The story of the Beach Boys starting out as preppy Californian surf-popsters to become Rock n Roll Hall of Famers responsible for 'Greatest Albums Ever' list perennial 'Pet Sounds' is a familiar one. This narrative tends to overlook the currents of tension and angst rippling under the surface of both the early pop hits and the Phil-Spector-meets-Maurice-Ravel grandeur of their mature work. 'God Only Knows', one of the most analysed and acclaimed songs in pop, is a case in point: how does this stately orchestral masterpiece (and wedding reception stalwart) manage to hide in plain sight so much fear and doubt: "God only knows what I'd be without you"?
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God Only Knows
Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs, a podcast on what happens in pop songs and why they mean so much to us. I’m Anthony, a musician who writes and performs under the name sky coloured. In this episode I’m going to be looking at the type of record which is routinely included on Rolling Stone or Q Magazine-style lists of the greatest songs of all time, a perennial member of rock history’s official and now well-worn canon. A recent mark of the continuing iconic status of ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys was the glitzy cover version made in 2014 to launch BBC Music, featuring among others, Pharrell Williams and Jools Holland, the idea presumably being that a song of the stature of ‘God Only Knows’ prompts us to think of where we’d be without music itself. A wide array of artists have cited it as an important song in their musical development, including Paul McCartney, who suggested its greatness lay in its simplicity - it’s ‘really just a love song’ - while others have praised it specifically for its range of emotional complexity, picking out the suggestion of insecurity in the opening lines of both verses: ‘I may not always love you’ and ‘If you should ever leave me.’ I’m going to look at the song in the context of the Beach Boys’ early career to explore the delicate way songwriters Brian Wilson and Tony Asher handled the relationship between the song’s romantic sincerity and anxiety that seems to persist throughout, not least in its repeated refrain, ‘God only knows what I’d be without you’.
By 1966, the Beach Boys had risen to become the most popular and most highly-regarded all-male pop group in America. They had produced a string of hit singles - like ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘I Get Around’ and ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ - which continue to define the sound and atmosphere of early 60s California in the popular imagination. It’s become a truism that the lifestyle they reflected - the West Coast life of sunshine and leisure - was a manufactured one; only one of the Beach Boys - Brian’s brother, Dennis - ever surfed, and their upbringing was a lot less glamorous than is suggested by the image of them as affluent teenagers on apparently permanent holiday. But what’s interesting to me, looking at the early Beach Boys singles, is the way stock images of this idea of adolescence - a world of romance, fast cars and sports - exist alongside jarring, often raw admissions of self-doubt and fear, particularly in relation to romantic intimacy. In the song, ‘Don’t Worry, Baby’, for instance, it comes as a surprise - if like me, you’d only ever vaguely listened along to the song without following its lyrics - that the title line, ‘Don’t worry baby’, is not being said by the singer to his lover, but rather the other way around: she’s saying it to him. It’s a romantic fantasy based entirely on the idea of reassurance:
Well it's been building up inside of me
For oh I don't know how long
I don't know why
But I keep thinking
Something's bound to go wrong
But she looks in my eyes
And makes me realize
And she says "don't worry, baby"
Everything will turn out alright
The painful need to be reassured comes up again and again in Brian Wilson’s early songwriting for the Beach Boys. ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘You’re So Good To Me’, for example, both project a woman as an all-understanding figure, someone there to assuage desperate anxiety - the sort of anxiety expressed in the opening lines of the 1965 song, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’:
Please forgive my shaking
Can’t you tell my heart is shaking?
Can’t make myself say what I planned to say
In NPR music critic Ann Powers’ recent book on the role of pop music in shaping American attitudes to sex, she traces a trend in 50s and 60s pop for music which seemed to address a sense of unease about sexuality among American teenagers. If rock and roll catalysed and soundtracked a generational loosening of sexual morals, this more pacifying, consoling pop did the opposite, providing a space where anxieties around sexual desire could subtly be given voice to and ultimately understood as unthreatening and containable. Drawing on articles and letters pages from teen magazines of the era, Powers writes: ‘Rock and roll girls and boys weren’t always comfortable with the liberties the music promised. Sometimes they themselves felt like they were growing up too fast … Boys were encouraged to channel their sexual urges into constructive activities, like sports’. As the key example of artists who spoke to adolescent anxieties around sex, Powers puts forward the Everly Brothers, the wildly-successful close harmony singing duo from the late 1950s, who were a huge influence on Brian Wilson. She argues that the Everlys instinctively understood the sexual fervent prompted by rock and roll and knew how to write to reassure anxious young people, particularly young men. ‘The Everly Brothers’, she writes, ‘created songs that were metaphors for the unmoored feeling that defined the middle-class teenage experience in the 1950s and early 60s. The duo’s sound spoke to young boys feeling the pressure to man up’.
