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 twopart 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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