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“God Only Knows”: When Brian Wilson looked to the Lord for heavenly harmony

THE BEAXH BOYS ALBUM COVER
Capitol Records
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In 1966 the Beach Boys wrote the first pop song to mention God in its title. Some felt it was blasphemous.

In 1964, 22-year-old Brian Wilson wrote a love letter to Marilyn Rovell, the woman who would soon become his first wife. He ended the note with a poignant sign-off: “Yours until God wants us apart.” Like his best music, the line was a tender blend of youthful passion and spiritual reverence, marred by a ceaseless undercurrent of anxiety. Each of these forces defined his tumultuous early life, forming a “holy” trinity in his psyche that would ultimately drive him to create the Beach Boys’ greatest artistic achievement, 1966’s Pet Sounds. The album’s emotional centerpiece, “God Only Knows,” echoes the words of his billet doux, and also the maelstrom of feelings that inspired it. In the half century since it was recorded, the track has entered the canon of timeless love songs, and been cited by Paul McCartney as the greatest ever written. The decades of praise make it all the more remarkable to recall that the song was initially banned by radio stations in the southern United States. “God Only Knows” provoked an outcry upon release, infuriating the pious who felt that using the Lord’s name in the title of a pop song was nothing short of blasphemous.

This couldn’t have been further from Wilson’s intent. As a composer, the divine factored into all of his work. “I believe that music is God’s voice,” he once explained. For the Beach Boys’ 1964 Christmas album, Wilson arranged a choral version of “The Lord’s Prayer,” and his aborted 1967 work SMiLE — which he famously dubbed his “teenage symphony to God” — opened with “Our Prayer,” a wordless hymn reminiscent of Gregorian chants. But the spirit was most notably present for his 1966 opus. “When I was making Pet Sounds, I did have a dream about a halo over my head but people couldn’t see it,” he said in 1996. “God was with us the whole time we were doing this record. God was right there with me.”

Writing sessions for the album began just after New Year’s Day in 1966, when Wilson called upon an advertising copywriter named Tony Asher (who, in a Catholic twist, had previously written slogans for Gallo Wine) to serve as his lyricist. The collaborations took the form of late night conversations about life, love, and loss. It was one of these abstract discussions that led to the genesis of “God Only Knows,” which compares the faith needed to submit to a higher power to the faith required to surrender one’s heart to love. “That was a vision Tony and I had,” Wilson recalled. “It’s like being blind but in being blind you can see more. You close your eyes; you’re able to see a place or something that’s happening.”

As the tune blossomed, Asher was apprehensive of his lyrical contributions. “How many love songs start off with the line, ‘I may not always love you’?” he later mused. Time has shown that the uncertainty of the opening verse is part of its genius, offering brutal honestly uncommon in romantic paeans. Presenting doubt only served to accentuate the later exaltations, and illuminate the inherent bravery of one who chooses to believe.

The song came together quickly, but the title gave them pause. According to Asher, he and Brian “had lengthy conversations during the writing of ‘God Only Knows,’ because unless you were Kate Smith and you were singing ‘God Bless America,’ no one thought you could say ‘God’ in a song. No one had done it, and Brian didn’t want to be the first person to try it. He said, ‘We’ll just never get any air play.’ Isn’t it amazing that we thought that?” Rovell had similar reservations. “The first time I heard it, Brian played it for me at the piano. And I went, ‘Oh my god, he’s talking about God in a record.’ It was pretty daring to me,” she said in 1996. “It was another time I thought to myself, ‘Oh, boy, he’s really taking a chance.’ I thought it was almost too religious — too square, at that time. Yet it was so great that he would say it and not be intimidated by what anybody else would think of the words or what he meant. He wasn’t afraid to show the world how sensitive and spiritual he was.”

When it came time to record the song, Wilson asked his younger brother Carl, who until then rarely sang lead, to do the honors. “I thought I was gonna do it … but when we completed creating the song, I said my brother Carl will probably be able to impart the message better than I could,” Wilson said soon after its release. “I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice.” Once described by Wilson as “the most truly religious person I know,” Carl was vocal about the group’s shared faith. “We believe in God as a kind of universal consciousness,” he declared in 1966. “God is love. God is you. God is me. God is everything right here in this room. It’s a spiritual concept which inspires a great deal of our music.”

To set the tone before recording dates, the pair made a habit of gathering in the studio for brief prayer sessions. “We’d pray together, and we prayed for light and guidance through the album. We made it a religious ceremony,” says Wilson. Carl remembers asking for “guidance to make the most healing sounds.” As the years became marked by the traumas and travesties that would define the turbulent Sixties, the normally reticent Wilson threw himself into his music with an almost evangelical fervor, desperate to get his message of positivity to the public. “We were trying to capture spiritual love that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world,” he reflected on the 30th anniversary of Pet Sounds. “We figured we had that love.” Generations of fans believe he did.

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