The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson & Beatles Producer George Martin Break Down “God Only Knows,” the “Greatest Song Ever Written”

As an Eng­lish­man of a cer­tain age, George Mar­tin could, real­is­ti­cal­ly, choose only one means of con­veyance in Los Ange­les: a red Coupe de Ville con­vert­ible, and a gen­uine 1950s mod­el at that. But what­ev­er that era’s glo­ries of auto­mo­bile design, its music was still in the dark ages — at least accord­ing to the mil­lions upon mil­lions of Bea­t­les fans around the world today. The pop-cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion that band ignit­ed in the ear­ly 1960s owes, by some reck­on­ings, as much to Mar­t­in’s work as it does to that of the Fab Four them­selves. In his capac­i­ty as a pro­duc­er and arranger — not to men­tion as the man who signed them to Par­lophone records — Mar­tin arguably led the Bea­t­les to dis­cov­er their own musi­cal poten­tial. And once they’d become a phe­nom­e­non, they also felt pres­sure to sur­pass them­selves from oth­er sources.

One was a young Amer­i­can singing group called the Beach Boys, who in less than five years had gone from putting out sim­ple, repet­i­tive tunes about surf­ing and root beer to craft­ing the teenage-sym­phon­ic mas­ter­piece Pet Sounds. That album, so pop-music his­to­ry tells it, picked up the gaunt­let thrown down by the Bea­t­les’ Rub­ber Soul, and in response to it came Sgt. Pep­per’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band, an era-defin­ing release since pop­u­lar­ly thought to have won the bands’ friend­ly com­pe­ti­tion.

But with his ear for com­po­si­tion, Mar­tin sure­ly knew that Pet Sounds would nev­er tru­ly be defeat­ed, thanks in large part to “God Only Knows,” which Mar­tin describes as “one of my favorite Beach Boys songs.” He does so in the clip at the top of the post, of a 1997 vis­it to Los Ange­les in which he pilots his Cadil­lac to the home of the group’s musi­cal mas­ter­mind Bri­an Wil­son.

The two then enter the stu­dio and pull out the orig­i­nal mas­ter tapes of “Got Only Knows” to lis­ten to its com­po­nents one by one. You can see and hear more of what went into its record­ing ses­sions through this two-part video from Behind the Sounds that presents raw tracks from the stu­dio with notes on the var­i­ous tech­niques and play­ers (includ­ing the famous “Wreck­ing Crew,” with bassist Car­ol Kaye) involved. “What Bri­an had done was to write a beau­ti­ful song full of unusu­al changes,” says Mar­tin, “and then devise a tapes­try of sounds to enhance it.” As Mar­tin rebuilds the tracks on the con­sole, Wil­son says he’s “mak­ing a bet­ter mix of this than I did in the mas­ter.” It’s quite a com­pli­ment, con­sid­er­ing the source — but then so is the dec­la­ra­tion of “God Only Knows “as “the great­est song ever writ­ten,” issued as it was by a cer­tain Paul McCart­ney.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Beach Boys Cre­at­ed Their Pop Mas­ter­pieces: “Good Vibra­tions,” Pet Sounds, and More

Hear the Beach Boys’ Angel­ic Vocal Har­monies in Four Iso­lat­ed Tracks from Pet Sounds: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B” & “Good Vibra­tions”

The Mak­ing (and Remak­ing) of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Arguably the Great­est Rock Album of All Time

Hear the Unique, Orig­i­nal Com­po­si­tions of George Mar­tin, Beloved Bea­t­les Pro­duc­er (RIP)

George Mar­tin, Leg­endary Bea­t­les Pro­duc­er, Shows How to Mix the Per­fect Song Dry Mar­ti­ni

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • Laureala B says:

    This sto­ry is fake and must be cor­rect­ed. Sir George Mar­tin of Bea­t­les Fame died in 2016.
    If you are talk­ing about his son, then use his cor­rect name and pho­to.

  • WW says:

    Though a great song, artis­ti­cal­ly, “Good Vibra­tions” and “Would­n’t it be Nice” are supe­ri­or to this song, in every way!

  • Robert Burgess says:

    I would say Good Vibra­tions and Wouldn’t it be Nice is supe­ri­or.
    All 3 were genius grow­ing struc­tures that showed the world that The Beach Boys were rel­e­vant in rais­ing the bar.
    If it weren’t for the trag­ic Brian’s break­down, there would have been more beau­ti­ful music but then you have to ask your­self, with­out the pres­ence of all The Beach Boys, would it of hap­pened? Or was that the end of the joy they shared togeth­er?
    Every year trees shed their leaves and every year they come back big­ger and show more of them­selves. But the leaves can­not be exact­ly the same. It just isn’t meant to be the same.
    It moves on. The tree may some day fall but the pic­tures will be for­ev­er.

  • Lawrence J Rhodes says:

    Did you actu­al­ly read sto­ry? It was 1997 and Sir George Mar­tin was alive and well. Read it again and watch the videos.

  • Stephen says:

    Tak­en from 1997. George was doin fine!!

  • David Fipps says:

    What am I hear­ing from Lau­re­ala B? Oh yes, the sound of crick­ets…

  • David P says:

    What are we hear­ing from Lau­re­ala B? Oh, that’s right! It’s the sound of crick­ets!!

  • Gary (Sloop John) B says:

    Great­ness is sub­jec­tive. When peo­ple who know more about music than I do say God Only Knows is the great­est pop song ever writ­ten, who am I to argue?
    But I will, because it’s all sub­jec­tive. God Only Knows, lyri­cal­ly, does­n’t say much. God only knows where I’d be with­out you.
    Good Vibra­tions does a lot more musi­cal­ly (the cel­los!). The vocals are rev­o­lu­tion­ary. The title remains in the vocab­u­lary mean­ing pos­i­tive sen­sa­tion or feel­ing.
    God Only Knows is nice. Bril­liant, if you insist. But give me Good Vibra­tions any day.

  • Laura says:

    I think GOD ONLY KNOWS is very deserv­ing of the com­pli­ment “great­est songs writ­ten.” So many beau­ti­ful sounds, such sim­ple, straight­for­ward, heart­felt words. And the end­ing… build­ing into a crescen­do of voic­es over­lap­ping, but nev­er can­celling each oth­er out. That’s when I feel equal­ly hap­py and sad…at the same time! Bri­an Wil­son is a mir­a­cle! Bri­an Wil­son is a genius!!!!

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