You typically write in blogs. I however don't write particularly much in this blog, or at least as much as I used to. This is a quick attempt to change that. Here's a short paper that I wrote on "God Only Knows" for a Pop Music class that I took earlier this year. It's nothing too formal, but I think it's worthy of a post here, at least for archiving purposes.
God Only Knows
The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is one of my all-time favorite albums. I have had many heated conversations regarding the album, debating that it is better than anything the Beatles ever put out, a stance I still hold. The eight track on the album, “God Only Knows” is arguably the album’s best song, though my personal favorite is “You Still Believe in Me.” Still, “God Only Knows” remains as one of the most moving and simply best songs I have ever heard, as well as one of the few songs that can occasionally make me cry based on its music alone (seeing Brian Wilson and his band perform it live also really did the trick.) I feel it is just a perfect pop song, nothing missing or nothing seeming unnecessary in the arrangement, perfect in length, and never coming anywhere close to a dull moment.
With the opening seconds of the song’s instrumentation, the denseness of sound is very apparent, due to the multitude of musicians playing on the track. Specially there were twenty-three musicians present during the recording of the song in March of 1966, sixteen of which ended up on the final take. Despite all these musicians, there is no guitar on the song, and rather three different bassists made up the core rhythm section, each performing a different variation of the instrument (specifically acoustic string, electric, and danelectro bass.) Also in the rhythm section, the percussion is simple yet also unorthodox, made up of a combination of sleigh bells and castanets, producing a similar effect to wood blocks. Depending on the section of the song, the tempo these are played vary, though the sleigh bells are played at a slower pace by the end of the song than the beginning. Brief snare drum rolls also are present at various times, the first being in the instrumental break/ interlude section following the second repetition of the chorus, the drums appearing twice in the section, each in the middle part of the break’s two lines. The snare drums however are most prominently in the song’s final section, where “God only knows” is sung and harmonized with three different voices, the drums marking the repetition of a new section.
In total, the rest of the instruments on “God Only Knows” are piano, organ, accordion, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, french horn, baritone, saxophone, violin, viola, and cello. For the time, this is a huge amount of instruments to have on the pop song, and the presence of instruments traditionally not associated with pop music makes this song even more un-traditional. On a casual listen, the instruments that stick out most prominently are the organ/ piano chords and the french horn, especially in the song’s first section, though you can hear a variety of string instruments lower in the mix, giving the song some texture. For the first verse and chorus, the instrumental section is more sparse, consisting of only the rhythm section and the organ. The bass heavy transition to the next verse and chorus, where the instrumental section is more complex, the string section entering and muting the volume of the bells a bit.
Following the chorus, the next transitional section is unlike any previous section of the song. As mentioned before, the snare drums first appear here in this interlude, easily the most playful sounding section of the song. In relation to the song’s celestial themes and sound, I would describe this part as sounding like someone in the sky jumping from cloud to cloud. With the following section, the tempo of the bells slow down and the vocals take the forefront with a three part polyphonic harmonizing section, featuring Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Bruce Johnson. The song next moves into the chorus rather than another verse, the next and final verse thus follows immediately without any transitional section. With the final verse, all of the instrumental elements from the second verse are in place, though this time the bells remain at a slower tempo and a new flute section enters at the end of each line for the final two lines of the verse.
The song ends with the repetition of “God only knows,” cutting back to only the core rhythm section for instrumentation. After two repetitions however, the other instruments gradually enter again, the first being the snare drum rolls on two and four and the sound of a hard to identify string instrument (possibly a cello or viola plucked strongly) also where the snare drum, occurs though after each line rather than just half. This instrument plays a two note pattern twice in a row each time, descending for the second line, descending once more for the third line, and then playing the same notes for last line as it did for the second line. This element is interesting as it is very difficult to hear in the Pet Sounds version, but when listening to the instrumental version on the Stack-O-Tracks album, you can hear that it remains in the song until the very end, where silence is reached after the fade out.
It is interesting about the song’s conclusion that, despite the main versus and chorus of the song being sung by Carl Wilson, he left the studio before the recording was done, so instead Brian Wilson used multi-tracking and sung two of the three vocal melodies, harmonizing with himself. It is also of note that it was a bit of a rarity for Carl Wilson to perform lead vocals, as “God Only Knows” is the only song on Pet Sounds where he does so, Brian Wilson doing the rest on every song apart from “That’s Not Me” where Mike Love sang. Before Pet Sounds, Carl had only performed lead vocals on three Beach Boys songs, though rather than Brian singing it as standard, he handed it over to Carl, as he felt he could “impart the message better.”
In addition to the song’s complex structure and arrangements, as well as dense and unorthodox instrumentation, it was also groundbreaking in terms of its lyrics, being one of the first pop songs to use “God” in its title. Before this song, religion in popular music was traditionally avoided, rather leaving the subject matter for less commercial Christian recordings, and hymns. However I do not find “God Only Knows” to be a religious song but rather a love song that uses God in its title as a spiritual word, expressing the ethereal, other-worldly side of love, and the idea of eternity. Still, the song was definitely key in removing the taboo of spirituality in popular music, something that these days is fairly commonplace.
“God Only Knows” is also a song that has been covered by numerous artists of different styles, from David Bowie and Neil Diamond to Mandy Moore, Joss Stone, and even Daniel Johnston. Still, none of the covers I have heard come close to even having a fraction of the power and effectiveness of the original, Bowie’s version being especially disappointing. The Beach Boys version is just truly timeless and a masterpiece of popular music. As a really big fan, it always frustrates me when I meet someone who is only familiar with their fun yet straightforward and fluffy surf-centric early 60's recordings, or their lame late 80's “Kokomo,” party with the Tanner family on Full House era. In addition to Pet Sounds they had a fantastic string of albums from 1965's Today! to Surf’s Up in 1971. Still though the degrees of awful that the Beach Boys reached by the 90's was a bit frightening, the highs they achieved with Pet Sounds and “God Only Knows” alone are leaps beyond what most bands do in their entire careers.