There are not many men who could argue they’ve had more of an influence on modern music than The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson but, there’s a good case for the Fifth Beatle, the band’s longtime producer, George Martin. In 1997, the pair met in the studio to talk about Wilson’s seminal song ‘God Only Knows’.
With The Beatles, George Martin was arguably at the peak of his powers as he chaired the mixing desk for some of their most iconic productions, helping to not only cement their place in the history books but, ultimately, write the rulebook on recording pop music. Equally, Wilson revolutionised pop music with The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds as he championed a sound that had never been heard before. To see these two in one studio is the perfect combination for any muso.
The footage comes from a 1997 BBC documentary entitled The Rhythm of Life in which the legendary Beatles producer Martin makes a visit to Los Angeles a place he describes in the clip as “centred the entertainment industry.” Even when London was swinging as the beating heart of the sixties, L.A. was still “the place to be” if you wanted to make a record.
In no small part, thanks to Brian Wilson and his family band The Beach Boys, Los Angeles quickly gained a reputation during the decade as the perfect place to unfurl and make a record. During the early parts of the decade, the group had promoted West Coast living to the world, but by 1966 Wilson had become tired of chart-topping fluff and was intent on making an album like no other.
Pet Sounds still ranks today as one of the most innovative albums of all time and saw the mercurial talent of Wilson finally given adequate room to breathe. As Martin is invited into Wilson’s home he and the Beach Boy has a tinkle at the piano and sings the opening bars of ‘Good Vibrations’ to which Martin reflects on the band not only being a great harmony band but having “wonderful melodies.”
Wilson describes the songs he has written with the band as “coming from down deep in my soul.” He goes on to suggest that they’re soon enough trying to escape or “bust out” saying “At times, it’s almost an unconscious thing, I believe that songwriting is an unconscious thing. I don’t believe anybody can really concentrate and write music.”
“It’s like your heart writes the music, your brain can see the keys and how they relate to each other, but really great music comes from the heart.” With that, the duo begins to dissect one of Martin’s favourite songs, ‘God Only Knows’. It’s marvellous footage as the two musical impresarios play with the different tracks and tones of the master tapes, Martin back in a studio in which he had spent much of his life, the Fifth Beatle has to ask a burning question.
“It amazes me, you must’ve had a blueprint in your mind when you began this?” Wilson coyly replies with the nonchalance of truly impressive talent, “Arrangement wise but not sound-wise,” replies Wilson. It was in the studio were he did most of his actual rendering of the song.
After a bit of playing around Martin settles on his mix of the track, something Wilson picks up on. “Y’know this is better than the mix I did on the master!” You can watch the exchange between two of the sixties most innovative producers below and see them dissect The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ back in 1997.