A Brief History of Vibes

In May, YouTube’s Niko Omilana beat The Reclaim Party’s Laurence Fox in the London mayoral election on a policy platform based on two words: For Vibes. Facing imperious hashtags such as #GoodVibesOnly and Tinder even launching a ‘Vibes’ quiz to further a more reproductive union, surely it’s time to put everything from Brian Wilson’s Californian metaphysics to David Brent’s millennium officespeak under the microscope, in a deeply scientific and equally urgent search for categorical proof of a vibe.

According to CGP’s GCSE Physics revision guide, all particles in matter have their own ‘kinetic energy stores’, generated by vibrations. We’re getting into quantum mechanics, the avenue of scientific study first identified by 20th Century German physicists, who were observing a pattern of behaviours that blew apart the previously-shared perception of the universe. In parallel, it could also be said that a Big Bang moment for 20th Century counterculture, pseudo-science and spiritualism was happening. There were common energies beyond our perception up for discovery; hidden disruptive forces both positive and negative; in essence, ‘deep vibrations’. Today, you come across this term discussed ironically or subversively, yet it still remains a curiously enduring worldview that owes us an explanation.

The King of the Vibes

Some of the earliest references to ‘vibes’ in any countercultural sense derive from the vibraphone in the 1930s; a cousinal instrument of the now-ringtone icon marimba, but one that utilised steel or aluminium bars instead of wooden. Groundbreaking jazz drummer Lionel ‘Hamp’ Hampton created the first known recording of it, ultimately earning himself the majestic title of ‘The King of the Vibes’ (or the lesser-fancied, lesser-coined ‘Vibes President’), by hosting show-stopping blowouts of bop, jazz and early a-lop-bam-boom that provided the necessary manic, primal hums to transgress the stiff moral and sexual codes challenging American teenagers of the age. In any furthering of our analysis, we cannot ever really discount that the word ‘vibe’ might often be immediately adjacent to the act or anticipation of sexual negotiation.

Hampton’s influence on 20th Century music is largely massive, having had legendary understudies from Quincy Jones to Dinah Washington, and a 1942 recording of Flying Home is considered precocious rock and roll. The pioneer of nonsense syllables such as Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop might be a good place to start in explaining the shorthand ‘vibe’ subsequently has had for an indescribably good sound or atmosphere. In fact — in 1993, Hampton’s trumpeter Quincy Jones launched Vibe magazine, with The New York Times claiming it made the precise word synonymous with Hip-Hop, R&B and youth culture by the end of its original print editions in 2009. If you value Google’s Ngram tool — which tracks word frequencies in books against time — vibe explodes exponentially around the time the magazine launched; it would certainly explain how the search engine is able to rapidly accrue printed citations of the word from then onwards.

The Power of Positive Vibes

In 1952, an American churchman and writer, Norman Vincent Peale, published The Power of Positive Thinking, a landmark guide to life that combined Christian worship with positive thought; you could achieve whatever success you want, all you had to do was just believe in it. The book was academically criticised, but became a New York Times number one bestseller, and by 1956 had sold over 2 million copies. It was the A-Bomb of the modern self-help publishing industry, that would go on to unleash the nuclear power inside a bullet point for decades. In his book, Peale dedicates a passage to vibrations:

Someone else who believed in the power of vibrations, both good and bad was Audree Wilson, mother of musician Brian Wilson, who would go on to record the era-defining song ‘Good Vibrations’ in 1966. In his autobiography, Wilson remembers his mother’s influence when he explored the idea of vibrations in the song over a decade later:

His mother’s influence on Good Vibrations is well-known, and according to which of his accounts you hear, Wilson is aged between 10 and 14, and around the time The Power of Positive Thinking was dominating bestseller lists. Audree, and possibly Brian Wilson’s dogs, were taking part in a radioactive new discourse about transmittable positive and negative vibes.

Good Vibrations went on to be The Beach Boys’ finest work, described by Wilson himself as the ‘top floor of the building’ he was trying to build, whilst a contemporary journalist declared it a ‘pocket symphony’; a technicolour microscape of ideas and achievements. Perhaps of even greater import was documenting the peace and love moment in San Francisco, and producing an artifact of the counterculture utilising a disruptive, anti-establishment force accessible through music, marijuana and LSD — She goes with me to a blossom world / I’m pickin’ up good vibrations / She’s giving me excitations (oom bop bop.)

The Beach Boys, like Hampton, had mastered the instrument of their time, the theremin — the sonic, warped sci-fi radio-tuning effect that underscores the chorus on Good Vibrations — a post-LSD, lovebombed Telstar hurtling out of radar range. Was this, like the vibraphone, an article of faith made manifest; an aural surfacing of a tangible vibe?

10 years on from Good Vibrations, Bob Marley & The Wailers eighth studio album Rastaman Vibration and the eponymously-adjacent track Positive Vibration, leans more towards this tradition of spiritual thinking as opposed to a traceable tributary of Hampton and the vibraphone. Marley sings — Got to have a good vibe! / If you get down and you quarrel everyday / You’re saying prayers to the devils, I say — it could be a reggae riff on lines from Norman Vincent Peale, but it is a protest record with very much a vibe of its own.

