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?
1. Let’s start with the title. “God” had never been used in the title of a pop song before. It was fine for a patriotic anthem like “God Bless America” but risky for radio. Despite initial apprehension Wilson decided to stick with it, especially after Asher pointed out it would break new ground for popular music. The song was banned from certain playlists for its “blasphemy” but, in the end, the track (and the Pet Sounds album) became a classic.
2. The harmonic structure of the tune is stunningly sophisticated for a Top 40 song by a rock & roll band. Some technical details: (a) the song is chock full of elegant, “inverted” chords (where the lowest note in the chord is not the root of the chord); (b) the ascending melody in the verse glides over an uncertain key signature that finally settles into E in the chorus (“God only knows…”); and (c) the tune avoids standard cadences (harmonic progressions that conclude a passage) and fades without musical resolution.
3. The lyrics in the verses might be considered unusually somber for a pop love song, beginning with “I may not always love you” and concluding with “so what good would living do me?”—which some critics considered a suicide reference. Wilson was initially concerned about it, but lyricist Asher convinced him that the surrounding phrases and the uplifting “God only knows” chorus redeemed it, making it all the more emotionally compelling.
4. The song employs a perpetual vocal “round” near the end, further eluding any musical resolution. (A round is when voices sing the same melody, but begin at different times, as in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”) Again, rarely used in pop music.
5. The instrumentation on the recording—and of Pet Sounds in general—was decidedly unorthodox for a rock band. It included French horn, harpsichord, accordion, flute, clarinet, a string quartet, string bass, sleigh bells, and plastic orange juice bottles as “clip-clop” percussion.
6. 23 musicians participated in the recording of the song, which was unprecedented at the time. Only three vocalists appear on it, however: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Bruce Johnston—which for a Beach Boys' single was also unprecedented. (Their singing was “multi-tracked” to sound fuller.)
7. The total effect of the song and arrangement—the melodic leaps, the angelic harmonies, the heavenly strings, and references to the divine—gives the song a distinctly spiritual dimension, so much so that the phrase “God only knows” (a throw-away line in everyday conversation) could be taken literally!
There are more examples, but you get the point. The sublime beauty of the song should not distract us from the fact that this track was subversive. It broke so many rules it altered the future of pop music, as American historian John Robert Greene maintained (while also referring to it as “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded”). The expansiveness of the arrangement and production of the song—and album—directly inspired the Beatles’ to take more risks and further break the mold with their recordings, as in Sgt Pepper.
I wish more entrepreneurs and organizational leaders took more chances with their products and services, as I have discussed ad nauseam on these pages, including here. Innovation is risky, but not as risky as standing pat.
So, is “God Only Knows” the greatest pop song/track—ever? I guess we’d have to agree on the criteria for “best.” But the pop culture website Popdose boldly states, "It's the most beautifully composed and arranged songs in the history of not just pop music, but Western music.” BBC broadcaster Dominic King called it “the most perfectly constructed song in pop music history.”
Just for the record—vinyl or otherwise—it gets my vote.