Forty-five minutes is half of a soccer game. According to Brian Wilson that was the time it took him to compose “God Only Knows”, one of the Beach Boys’ most popular songs -it is in fact the most played on Spotify-, included on the fundamental album Pet Sounds (1966), one of the most influential in the group’s career.
“The fact is that Tony [Asher] and I sat at the piano and finished it in forty-five minutes. I suppose we had some concepts before we started, like pairs of rhythms that we wanted to use “, recalls the musician in his autobiography I am Brian Wilson … and you are not (2019, Malpaso).
In those days, Wilson was working on the music for the album at home, while the rest of the band were on tour. He was no longer with them. Due to the exhaustion of life on the road and a panic attack during a flight to Houston, the composer gave up live performances in 1964. Bruce Johnston replaced him for this task.
But in return, Brian imposed himself to create better quality material for the group that he integrated with his brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Love, his childhood friend Al Jardine and the aforementioned Johnston. “I decided that the only way to prove that my decision had not been a mistake was to write the best songs to make the best music,” he explains in his book.
Along these lines, in January 1966, the artist began to record a series of songs that he had been working on, in which he was looking for a new musical direction for the Beach Boys. “I knew I had to explore that sound. I had to go further in that direction, bring more orchestration and different arrangements to our music,” he says in the aforementioned text.
By the way, the impact that the music of the LP had is known Rubber Soul, released by the Beatles in December 1965, in the direction Wilson was looking for. “It’s probably the best album ever,” he declares in the volume. “It’s an album where everything flows and everything works. I remember being impressed by ‘You Won’t See Me’, ‘I’m Looking Through You’ and ‘Girl’. It wasn’t just the lyrics and the melodies, but also the production. and their harmonies. They were so unique, “he adds.
This is when the character who would be key in the compositions that would shape the Pet Sounds: Tony Asher. “Loren Schwartz introduced it to me,” the musician details. “Tony worked in advertising and was interested in music, I just followed an instinct that told me he would be a great lyricist. It was completely a matter of vibe and intuition,” he adds. Initially, Asher had a grudge at the idea of working with Wilson, but upon meeting him in person, he finally agreed.
Among the first songs that the duo worked for the plate, were “Wouldn’t it be nice”, “Hang on to your ego”, and many others. Thus, in a session at the composer’s house, they began to create what would later become the third single of the feature length. “The song progressed smoothly when we wrote it, then we migrated it to the studio. We put together a big orchestra. I think there were more than fifteen musicians, which were a lot for a pop song then, but we needed to attend to every detail. The devil is in the details, but the details are in God. “
With Asher playing the bells, Wilson worked obsessively alongside the musicians, humming the arrangements for the different instruments himself. “I was especially proud of the French horn part. I knew what I wanted it to sound like and I hummed it to a guy named Alan Robinson, a great musician who had worked for Twently Century Fox (…) he wanted me to do a glissando, which it means to slide between note and note without leaving spaces instead of going from one to another “, he explains in the volume already referred to.
Coincidence or not, when the Beatles recorded Revolver, months later, Paul McCartney also added a track of the same instrument for his song “For No One”, and also hummed it to the interpreter hired for the occasion. Although according to “Macca”, he had liked the sound of the horn since his childhood.
At first, Brian thought of singing the main voice of the song, but finally he left that responsibility to his brother Carl, who did not ask for a special interpretation, “just sing”, he said. He also recorded a 12-string guitar track, although most of the instrumental base was recorded by the famous session group The Wrecking Crew, who were stable instrumentalists of producers like Phil Spector, and can be heard on singles by artists like the Ronettes, The Mamas & the Papas, Frank Sinatra, Sony & Cher, among many others.
Another interesting detail is the letter, as it mentions God in it. Wilson clarifies that this was a love song, not a religious hymn. That is why it makes it a different pop song. “It was a bit provocative to mention God in the chorus or in the title of a song, at least at that time,” he says. He was not exaggerating. The Beatles themselves had to face a series of difficulties on their last tour of the northern country, as a result of the famous statement by John Lennon: “We are now more popular than Jesus.”
But in his autobiography, the Californian clarifies the sense in which they used the word. “It was something more private, that force that helps a person control their doubts and hopes. That made people nervous (…) it made me nervous (…) the lyrics were perfect from first to second. last word”.
“God Only Knows” was released as a single in the middle of that year. In the United States it reached number 39 – although in some places in that country it came out as side B of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – while in the United Kingdom and Australia, it reached number 2. Years later, in true style “We are the world”, BBC Music released a version featuring artists such as Stevie Wonder, Kylie Minougue, Brian May, Pharrell, Lorde, Chris Martin, among many others. Paul McCartney? does not appear.