It is one where the idea of a vibration as a spiritual conductor again turns up; the reggae boom of the 1970s was grounded in Nyabinghi rhythm and the emitting of ‘positive vibrations’ — illustrated by Marley as a tenet of the Rastafarian movement. Ironically, Rastaman Vibration produced Marley’s most commercially successful record, achieving his only top 10 album in the US. Nyabinghi drums were already being lifted from their spiritual home in new reggae, rocksteady and ska-influenced pop music, whilst the pursuit of ‘good vibes’ was taking hold as an attractive idea to the fondue-fogged 1970s middle classes feeling for countercultural cred.

That’s Your Vibe, That’s Your Vibe

One member of Norman Vincent Peale’s congregation was Donald Trump. He was said to be enthused with both the book and Peale’s sermons, and The Power of Positive Thinking left a lasting impact on him; the idea that you could will success into the world, just by believing it would happen — which in practice, meant living in a pinstripe alternative reality. Donald Trump was also a contributor to the canon himself, publishing the bestselling, ghostwriter-busting Trump: The Art of the Deal in 1988.

What was different between Trump, Tony Robbins and other self-help dynamos to Wilson and Marley, was that positive thinking could be used for financial gain and corporate ‘detraditionalization’, instead of political radicalism. Notice the ascent of Baby Boomers into comfort during the 1980s — the significantly dominant generation in numbers and capital — as they assimilated their once countercultural belief in sharing positive energy into self-actualisation and interest. Take the thirtysomething stonewash hitmakers Huey Lewis and the News, goading younger artists with It’s Hip to be Square in the scrum for windowspace at Our Price.

Born in 1961, David Brent’s architect Ricky Gervais is one of the last Baby Boomers. This chimes soundly with The Office’s central manchild, middle-manager creation temporally past one hundred thousand miles from his home planet of youth. He is an avid proponent of corporate detraditionalization (‘Guilty, get a new rule book.’) He has reached millennium middle age and uses the word ‘vibe’ repeatedly. (‘Not in any sort of like “label me”… But just, that’s your vibe, that’s your vibe.’) To his creators, he is a manager desperate to be liked and a ‘vibe’ is a dated reference point to connect with his employees. To the generations below, joyful at the observations of jarring boomer ideas of hipness, wolfed down the entire dialogue of The Office as their own; a weapon against a parental and managerial generation above.

Whilst the second series of The Office was being filmed in the summer of 2002, the ‘Party at the Palace’ was broadcast to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, headlined amongst others by Brian Wilson. Playing his masterwork, a seated Wilson wiggles his fingers to the British public, asking them if they’re ready for some ‘good vibes’ — and is then joined by Sir Cliff Richard, Emma Bunton and Atomic Kitten on backing vocals. As well as being unnecessarily panned as ‘The Zombie at the Jubilee’ by the Daily Mail for his less-than-agile performance at Buckingham Palace, Wilson had apparently hemorrhaged his hard-fought countercultural vibes in a suntrap right at the heart of the establishment.

Fantastic Vibes and Where to Find Them

The fact that vibes had become seemingly outdated, personified by David Brent, is what exactly informed the sustained use of the term by Millennials — but that generation too is now moving out of the pop cultural space, and can’t fully explain why London mayoral candidate Niko Omilana, described by Private Eye — another Long 60s remnant — as unknown to anyone over 30, picked ‘vibes’ as an in-joke to his subscribers, beating cashed-up divorcee Laurence Fox of The Reclaim Party, and outflanking astro-centrist Count Binface for the leftfield vote.

Omilana’s vibes were, if not a countercultural moment, a genuine disruption to the electoral press cycle self-built from a groundswell of his own support on YouTube. GRM Daily’s own channel, a central hub of online UK grime culture, has uploaded at least 40 music videos with ‘vibe’ in their title since 2018 — most notably M.O, Lotto Boyzz & Mr Eazi’s Bad Vibe and Aitch’s Vibsing with view counts in the millions — suggesting “vibe”-inclusive metadata on Omilana’s platform still has workable currency, whilst a recurring message across social media of surrounding yourself with positive people and energy becomes a dependable antidote to the era of online hater negativity.

Niko, certainly himself a descendent of previous online and television pranksters, perhaps embodied ‘vibe’’s perseverance as a dada tradition — the irreverent art form that broke out of the 1910s in reaction to the madness of the political establishment. Dada, also a nonsense or multivalent word, as well existed more to outmanoeuvre elders on what it isn’t, rather than what it is. Our very attempt to identify a vibe perhaps at once kills it; but has a gameful swing at explaining the enduring, shapeshifting usability of a verbal unit employed as a countercultural pisstake.

Some beliefs in the power of vibrations are perhaps examples of the 20th Century’s real art form, the conspiracy theory — or even a ‘self-referential reality tunnel’, as Robert Anton Wilson — co-founder of the modern Illuminati myth would have described it — a fully-functioning philosophy that operates provided the central article of faith, i.e. positive vibrations, are not questioned. Such faith assumes deep connections and coincidences, whether chemical or historical, from which we can perhaps even plaster together an entire origin myth. And whilst as recently as 2018, a ‘resonance theory’ has speculated whether our relative atomic vibrations we share with animals and furniture may actually be the key to solving the Hard Problem of consciousness, let’s say that’s close enough to a vibe for now.

The South East London College of Arts & Communication: 11 Short Stories is out now: https://amzn.to/2FdAxlh

Tall tales | The South East London College of Arts & Communication: 11 Short Stories is out now: https://amzn.to/2FdAxlh