Yesterday I was driving along—on the way to pick my daughter up at school—when the 1966 Beach Boys single “God Only Knows” came on the radio: it was as if I’d never heard it before. The richness of the production, the plaintive, multi-layered vocals, the sheer heart—and heartbreak—of the piece: absolute magic. I’ve always enjoyed the Beach Boys—you’d be hard-pressed to find a better pop song than “Good Vibrations”—but I was never a major devotee, as I know many people are. I find their best work technically breathtaking and musically adventurous—but it can also get a little syrupy and emotionally shallow. (You could say that Brian Wilson was McCartney without Lennon: he needed an earthy, soul-baring counterbalance.) But this song. This song...
I was twelve when “God Only Knows” came out. It took me forty-four years to get it—but, wow, did I ever.
© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis
I've never been a big BB fan, but P.T. Anderson used "God Only Knows" at the end of Boogie Nights, and I found myself all of a sudden totally enthralled with the song.ReplyDelete
Its not like I hadn't heard the song before, but it somehow came alive when I heard it used in the movie.
That's exactly the experience I had, Rob. It's like someone tore away a veil and said, "Hey, LISTEN to this song. REALLY LISTEN." And I heard it with brand-new ears.ReplyDelete
Brian did a great deal of soul baring, though I agree he wasn't always the most earthy of songwriters. Mike Love actually stated that he was (not a literal quote) the McCartney to Brian's Lennon, taking his wistfulness and giving it the commercial touch it needed. I got absorbed in the Beach Boys pretty late but I have to say I am hooked for good, and that Brian's return to Smile is one of the greatest redemptions outside of a JMD story. My wife and I were discussing yesterday, after hearing "Wouldn't It Be Nice" in 2 movies in a row, whether that is the most often heard (pop) song in movie history. It would be interesting to find out if there are other candidates for that honor.ReplyDelete
I guess there are different styles of soul-baring, Jeff...and it's all a matter of which we respond to. Lennon, at his best, was raw, honest, emotionally naked -- some would say blunt -- in a way few songwriters ever are. McCartney and Wilson may be just as soul-baring in their way, but I prefer the more in-your-face Lennon style. Not that I don't totally appreciate McCartney and Wilson. (And not that Lennon wasn't capable of drifting off, in a newspaper taxi, with a walrus at his side, into strawberry fields of texture, tone and poetry. Just as McCartney (and, I suspect, Wilson) is fully capable of screaming his throat raw and getting in your face when he needs to.)ReplyDelete
All that said, there's plenty of Beach Boys music I'm not familiar with (I'm certainly no aficionado), so my comments may be grounded in ignorance. Feel free to educate me. It's never too late to learn!
Brian's form of soul-baring was often concealed in layers of humor and/or weirdness. It's actually one of the rewards of being a Beach Boys fan- trying to figure him out. In 1966 he did a song called "I'm Bugged at My Old Man", aimed at his incredibly abusive dad while addressing none of his actual resentments(his dad was managing the group at the time, so that would have been difficult). a good Lennon/Wilson comparison is Wilson's "In My Room" set next to Lennon's "There's a Place"-both released in '63. Wilson's expressed actual sadness years before Lennon got in touch with his. In appreciating both the Beatles and the Beach Boys, one can see a kind of weave, in which the two are obviously listening and even responding to one another. Their best writing hits home because it expresses our own yearning and hope, sometimes giving way to actual joy and wonder. They even share an occasional preoccupation with the mundane. Recommended albums: Beach Boys Today, Pet Sounds (of course), Surf's Up.. or the 3rd disc of their early '90s boxed set is likely the easiest way to convert you!ReplyDelete
Thanks for the insights and recommendations, Jeff. VERY much appreciated.ReplyDelete
The "In My Room"/"There's a Place" comparison's really interesting. Of course, as others have pointed out, "There's a Place" is (in a small way) an arrow pointing to the psychedelia and inward soul-searching/soul-baring to come from Lennon, because the place he goes isn't a room at all, it's his mind.
God Only Knows is my wife's favorite Beach Boys song. She is an amazing musician and I trust her opinion, but I couldn't figure out why she liked that song. Like you, I was driving in the car sometime last year, the song came on and it felt like the sun came up in my soul.ReplyDelete
After that I devoted myself to Pet Sounds and have been hooked ever since.
Interesting that you had the same experience, Nicholas. Looks like I'm going to have to spend some time with PET SOUNDS, too. We'll see if, like you, I undergo a musical conversion.ReplyDelete
I too was going mention the use of the song in Boogie Nights - which really kind of made me fall in love with the song like I had never heard it before. "Wouldn't it be nice" is another classic Beach Boys song that hit me in an entirely new way from the way it was used in Roger and Me (particularly so as a Michigan resident).ReplyDelete
But to have a moment with a classic song like that just because it becomes somehow perfectly in tune with your current place in life - that is always a special thing.
