As far as possible, I’m presenting it verbatim as it appeared in The Sentinel’s website when my article was published. After all this time, I still love the way the article ended and I doubt I’ll be able to come up with a better ending even if I worked on it for years. Enjoy.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the rock revolution, the Sentinel is re-assessing the popular
songs of the last half-century.
First published on July 22, 2004.
THIS WEEK’S SONG: “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys (1966).
BY JOHNATHAN SIA
SPECIAL TO THE SENTINEL
That Sir Paul McCartney rated the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as the most beautiful song ever written is pretty powerful testimony for a song written by a commercial jingle writer and a musical genius at the peak of his talents.
Before getting drafted to work on Brian Wilson’s most seminal work, “Pet Sounds,” Tony Asher was making a living churning out ditties for commercials on the telly. The Beach Boys were on a high, with their recently released album “Party” going gold as well as spawning the smash party hit, “Barbara Ann,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart.
The Beach Boys — sans their leader Brian Wilson — were on a tour in the UK, playing to huge, enthusiastic crowds clamoring for more of the Beach Boys’ intricately crafted harmonies. In the meantime, Wilson (who quit touring back in 1964 after suffering from a nervous breakdown) approached Asher to join him in creating his most personal work to date. Hiring the best musicians in the business, he set about creating an album — “Pet Sounds” — which is still consistently ranked in the Top 5 albums of all time by publications such as Q and Mojo (Last year, Mojo gave it top billing as the greatest album of all time with the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” getting second place).
One of the best songs from “Pet Sounds” was an intricately crafted love song called “God Only Knows.” Even during the recording of the song, Wilson and Asher knew “God Only Knows” was going to be something special. Asher (in his comments on the “Pet Sounds” boxed set) notes that, “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.”
Unfortunately, the song failed to excite the masses of that time, peaking at No. 39 on the U.S. Billboard charts (on the other side of the ocean, though, it was massively popular in Britain, peaking at No. 2). The most probable reason for its lack of popularity in the States was having the word “God” in the title. The song was relegated to the B side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which received significantly higher air play in the U.S. Bringing back the feelings that were invoked on my first listen of the song way back when I was a prepubescent 12-year-old, I can understand how this song got overlooked. It’s nothing like the Beach Boys’ earlier hits. This was much more sophisticated. No longer were the boys singing about fun in the sun and fast cars. They were singing of love and relationships and about not being made for these times.
Several years later, I was to revisit the “Pet Sounds” album while I was busy collecting the reissues of the Beach Boys’ early albums. This time, I was old enough to understand the concepts of love, having your first crush, falling out of love, young love, everything the album was about. “God Only Knows” stands tall as the song that meant the most to me as a young man searching for love for the first time. Recently, it was attached to the closing of the movie, “Love Actually,” in a lovely scene showing all the lovers together with his/her own special love. These days, when so much unmemorable music is being produced, stand-outs like “God Only Knows” will always remain as a special entry in that hall of fame reserved for music that remains in our hearts and memories.
From the opening with the French horn, all the way to the sterling climax of the song when Wilson layered several tracks of Beach Boy vocals and overdubbed them, “God Only Knows” evokes such feelings of peace and tenderness.
That’s what a great song does. It reaches deep down into your soul, has a heart-to-heart discussion with it, and comes out leaving you refreshed and eager for more.
(c) Johnathan Sia