RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #22: God Only Knows by The Beach Boys.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, 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, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

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.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #201: Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, 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, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #201: Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys.

When the list of all-time great bands is compiled, The Beach Boys certainly rank right up there with the best. During the heart of the 1960s, they enjoyed a string of hits that rivalled the best of the “British Invasion” bands. In fact, I have always maintained that, in many ways, the career trajectories of The Beach Boys and The Beatles are very similar.

For instance, The Beatles began their career at a church picnic while being teenagers. The boys in the band became friends through their teens and well into their twenties. The Beach Boys were a family of brothers (Carl, Brian and Dennis), with boyhood friends, Mike Love and Al Jardine. They bonded as teens and stayed a family-like group throughout the bulk of their early, hit-making career. Both bands started out with perfect Pop gems; The Beatles with “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do”. The Beach Boys with, “Surfin’ USA”, “Be True To Your School”, “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe”. The Beatles early rise was dubbed, “Beatlemania”. “The Beach Boys early rise was dubbed, “The Surf Sound”. After achieving mass success, both bands veered “off-course”, as the public may have thought, by beginning the early stages of experimentation with the use of new instruments, of introducing new sounds into their songs and, finally, of employing new recording techniques. For The Beatles, this resulted in ground-breaking albums such as “Rubber Soul”, “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper”. For The Beach Boys, it resulted in “Pet Sounds”. By the time The Beatles were releasing the likes of “Rubber Soul”, the boys in the band were dipping their toes in the waters of Eastern Mysticism. For The Beach Boys, this was the time that Brian Wilson asserted creative control and took his ideas to the level that straddle the line between genius and madness. It was at this phase of his music career that the idea of a song called “Good Vibrations” came to be. This was a song meant for inclusion on an album (called “Smile”) that was to be the follow-up to “Pet Sounds” but, which never saw the light of day. It also turned out to be the single most expensive song ever to produce; running into the tens of thousands of dollars and driving a permanent wedge between Brian Wilson and the rest of the band.

All through the career of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson was the creative heartbeat of the band. The Beach Boys were, initially, managed by Murry Wilson, father of the Wilson Brothers. At first, all was peachy as The Beach Boys harmonized their way into the hearts of all those who believed in the “California Sound” that they were promoting with their songs about girls and cars and surfing and school. But, as Brian began becoming more aware of the innovative steps The Beatles were taking with their music, he started dreaming of incorporating his increasingly artistic vision for his own music. So, when he first started to create the songs for “Pet Sounds” (which many people claim is, actually, a Brian Wilson solo project), the first thing he did was to stop live touring and become a studio-centric producer. He sent the rest of the band out touring with their greatest hits show and he stayed in his studio and began the process of revolutionizing how records were made. His father hated the new direction Brian was headed in. The acrimony that ensued went a long way toward some of the mental instability Wilson experienced in the years that followed.

In any case, Wilson began playing with the way The Beach Boys famous harmonies were recorded. He started to bring their voices in and fading them out at differing times. He added echo effects, as well as, adding new sounds altogether. He patterned what he was doing around Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique and, as such, Brian Wilson caused the harmonies of The Beach Boys to take on an almost human quality; breathing in and out, coming from all directions at the same time. There was nothing like it anywhere in the world at the time. As “Pet Sounds” unfolded, it also changed the focus of their music from the creation of individual singles, aimed at radio airplay and onto a thematically-cohesive concept-type album. When the rest of the band returned to the studio to hear what Brian had been up to, there were many arguments; not about the quality of the new songs but, about the commercial viability of what he had created as well as, about how they would replicate on stage what he had recorded in studio.

