I had the recent good fortune to catch Brian Wilson on his 18-month world tour, performing Beach Boys' hits and the entire Pet Sounds album. Wilson is getting on in the years so I wanted to catch him soon, especially since he was doing “God Only Knows” (from Pet Sounds), one of the finest tunes in the American song catalog.
Hearing GOK performed by his 12-piece band—including original Beach Boy Al Jardine—reminded me that the writing and recording of this song provide more than a few lessons in innovation. Especially of the risk-taking variety, which too many of us in business are averse to.
First, some facts. GOK was released in May, 1966, for the Pet Sounds LP and later as the B-side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” That became one of biggest two-sided hits in vinyl history. GOK was written by Brian Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher (probably the finest of Wilson’s many co-writers over the years) and sung by Carl Wilson, Brian’s brother. The recording drew plaudits from a who’s who of top songwriters from Bono to Paul McCartney, who has referred to it as “the greatest song ever written.”
But what made it so unique? What was so game-changing about the song and the recording?