Mind of Brian 1: God Only Knows

(music by Brian Wilson, lyrics by Brian and Tony Asher)

Key of E (? or is it A, D, or F#m...)

Here we scale one of the highest peaks, the pinnacle of Pet Sounds and perhaps of the entire Brian Wilson body of work. The task is made easier by freely available bootlegs of outtakes and transitional mixes of this masterpiece, featuring wondrous moments such as the spontaneous discovery of how to do the instrumental bridge, staccatto, live in the studio. Even on the takes that break down, something special is happening, as the keyboard and horns announce that we are going somewhere that pop music has never gotten to before...


Chords:     A          E        A     E     A          E        F#m    E
Melody: C# D E B A C# D E B A
Bass: A G# F# E A G# F# E
E F# G

Without words, we instantly encounter something interesting, the descending bass line that leaves the safety of home/root notes to harmonize on inside thirds and outside sixths, and interestingly repeats over two slightly different chord patterns.

The key is already ambivalent... Brian seems to believe it's in E (his statement about it starting on the major seventh is itself ambiguous; if the song is in E, what he means is that the verse part starts on the major chord of the flatted seventh, that is D major in the key of E. But given that the intro starts on A, you have a song putatively in E where none of the parts start on the root, tonic chord. In isolation, this looks like a song in A is starting... One of the great secrets of God Only Knows is how so much variation is wrought from essentially two sections, the staccato break being a unique third piece. The intro both stands quite well on its own and acts as a foretaste of the central hook/theme, which will be used (in two different keys) when the title is sung, and in still another close variant form for the outro/rondo at the end.

Verse 1

Chords:    D       Bm      F#m     B     E      D#dim      E        C#m
Bass: A B F# B E C E C#

I may not always love you, but long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it, I'll make you so sure about it...

Reminiscent of Good Vibrations, this is a strange chord combination no matter what key it's in. On the face of it it looks like it's in D, especially if you ignore what just happened in the intro; but after three in-key chords that idea breaks down nearly completely, because none of the rest of them fit into the standard key of D. The heavy leaning on E towards the end of the line is certainly indicative of at least a tendency there, and choice of that key is somewhat supported by the intro.

It's hard to add more except to say that this line, these mere eight chords, are exceedingly subtle and beautiful. They seem to have been composed by someone following the pure voice of melody, both in the treble and bass ranges, with no regard whatsoever for any rules or formulas. The bracketed major and minor Bs, the use of the diminished chord at a negative point in the lyric when doubt is mentioned... if you look up musical genius in your CD ROM dictionary, you should hear this song.

The first four chordsalone present tantalizing possibilities. Were the home key to be D, the cliche would be to use D Bm Em and A, along the lines of Surfer Girl. In E, it would be E C#m F#m B. Instead, we get half of the cliche pattern from each key: weird, but very effective.

Especially by modern 24-to-48 track standards, the underlying live master track for this song is an awesome achievement. It seems that everything but the final vocal tracks was recorded live, all at once. On the outtakes, you can hear Brian doing a form of "mixing" (actually a combination of arrangement, production, and stage direction) by instructing the horns, violas, and flutes to make physical moves toward the microphone at the end of the song. They don't make 'em like this any more, kids, but it seems clear to me that the tension and dynamic involved in nailing this baby live made a major contribution to how well it all hangs together.

Chorus 1

Chords:    A       E      F#m    E

God only knows what I'd be without you

As the hook appears for the first time, we recognize that it's actually the end of the intro. It features four nicely balanced, in-key chords, though still ambivalent between the keys of E and A.

Verse 2

If you should ever leave me, though life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me, for what good would living do me

Musically, this verse is exactly the same as verse 1. So perhaps we should turn our attention to the arrangement: harpsichord, French horns, Hammond organ, jingle bells, coconut hoofbeats, bass and piano doubling some of the low lines but not all of them, pizzicato violins... in so many ways, this is a miniature symphony and certainly validates those comparisons with Mozart. The new feel of the horns sustaining over the staccato chord accompaniment recolors things enough to avoid any sense of boredom. Besides, the verse is so pretty, with its unlikely melody moving all over the place, who would not want to hear it again?

Chorus 2

Chords:    A       E      F#m

God only knows what I'd be without you...

