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.
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.