With this in mind, when Brian Wilson began formulating what he would do for a follow-up to “Pet Sounds”, he ignored his critics within the band and took his desire to experiment with sounds even further. “Good Vibrations” may seem like a typical Beach Boys song at first blush but, it is anything but. “Good Vibrations” was conceived as a means of describing the energy that humans give off as they live their lives in the world. If you remember, Pete Townsend of “The Who” tried to create an entire rock opera called, “Lifehouse” around this notion of cosmic vibrations. *(You can read that post, here). Brian Wilson was tapping into the same train of thought with “Good Vibrations”. To record it, he recorded thousands of individual snippets of songs, sounds and instrumentation from the band and from session players he hired specifically for this song. He recorded these fragments of sound at four different studios and then retreated into his own studio to assemble it all together; as would an artist using broken shards to create a mosaic tiled picture. In many ways, what Brian Wilson was doing with “Good Vibrations” was foreshadowing what Hip Hop artists would later perfect when it came to sampling and scratching and, which groups like “Radiohead” and artists like “DJ Shadow” have done with digitized sounds and recording techniques. For Wilson to have had the vision to manipulate sounds to produce cohesive harmonies, waaaaaay back in the 1960s, is just one example of his genius at play. The man was a prodigy in every sense of the word.

Well, by the time “Good Vibrations” was officially recorded, production costs had run into the tens of thousands of dollars, the time delay was well beyond what The Beach Boys were used to and the resulting song was something that was incredibly difficult to replicate live, on stage. By now, the schism that had begun growing between Brian Wilson and the rest of the band, blew wide open. A divorce, of sorts, took place. Brian Wilson descended into mental illness and a life bordering on the abusive and the bizarre. The rest of The Beach Boys tried to carry on without Brian Wilson but, were only a shell of their former selves without him. They have been a touring nostalgia act for quite awhile now; playing their early hits (along with a few later gems such as “Kokimo”) for adoring audiences who can’t get enough of that California Sound they are famous for.

As for Brian Wilson, he is enjoying a bit of a quiet renaissance. There is a new documentary about his life set to debut soon. I will include the trailer for his movie below. In the meantime, let’s all take a moment to watch and listen to “Good Vibrations” with a slightly more of a critical ear. The song that is washing over you is actually comprised of thousands of moving sound particles, all dancing together in a harmony that only a true artist, like Brian Wilson, could conjure. Here is “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys….a Brian Wilson Masterpiece…..enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, can be found here.

The link to the video for the new documentary on the life of Brian Wilson, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Beach Boys, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the best sounds by the best creators out there. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #365: The Sloop John B. by The Beach Boys.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #365: The Sloop John B. by The Beach Boys.

There is a lot to say about this song, the album it came from and the members of The Beach Boys so, there is no time to waste! Let’s go!!!

“The Sloop John B.” is a Bahamian sea shanty-type of song that was first written down over a hundred years ago, in 1916. It has been recorded by hundreds of singers and bands, including such well known acts as The Kingston Trio and Country star, Dwight Yoakim. But, it is The Beach Boys version that is the most famous and admired. The Beach Boys version of this song comes from one of the most famous albums ever created by any band, “Pet Sounds”. It is instructive to talk about why “Pet Sounds” is such a big deal, first and then, come back to “the Sloop John B.”. So, lets begin with The Beatles!

The Beatles and The Beach Boys both shared a fairly similar career path. In both cases, their early albums were filled with singles that could best be described as perfect little Pop songs. The Beatles has “She Loves You” and “Please, Please Me”, while The Beach Boys had “Surfing, U.S.A.” and “Fun! Fun! Fun!”, among others. But, as the 1960s unfolded, both bands released albums that changed the trajectory of their careers and added an whole new level of complexity, artistry and creativity to their music. For The Beatles, that album was “Rubber Soul”. For The Beach Boys, that album was “Pet Sounds”.”Rubber Soul” was released first. It was a creative warning shot across the bows of all other groups. “Rubber Soul” was revolutionary for many reasons but, two important ones relate to “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys.

First of all, prior to the release of “Rubber Soul”, albums were usually used as an additional way to package and sell “singles” which were the currency of the music industry at the time. In those days, albums often contained the successful singles and then, several tracks called, “filler” that were just included to help use up the space needed to balance out the time used on both sides of the physical album. *You may recall that earlier, when I profiled “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath that, that song was, originally, meant to simply be a “filler song” needed to complete their album. In any case, “Rubber Soul” was the very first album that contained no filler tracks. Instead, it was a unified album of songs that all connected by way of their musical construction and/or their lyrical theme. Because of the way The Beatles created “Rubber Soul”, it gave permission to all other bands to approach the creation of the albums bearing their name, with more artistic license and freedom.

