"Listen to 'God Only Knows' - as beautiful as anything ever recorded, and Brian Wilson starts a love song with "I may not always love you" - that's nerve."
Martin Skidmore, March 6, 2002, ILM
Part One: Five Men in a Room
There are five men in one room; they are all sitting down, perhaps some more comfortably than others. They are about to listen to an album, an advanced copy of it no less, and there is a certain tension in the air, of excitement and uncertainty. The album title is odd, for starters. The eldest of the five puts the album on the turntable and the needle on the starting groove...
They look at each other with some nods and smiles at first; yes, this is exactly what we expected, but, but...it is as if there are new colors and textures emerging at any given moment and the effect is of strangeness, more than anything else. This is like a flower opening, a bird flying; amazing and fragile and utterly natural, all at the same time. The eldest listens very carefully; one of the others is cool to the sounds, the words, but the effect is building up, until it hits a plateau they have already heard, of course...
...and then the most affected of the five gets up and turns it over, beside himself to hear what comes next. The first song glides into the air, serene as a swan. He covers his face with his hands, knowing that this is it. IT. They all know this is what they will have to equal on their next record or they will have fallen behind, and they cannot possibly do that. Even what they are doing now - which is pretty amazing - is not nearly enough. The room is quiet when the album ends; the eldest takes the record off the turntable and says: "That is our next goal, boys. To equal that."
Part Two: Pray
"The sheer emotion that comes out of the speakers is TERRIFYING. It is the pause between your declaration of love and her response."
Joseph Cowart, July 9, 2005 ILM
"Carl and I were into prayer. We'd pray together, and we prayed for light and guidance through the album. We kind of made it a religious ceremony."
Brian Wilson on recording Pet Sounds
And so the brothers prayed before recording this song. When you pray you hope, you try to bring something into being, to manifest it in some way. To say what that is precisely or to be too demanding is not needed; just to have that right energy and feel is the thing. Like anything ecstatic, there is no real explanation for what happens. There is almost no describing it. There is a melody, a beat, musicians, instruments. The song unfolds as it should and yet does not settle down. It is pointing towards it (the root chord) without ever saying directly what it is. That is probably because it - what the song is about - is unnameable, impossible to describe...it exists, but can only be felt, not heard...
...to digress to the 90s, this is one of my favorite songs, one that wouldn't exist without this one. What is it about? Here are the lyrics; but beyond those is the music, which reminds me at one point of something I don't talk about very much, because music is the only part of it that I can relate to others, and that is my own mystical experience. The chorus of the song (in particular the solo organ, at 1:29 or so) is about the only equivalent I have for the experience*.
"God Only Knows" works the same way for me but on a far more essential basis than even that; it came out when my mom was pregnant with me and as a native Angeleno I cannot help associate it with that important time. Objectivity for me is nearly impossible, therefore, but from what I sense this song either hits people right where they live - uncomfortably, as Cowart and Skidmore remind us - and they either reject it or accept it. There is no dodging the difference in this song - not even Mike Love's part in the break (the low bah-bah-bah-bomp-BAHs) can give much of a connection to anything they have done before.
The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine" was number one at the time: two songs about either being isolated from the rest of humanity or joyously attached; and as an unwitting riposte here were the Beach Boys writing one of the ultimate songs to the Other, with sublime music which circles around the point - the indescribable point - as opposed to the rather blunt Beatles ones. The lovin' vibes that Wilson wanted here are more than apparent, the psychedelic swirl of instruments (accordion, french horn, sleigh bells, string quartet) are homely** and clip-clop delicately, the front room piano is the ground out of which all of this - voices, instruments - rises...and there is the word God, the word which had never been used in a pop song (jazz or patriotic anthems at this point only) before, right there in the title and chorus. The song was easy enough to write, compared to others on Pet Sounds, but it was the one most worried about.
Prayer was not only needed for the singing, but perhaps to get God's OK for the song. If the song took a short time to write, then doing so might count as a mystical experience, one that Wilson and Asher may have been too busy to notice. Brian Wilson was going to sing it but then decided his brother Carl would sound better; and they prayed before singing it. And so it went into the world as a prayer of its own.
Part Three: Influence
Stereolab have already been mentioned here; I should also mention the High Llamas (there are links between the groups, namely Sean O'Hagan). The more immediate influence is all over the place though, including (yes) the Velvet Underground. They may have been led by uber-rocker Lou Reed but John Cale, a Beach Boys fan, snuck in this; (ah irony in the host saying it was the most influential album).
Pet Sounds is notoriously a musician's album, which means it crossed (as thence did this song) into all kinds of ears, from Keith Jarrett to Charles Lloyd (who worked with the Beach Boys because of this), to Carla Bley, who was influenced by Wilson's way of orchestrating and arranging. (This is the full overture to Escalator Over The Hill; when I first heard it I was immediately reminded of downtown Los Angeles - now I know why). Marvin Gaye heard it and it helped to shape how What's Going On sounds - miles away from the regular Motown sound, denser and overlapping, profoundly moving in and of itself. (This may just be a way to say Pet Sounds is a soul album, come to think of it.) And it also fed into how The Carpenters would sound, from melodies to gentle melancholy; Richard Carpenter is also a Frank Zappa fan (oh yeah - us Californians stick together, you see) and some of the musicians here also appear on The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!, which came out at around the same time and was another album to give The Beatles a pause for thought***.
Those most influenced by it were The Beach Boys themselves; it was Wilson's project to write it as the rest toured Japan, and there were initial mixed feelings about this and the other songs - no cars, no surfing, no girls, no fun; but the band came around to it in the end. At this point work began on Smile, a "teenage symphony to God" (the spiritual mood clearly continuing). No one was more ambitious or having more fun than Wilson at this time, but alas along with that came the gnawing sense that others were out there trying to surpass him, and so they were; we will see how far they got soon enough. Suddenly the stakes are much higher, and that they are centered on a beautiful song makes the attendant ironies that much keener. 1967 is just around the corner...
*That I had yet to hear any Stereolab when I had the experience just makes it all the stranger, plus this song hadn't been recorded yet...
** I mean homely as in old-fashioned but also as uncanny. The song seems familiar even if you've never heard it before, Wilson taking from the Four Freshmen, Lovin' Spoonful, Gershwin, Ravel for all I know...the roots here are deep.
*** I may as well also mention the other groundbreaking band from L.A., The Byrds, who brought everything together in the most stunning and different way - this - breaks the sound barriers, if you will, of what a pop song can be.