God Only Knows

About a year ago I put up a post listing what I saw as the four best songs by the Beach Boys, though some readers responded that they couldn’t stand the group. While I agree that many of their songs are forgettable, I still maintain that they made some very great rock music, and that Brian Wilson was a melodic genius.

Reader Bryan found my old post, and updated it by giving me the link to a video in which a young musician analyzes four great songs that had subtle but wonderful key changes. That video is at the bottom, and if you’re musically inclined, you’ll want to watch it.

The four songs are Uptown Girl, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, We’ve Only Just Begun, and this one: one of my favorite Beach Boy Songs from the Pet Sounds album.  It’s called God Only Knows, but as a grammar stickler, I’d say it should have been called “Only God Knows.” But that wouldn’t have scanned very well, would it?

The song was co-written with Tony Asher, who co-wrote two other great songs on that album: Caroline, No and Wouldn’t it Be Nice? You can hear the original recorded version, which had multiple overdubs, here.

Here’s Wilson performing it in London in 2002, 36 years after it was released (he wasn’t the lead vocal on the recorded version). After all his travails, he’s still great onstage:

From Wikipedia:

Asher denied that the song alluded to suicide. He describes his interpretation:

This is the one [song] that I thought would be a hit record because it was so incredibly beautiful. I was concerned that maybe the lyrics weren’t up to the same level as the music; how many love songs start off with the line, “I may not always love you”? I liked that twist, and fought to start the song that way. Working with Brian, I didn’t have a whole lot of fighting to do, but I was certainly willing to fight to the end for that. … “God Only Knows” is, to me, one of the great songs of our time. I mean the great songs. Not because I wrote the lyrics, but because it is an amazing piece of music that we were able to write a very compelling lyric to. It’s the simplicity—the inference that “I am who I am because of you”—that makes it very personal and tender.

Here’s a very early live version:

More from Wikipedia:

The instrumental section of the song was recorded on March 10, 1966, at United Western Recorders, Hollywood, California,  with the session engineered by Chuck Britz and produced by Brian Wilson. The instrumental part of the song took 20 takes to achieve what is the master take of the song. Present on the day of the instrumental recording was Carl on twelve-string guitar among other session musicians collectively known as The Wrecking Crew. A strip of masking tape was placed over the strings of a piano while the bottoms of two plastic orange juice bottles were used for percussion.

According to Brian, many of the musicians who were present at the “God Only Knows” sessions claim that those sessions were some of “the most magical, beautiful musical experiences they’ve ever heard”. He added that there were 23 musicians present during the “God Only Knows” sessions, though only 16 are credited as being present on the actual take that was used for the final song. At the time, 23 musicians was an astounding number of musicians for a pop record. All the musicians played simultaneously, creating “a rich, heavenly blanket of music”. A string section was overdubbed thereafter.

I found this short video of Brian Wilson with George Martin (the “fifth Beatle”) talking about Wilson’s music, including God Only Knows. (Martin goes into the mixing room with Wilson and “deconstructs” the song.)I couldn’t resist showing two of the greatest rock-music arrangers of our time:

And the analysis: God Only Knows is the last song discussed. The analysis is complex, and one wonders if Wilson and Asher had an intuitive understanding of music to produce this complexity, or could really write and analyze in this way. (Paul McCartney, for instance, never could read music.)

Finally, there are two 8-minute series of outtakes from the recording process that are fascinating to hear: Part 1 and Part 2.

54 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    This is very illuminating! I’m glad PCC(E) pointed this song out – I’m now under its spell.

  2. Barry Lyons
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    “God Only Knows” is a great song. I will permit no one to disagree with me.

  3. Mike Anderson
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Trivia: Paul McCartney said “God Only Knows” was the greatest song ever written.

    Legend also has it that Brian Wilson returned the complement and said Sgt. Pepper was the greatest album ever made.

    • Posted April 13, 2019 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      I’m a massive Beatles fan but Sergeant Pepper wasn’t even the greatest album of 1967.

  4. Ken Phelps
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The Netflix documentary on The Wrecking Crew is well worth a watch.

    • robb mcallister
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      YES! If you haven’t seen this doc…PLEASE take the time to do so. Look up the name Wrecking Crew on Wikipedia, and see how many songs these people are associated with.
      I have leant my copy of the doc to people my age (56) and to my nephew and others involved with music today.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Always thought this was the beach boys:

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      The last tune ever to bear the joint Lennon-McCartney songwriting credit, if I’m not mistaken.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Going to try this again and see if I get the correct one – I hear music

  6. Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t make it all the way through. Different taste here.

  7. DrBrydon
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Great song that I now avoid. Too poignant.

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I thought the parting comment by David Bennett Piano was relevant to the post about the banality of modern pop music. It really puts the point across. I am still waiting to hear a song like these on the music playing on the equivalent of popular radio nowadays.

