The Infinite Jukebox: God Only Knows

The Infinite Jukebox has a lot of Beach Boys songs on it, and a lot of love songs. The two come together in possibly the purest song of all, Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”.
This is one of those songs where it’s impossible to believe that it was written by two people, that it’s not the creation of a single mind, a single heart and soul, but it’s true. Brian Wilson was no lyricist so, whilst the melody and the arrangements are his, the words, pure and simple yet equally from the heart, come from his frequent collaborator, Tony Asher. They are an integral part of the whole, and Asher deserves the greatest credit possibly for so thoroughly understanding the music as to match its calm, its pure essence, its ethereality with words that waste no language, that cut so truly to the centre of any relationship between two people that’s called by the name of love.
“God Only Knows” was a massive hit here, a number 2 single, the Beach Boys’ biggest success in Britain to date, though immediately overtaken by their next release, “Good Vibrations”. In America, where the religious sensibilities made a song with God in the title – and one that was not about any deity – so much more questionable, it was restricted to the lower half of a double A-side and barely scraped the Top 30.
There are many many instances in the Sixties of American tastes being considerably better than British: this is a welcome opposite.
The song was Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal with the band. Later in his life, he spoke of the greatest honour he had ever received as being when his brother Brian asked him to sing this song. Though the two brothers’ voices were similar, Brian chose Carl to sing “God Only Knows” because of the additional sweetness of his voice. He’s also the only actual Beach Boy to play on this record, the backing track being recorded by the experienced session musicians always called in to do the studio work.
I don’t have the words to describe the music, but from the moment of that introduction, the song exists in a higher atmosphere than we breath on Earth. Musicologists have linked it to the music of the baroque, and of Handel, and there is a choral texture from the outset that suggests harpsichords, though it’s a regulation piano that first emerges from the horns, violas and cellos, laying a suggestion of rhythm for Carl to come in over.
I may not always love you, he sings, a line of ambivalence for which Asher fought Brian’s reluctance. In a song that’s about love, about an overpowering, soul-deep love, it’s a strange way to begin, when every other line in that first verse exists to deny it, but it’s only a lead-in to what the song says, to what love says: God only knows what I’d be without you.
Because, in words that lack decoration, lack equivocation, that are so straightforward as to almost be brutal, which encompass everything in the shortest possible statement but are simply beautiful, Asher’s lyrics and Wilson’s music recognise that love is about transformation, about becoming something which alone you are not and never can be.
And love transcends. Having contemplated but implicitly dismissed the notion that his love might not be eternal, the singer turns to the thought that her love might not be eternal. If you should ever leave me, Carl sings, though life would still go on, believe me (this is not a song to desecrate with the notion of any kind of death), the world could show nothing to me. For what good would living do me?
Instead of answering, when we all know the answer he would give, he repeats: God only knows what I’d be without you. Though by now we understand the import of that line.
So far, that gorgeous intro excepted, the music has been muted, rhythmic, the voice carrying the melody as the piano, a tambourine and the lightest of taps on the rims of the drums provide a propulsion that is joined by an organ playing a series of single notes.
Then the bridge cuts in, with a roll of drums and a hitherto unexpected melody, and for a brief moment voices chant, a Gregorian element, but still only three voices: Carl, Brian and Bruce Johnston, splitting the range into three parts. No Al Jardine, no Mike Love, no Dennis Wilson. Voices chant and cross, in true Beach Boy harmony, but only for a short space of time, until Carl repeats both his central question and that reinforcing verse that stipulates that, contrary to his opening line, this is eternal. This is love or nothing.
For a moment, the music tallies, reduced to Pete Townsend’s one note, pure and easy, and then the voices return, the same three voices, weaving into and out of each other, variations on that theme, all and part of that line, and it could go on forever and none would mind for the music holds and the voices sustain and there is no end to this melody, only a fade-out.
There are many who liken “God Only Knows” to a spiritual or religious experience, who take the love as being that all-consuming, transcendent love for the God-head, for the spirit. And the music and the sound is holy, even to those of us who have no faith, who believe in no god. This is religious music for all that it is a three minute pop song.
But to me, it is and always will be the love song beyond which there are no love songs, that says all that has to be said, that says to her that you have made me whole and complete, that you have given me something beyond description, that can only be felt, absorbed, lived, that together we are what neither of us could be and nothing could be greater than that.
God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.

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