The track Paul McCartney called “the greatest song ever written” (2024)

The track Paul McCartney called “the greatest song ever written” (1)

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Much like Colonel Sanders complimenting your crispy chicken or Johnny Cash giving kudos to your quiff, getting the nod from Paul McCartney for your music is as glowing an endorsem*nt as there is. That praise is propelled to the loftiest perch of all when the former Beatle proclaims that you have accomplished “the greatest song ever written”.

However, there are some pieces of music so astounding that even a blackbird would have to pause its own twittering to say, ‘Well, isn’t that pretty’. When you manage to combine that beauty with an evolution so pioneering that the world will be left forever reeling, then every plaudit ever pronounced is just like the sea lapping against the shore.

That is the case when it comes to the revolutionary opus of the 1960s, ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. To lean on the trusted sage of ‘Macca’ once more, The Beatle once decreed: “‘God Only Knows’ is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian [Wilson].”

His glowing praise continues: “I’ve actually performed it with him, and I’m afraid to say that during the soundcheck, I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian.” While this teary-eyed tale might be a barnstorming quote for Wilson to bring up at parties, perhaps the finest testimony to the strength of the Beach Boys anthem is in how much it impacted McCartney’s work moving forward, and everyone else’s for that matter.

Although McCartney’s might be a very personal corroboration, the song is the sort that beckons equal awe from everyone who ever beholds it, even if Wilson doesn’t happen to stumble into your local karaoke club for a quick collaboration. Beyond the brilliance, there is something in the Pet Sounds masterpiece that is still reverberating in every song you will ever hear following its release.

You see, prior to 1961 albums were all recorded in mono–stereo simply didn’t exist. This linear sonic rendering left people wanting. Sure, mono could capture the sound of a symphony orchestra, but it was like a 2D painting without any perspective—all the depth was lost, and every instrument was front and centre. A Sunday Roast is still technically the same meal when you put it in a blender, but it’s better when you keep it as its constituent parts. This more appealing separation was served up by the advent of stereo sound.

While the Beach Boys weren’t the progenitors of this with ‘God Only Knows’, it was the song that utilised it best. It made pop baroque thanks to the complex way they deployed it as an instrument rather than a tool. With separate tracks composing the sound, the tonal elements are layered in such a way that the song doesn’t really have a singular key. This was hitherto unknown in pop. As Wilson said himself: “It’s the only song I’ve written that’s not in a definite key, and I’ve written hundreds of songs.”

This subverting of musical forms was achieved, in part, by channelling a three-track recording of the instrumental onto a single channel of an eight-track tape to allow for seven overdubs and vocal takes to be added to the mix if needed. In layman’s terms, which are quite difficult terms to achieve with something this complex, everything you hear is, in effect, harmonised with itself to create a more immersive sound. This meant that the band could tinker with fine details, using the studio itself as an instrument. This allowed them to not just simply record the instruments and lay them on top of each other once levelled out, but to fiddle with the interplay, so that billowing French horns in staccato could sit under soft vocal croons in legato.

However, the brilliance is that even though the song might have all of that studio wizardry in the welter, it is subsumed in pure beauty so that the listener can skip along its strange contours with butter-cutting ease. You’re swept up in the emotion of it rather than the musicology, like assailing Everest in an elevator with such ease that you marvel at the views rather than the mechanics.

This comes down to the post-modernist collision of simply sublime songwriting and the science that not only took it to new heights of studio recording but informed the process of creativity itself. This, ultimately, defines Brian Wilson’s artful awesomeness. As Bob Dylan declared, “Jesus that ear. He should donate it to The Smithsonian. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.”

It is this scintillating seamlessness that sends the song soaring–it’s all about melody. Dissecting the magnificence of the melody seems almost beyond the point, like magnifying the Mona Lisa to check out the brush strokes. The pinnacle of the track is that never before has a song of such technical brilliance appeared to have been written with such ease. In fact, that’s almost how Wilson defines it: as pure inspiration.

Which brings to mind the great songwriter Hoagy Carmichael’s view on the creative process of music at its best: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”

And while that is one of the most beautiful corroborations of how the creative process works, and it also ties in with the notion that Wilson had God in mind as an inspiration as he was writing the anthem, the aural history of the process is more akin to Dr Frankenstein’s procedure. The Beach Boys found a song floating in the ether, lassoed it down with alchemical art and then deconstructed and turned it into something new that would become the guidebook on how to do it for millions of others to follow forevermore.

Of course, things may well have unravelled very much the same if ‘God Only Knows’ didn’t exist, but in the lineage of its legacy you would have to say that without the song there would be no Sgt. Peppers and it wasn’t only McCartney who called it the world’s greatest song, even Lennon said when it was released that the “world perked up”. And as Jackson Browne said with a smile, “Imagine a band influencing The Beatles!”

There is music before ‘God Only Knows’ and there is music after it. It gave birth to Pet Sounds and everyone followed in its advanced footsteps. As McCartney would say: “I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard Pet Sounds.”

In short, ‘God Only Knows’ is a song that shaped the second half of the 20th century and beyond. And we can all be thankful for that because it is the sort of beautiful utopia where prettiness unrivalled revels in progress and stirs us all with the same simple loveliness as a sunny day.

Related Topics

Paul McCartneyPet SoundsThe Beach Boys

The track Paul McCartney called “the greatest song ever written” (2024)

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