Much of the same, I believe, can be said about the early songwriting of the Beach Boys, although, where the Everly Brothers displayed a wry knowingness around sex as they alleviated anxieties about it, Brian Wilson’s songs seem more to embody sexual anxiety itself. In place of demonstrating that these sorts of worries can ultimately be coped with, his example seems directly to highlight the inadequacy of the sorts of contemporary ‘solutions’ to the issue of teenage sexuality, like sports and unspecified ‘social activities’. Peter Ames Carlin, a recent Wilson biographer, writes that, though Wilson’s friends from that time remembered him as ‘a varsity athlete, a decent student, and popular, [they also] sensed his vulnerability. He was desperately insecure around girls, particularly the ones he knew other people found attractive and charismatic’.
Put in this context, the boasting that comes up in the early Beach Boys single - about being good at football, and, especially, driving fast cars in songs like ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ and ‘I Get Around’, comes to seem more and more like a front, a flimsy facade designed to deflect from real feelings of insecurity and confusion.
There’s a fascinating song among these early singles which is very unusual for the time in being a pop song that does not refer to an object of the singer’s affection. Indeed ‘In My Room’ has no romance implied in it at all; it’s a song about the relief of solitude, the way a bedroom can be sanctuary from worry and fear:
There's a world where I can go
And tell my secrets to
In my room
In my room
In this world I lock out
All my worries and my fears
In my room
In my room
Understanding the mind of Brian Wilson cannot go far without looking at the role of his father, Murry Wilson, who was central to his upbringing and musical education, and who was a classic example, familiar from many successful musical families in pop history, of an overbearing and abusive father figure, aggressively channeling his own frustrated dreams into the fledgling careers of his children. Brian himself has said, ‘I was so scared of my dad that I actually got scared into making good records’. The constant, and at times, macabre instances of physical and emotional abuse have been well-documented, the most famous of which being the time Murry struck Brian on the side of his head with a piece of wood, damaging his hearing in that ear permanently, although Brian would later cast doubt on whether it was really that incident which caused his deafness on one side.
In any case, it’s clear that for Brian Wilson, adolescent anxieties, becoming commonplace in the pop music of the late 1950s, ran a lot deeper with him, and indeed stayed with him long after adolescence. The threat of psychological breakdown was present from very early on, and it’s this notion of a profoundly frightening outside world - with a corresponding belief in the salvational potential of perfect, though acutely private love - that informs the dramatic tension of ‘God Only Knows’.
And the opening line of the song is a tense one - ‘I may not always love you’, at a stroke, is a direct negation of the basic premise of practically all love songs in the traditional mould: that the lover’s love is true and will last forever. Even Wilson was troubled by it at first, saying it was ‘too negative’. Tony Asher, his lyrical collaborator, fought for it and later said how he liked starting the song that way, as well as the ‘twist’ it produces with the follow-up lines: ‘but long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it’. That ‘twist’ Asher recognises in his lyric is similar to what’s called the ‘volta’ moment in poetry, literally ‘the turn’, which is closely associated with renaissance sonnets, where the final couplet involves a reversal of the preceding lines, most typically in affirmation of the poet’s love. To take just one well-known example, Shakespeare’s ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ opens with a list of unfavourable comparisons between the poet’s mistress and the sort of typical images used in love poetry of the era - skin like snow, cheeks like roses, a voice like music - before exposing them as empty clichés, and asserting his love for her as something deeper, more based in her real embodied self. The poem ends:
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
This format of an apparently discouraging set-up leading to a reversal and a vow of love - very typical of the Elizabethan sonnet - is partly just a demonstration of the poet’s wit. But, in common with Wilson and Asher’s lyric, it’s also a rhetorical device designed to highlight the sincerity of the lover who negates romantic cliché only to demonstrate how much more genuine he is than those who would simply parrot the tired phrases of courtly love cliché. For the singer in ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Life would go on’ if you were to leave me, but only in the minimal sense that the world would continue to exist. Life itself would be barely worth living.
This ‘turn’ or ‘twist’ in the lyric is masterfully reflected in the musical structure that Wilson builds around it. Harmonically, the song is kept in a delicate balance between the keys of E and A, never quite fully endorsing one or the other, and travelling through a significant amount of harmonic territory foreign to both. The opening introduction sounds like it’s in A major - it’s only in the context of what will subsequently occur in the song that the falling pattern - one bar of A major, one bar of E first inversion, one bar of F# minor - is revealed as harmonic momentum towards a home key of E. But initially it feels as if all is sitting comfortably within the key of A, with a soaring melody on the French horn setting out the song’s atmosphere of stately grandeur.
