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The Beach Boys song that arrived at Brian Wilson like a "vision"


For a short spell in the 1960s when Brian Wilson entered his purple patch, his songwriting was untouchable, and it all came to him with immense ease. Remarkably, Wilson later revealed that his most celebrated track is one that arrived at him like a “vision”.

While most people were busy comparing The Beatles to The Rolling Stones, the Wilson’s changed the fabric of the musical culture with Pet Sounds and made the rest of the climate green with envy at their wild prowess. There’s a solid case to be made that the album is the defining piece of work from its era, not only because of its magnificence, but how it forced their peers to raise their game.

‘God Only Knows’ is often the first track that the mind wanders to when one thinks of Pet Sounds, and it remains a piece of pop perfection. Astonishingly, according to Brian Wilson, he wrote the lyrics in 45 minutes during a session with Tony Asher. Admittedly, it did take considerably longer for the rest of the band to produce a composition that did justice to his ethereal words.

In the liner notes of a reissued version of Pet Sounds, 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”. 

Brian Wilson’s reaction to hearing ‘Pet Sounds’ for the first time says it all

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Instantly, when the two wrote ‘God Only Knows’, they knew that they had just concocted a love song for the ages — if only they managed to execute it successfully. However, Wilson feared that the politics of the day would prevent the song from becoming a hit because it featured ‘God’ in the title, which could have upset the conservatively minded American, but some pieces are simply too good to be cancelled.

Although Brian wrote the track, his younger brother, Carl, delivered the vocals. He later spoke about the “religious element” of the number and said it was more than just a love song but, instead, was about the broader meaning of life. He explained: “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.”

Meanwhile, his older brother, who penned ‘God Only Knows’, 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.”

Paul McCartney famously named the beloved effort “the greatest song ever written”. While that matter is purely subjective, it’s challenging to disagree with Wilson claiming it arrived like “a vision”, which is the only way to explain such a moment of mindbending genius.

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