The greatest pop song of all time

Version 3 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.

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  1. Trying to be objective rather than otherwise, I'd have a hard time arguing with you on this one. Not my favorite song, not even my favorite Beach Boys song, but if one wanted to explain why they claimed Wilson is a genius that's the song to point to.

    First time I've seen a numbered list in an (ostensibly) business blog that didn't make me put my scrolling finger into high gear.

    1. I'm curious what your favorite BB song is.

      I plead guilty to running a blog that is "ostensibly" business these days.

      I suppose at some point I can devote a post to the BBs as a dysfunctional family business, that somehow managed to make gazillions of dollars. Last I heard, Brian is not on speaking terms with his cousin, Mike Love, who has been on the road for years with the (faux) Beach Boys. That's a soap opera all its own.

      1. As much as I love the surprising melody of Heroes and Villains and how Do It Again affected me as a kid the one I never tire of, the one that surprised me and keeps surprising me is Sail On Sailor which unsurprisingly appears to have a history as tangled as uncleated sheets.

        1. "Sail On, Sailor"—written primarily by Brian and Van Dyke Parks—is certainly a good one. Love the key changes, which Brian (as a composer) pulls off better than any other living pop writer, imho. Saw Blondie Chaplin—who sang lead on it—with Brian's band in September. My bias is always with the original Beach Boys of the 60s, especially with Brian (or Carl or Al Jardine) singing lead.

  2. Ok, for all you recording junkies (or Beach Boys fanatics): I highly recommend the following YouTube clips (audio + pictures) from the GOK recording session that illustrate Brian's genius as an arranger and producer.

    Knowing how crazy Brian had gotten in the year and a half prior to these sessions I found it amazing to hear how clear, confident, and commanding he was "behind the board." And these were the creme de la creme of studio musicians ("the Wrecking Crew") that he was micromanaging. Also, except for Carl on rhythm guitar, Brian did not invite any of The Beach Boys to play on the instrumental track of the song! That's chutzpah.

  3. My favourite BB song is “Break Away.” It’s a wonderful tune with great harmonies and an excellent lyric. I find it inspiring every time I hear it. It’s unusual in being a co-write with his father, Murry, using an alias and an unfairly overlooked gem in the catalogue.

    BTW, if you haven’t seen the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” you must. It’s a brilliant and inventive piece of cinema and one of my all-time favourite films.

    1. "Break Away is another good one." Just listened to the demo version with Carl (I think) then Brian on lead vocals. Of course Brian, Carl, Al, etc. could make ANYTHING sound beautiful. Yeah, I gotta see L&M.

  4. Brian Wilson's father was a nutcase, which helps to explain Brian's emotional challenges and maybe fueled his genius.

    'Subversive' is not a word to describe any Beach Boys song. Dylan was subversive. John Lennon was subversive. The Beach Boys were inoffensive.

  5. Ditto on Murray Wilson.

    Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, etc. were cultural iconoclasts, at least at key points in their career. The Beach Boys weren't that. But their music—especially Pet Sounds, and especially "God Only Knows"—changed the direction of popular music. As dozens of music critics and top songwriters have observed, GOK took risks in so many areas it was a singularity—melodically, harmonically, lyrically, sonically. And it directly influenced McCartney to produce the Fabs' most groundbreaking records. But five decades later, the changes GOK wrought are now taken for granted.

    No, it wasn't CULTURALLY disruptive like "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" But MUSICALLY it was.

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