Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Beach Boys -- "God Only Knows" (1966)

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it

My older son got married exactly one month ago today, and he and his bride chose this song for their first dance as man and wife at the reception.

The first dance
After they returned from their honeymoon, I asked him why.

"We initially wanted to do 'Wouldn't It Be Nice,'" he told me, "It's my favorite song on the album and has the best lyrics IMHO.  But the tempo would have been too fast to dance to, so 'God Only Knows' seemed like the better choice."

Both those songs are on the Beach Boys' legendary 1966 album, Pet Sounds.  I wore out my Pet Sounds LP when I was a teenager, and when I got my first CD player in 1991, Pet Sounds was one of the first two CDs I purchased.  (The other was the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik.)

Here are the front and back covers of the Pet Sounds LP:

"Of course I know Pet Sounds!" he told me when I asked how he knew that album.  (He was only eight years old when I got the CD.)  "Best pop album of all time!  I'm sure I borrowed your copy growing up."

Shortly after that conversation, I remembered that when he graduated from law school in 2012 and handed off our 2000 Toyota Camry (which now has 167,000 miles on it) to his 17-year-old brother, the younger lad found a CD wallet with 50 or so CDs under the driver's seat.  One of the CDs in that wallet was Pet Sounds.

"God Only Knows" is a perfect song.  If you question that statement, tell me how you would make it better.  (Take your time -- I'll give you a few minutes to think.  Actually, I could give you a month to think about it . . . or a year.)

The single most notable aspect of the song is the first line.  Lyricist Tony Asher had to defend it to Brian Wilson:

[H]ow many love songs start off with the line, "I may not always love you"?  I liked that twist, and fought to start the song that way.  Working with Brian, I didn't have a whole lot of fighting to do, but I was certainly willing to fight to the end for that.

The wedding party
Wilson and Asher were worried that having "God" in the lyrics might reduce the radio airplay the song received.  Brian's then-wife Marilyn was also skeptical about the use of "God" in the song:

The first time I heard it, Brian played it for me at the piano.  And I went, "Oh my God, he's talking about God in a record."  It was pretty daring to me.  And it was another time I thought to myself, "Oh, boy, he's really taking a chance."  I thought it was almost too religious.  Too square.  At that time.  Yes, it was so great that he would say it and not be intimidated by what anybody else would think of the words or what he meant.

The final product is a very complex recording that sounds effortless and simple -- thanks mostly to the late Carl Wilson's innocent and sincere lead vocal.  (Brian Wilson originally intended to sing the lead vocal himself, but said he decided to give the job to his younger brother because "I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice.")

Original Beach Boys
Al Jardine and Carl Wilson
Brian initially piled on the backing vocals, but eventually decided to cut back to just three singers: Carl, Bruce Johnston, and himself.  Johnston later said, "[Brian] was right to peel everybody back and wind up with the three parts.  In fact, it's probably the only well-known Beach Boys track that has just three voices on it."

Carl Wilson described the advice his older brother gave him before he recorded his lead vocal for "God Only Knows":

Brian said something like, "Don't do anything with it.  Just sing it real straight.  No effort.  Take in a breath.  Let it go real easy."  I was really grateful to be the one to sing that song.  I felt extremely lucky.

Brian didn't spare anything when it came to backing musicians -- 16 are credited as having contributed to the final recording, although he later said there were 23 present.  That was a remarkable number of musicians for a sixties pop record.  Several members of the legendary "Wrecking Crew" group of session musicians -- including Carole Kaye (bass), Larry Knechtel (organ), and Hal Blaine (drums) -- contributed, but the mix also included accordion and French horn.  (U2's Bono has said that "the string arrangement on 'God Only Knows' is fact and proof of angels."  Bono is full of it, of course, but he's right to praise the strings.)

The arrangement required all the musicians to play simultaneously, but the song never gets loud.  Brian Wilson was a perfectionist, and he had the group play 20 takes of the instrumental part of the song before he was satisfied.   

St. John's Church (Lafayette Square)
on the day of the wedding
"God Only Knows" was released in the United States as the B-side to "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and barely cracked the top 40.  Elsewhere, it was treated as an A-side, and was a top five hit in the UK, Australia, and several other countries.
Paul McCartney has said that it is his favorite song, and that he always reacts emotionally when he hears it:

"God Only Knows" is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it.  It's really just a love song, but it's brilliantly done.  It shows the genius of Brian.  I've actually performed it with him and I'm afraid to say that during the sound check I broke down.  It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian. 

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" is a great song, and I certainly understand why it appealed to my son.  But "God Only Knows" is a more unique song musically, and the lyrics are exactly right for the occasion.  I can't think of a better song for a first dance for two newlyweds, and I'm very pleased to think that I may have had some part in their choosing it. 

Here's "God Only Knows":

Here's a version of the song with just the vocal tracks:

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:


  1. Don't know many 60s songs, but this is a nice song. I can see why your son chose it.

  2. Next month, Adam Marsland's Chaos Band featuring Evie Sands will do a Beach Boys tribute night covering 50 of their songs. "God Only Knows" will probably be in the mix, along with "Good Vibrations" "Kokomo", "409" and lots more. They usually bring in Rob Z to take the Mike Love parts and have several other local artists sit in to help. Back in 2006 they recorded "Long Promised Road", a CD featuring the music of Carl and Dennis, along with some of the band's originals. I was there when it was recorded at a pub in Marina del Rey, and now the CD is a collector's item. One interesting side note: Teresa Cowles, the bass player for AMCB will be on the silver screen next year, playing Carole Kaye in "Love and Mercy", a "biopic" about Brian Wilson.