Tuesday, 28 June 2011
God Only Knows
For the past few days, following the publication of an interview with Brian Wilson in The Guardian, I've been obsessed with "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys, long considered to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I first heard Pet Sounds in 2006 when, having been long aware of its reputation, I copied a friend's CD to my iTunes library. The version I recently starred on Spotify contains both the mono and stereo edits, and it is in the latter form that my idea of music has been transformed.
The liturgical quality of the harpsichord and French horn intro is newly aired through with space. The moment the strings drop must be the most exquisite in all of pop and surely informed the first song I ever bought, Oasis' "Wonderwall". And yet, this was 1965/6, before even Sgt. Pepper, the album more often credited with revolutionsing pop.
When I suggested to a friend, a classical musician and disciple of the great J.S. Bach, that were his hero to have lived in the 20th century and become a pop musician, "God Only Knows" would be the sort of song he would have written, he laughed heartily and replied: 'I had not been aware of any genius within The Beach Boys. What did they sing again? Surfin' California? Fun Fun Fun?'
That comment was made at a dinner table for five, including three classical musicians - the eldest a violinist in his sixties - and yet I was the only one to give Pet Sounds the memory it deserves. It is an album with an abundance of beautiful chord sequences, melodies and harmonies, and for me, "God Only Knows" is the mortal man's "Air On a G String" just as "Wonderwall" is the common man's "God Only Knows". Brian Wilson hasn't made music to worship to at Easter, but the very perfection of some of his works must encourage listeners to at least remember their spirituality for a moment, in these more secular times. And far from the universal acclaim bestowed upon him in death, Bach himself was largely ignored in his lifetime.
Could it be imagined what would happen if a studio expert with 21st-century technology to hand, such as Timbaland, reworked "God Only Knows" for today's ears? The result would be the ultimate mating of music and sound, for the two are now seemingly separate causes. The fact that, despite all the studio wizardry possible in one's own bedroom available at a fraction of what Pet Sounds cost to record, no comparable music is being made to what Brian Wilson was able to achieve through sheer passion, piety and genius (and LSD), is as solemn an indictment on the decline of the art form as anything yet written. Music is dying; sound waits for its accession. Is there really no one out there who can put the two together in an original recording?