Beach Boys “God Only Knows” (1966)

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Here’s an absolutely ridiculous question I posed to myself recently: What’s the most perfect pop song ever? Is it a classic hit, an obscurity, some underappreciated gem? God only knows, right? Again, the premise is absurd, picking one song as most sublime among all others. But hey, let’s give it a shot: For me, what pops into my head, yes, it’s The Beach Boys with ‘God Only Knows.’ It was first released as the “B” side of the single ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ off the Pet Sounds album, it’s only 2:55 in length, and it contains just two verses. Yet I can’t think of a song more worthy than this.

Brian Wilson wrote it, of course, as well as handled the production and arrangement, though his younger brother Carl actually sang the lead. And the unique chord progressions, together with the harmonic sophistication, elaborate instrumentation, and poignant lyrical content, earn the piece a description beyond beautiful, elevated to something transcendent. The recording used an unorthodox selection of instruments, including French horn, accordions, sleigh bell, harpsichord, and a quartet of violas and cellos. There were 23 musicians in all present during the sessions (though only 16 are credited on the actual take that was used for the final song), and in case that didn’t seem quite sufficient, a string section was also overdubbed afterwards. But interestingly, it had only three vocalists – Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston – making it probably the only well-known Beach Boys track ever to have just three voices on it. The song closes with perpetual rounds, a centuries-old technique not normally heard in pop music. Said (Brian) Wilson, “I liked all those old songs that used rounds, like ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and ‘Frère Jacques’ because they made it seem like a song was something eternal.”  Imagine, this quintessential pop masterwork was inspired by songs we all sang in nursery school.

It’s an arresting and extraordinarily tender love song – which somehow still begins with the line “I may not always love you” – yet Wilson has said there was no one particular for whom the song was written. I find that astounding; how do you express these kinds of wrenching emotions entirely in the abstract and not have them directed to someone.

My music maven friend Maryellen considers this her favorite song.  Still another musical authority, Sir Paul McCartney, also once cited it back in the ’70’s as his favorite song of all time, to which Brian Wilson apparently responded apprehensively, reasoning “If ‘God Only Knows’ is the greatest song ever written, then I’ll never write anything as good again. And if I never write anything as good, then I’m finished.” Classic Brian.

So to repeat from where we started: this is a preposterous proposition, for which I’ve suggested but one of no doubt thousands of credible answers, if choosing one is even credible to begin with. I’m sure all popular music fans would have a few contenders; I’d love to hear what other “perfect songs” would be nominated. Anyone?


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