God Only Knows: one of the most beautiful melodies to emerge from a troubled mind
There are songs that arise from a rapture of inspiration, from falling in love, from a betrayal, a disagreement. There are themes that arise from a night of excesses. There are others that are the result of a very well designed project that is combined with talent, although this process has in the middle somewhat tortuous.
In music there are many examples. “God Only Knows” (“Only God knows”) that was known in the 1966 album Pet Sounds, de The Beach Boys, can be a clear example of talent, clear goals and disorders that arise from behind the scenes of creation.
Brian Wilson, the composer in question (alma mater y cerebro de The Beach Boys) he is responsible for every note and, in a way, every word of that song. Because although the lyrics do not belong exclusively to him, he was the one who searched to the person who had to co-write with him the verses of that beautiful melody, whose harmonic design was unusual for that beat and pop decade.
And among so many unexpected things that Brian Wilson has done in his life, one of them was to look for that task in English Tony Asher. He didn’t want a Californian like him, sought out a poet and publicist from across the Atlantic (like the musicians of The Beatles).
The idea worked and the topic ended up giving him a special twist to the repertoire of those guys who emerged in the music industry in the early sixties, with happy songs of surfers. The band consisted of the Wilson brothers (Brian, Carl, and Dennis), their cousin Mike Love, and a friend Brian had met at school, Al Jardine.
Asher never finished solving the enigma of why he noticed him and not in another lyricist, but Wilson’s intuition was more than correct and between the end of 1965 and the beginning of 1966, the two wrote together most of the songs of Pet Sounds, among them “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, that great hit that opens the album, and that rarity called “God Only Knows” that begins with the stigma of a tango: “I don’t know if I always loved you”. Is it a phrase to start a song that will become a great success and one of the most beautiful? Everything is possible.
At that time, Wilson’s introspection was on its way to its peak. (that summit called Smile). Between the end of 1964 and the middle of 1966 things happened. Yes a lot of things. On December 7, 1964, he married Marilyn Royell. The wedding was in the middle of a concert tour that she couldn’t handle. Nervous attacks did not allow him to give several concerts and for that reason he was replaced first by Glen Campbell and, later – when the band had European commitments – by Bruce Johnston. In January 1965 he said “I have come this far” and took refuge in the studio to become (although not for long) the powerhouse of songs, ideas and new sounds of his companions who did continue to go on stage.
Wilson probably saw in The Beatles a kind of alter ego or rival who always got to where he wanted to go first.. Each race in which he saw himself as second at the finish line was the excuse to consider a new challenge.
when he heard the Rubber Soul of the beatle machine was fascinated, called Asher and perfected the ideas he had for his album Pet Sounds. The move did not go wrong because “God Only Knows” came from there.
I may not have always loved you. But as long as there are stars above you, you will never need to doubt that (…) God only knows what it would be like without you”
A year later, when he heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” felt something similar. The story is more or less known. It was told by Michael Vosse, a journalist, press agent and Wilson’s assistant at the end of 1966, who claimed that he was in the car with Wilson when they heard the song by The Beatles. “He just shook his head and said, ‘They already did.’ And I asked him: ‘They did what?’ And he said: ‘What I wanted to do’, with a smile. ‘Maybe it’s too late.’”
When Wilson heard the new Beatle invention of those years, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (eighth studio album of the British band), he directly moved away from The Beach Boys and the great album he was preparing, Smile, it took 30 years to meet officially.
That admiration for the British band had a gesture of reciprocity from the other side of the Atlantic. As a return of kindnesses or for sincere sentiment, Paul McCartney once said that “God Only Knows” was one of his favorite songs. “It’s very deep, very emotional. It’s at the top of my list, I must say… “God Only Knows” has verses that are great,” he said. He also referred to this song during an interview with Ron Wood (for The Ronnie Wood Show), and during a special made by Radio 1 of the BBC, where he assured: “It’s one of the few songs that brings me to tears every time I listen to it. It’s still a love song, but it’s very brilliant. It shows Brian’s genius, in fact when I played it with him during sound check I broke down. It was too much to be there singing this song.”
Without false modesty, Wilson more than once referred to his theme: “If it’s the greatest song ever written, then I’m never going to write anything that good again. And if I can’t write something that good again, then I’m done.”
Asher was taken aback by the music when Wilson played it to him: “This is the only one we did that I thought would be a hit, because it’s so unbelievably beautiful. I was worried that maybe the lyrics weren’t on the same level as the music: How many love songs begin with a phrase: ‘Maybe I didn’t always love you?’ I like that unexpected twist. I knew it would work because in the second part of the song he says: ‘I will love you until the sun goes down’, which is like saying ‘I will love you forever’. I guess in the end ‘God Only Knows’ is the song that most people remember”.
Brian Wilson assured that there was a Bachian inspiration in the introduction of the theme. It begins with the sound of a harpsichord and a horn, which later, when the lyrics are heard, ends up being the counter-theme of the melody. But there are also other curiosities in the song, like an unconventional harmonic structure for the simplified pop and rock of those years or with interludes of a couple of unexpected bars, which seem to be the bridge that takes the song to another place when, in fact, it returns it to its original theme.
For Brian, Carl’s delicate voice would be much better than his own to carry her forward. And again, the boss of the Wilsons was not wrong. Nor with the choral resolution.
Bruce Johnston, who had joined the band to fill in for Wilson’s absence from the stage, recounted: “Brian really worked hard on ‘God Only Knows,’ and at one point, he had all the Beach Boys, Terry Melcher and two of the Rovell sisters on the recording. But got too overloaded”.
And as had already happened with so many other situations in his life, decided to rearm the choirs. “Me at the top end,” Johnston said, “Carl in the middle, and Brian at the bottom. At that point, the right decision for Brian was to go for something more subtle. It had a very sweet song. It’s a little masterpiece, and he was right to take off all the voices and end up with only three. In fact, it’s probably the best-known song by The Beach Boys that has only three voices.”
The song transcended for its beauty and survived for the versions that were made at different times. Pedro Aznar made an excellent translation into Spanish that maintains the spirit of the verses. It was published as “Only God knows” On the disk Tango 4, which Aznar edited in 1991 together with Charlie Garcia. There are also versions of Pitingo symphonically on the album Soul, bulería and more (2016). But in this case Aznar’s lyrics were taken.
In 2014 the BBC carried out a charity project based on this song, which included, in addition to its composer, 27 singers: Stevie Wonder, Chris Martin, Kylie Minogue, Elton John, Dave Grohl, One Direction, Brian May, Jamie Cullum, Pharrell Williams Y Paloma Faith, among others.