It’s in the final bar of the song’s introduction that we get the first moment of harmonic destabilization. This figure uses parallel movement - which means every note of the chord is moving up or down in exactly the same way - to move quickly from A major to C major, an unrelated chord, and you can feel the sudden sense of the unfamiliar it introduces.
This is followed by another parallel movement upwards to a chord of D major, although it’s in second inversion, and it’s not clear whether this chord is intended as a new tonic (i.e. that we are now ‘in D’) or whether it’s operating as chord 4 of what seemed to be the initial home key (A major). In any case, in a moment of supreme intuitive word-setting, Wilson captures the momentary angst of the lyric which occurs at that point - ‘I may not always love you’ - by going from a D major chord to a B minor - one of the those ‘minor falls’ which I discussed in episode two, the traditional pop-song gesture of sadness - but tempers this by the fact that the initial major chord is in its second inversion position which means that the bassline actually rises a note. On top of that he adds two extensions to the B minor chord - the first is an augmented sixth in the accompaniment, the second is a ninth heard on the first beat in the melody - which further complicates the ‘minor fall’. The result is a transition that somehow manages to encapsulate both hope - in the upwards movement of the bassline - and agitation. Wilson also starts the verse melody with two beats of silence, allowing an intimation of doubt to enter even before the melody has begun.
That’s the first of a succession of four 2-bar phrases, although as we’ve just seen they’re really one-and-a-half-bar phrases separated by half-bars of silence, a pattern that makes the verse melody feel faintly halting, fragmentary. These verse phrases demonstrate what's called a melodic sequence - which is a melodic structure in which successive phrases use the same shape, but start at different pitches. This is particularly clear in the three phrases [play] that start on 'but long as there are stars above you'. Looking more closely at the shape these phrases trace, we can see a line that rises, falls abruptly, then climbs back up again, although never to the height of the initial rise. [play] In the chorus line, this is resolved, not, as might be expected, by a line that stays high - the conventional 'soaring' model of pop chorus melodies - but by falling to its lowest point (the E on the 'with' of 'without you').
While this is going on in the melody, the harmony mirrors the sense of building tension, of pushing towards a harmonic resolution, although it’s hardly clear which key we’re eventually going to arrive at, having started in A, then moved through D briefly at the start of verse. At the end of the first four bars of the verse we have a B7 chord - significant in being a chord that occurs in the key of E but not A, and it does resolve to an E major chord, apparently forming a perfect cadence in E, but both chords are in inverted positions (the bass note underneath the B7 chord is an A - its seventh - which makes it a particularly unstable form of the chord). The feeling is one of hinting strongly at a future resolution - it's coming - but it’s deferred, and extending this, Wilson then reaches for even more unstable chords - the dissonant ‘diminished seventh’ chord I mentioned in the previous episode and another similar diminished chord in the bar before the chorus.
So in the verse, not only does Wilson use a highly complex chord sequence but he also allows the melody to float almost free of the underpinning harmony, using many notes, including those on stressed beats, not supported by the chords. But this approach is more-or-less reversed in the chorus - the main melody notes all hit chord tones, and the harmony itself reprises the warm and stable chords of the introduction. (like the A major chord in root position on ‘God’ - the only one of its type in the whole song)
It's in this fundamental structure - of tension moving towards harmony - that we can see the song’s apparently contradictory themes of doubt and sincerity being played out. They’re presented not as opposites but rather as overlapping states, shifting only in emphasis from one to the other. The song captures the sadness and difficulty of love - acknowledging how it can be ridden with doubt, how the person expressing it may be flawed and unreliable, and that the world outside the intimacy of the lovers may well be dark and frightening - but it also manages, almost simultaneously, to declare complete devotion, and this is the song's strength: it’s an impassioned declaration of love without the assumption that love makes all troubles disappear. Melodies reach a great height, fall suddenly and rise back up without ever fully making all the ground up, consistently undercutting any idealism - the melody never 'soars': it twists, strains upwards, drops, and finally grounds itself, reaching a conclusion more sobering than triumphant.
The song reveals the dark flipside of conventional declarations of devotion, briefly lingering on a reflection, both in its words and its music, on what the reality of life would be like without the presence of the beloved - 'the world would show nothing to me'. It's that instinctive grasp of vulnerability that sets the song apart from run-of-the-mill 'I'd be lost without you' sentimentality. The title line itself captures the extraordinarily deft and concise way Wilson and Asher were able to put across so much nuance in their depiction of romantic love, combining in true pop fashion a colloquial commonplace - 'God knows what I'd do’ - with stark admissions of doubt, to produce a gesture of profound loving gratitude, and a nod to the divine.