This one is the same as the first chorus- nearly. However, sometimes genius consists in omission, and this is a perfect case, as we see a measure lopped off at the end: no E chord. There are at least two discernible reasons: one is that we don't need the E because we're not going immediately back into another verse; instead, there is a journey coming up, an extraordinary one that will take us back "home" (wherever *that* is) by a subtle and beautiful route. Also, an E here would just waste time; we are following a melody and a vision here, not a recipe for filling egg crates based on multiples of four. So after this F#m, when you expect another E and to loop around to another verse... everything stops.

And along comes the Break, a strange and wonderful creature both musically and productionwise. Owners of the boxed set and other boots have no doubt heard the live tape where the staccatto idea occurs seemingly to Murry and is instantly accepted by Brian who then works around it to prescribe the exactly the right drum fills. It's also interesting that Murry and Brian seem to be collaborating so well in real time this late in the game.

The break actually has two parts to it, the first a nice melody played pizzicato on the strings harmonized with new material, two chords twice, punctuated by that snare roll at just the right spot:

Break (part 1, do this twice)

Chords:    A                    G            
Melody: C# A C# A B F# B A G F#

snare roll in here...

Again, what key are we in? Looks like the 4 and 5 chords of D; and while it could be in A with a 7 major modal chord; it seemss more likely that we have modulated up (or down) to D from A (or E!).

The conclusion of this section seems to prove the latter theory, because we next hear the entire verse and a chorus, all pulled up five semitones. The verse portion is scat-sung with sophisticated, open, contrapuntal harmonies and interesting movements, full of incidental sixth, ninth and seventh notes far beyond the diatonic ken of pop harmonists of the Everly Brothers ilk. I'll try to "track" you all through the chords by highlighting the most prominent scat syllables:

Break Verse and Chorus (up 5 semitones)

Chords:    G       Em        B#m                    E    
Scat: Ah ah ah ah dodo do dodoo Bom bompa bom

Chords: A G#dim A F#m
Scat: Bom bom Bompa pa pa bom Ba bom Ah, ah...

Chords: D A B#m

God only knows what I'd be without you...

And just like Chorus 2, this modulated chorus in the break (the hook is sung again here, 5 semitones up) has only three chords because the fourth would be a waste of time and not add anything. Amazingly, this approach allows us to *go back to a standard verse in the original key (whatever it is!) directly, without any filler or transitional material*.

Verse 3

Chords:    D       Bm      F#m     B     E      D#dim      E        C#m

To quote early Bob Denver, like, wow, Dobe. Somehow the same D and Bm chords we just heard in the modulated chorus sound completely different when restated here as part of a standard verse in material we've already heard twice before. The first chord of the verse sounds like a transition, yet is actually the beginning of a restatement... one stands in awe. Lyrically we get a repetition of the first verse, but the break and modulation have taken us so far from the earlier material (both lyrically and harmonically), and that material is just so good and so well executed, that there is no feeling of boredom.


Chords:    A       E      F#m    E

The released version fades out with another set of nice contrapuntal harmonies, a two-part round or rondo like Row Row Row Your Boat. Left on the cutting room floor, virtually speaking, is the lovely acapella alternate ending, available most notably on the "bootleg" disk of the Good Vibrations boxed set: totally cool and the nearest thing to an error of omission on otherwise perfect cut.

I've mentioned in other contexts what I perceive to be a "problem" commercially with many of the Pet Sounds lyrics: failing to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end; evoking moods or feels without resolving them or arriving at an internal or external decision. Many of the feelings expressed are "downers" that much of the music-consuming public would rather not face when seeking to be entertained.

But on this cut and its seeming companion Good Vibrations, it's seems petty to even state the basic requirements of your well-made, Fun Fun Fun pop lyric. The song is about a mood and a feel, and embodies it perfectly: the lack of variation in the harmonic rhythm (every chord lasts exactly four beats), for example, underpins the permanence and steadiness by which Brian is trying to characterize his love. God Only Knows exists in a realm beyond stories and decisions, a plane above and beyond time if you will. The way those diminished chords are reinforced by the mention of doubt and emptiness, the sheer beauty of the soaring flute lines in the coda... the appropriate response is not that of a consumer or literary analyst, but of a human being with ears and feelings. From that point of view, God Only Knows provides more than enough beauty and artistry to admire and enjoy, and an unparalelled achievement in the craft of record-making. Seek or desire it though they may, wetter water none will find.