Your comment, Drew, makes me wonder what's going on in my life -- and in my head -- right now that made me respond so powerfully to the song. Certainly worth thinking about.ReplyDelete
I pretty much dismissed the Beach Boys for most of my life, until around the time my daughter was born in 2002. I borrowed a friend's copy of the Beach Boys 30-year retrospective CD box set and something just clicked inside me. I've since become very well versed in their music and the stories behind the songs, and while I'm a bit picky in terms of the eras that I like, I recognize how great they could be, when the stars were aligned for them. Unfortunately, they're one of the unluckiest bands that has ever existed, and many of their creative and business decisions were downright STUPID. But PET SOUNDS, SUNFLOWER, 20/20, FRIENDS, WILD HONEY, THE BEACH BOYS TODAY!... truly GREAT stuff on those albums. As for "God Only Knows," it's one of my favorites. Had I been a Beach Boys fan in 1999, it might have had a shot at being my wedding song, though it would have been up against VERY stiff competition ("In My Life," by the Beatles).ReplyDelete
That delayed-click seems to be a running theme here, Glenn.ReplyDelete
I've been reading up on the band this week -- as a result of some of the comments here -- and one of the things I found most interesting is that the Beach Boys themselves didn't really play on the much-admired PET SOUNDS. Brian Wilson brought in studio musicians who performed under his direction and the other band members supplied vocals. (And if that info is incorrect, please, Beach Boys-fanatics, let me know.)
And, hey, you can't beat "In My Life" as a wedding song. I actually got to perform it at a wedding a few years back and it really was perfect.
I could kick myself for failing to mention Wild Honey- one of my favorite listens of all time! Managed to locate a lot of my cd collection buried in moving boxes last year--so happy I found that one! Also: Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue (re-released a year or so ago) is brilliant and a lot of Brian's solo work is also well worth a listen.ReplyDelete
On another subject: I'm re-reading your Shrieking 4 parter in conjunction with the Clone book-- you and Bagley made a really good team! Just like his work with Bendis, he enhances the writing considerably with his ability to portray the inner feelings of the characters, something extremely important in a story like this one. Hope you get to collaborate with him again sometime.
Where does WILD HONEY fall chronologically, Jeff? Late sixties? Early seventies? (My Beach Boys ignorance is showing.)ReplyDelete
One other thing I'd like to toss out to the BB fanatics who visit here: I've heard so much about Brain Wilson's decades-in-the-making completion of the SMILE album. Is it as good as some claim? Over-rated? A disappointment? One of rock's greatest moments?
On the Spidey front: Yes, it was a pleasure to work with Bagley. We initially got off on the wrong foot and then very quickly discovered that we really enjoyed working together. Bagley's a terrific artist and a masterful storyteller. I'd collaborate with him again any time.
Wild Honey comes shortly after the collapse of Smile. I think it's 1968 or so. The album preceeding it, Smiley Smile (thrown together after Brian let Smile go) is an acquired taste, but ultimately kind of fun.ReplyDelete
The completed Smile is best enjoyed on dvd which includes a documentary detailing the process which led to its abandonment and resurrection. It was put together primarily to work as a live show and, in my opinion, came off much better in that format (saw it twice in DC). The box set included a lot of what Smile would have been, so the actual album was a bit anti-climactic to me.. great in its own way, though.
Thanks for the information, Jeff: MUCH appreciated. I just added the SMILE DVDs to my Netflix queue.ReplyDelete
WILD HONEY came out in 1967, just a few months after SMILEY SMILE. Carl Wilson described WH as music for Brian to cool out to, after the pressures of trying to finish SMiLE.ReplyDelete
As for Brian's completed version of SMiLE--yes, Marc, it IS that good. I saw him and his band perform it twice, the first time at Carnegie Hall. The album had a profound effect on me--I played it over and over again for MONTHS, as my wife can attest. The material isn't as heartfelt or as introspective as on PET SOUNDS, but it's really a brilliant, innovative work. The only shame about it is that it's missing the Beach Boys' wonderful vocals. I have bootlegs of the original 1960s Beach Boys recordings of the SMiLE material, and they're fantastic.
Guess I'll have to get my hands on a copy of SMILE then. (And if someone wanted to send me some of those bootlegs, I sure wouldn't complain, Glenn.)ReplyDelete
But, really, the first thing I have to do is immerse myself in PET SOUNDS and see what all the hoopla's about. Talk about coming late to the party!