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The masterpiece that changed the world: The comprehensive story of The Beach Boys song ‘God Only Knows’

The Beach Boys classic ‘God Only Knows’ is a watermark in pop music. There is a before ‘God Only Knows’ and there is an after ‘God Only Knows’ with the masterpiece representing the moment that pop went baroque and stood firmly on the shoulders of all that had gone before to look ahead and forecast the beach-bright future. It would’ve had its own place in music history for its beauty alone, but beyond the majesty was the diegesis of a story, forever washing ashore, that we are still telling to this day. And it’s the greatest story ever told. 

You can trace the story back through eternities but the first pertinent pasture to picnic upon for us is roughly the moment that Carnegie Hall opened its doors back in 1891. It might have begun with the age-old grandeur of the ‘Old 100th Hymn’, but soon enough pioneering jazz, soul-bracing blues and unfading folk took to the stage. And the Carnegie Hall provided an affordable utopia for the hardy denizens of New York City. Similar sacred musical spaces sprung up the world over—whether they be juke joints, dive bars, secret basements, public houses, auditoriums, you name it, the mixing pot of modern music was being stirred. 

This balm to the soul offered salvation in troubled times as the proletariat said cheers to tunes and good tidings. This was the unmarked beginnings of pop. You see, popular culture is a mixed-up milieu that unfurls in a kaleidoscopic blur with no clear beginning, middle, or end, just like some mad mass of creative atoms bumping and bonding, forming new off-shoots and mutating the old. However, one notable spot that echoes with a big bang, is Congo Square in New Orleans. 

Situated in the heart of what is now befittingly called Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the French Quarter, this fabled spot is where African slaves would gather when they were permitted Sundays off. This foregathering was enforced by 1817 when the city mayor of New Orleans specifically selected the square as the only “gathering ground” permitted.

Imagine, if you will, how such a joyous cacophony in the heart of the bubbling chic New Orleans, could cause the eruption of modern music to burst into song. Jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll came roaring from the swirled mixing bowl of the square, surrounded by crooked tupelo trees, serpentine dust roads and the giant clay ball moon that seems to be a few miles closer to the delta than the rest of the world, presiding in the hot sultry evening air, all leering in to catch the sweet sound of celebration despite dower circumstance.

The legacy of this Sunday exultation rattled the rafters of Carnegie Hall once jazz came into being. The sounds of the Square, become the polished sounds of the Hall. Then, it all collided with the upstart of technology and soon modern music was being pressed onto records. People snatched them up and the notion of enjoying culture from home was hatched for the very first time. However, even beyond the ambience, there was something missing from the music emitting from the spinning vinyl wheel itself. 

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Naturally, this had a profound impact on our music tastes. The primitive and rudimentary lo-fi way in which it was recorded meant that the nuance of sound was lost. However, what remained imperishable was soul and expression. You might lose the filigreed perfection of an orchestral composition on a popping and hissing gravel-track disc, but the vigour of the blues and such like could still haunt a home. Thusly, music became less about virtuoso and more about sharing a story that would translate into a living room via the crooked means of a new technology that was yet to emerge from a crawl in terms of sonic engineering. 

That being said, even the simple extolling of soul still sounded far better in person. This left people perplexed for a while, it was like every element of a Sunday roast had been thrown into a blender, it was still the same, all the constituent pieces were there, but it was a reductive mess of the real thing. There was only one source of sound, it was all channelled into the same microphone so that’s how it came out—overlapped conversations, a bubble and squeak of sonic ingredients. The drummer was just as front and centre as the trumpet that stole the spotlight in real life. 

Then, suddenly, a jazz bandleader called Enoch Light thought of a better way. He could differentiate the mash from the gravy, or rather he trumpets from the tubas by dotting separate microphones about the place. In 1961, he released the album Stereo 35/MM, and it came with the description: “The first time you hear this record will be one of the most startling experiences of your entire life. For the very first time, you will hear sound that is completely liberated, sound that is totally free—pure, full, honest sound with no mechanical restrictions whatsoever.”