  9. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    I guess that the Beach Boys by now should be called the Beach Oupas or Beach Gramps.
    They did make some remarkable songs indeed though.

  10. Posted April 12, 2019 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I like the story from one of the keyboardists in The Wrecking Crew. Brian Wilson was unhappy with the breakdown and could not get it to work, to zing: the pianoman suggested a sort of pizzicato style rather than the legato that was in Brian’s head. He heard it and was immediately happy, and that is what we the listeners hear.

    Fantastic as Wilson was in 1966, it is still not a huge creative jump to play a phrase in the opposite way to how you imagine it: he just had a block and needed someone else to approach the problem. Sometimes the solution is simple.

  11. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    The Beach Boys were the guys from Hawthorne, California, a place where my future wife lived in the late 60s early 70s. They were a garage band, inventing themselves in their parent’s garage and they did pretty well for a bunch of local guys.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    “God Only Knows” was put to great use by Paul Thomas Anderson in the closing montage of his film Boogie Nights:

    It also made an appearance in the Brit Christmas-themed flick (beloved by some, loathed by others) Love Actually.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      Also the intro to Big Love in later seasons.

  13. Posted April 12, 2019 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    The Beach Boys normally make my teeth ache – I think ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ were their best.

    rz

  14. Linda Calhoun
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Sandra Boynton fan here.

    Boynton and her composing partner, Mike Ford, write kids’ songs in the style of various artists/composers, and then they get said artists to record the songs that spoof themselves.

    One of my favorites of theirs is “Speed Turtle”, sung by Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys’ style.

    I’d attempt to put in a link, but every time I try to do that, I end up putting in the whole thing, not just the link. But, if you go to YouTube and search on Speed Turtle, give it a listen. Guaranteed to make you smile.

    L

  15. Posted April 12, 2019 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Brian Wilson must have just watched “Alien” before George Martin visited with all that talk about music “bursting out of his chest”.

  16. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    There’s something about the beauty of the composition in juxtaposition to the length in minutes of the recording. I think 2:55.

    There’s also something about how musicians haven’t used this song as an improvisational vehicle, given its richness. Perhaps it’s too rich. Stella By Starlight comes to mind as a very rich standard that is played by probably _everyone_. So I’m not sure what to make of it.

    Actually that reminds me – I sent PCC(E) a link to Brad Mehldau’s trio playing Happy by The Beach Boys (I think),.. I’ll have to find it, but that’s an exception perhaps. Because Mehldau picks songs like that.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Well well – I haven’t listened through, but here’s Mehldau playing God Onky Knows solo, I think https://youtu.be/MnwNr97VmNU

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      The Beach Boys song I was trying to recall is Friends here played by Mehldau’s trio https://youtu.be/O4UHOlZOAwg

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      “Stella By Starlight” — the matchless improvisational performance of that tune for me is Miles Davis’s.

  17. Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Most people associate The Beach Boys with their most popular early hits, but there was so much more going on with Brian, and other musicians knew he was a genius.

    Years ago, one of the instructors at my music shop in Cambridge, MA told me of a student who’d requested to learn a Beach Boys song. The instructor had never liked the band, on the basis of those corny hits(though there was more there than many appreciated), but as he began to work through the tune with his student — the beautiful melody & inventive chords — it hit him. He became a fanatic fan, and his own development as a musician was, in his words, accelerated.

    Listen to Vince Gill, David Crosby, Jim Webb & others pay tribute to Brian, performing his masterpiece “Surf’s Up,”(an ironic nod to the group’s earlier associations with surf music)and make sure to have a look at the stream of consciousness lyrics! “Columnated ruins domino…Canvass the town and brush the backdrop …are you sleeping,Brother John?…”

  18. John Dentinger
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, PCC, for making me take another listen to songs I have ignored for a long time. My tastes run to straight-ahead R & R (most recently to the Black Keys), but there’s no doubt that B. Wilson is a musical genius.

  19. Paul Monné
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I seem to recall hearing Billy Joel say Don’t Worry Baby was his favorite Beach Boys song. There is a lovely modulation in the pre-chorus to chorus “…but she looks in my eyes, and makes me realize…” where 3 out of 4 chords work in the verse, and a different 3 out of 4 work in the chorus. It’s a beautiful moment in pop music.

    I’m a sucker for a beautiful melody supported by inventive chords.

  20. Dionigi
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    In the UK, God only knows is used to mean no one knows as against only god knows which infers that god knows. I don’t know if this is the same in the US.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I find the implication of that, that God = nobody, quite acceptable.

