The Beach Boys (Great American Things, May 16, 2009) changed with the times during the sixties — or maybe, they made the times change. Known originally for surfing and car songs (“Surfer Girl” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” e.g.), the Boys – and particularly Brian Wilson — wanted to make songs with more complex structures, more unusual harmonies, different instruments. The song that led the way in this direction was “God Only Knows.”
Brian Wilson wrote the melody and Tony Asher composed the lyrics. And they knew instantly that they had a hit on their hands. Asher bucked conventional wisdom by starting a love song with a negative: “I may not always love you.” Most producers would have insisted on a change, but Wilson embraced the innovative approach. This was also the first pop song to have “God” in the title, and this would bother me personally…except that it seems clear that this wasn’t using God’s name in vain. The singer doesn’t know what he’d do without his love, and seems to appeal to God for solace.
When released, it was on the flip side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” another great song.Back in 1990, Paul McCartney said about “God Only Knows”: “It’s a really, really great song — it’s a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top 10 favorite songs for a Japanese radio station … I didn’t think long and hard on it but I popped that on the top of my list.” And Bono said, “The string arrangement on ‘God Only Knows’ is fact and proof of angels.” The song was named the best song of the 1960s by Pitchfork Media, the 13th best song of all time by Mojo magazine, and made number 25 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time.