This revelation transformed records. Nevertheless, you were still sat at home. You still needed texture. Thus, additional things beyond sound came to the fore—namely, an increasing presence of individualism and personality. Album artwork offered up scenes that occupied the playground of the imagination and the external factors of pop culture fell into place. Beatlemania kicked up a hysteria beyond the tunes on offer. People picked their favourites and individualism was now as essential as sound. Sure, you can play a guitar, but unless you have style and soul then you can’t play it on the radio. 

This culture of personalities bled into the artistic scene and the bohemian 1960s was swinging. Thus, a certain Brian Wilson decided to bring the unfurling zeitgeist into his creative sphere. He was about to do something mad in the hopes that it would spur on some creative splurge. He was going to fill his Laurel Canyon living room with sand, and literally bring the beach to his grand piano—for what better way to make a Beach Boys record?

He would pour everything that had gone before this record into it, and push on further still. The intent for Wilson was as simple as it was profound: “Marilyn,” he yelled to his wife, “I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!” There are many who would say that he did just that, and ‘God Only Knows’ was the undoubted jewel in the crown, worth every mad effort it took.

 “The whole living room was full of sand,” Michelle Williams of the Mamas and the Papas recalled of Wilson’s writing process. His then-wife Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford had informed her that he had filled their house with sand and perched his grand piano on top as though their lounge was some sort of walled musical beach. “I know it’s crazy but he’s writing some great songs,” Williams recalls being told, “and he was writing Pet Sounds.”

Wilson felt invincible, riding high on the boon of an artistic purple patch… and a lot of LSD. This set him off on a spiritual odyssey that ultimately comprises ‘God Only Knows’. As Carl Wilson said at the time: “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.”

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This wildly innovative notion of stirring up creative invention through unconventional means didn’t stop with the initial bare bones of his piano ballads either. Wilson wondered, ‘What if you not only used technology to capture these as faithfully as possible, but you used the technology to inform the art itself?’ In turn, the spiritual broadstroke of the theme of the song was reflected in the music approach too. 

The concept was seamless. Sonically the song looked to mimic this. As Wilson explained himself: “It’s not really in any one key. It’s a strange song. That’s just the way it was written. … It’s the only song I’ve ever written that’s not in a definite key, and I’ve written hundreds of songs.” This was melded even further as elements were layered by the technology. This was the moment that pop went baroque.

This subverting of musical forms was achieved, in part, by channelling a three-track recording of the instrumental onto a single channel of an eight-track tape to allow for seven overdubs and vocal takes to be added to the mix if needed. But the brilliance is that even though the song might have all of that studio wizardry in the welter, it is subsumed in pure beauty so that the listener can skip along its strange contours with butter-cutting ease, like assailing Everest in an elevator.

If pop culture had been a mixing bowl of borrowed ideas until this point, then it was about to be placed on top of a stove. As Nick Cave once said: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”

Most of the advancements in music to this point had been piecemeal and firmly conceptual. Prior to ‘God Only Knows’, Bob Dylan had dolloped a dose of cognisance into modern music with his profound poetry that proved both utterly individualistic and societally sagacious. However, this technological addition to profound artistry was a less obscure and more crystalising moment that everybody would copy once it crested upon the shore of culture. Not just the way you make music had changed, but the way you wrote it had too. 

As Paul McCartney would later proclaim: “I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard Pet Sounds. I love the orchestra, the arrangements – it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century – but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways. I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried.”

The dominos are still tumbling from that magical moment of musical education to this day. Of course, things may well have unravelled very much the same if ‘God Only Knows’ didn’t exist, but in the lineage of its legacy you would have to say that without the song there would be no Sgt. Peppers and it wasn’t only McCartney who called it the world’s greatest song, even Lennon said when it was released that the “world perked up”. And as Jackson Browne said with a smile, “Imagine a band influencing The Beatles!”

Dylan may have decreed that there was more to be expressed in lyrics than many had been up until that point but now you could explore than mere melodies in the music too—what could signal sonic depth and development like a track without the boundaries of a definitive key and yet the most beauteous melody in history? In short, ‘God Only Knows’ is a song that shaped the second half of the 20th century and beyond. And we can all be thankful for that because it is the sort of beautiful utopia where prettiness unrivalled revels in progress and stirs us all with the same simple loveliness as a sunny day—may it shine on forever, illuminating the continuation of the same musical tale that spawned it. 

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