This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #22: God Only Knows by The Beach Boys.
Paul McCartney is famously quoted as saying that “God Only Knows” is the best written and musically-constructed song of all-time. Barry Gibb, of the BeeGees, stated that he and his brothers spent the entirety of their career chasing the magic that “God Only Knows” possessed; trying to re-create it in their own songs. The man, himself, Brian Wilson, proclaimed this as his best work.
“God Only Knows” appeared on The Beach Boys epic album, “Pet Sounds”. It came at a time when Brian Wilson had heard what The Beatles were doing with their music in the album, “Revolver” and had decided that the “surf sound” that had been the trademark of his band, was no longer good enough to satisfy his own criteria as to what a song could be. The whole of “Pet Sounds” was created without the other members of the band being present for the construction of the songs. Their role came only during the recording process. Prior to that, Brian Wilson and a man named Tony Asher wrote most of the lyrical content together and then, Brian Wilson dove into the well of his own creative genius and began constructing songs in a way that was revolutionary at the time. In order to do this song justice, I am first going to talk about the lyrics and what the song is actually about. Then, after that, I will try my best to describe, in adequate enough detail, what was so groundbreaking about how Brian Wilson manipulated the sounds that ended up creating the perfect soundscape for this song. So, buckle up! Here we go!
“God Only Knows” is a love song. But, it is a love song in the spiritual sense, more than the romantic sense. Like many musicians at the time, Brian Wilson dreamed of living in a better world; one that was governed by a sense of cosmic harmony, of peace and of compassion and beauty. So, on the one hand, “God Only Knows” is about the feelings of euphoria and rapture that come from attaining a state of nirvana but, it is, also, about how life would feel if that was all lost. Because of equal time being given to the potential for such a catastrophic emotional loss, there were many people who, upon hearing “God Only Knows” for the first time, thought it was a song about suicide. This bothered Wilson greatly because, in fact, he was striving for the exact opposite message; one that revolved around the blissfulness of living in harmony with others and with the world, itself and how that was worth fighting for and protecting, rather than giving up and dying.
Secondly, up until the release of this song, it was unheard of for “God” to be referenced in a Pop song. “God” was supposed to be an exulted figure and, as such, should only be spoken about in church hymns or else, in patriotic songs such as “God Bless America” by Kate Smith. To some, the inclusion of “God” in the title of a Pop song cheapened Him and was viewed as extremely inappropriate. So, there was much discussion between Wilson and Tony Asher about whether or not to use the word, “God” in the song, let alone, the title, itself. But, in the end, Wilson and Asher agreed that if that subject was to ever be broached in a public way, it stood the best chance in a song as beautiful and positive and uplifting as this one. So, “God Only Knows” was recorded and released and was, as expected, immediately banned in several states. In order to soften the financial blowback, “God Only Knows” was released as a B-Side single and, as such, was never eligible to have sales totals recorded and noted in the Pop charts. Yet, when the album, “Pet Sounds” was released and people, from McCartney, to music critics to casual fans, all got to hear the song, everyone thought it was a magnificent accomplishment. In order to understand what makes this song stand out, it is important to understand how Brian Wilson viewed the idea of “sound”. I will do my best to convey the depth of his genius but, I am no expert in this field.
This is one of those songs that I suggest you listen to twice. The first time, just let the beauty of the song wash over you. The harmonies are fantastic, as one would expect from The Beach Boys. The lyrics are very inspirational, as we have already discussed. So, listen and enjoy then song. Then, I want you to listen to it again. This time, I want you to listen to all that is going on in the background. There is a veritable carnival of sounds at play all throughout the song. There are sleigh bells, the “clomp, clomp” of horses hooves on cobblestones, various instruments, of course, voices that swirl in and out and around each other and a thousand other noises and notes that all act in an, almost, magical way. It is musical alchemy.
I am not skilled enough to describe how one sound elevates another or competes against it and, by doing so, causes the human ear to pick up sounds differently that they normally would but, that is what is happening with “God Only Knows”. The song is constructed in a way that challenges our normal manner of hearing sounds and causes our brain to re-imagine what it is that we are actually hearing. I apologize for not possessing the skill to adequately explain this phenomenon but, in my research, I read about how the song begins with two, competing chords being used and how our ears will instinctively wish to hear the one chord but, because of how Brian Wilson deliberately placed his sounds, the brain focuses on the lesser chord which becomes amplified by the major chord which, in turn, causes us to hear the sounds in this song differently than we, otherwise, would. I dunno. It is voodoo of the very best kind because the end result is this wall of harmonies that make up “God Only Knows”. A simple device that Wilson used and, that I do understand, is how he ended the song with several rounds of the line, “God only knows what I’d be without you“. He said that by ending the song this way…..which was very unusual for a Pop song….it gave the song a sense of endlessness and of eternity, which was what he was going after.
Writing all of these music posts has taught me a lot about the songs we all listen to and the people who compose and perform them. I have a great appreciation for the extraordinary lengths many of these top performers went to when it came to the tiniest of details they included in their work that, in the end, made the song rise from merely good, to unbelievably great. For me, Brian Wilson has emerged as one of the best at his craft. His savant-like ability to create such an intricate tapestry of sounds that play like angels singing in the highest, tightest of harmony, is one of the grandest accomplishments of all that I have written about. The man is a genius in my eyes. I know he hasn’t had the most stable of lives but, along with Bjork and Kate Bush, Brian Wilson is another one of those people I would love to sit down with and share a meal and listen to him talk about his creative process. I imagine it would be like listening to Hawking talking about the universe.
In any case, here is easily one of the most beautiful and creatively-constructed songs ever written. Please enjoy, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys.
The link to the video for the song, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys, can be found here.
The link to a couple of behind the scenes videos about “God Only Knows”, can be found here and here.
The link to the official website for The Beach Boys, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.