Paul McCartney called The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" the "greatest song ever written." That's extremely high praise, but given the amount of love this classic has been given over the years, he may arguably be correct.
The list of artists who have recorded cover versions is impressive, and includes Glen Campbell (a former Beach Boy himself), Neil Diamond, David Bowie, Olivia Newton-John, Elvis Costello, and even Taylor Swift among many others.
"God's" creation did not come easy. Brian Wilson wrote the music and Tony Asher wrote the lyrics, and they wanted to include it on the now-legendary Pet Sounds album, but there were problems. They both agonized over using "God," a word that just wasn't acceptable in the pop music landscape of the 1960s. Granted, by 1966, Kate Smith had been singing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" for decades, but that was the exception to the rule.
In addition, Brian had strong reservations about the opening line, "I may not always love you." He didn't think it was an appropriate statement to start a love song. Tony, however, was able to convince him that the line was essential to the overall feeling of the song.
After much discussion, they decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it, and production began.
At that point, more trouble arrived when the rest of the band was hesitant to record the song. In fact, they were sure the entire Pet Sounds album was a huge mistake. Mike Love, in particular, objected to the music, which he felt was a drastic (and non-commercial) departure from the "surf, sand, and car songs" that had made the group popular.
To keep the peace, the group decided to let Brian have his way, but it was the beginning of a long-standing rift that would not only tear the group apart, but continues to this day. But that's another story.
Production began, and so did the tinkering. Brian recorded take after take, changing, re-arranging, and trying to perfect the music he was hearing in his head.
He did a few takes with himself singing lead, then decided his brother Carl would do it better justice.
He did a few takes that included a prominent saxophone solo, but scrapped it.
At one point, he employed the services of more than two dozen musicians—many from the legendary session group The Wrecking Crew—who had played on many of the top hits of the 50s and 60s.
He added French horns, full woodwind and string sections, a harpsichord, an accordion, and had drummer Hal Blaine augment his drum kit with two plastic orange juice containers. He even put masking tape on the strings of the piano to give it the certain "sound" he was looking for.
The vocal harmonies were also tinkered with. The classic final version we've enjoyed for decades features Carl singing lead with Brian and Bruce Johnston joining in to sing the "round" at the end, all backed by a full instrumental track. The rest of the Beach Boys (Al, Mike, and Dennis) did not appear on the final cut.
However, if Brian had gone with his FIRST arrangement of just the round alone, the instrumental track would have faded out, while ALL of the Beach Boys, as well as Terry Melcher (Doris day's son), Brian's wife Marilyn, and her sister Diane Rovell (two-thirds of the girl group "The Honeys"), sang acapella until the fade out.
In the end, Brian decided that "simple" was "better," but if he had kept the original ending, it would have been incredible in its own special way. One wonders what Paul McCartney would think. Give it a listen.