Secondly, “Rubber Soul” introduced songs containing sounds not usually associated with singles of the past. “Norwegian Wood”, for example, used a sitar for the first time. There were bells, clocks and all sorts of new sounds integrated into the music The Beatles produced. This use of new sounds increased the parameters of what sounds were acceptable and usable in modern songs. When Brian Wilson first heard “Rubber Soul”, it blew his mind. He was the creative force behind The Beach Boys music. Once he heard how far The Beatles had expanded the range of what was possible in an album, he became determined to produce, what he deemed, “The Greatest Album Ever Made!” In order to start on a project of such magnitude, Brian Wilson stepped away from touring. He sent the rest of the group (Al Jardine, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson) out on the road, leaving him alone in the studio. Once freed from the social dynamic of being a member of a group, he began to create music unlike anything that The Beach Boys had done before. In fact, he often has referred to “Pet Sounds” as a Brian Wilson solo project (and that is not far from the truth). Not only was “Pet Sounds” influenced by what The Beatles did on “Rubber Soul” but, also, by what producer, Phil Spector, was doing with his “Wall of Sound” production techniques. Phil Spector, despite what a poor husband he turned out to be, was very innovative when it came to how he used existing sounds to create new sounds and, by doing so, change the aural experience for the listener. This will make sense when you finally get to listen to “The Sloop John B.”

All of the songs on the album, “Pet Sounds” employ sound recording techniques that were new at the time and that helped create a full, rich sound experience. The song, “The Sloop John B.”, for example, has a big, bold sound for such a traditional sea shanty song. Part of how Brian Wilson did that can be seen in how he changed the way harmonies worked. If you think back to the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for a minute and compare it to a style of painting…..stay with me…….the harmonies on that song are like a Rembrandt painting. Rembrandt was famous for creating portraits that focussed on the subject’s face which was, then, surrounded by darkness thus, making it stand out. Crosby, Stills and Nash used the same technique with sounds. Their harmonizing focused solely on the words in the lyrics, to the exclusion of all other sounds. As you may recall, they started their harmonies crisply on a note and ended them just as crisply on a note. There were no attempts to change the sound of the words they were saying. They, simply, used multiple voices to speak as one……just as Rembrandt used light and dark to focus on one image.

Brian Wilson turned harmonizing on its ear. In “The Sloop John B.”, if you listen carefully to the harmonizing sections of the song, you will note how much sound manipulation is going on during the harmonies. There are voices coming in and going out. There are voices and sounds that appear at differing speeds. Sometimes, he used incoming voices to amplify the harmony of the existing voices. The effect of it all is that the harmonized sections of this song appear almost to be living and breathing. He changed the way harmonies used to be, from “many voices speaking as one” to, “many voices speaking as many voices, all of the time, in a myriad of ways, all the while, sounding in harmony”. If Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonized like a Rembrandt painting then, Brian Wilson built his harmonies like a Jackson Pollock painting.

There are whole books devoted to analyzing the creative genius/madness of Brian Wilson, as well as, examining the beauty of “Pet Sounds” as a near perfect album. I can’t replicate that in this post. But, what I hope to have done is set you up for a more critical listening experience when you hear, “The Sloop John B.” momentarily. If you do nothing else besides critically listen to the harmonies and see how nebulous they were in design, then I will have done my job with this post. When I listened to this song, I did so with good headphones. I am not sure if that will make a difference for you if you listen to it out loud via speakers. But, when I listened to it through my headphones, sounds seem to come at me from all directions. There were so many “tings” and “pops” and “jingles” along the way. The construction of this song is truly miraculous. Although I have not read this anywhere, I am convinced that Brian Wilson saw the sounds of his song in 3-D. I think he could visualize how the various notes fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. He was a musical genius, without question. Anyway, I hope that this post has set you up for future posts that demonstrate the growth of both, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. It is not by accident that they are heralded as innovators who changed the course of modern music. So, for your listening pleasure, here is “The Sloop John B.” by The Beach Boys. Prepare to be dazzled.

The link to the video for “The Sloop John B.” by The Beach Boys, can be found here.

The link to an excellent, behind-the-scenes video of the recording of “The Sloop John B.”, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Beach Boys, can be found here.

The link to the website for KEXP, can be found here.