#795: God Only Knows by The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson was born in Inglewood, California, in 1942. In biographer Peter Ames Carlin’s book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, he relates that when Brian Wilson first heard George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” it had a huge emotional impact on him. As a youngster, Wilson learned to play a toy accordion and sang in children’s choirs. In his teens he started a group with his cousin, Mike Love and his brother, Carl. His named the group Carl and the Passions in order to convince his brother to join. They had a performance at Hawthorne High School, where they attended. Among the people in the audience was Al Jardine, another classmate. Jardine was so impressed with the performance that he let the group know. Jardine would later be enlisted, along with Dennis Wilson to form the Pendletones in 1961. The first song Brian Wilson wrote would become “Surfer Girl”. A demo of the tune was made in February 1962 and would go on to be a Top Ten hit when it was released a year later in 1963. However, their first recording was a doo-wop-surf tune called “Surfin’” in October 1961. It was released in November ’61 on the Candix Enterprises Inc. label. The surprise for the group was that the record label had changed the group’s name from the Pendletones to the Beach Boys. Consequently, as each time the record was played by a DJ in America, radio listeners were being introduced to the Beach Boys. The name Pendletones was now history.
In 1962, neighbor David Marks joined the group for their first wave of hits with Capitol Records, leaving in late 1963. In 1965, Bruce Johnston joined the band when Brian Wilson retired from touring to focus on writing and producing for the group. The Beach Boys signed with Capitol Records in July 1962 and released their first album, Surfin’ Safari, later that year. The album spent 37 weeks on the Billboard album chart, launching the young group known for its shimmering vocal harmonies and relaxed California style into international stardom. The Wilson/Love collaboration resulted in many huge international chart hits. Under Brian Wilson’s musical leadership, the band’s initial surf-rock focus was soon broadened to include many other themes, helping make The Beach Boys one of America’s most successful bands of the 1960’s.
The Beach Boys charted 13 Top Ten hits into the Billboard Hot 100 in the ’60’s. This began with “Surfin’ USA” in 1963. They charted several songs much better in Vancouver than in the USA, including “Little Saint Nick“, “Warmth Of The Sun“, “Little Honda“, “She Knows Me Too Well“, “Wendy” and “The Little Girl I Once Knew“. The only American pop group in the 1960’s who had more songs chart into the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100 was The Supremes, who had 18 singles reach that threshold. Though, in Vancouver, The Beach Boys had 23 songs chart into the Top Ten while The Supremes charted 18 songs into the Top Ten in Vancouver on either CKLG or CFUN, making The Beach Boys the top charting American band in Vancouver during the decade.
Among the Top Ten hits The Beach Boys charted in Vancouver were “I Get Around” (#3) “Don’t Worry Baby” (#3), Help Me Rhonda” (#2), “Sloop John B” (#2), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (#1), “Good Vibrations” (#1) and “Barbara Ann” (#2). The B-side to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was “God Only Knows”. Though the song didn’t chart here on CKLG, it peaked at #5 on CFUN.
“God Only Knows” was a baroque pop hit for the Beach Boys. The song was part of a musical transition away from surfing music by adding psychedelic and more complicated musical forms to their music. The song included a number of instruments that were seldom featured in pop music by 1966. These instruments were a French horn, cellos, violas and accordion. The song expresses a conviction that the romantic partner is exceptional and irreplaceable. Without them, the world would go on, but the joy of living would be vanquished. The lyrics invoke an ambiguity that is resolved in the final line of the verse. It begins “I may not always love you,” then shifts to “you never need to doubt it/I’ll make you so sure about it.” The climaxing line, “God only knows what I’d be without you,” was a rare reference to God in pop music at the time.
In 1918 Irving Berlin had written a popular patriotic song, “God Bless America.” It was the signature song sung by Kate Smith during World War II. It was sung at some Independence Day celebrations and sports events, along with the “Star Spangled Banner”. There was some apprehension that “God Only Knows” would not be played because it was stepping on the “turf” of “God Bless America.” Alternately, some members of the Beach Boys worried radio station DJs might think the song was “too square” for mentioning God.
“God Only Knows” was a track from the Beach Boys eleventh studio album, Pet Sounds. In November 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine listed Pet Sounds at #2 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album was distinct from many contemporary rock albums at the time. Pet Sounds employed harpsichords, orchestral sounds, flutes and a mix of jazz and dog-whistles and train sounds. With the sequence of tracks, Pet Sounds was dubbed a Concept Album for its unified theme across the album.
“God Only Knows” was included in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock n’ Roll. As a b-side to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the song peaked in the USA at #39, while in Vancouver it peaked at #5. In the USA, the song had its best chart runs in Fargo, ND, Louisville, Kentucky, and Dallas, Texas, peaking at #1. “God Only Knows” climbed to #2 in Boston and Little Rock (AR), #3 in Seattle, Houston, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, #4 in the Twin Cities, Chicago, Omaha (NE), Buffalo and Pittsburgh, #5 in Denver and #8 in Los Angeles. “God Only Knows” hardly registered on the Top 40 playlists in over fifteen states. In Canada, aside from peaking at #9 in Winnipeg, the song was only a minor hit in some radio markets. “God Only Knows” was listed at #25 in Rolling Stone Magazines Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2011.
The co-writer with Brian Wilson on “God Only Knows” was Tony Asher. He co-wrote eight of the songs on the Pet Sounds album. Asher went on to write jingles for Matel Toys, Max Factor Cosmetics and Gallo Wines.
The Beach Boys were at the top of their popularity into the mid-60’s. They released their hit album, Pet Sounds, in May 1966, with the hits “God Only Knows”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B” all doing well on the pop charts, especially in Vancouver. It was their ninth of ten successive albums that made the Top Ten in the Billboard 200 Album charts. 1966 was also the year The Beach Boys had their #1 hit, “Good Vibrations”, which was their third #1 hit in three years.
From 1967 onward, The Beach Boys chart successes were sporadic. Though, in Vancouver (BC) they had a Top Ten hit with “Good Timin’” in 1979. However, they have continued to tour over the decades. They have had four singles – “Good Vibrations”, “California Girls”, “In My Room” and “I Get Around” – and one album, Pet Sounds, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame between 1994 and 2017. Between July 13, 2018, and July 25, 2019, The Beach Boys have scheduled 62 concert dates across twenty-one states in the USA, as well as concert dates in Canada, the UK and Ireland. The Beach Boys appeared in concert at the P.N.E. in Vancouver on September 1, 2019.
July 16, 2018
The Beach Boys – About, The Beach Boys.com
Jeff Slate, “How Brian Wilson Found Inspiration in the Artists Working Beside Him,” Esquire, October 11, 2016
Tony Asher Interview, Surfer Moon.com April 4, 1996
Lydia Hutchinson, The Story Behind Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Performing Songwriter.com, May 11, 2014.
Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman, I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir, (DeCapo Press, 2016).
Philip Lambert, Inside the Music of Brian Wilson: The Songs, Sounds, and Influences of the Beach Boys’ Founding Genius, (Continuum International Publishing, 2007).
The Beach Boys Concert Dates, The Beach Boys.com.
“CFUNTASTIC FIFTY,” CFUN 1410 AM, Vancouver, BC, September 10, 1966.
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