During the 1960s, The Beatles were fastened in friendly competition with The Beach Boys. Despite being located on different sides of the Atlantic, they found themselves trying to constantly outdo each other, and the rivalry pushed both groups to greatness.
While The Beatles were also competing with The Rolling Stones, they weren’t as inspired by their fellow compatriots as they were by The Beach Boys. No song has ever touched his heart as deeply as their 1966 creation, ‘God Only Knows’, which appeared on the seminal Pet Sounds, and McCartney instantly fell in love with the song, which later became the defining track of The Beach Boys’ career.
On his competitive relationship with The Beach Boys, McCartney told The Ronnie Wood Show: “Brian Wilson sort of proved himself to be a really amazing composer. I was into chords and harmonies and stuff at that time, and we ended up with kind of like a rivalry. “We put a song out and Brian would hear it, and then he’d do one. Which is nice – it’s like me and John. You know, you kind of try and top each other all the time.”
Interestingly, The Beach Boys considered changing the track’s name before the release from ‘God Only Knows’ to ‘Fred Only Knows’. Their reasoning for the change was to increase their chances of radio play because they felt their song could be censored with the original title.
Wilson co-wrote ‘God Only Knows’ with Tony Asher, who was also aware they were at risk of being censored. Asher later explained to Goldmine: “I really thought it was going to be everything it was, and yet we were taking some real chances with it. First of all, the lyric opens by saying, ‘I may not always love you,’ which is a very unusual way to start a love song.”
Thankfully, The Beach Boys refused to bow down to the pressures and stuck to their guns. It’s a song which has touched millions, but few are more attached to ‘God Only Knows’ than Paul McCartney. He told BBC Radio 1 in 2007: “‘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. I’ve actually performed it with him and I’m afraid to say that during the sound check I broke down.”
The performance McCartney referred to took place Adopt-A-Minefield Benefit Gala in Los Angeles in 2002. Despite achieving everything there is to achieve in the music industry, Macca couldn’t keep his cool during the day of the performance and was overcome by emotion.
He told Ronnie Wood: “I got to sing it with Brian once when we did a benefit [show] together. I was okay at the actual performance, I held it together. But at the rehearsal, at the soundcheck, I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song, I find it… ‘Oh my god, I’m singing with Brian,’ it just got me, I couldn’t. So all it is, it’s little vibrations reaching your music, it’s only little vibrations, little words, and little things. There is this powerful effect, you know.”
Thankfully, footage exists of McCartney performing his favourite song, ‘God Only Knows’, with Brian Wilson. Watch the historic moment below.