The Story Behind The Song: ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson’s ultimate love song
Brian Wilson’s songwriting in the early days of The Beach Boys inevitably included cars, surfing, and always the pursuit of girls, California or otherwise. The combination of those lyrics with the band unique rhythm made for perfect pieces of great American candy-pop for us all to rot our teeth with. But it was on 1966’s Pet Sounds, Wilson’s masterpiece, that his ultimate love song appeared in the form of ‘God Only Knows’.
The song that Paul McCartney once called “the greatest song ever written” (often cited as the inspiration for his own ‘Here, There, and Everywhere’) would go on to find it’s home on the dancefloors of countless weddings, as it to this day remains Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s masterpiece of emotion.
When a song is so culturally large as ‘God Only Knows’ is, one expects the song to have been crafted meticulously, and pawed over for hours, when, in truth, these things often happen in an instant. And so it is true for this track as the story goes as Wilson told The Guardian, “I wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes. Me and Tony Asher,” though it must be said, the execution of the song to record took a lot longer.
Opening with a blinding haze of harpsichords and French Horns (played by the dynamic Alan Robinson who also played on Sound of Music score) the song hinges on one transcendent opening line that reflects both the intensity and the fleeting nature of love, simply put “I may not always love you…”
In the liner notes to the reissued Pet Sounds album, Tony Asher explained, “I really thought it was going to be everything it was, and yet we were taking some real chances with it. First of all, the lyric opens by saying, ‘I may not always love you,’ which is a very unusual way to start a love song.” He’s not wrong. It’s the kind of move that could have easily seen The Beach Boys take a nosedive.
In fact, it worried the band and the label so much that the track was only ever released as a B-side to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ partly in fear of audience miscommunication and partly because it mentioned the word “God” int the title, something that might have easily rocked 1960s America, and thrown The Beach Boys to the curb along with it.
Wilson explained to Goldmine in 2011: “Tony Asher and I tried to write something very spiritually. It’s got a melody similar to the song (recites lyrics to ‘The Sound Of Music’), ‘I hear the sound of music…’ (Sings lyrics to ‘God Only Knows’) ‘I may not always love you…’ It was similar to it. Tony came up with the title ‘God Only Knows.’ I was scared they’d ban playing it on the radio because of the title but they didn’t.”
Much like the rest of Pet Sounds, ‘God Only Knows’ was far from what was expected from The Beach Boys. Since bursting on to the scene at the beginning of the decade, the band had been tarnish with a commercial boyband brush and were, by all accounts, American sweethearts. It was a perception that the band, now all several years older, had begun to outgrow, with Brian, in particular, desperate to move out from the songwriting shallows and creatively challenge The Rolling Stones, and perhaps most notably, The Beatles. So, while ‘God Only Knows’ is most certainly a love song, it isn’t quite the doe-eyed doting you might expect.
Instead, it is a swirling spiritual spine-tingler that not only tries to understand the true meaning of love but the meaning of life along with it. Carl Wilson explained shortly after the song was released, “At present, our influences are of a religious nature. Not any specific religion but an idea based upon that of Universal Consciousness. The concept of spreading goodwill, good thoughts and happiness is nothing new. It is an idea which religious teachers and philosophers have been handing down for centuries, but it is also our hope.”
“The spiritual concept of happiness and doing good to others is extremely important to the lyric of our songs, and the religious element of some of the better church music is also contained within some of our new work,” the singer said. Religious elements do run through the core of Pet Sounds and ‘God Only Knows‘ but rather than explore the peaks and troughs of particular religions, the band expands on the humanity of society and the inner spirituality we all possess.
With the lyrics down, it was now for the hard part—the recording. The Pet Sounds sessions will go down in history not only for their greatness but for their innovation, and ‘God Only Knows’ was no different. The song is thick with the musical arrangement. In clips below, provided by Behind The Sounds, we can get behind the scenes of the recording sessions and really dig into the movings parts and twirling cogs of one of the greatest songs ever written.
The intricacies with which Wilson worked are to be admired even more greatly when considering the extent of his traditional training could be written on the back of a postage stamp. Yet somehow, in a room full of trained musicians, he not only commands the studio but enacts his will and receives his, and our, reward in one of the most conscious-perforating pieces of pop music.
Musically speaking, Wilson helps to create lush fields of hopeful futures spent frolicking with the ones we love and forgetting it may never last. With so much complexity hinging on such seemingly simple lyrics the delivery of the vocals was vital, it meant Wilson would step aside for his younger brother, Carl to take the reins. “I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice,” said Brian.
It was this final cherry that would make this song one of the most cerebrally sweet pieces of pop you’re ever likely to indulge in. Carl’s vocal is enigmatic and soaring, it traverses the lyrics’ multi-faceted idea of love with the same simple acceptance—it is gentle a kind in all aspects and truly seals this song’s greatness.
The track would be covered by many artists following its release as generations continue to find and discover the intricate beauty of Brian Wilson’s songwriting. While certainly, Brian would happily share the credit for this track with Asher and his brother, Carl, the song remains to this day as a beacon of his genius, the moment he cultivated his sound into the ultimate love song.
Wilson once described the track as “a vision … It’s like being blind, but in being blind, you can see more. You close your eyes; you’re able to see a place or something that’s happening.” The ideas he conveyed in ‘God Only Knows’, he said, “summarised everything I was trying to express in a single song.” From Wilson, that’s high praise indeed.