      Though myself I prefer to use a euphemism and say “Fuck knows”. Which is technically meaningless since there is no entity of that name, but wtf. 😉

      Other people sometimes get pseudo-classical and say “Gods know”. Or avoid the quandary with “Who knows?”

      There’s also the equivalent phrase, “Thank God/fuck/gods for that”, which is harder to avoid.

      cr

    • Posted April 12, 2019 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

      Agree. Means nobody knows.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

      In USA “God only knows” means it’s a mystery, because no human knows the answer. “God only knows if Muhammad Ali could beat Mike Tyson.”

  21. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    For some reason that doesn’t grab me. Beach Boys were never quite my style (though I don’t hate them like I do Disco).

    I was going to credit Brian Wilson with Linda Ronstadt’s haunting song ‘Adios’, but it seems that was written by Jimmy Webb; however Brian Wilson ‘arranged’ it and sang backup on it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK5hKFsIW8I

    cr

  22. yazikus
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I was reading this earlier, but didn’t have the opportunity to listen just then. However, just reading this post put the song in my head, and it has been playing there since. I love the power of music, and am happy to be reminded of what a lovely piece of music this is, indeed.

    When I was a kid, in India, The Beach Boys came to the embassy for a concert. I didn’t have a ticket, but loitered with some of the other children outside. The band arrived late, having had their luggage lost, and they stopped to chat with us. Wilson autographed my arm, and they were all so nice.

  23. Posted April 12, 2019 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Geez how brilliant is his band in that first clip…

  24. BJ
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    For really great breakdowns of what makes certain songs great, check out the Youtube series called…(wait for it)…What Makes This Song Great on Rick Beato’s channel. Here’s his episode on Kid Charlemagne: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKIC9zbSJoE

    Other favorites of mine he’s done: Close to the Heart (Rush) and Roundabout/i> (Yes). Actually, he’s analyzed a ton of great songs I love.

    • Posted April 13, 2019 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Very interesting. Watched the “Kid Charlemagne” one. Will check out the Yes one too. Thanks for the link.

      • BJ
        Posted April 13, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        No problem. Glad you enjoyed it.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted April 13, 2019 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Would you like that kitchen-clean or laced with kerosene?

          • BJ
            Posted April 13, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

            Any Day-Glo freak knows they want the kitchen-clean.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted April 13, 2019 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

              Owsly Stanely really did try to make a get away once in car with an empty gas tank, IRL.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 13, 2019 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      Stronger Than Dirt

      I’ll leave that as something to discover via WMTSG episodes.

  25. dvandivere
    Posted April 13, 2019 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, Wilson’s really lost his voice since. I was at the Umbrian Jazz Festival in 2017, and his voice was all over the place.

    Growing up in Southern Maryland in the 70s and 80s, my only real connection to the Beach Boys was “that group old people like who play the 4th of July in DC every year.” I can intellectually appreciate the music, but it’s never spoken to me (same thing for the Beatles).

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 13, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      The Beach Boys from the late 70s on became a nostalgia-band touring machine, and kind of a politically reactionary one at that. More like a Beach Boys tribute band than the Beach Boys tout court.

      • rickflick
        Posted April 14, 2019 at 12:48 am | Permalink

        That’s sad. I’ve always wished performers could know when they’d peeked and quit at that point.

  26. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 13, 2019 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    That video on key changes just had to include the Beatles. It’s my impression that their ‘psychedelic period’ featured key changes abundantly. My choice for the ultimate in key changes would be Strawberry Fields.

    cr

  27. revelator60
    Posted April 13, 2019 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    If you’ve ever wanted to hear what “God Only Knows” would sound like if sung by children, behold this beauty:

    • rickflick
      Posted April 14, 2019 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      It’s interesting that that most children can intuitively get complex melodies and chord changes like this.

      • dvandivere
        Posted April 14, 2019 at 2:28 am | Permalink

        Having sung in a semi-professional boys choir, I can tell you it’s not that intuitive…

        • rickflick
          Posted April 14, 2019 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          I’ve never sung in a choir. I’ll lake your word for it.

  28. Andrea Kenner
    Posted April 16, 2019 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I clicked Like, but actually, I LOVED this post!

  29. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 19, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    The analysis clicked for me, and I agree that “God Only Knows” was the most interesting example (now explained as ambiguous changes).

    But while I see the point with “Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds” I cringe at the key changes … maybe they are too blatant. That song is interesting too, but does not work for me.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted April 19, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Oy, I forgot; thanks! It is nice to see old mysteries explained, the Internet is now an increasingly useful resource for various odds and ends. (But still lacking a lot on the topics I like most. I’ll give it another decade though.)

    • Posted April 20, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      I think the idea of the Lucy cleverness is the bass line using notes not in the scale of the first part of the verse: I obviously hear the semitone change in key during the verse as more subtle than you, Torbjorn.


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