California Dreaming: God Only Knows

Rubber Soul had been a shock to Brian Wilson’s sense of the music industry. When he heard the Beatles’ most recent album in late 1965, he realised for the first time that it was possible to do a whole album with a cohesive feel and no filler [FOOTNOTEIn fact the album he heard, the American release, was not the album the Beatles had put together — four tracks were removed from the British release and two added from Help!, giving it arguably a more coherent style than the original album.]. He’d already started work on the Beach Boys’ latest album, having recorded a version of an old folk song, Sloop John B, and a new track he called In My Childhood, but hearing the latest work from his rivals pushed him on to decide that the new album would contain none of the joke tracks, doo-wop covers, or generic surf instrumentals that had been featured on the band’s previous records. This would be an entire album with only good tracks on it.

With the Beach Boys touring for much of the time without him, Wilson had to turn to different methods of making records. While up until early 1965 the band themselves had played on nearly every backing track, now the majority of the sessions were to feature the Wrecking Crew, and with Mike Love not around Wilson had to look for a different songwriting partner.

He found the lyricist he wanted in Tony Asher, an advertising copy-writer who had little previous experience of songwriting. What Asher did have, however, was the ability to understand and empathise with Wilson on an emotional level, and translate Wilson’s feelings into words he felt comfortable singing. In a period of a few weeks, the two had written Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me (based on the earlier In My Childhood), Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), Caroline No, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Here Today, That’s Not Me and God Only Knows — the core of what would become the Pet Sounds album.

Of all of them, probably the most meaningful for Wilson was God Only Knows, one of several songs where, inspired by a suggestion of Asher’s, the two tried to craft a song that would stand up alongside standards such as Stella By Starlight and Stardust.

Taking initial inspiration from the melody of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice, Wilson turned the initial melodic idea into possibly the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. There’s only twelve bars of actual musical material, other than the key change for the instrumental bridge, but those twelve bars have a wonderful harmonic ambiguity to them, full of minor sixths, diminished chords, and dissonant bass notes, with the song only resolving straightforwardly at the end of the verse, yet the whole thing feels beautiful, effortless, and inevitable.

Asher’s lyrics had a similar sense of simplicity, but were in their own way at least as experimental. Starting the song “I may not always love you…” and having the word “God” in the title of a secular song were both bones of contention between him and Wilson, but Asher prevailed, and his lyrics, which on the surface are a simple love song but in fact communicate as much about depression and insecurity as any of the songs on the album that are more explicitly about those subjects, remained intact.

The song took time to get right in the studio, too. Wilson’s original idea for the instrumental break — a lounge sax solo — was so bad it could almost have sunk the record, but thankfully he took on pianist Don Randi’s suggestion to play through the chord sequence staccato, and one of the most effective instrumental parts of any Beach Boys track was created. And while it was obvious from the start that Carl Wilson should sing lead on the track, as the youngest Wilson brother had recently blossomed into an astonishing vocal talent, what the rest of the vocal arrangement should be was less obvious. At one point during the sessions, all six Beach Boys, plus Brian Wilson’s wife and sister-in-law, plus Terry Melcher, were all singing “bop bop” backing vocals as block chords.

Thankfully, Wilson stripped this down, and the end result features just three voices. Carl Wilson sings lead, with Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston adding backing vocals in the middle section, while at the end there’s a simple call-and-response vocal round, with Brian Wilson taking the high and low parts while Johnston answers him in the middle.

The result is one of the most beautiful recordings in the history of popular music, perfect in every note from the French horn and flute on the intro through to Brian Wilson’s falsetto “What would I be without you?” on the fade. The song is one of the best ever written, and Carl Wilson’s double-tracked lead vocal is so astonishingly good that from this point on, for the next few years, he would be the band’s de facto lead vocalist, even though he’d only taken two solo leads before.

The only question now was how Brian Wilson could top an album many were already calling the greatest ever…

God Only Knows

Composer: Brian Wilson and Tony Asher

Line-up: Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Hal Blaine (drums), Jesse Erlich (cello), Carl Fortina and Frank Marocco (accordion), Jim Gordon (percussion), Bill Green and Jim Horn (flute), Leonard Hartman (clarinet, bass clarinet), Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman and Lyle Ritz (bass) Leonard Malarsky and Sid Sharp (violins), Jay Migliori (saxophone), Don Randi (piano), Alan Robinson (French horn), Darrel Terwilliger (viola)

Original release: Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys, Capitol T 2458

Currently available on: Pet Sounds Capitol CD, plus innumerable compilations.

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3 Responses to California Dreaming: God Only Knows

  1. Larry S. says:

    Andrew, truly, you hit both the musical and spiritual nails on the head. I was lucky in that, when I first started to purchase LPs in the mid 1970s (The Beatles ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums were the first two albums I ever bought), I happened to read about The Beach Boys’ music before I began to purchase their albums. Thus, I listened to most of their albums in more or less chronological order beginning with “Surfin’ Safari” – and then I purchased “Pet Sounds.” Thirty-eight years later, it is still my absolute favorite album (very Mojo magazine-ish, I know) from any genre of music, with “God Only Knows” being my favorite song from that album. I agree with you completely – it is true perfection, not a note wasted, with that deep bass, Carl’s angelic vocal, and Brian and Bruce’s swirling voices at the end; A little chill goes up my spine every time I have ever listened to this song, no exaggeration….thank you so much for this post, it gives voice to the emotions I feel when this song is played.

  2. TAD says:

    I’ve never been a big fan of “God Only Knows,” although I do like the sparse Lei’d in Hawaii live version of it. For the Pet Sounds version and most of the live versions I’ve heard though, the song comes and goes and does little for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why, except to say that the song doesn’t arouse emotions in me. It’s too mathematical, perhaps? I put it in the same category as songs like “For No One.” I recognize them as well-written songs, but they do nothing for me. I’m sure I’m in the minority among Beach Boys fans though.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    Speaking as one who is not a big Beach Boys fan … I do think this really is one of the most perfect three-minute songs ever recorded. It belongs up there with Waterloo Sunset and maybe even Penny Lane.

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