 95. There’s a good chance you never heard of him. There’s a better chance you heard what he did. Playing the Electro-Theremin—an instrument he helped design—Tanner lent a gliding electronic sheen to a singular piece of American music: the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Tanner provided the characteristic tone of a particular zenith in popular music: The song was the high point of an ambitious arc celebrating youth and innocence. And then, it all came crashing down.

For a time, it soared pretty far, the latest in a long tradition of California mythologies. Rock and roll, sexual and rebellious, had, by the early ’60s, been toned down by the marketplace. The Beach Boys romanticized that sanitized version of adolescence into a vision of teenaged nirvana: surfing, cars, girls, perennial summer. They rode the wave—10 albums and two number-one singles by the end of 1965—becoming the standard-bearers for sunny, carefree pop.

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But the group, especially Brian Wilson, had higher designs. While the others toured, Wilson, the group’s musical pilot, stayed in the recording studio, hiring a menagerie of instrumentalists to craft the backing tracks for “Pet Sounds,” an album suffusing those pop themes with ache and melancholy. As American society headed into one of its perennial losses of innocence—this one fueled by Vietnam, the increasing urgency of the civil rights movement, and the existentialist crisis of a boom generation—the new complexity in the group’s sound expressed, perhaps, the tension of trying to keep optimism alive.

Tanner, meanwhile, had landed in California after World War II and had become an in-
demand session player for film and television. Previously, he had been a trombonist in the Glenn Miller Orchestra—Miller’s second band, ascending to heights of fame with its tight, close-harmony sound, before Miller’s plane vanished over the English Channel. In California, Tanner began to hear the theremin being used in film scores. Patented by Russian inventor Léon Theremin in 1928, the instrument demanded something between choreography and ritual: Performers moved their hands through the space around the instrument to tune its radio oscillators. The sound, too, had a disembodied quality, an unearthly whistle. The effect was hypnotic, but the technique required to play it was fiercely difficult.

Tanner teamed up with an actor friend, Bob Whitsall, to develop an improvement. The shaping of air was replaced by the manipulation of knobs; the sound was similar, but it was now much easier to control, transforming a devotional object into a practical tool. Just a few hours after finishing the prototype, Tanner was playing it in a recording session. (“I never practiced it,” he insisted.) Soon he was lending the sound to various film and television soundtracks: science fiction, horror, or—as Tanner once recalled—scenes of drunkenness.

Brian Wilson first used Tanner and his ­Electro-Theremin on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” the instrument weaving a thread of woozy alienation. A few days later, Tanner returned for the first takes of “Good Vibrations.” Sessions would continue for six months as Wilson experimented—somewhere between 70 and 90 hours of tape, according to various accounts, all for a three-and-a-half-minute song. The
Electro-Theremin was a constant, present on the first take, always in the mix. (Surviving union call sheets include one nearly four-hour recording session devoted solely to Tanner and the instrument.) From the rich, buzzy waver of those early takes, the Electro-Theremin’s sound was refined into a pure, swooping ray of light. Where others used the theremin to conjure up science fiction, “Good Vibrations” borrowed that same sound to evoke human aspiration, picking up where the group’s intricate choral harmonies leave off, slipping free of vocal gravity with joyous octave leaps.

“Good Vibrations” was a masterpiece, the familiar pop music trope of attraction and infatuation transmuted into a compact, far-flung symphonic trajectory. The song banks and dives, changes tempo in the middle, even, at one point, comes to a sudden halt—a glance down into the void that fails to upset the music’s flying dream. “Pet Sounds” had only had middling success, by the group’s standards; but “Good Vibrations,” released as a single, reached number one in December of 1966. That emboldened Wilson to take off on an even more ambitious project: “Smile,” an album that Wilson called “a teenage symphony to God,” an epic to make “Good Vibrations” seem like a mere test launch.

But “Good Vibrations” ended up the high point, followed by a precipitous fall. Racked by pressure and paranoia, Wilson eventually abandoned “Smile.” The Beatles, a longtime rival (“Pet Sounds” had, Wilson said, been spurred by his hearing The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”), released “Sgt. Pepper’s” while “Smile” languished, unfinished. While “Smile”—at least in some prospective versions—would have ended with “Good Vibrations,” “Sgt. Pepper’s” ended with the apocalyptic, grown-up angst of “A Day in the Life.” Pop music turned one corner instead of another.

“Smile” became a glorious ruin. Bootleg versions circulated for decades; in 2004, Wilson released a newly recorded version; 2011 brought a remastered assemblage of original recordings along with a lavish anthology of outtakes—a collection of debris laid out in the shape of a fallen craft. The sound of “Good Vibrations”—the shimmering harmonies, the toy-box orchestration—
became a callback, an evocation of a fleeting moment. Pop music had begun to use grit and darkness to signal its realism, its seriousness; the shine and grandeur of “Good Vibrations” became a fairy tale, carrying with it a whiff of the unreal.

Still, the echoes of the Electro-Theremin’s brief flight across a high point in pop still convey some sense of the optimism of “Good Vibrations,” however poignantly. Tanner’s instrument was, in retrospect, a perfect encapsulation of the atmosphere—gorgeous but unsustainable—that “Good Vibrations” managed to reach. Tanner gave music a glimpse of the sun, up close, warm and pure, just before the wax started to melt, and the wings started to fall off, and the ground came hurtling upward.

Matthew Guerrieri writes on music for The ­Boston Globe and NewMusicBox. His book “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imgination” was published by Alfred A. Knopf in November.
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