Some years ago, while channel surfing one Saturday night, I stumbled upon a local station in these parts, probably one of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), showing something quite special. The American re-broadcast of a splendid British music documentary. From 2001, the BBC’s Walk On By: The Story of Popular Song. An eight-episode series, narrated by actor Clive Owen, that told the story of one hundred years of popular song.
As described by Peter Brandt Nielsen:
Starting with the thesis of popular song developing through the joining of the musical traditions of European Jews and African blacks in USA in early 20th century the series continues to cover the jazz era singers, the birth of rock’n’roll, the new-found role of the pop producer, the multiple style developments from Britain and America in the 1960’s, the country music blossom period, the use of popular music on stage and on screen, and the background of the modern-day manufactured pop artist.”
The program keenly charted the evolution of Pop. From its lowly Tin Pan Alley roots to today’s billion-dollar industry. Afterward, I’ve scoured to find a copy of it either on VHS or disc, to no avail. Unwittingly, I caught the rare showing, as the music program was not widely seen in the U.S. While occasionally available in the UK, by sheer providence I had watched, in utter fascination, the program over the few weekends. Tuning in at 10 PM faithfully for its duration. Without a doubt, its in-depth look at the evolution of songwriting was a music fan’s dream.
Since I’ve concentrated on music of late, it was again by pure happenstance I found that someone had uploaded a portion of the series to YouTube. It’s worth watching, even if it is incomplete. Bear in mind, what’s missing was its key conclusion. The program culminated with what the documentary’s producers considered was the greatest song of that era. A tune I found a bit surprising, though one I’ve come to appreciate more because of this showing. The eighth song on The Beach Boys‘ stellar Pet Sounds LP, God Only Knows.
It remains the best track on a one of the significant albums of the era, and one the AARP happened to miss in their recent Essential Boomers list. Written by Tony Asher (lyrics) and Brian Wilson (music) in 1966, it also has one of the famous songwriters of all-time as a fan. Paul McCartney “…has expressed on a number of occasions his love for the song.” Even Pitchfork Media, in their 2006 post that charted the top 200 of the decade, had this popular tune as the greatest song of the 1960s. As Dominique Leone wrote:
“I’m sure you’ve read these: “the world’s greatest song,” “Brian Wilson’s masterpiece,” “the most beautiful piece of music ever recorded.” Yes, the initiation into the Museum of Western Popular Music is always rough, as credible historians rush to summarize our collective experiences in short phrases. But for better or worse, “God Only Knows” is the kind of song that’s almost impossible for me to talk about divorced from the way it makes me feel: sad, in love, honestly grateful, but also a little hopeless. Even in mono, it’s like being swept up by a wave of compassion but still getting bruised.
The first words Carl Wilson sings, “I may not always love you,” are already uncertain, so if you need a tie into the legacy of 1960s youth culture, glance no further than the naïve but strained optimism locked inside this song. Yet, Carl made this uncertainty sound gorgeous. The voices that sail behind his might just as well be a quartet of violas and cellos playing counterpoint that’d already been obsessed over a few times before they got it. “God Only Knows” is so ideally conceptualized and realized, critics can’t help but support it. Somehow, even that can’t turn it into an art exhibit; its humanity resists the attempt. To me, this song is a goodbye to being a kid, and hoping that love actually is the answer. And almost nobody knows if it is.”
As sung, the song offered a catchy melody with a wonderfully layered mix of vocal and instruments to produce a beautiful wall of music. Yet, was it the greatest for that particularly imaginative, but turbulent, decade? I don’t know about that. The Walk on By documentary, as extensive as it was, completely and oddly leapfrogged (read: ignored) the works of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team all together.
I’m sure the British producers were just limiting themselves to the American song realm. I also believe God Only Know was arguably The Beach Boys best song in their accomplished repertoire. Nevertheless, it would not be my choice to sit atop the pile. I would place it in the upper echelon, though. Besides, arguing over what was the greatest song is just so subjective. To the beholder it’s personal. Changes by individual, let alone the day and mood of the listener.
That said, what would be my pick on this day, in my current frame of mind? Well, if I get to include the works of songwriters from the U.S. and UK, it would be this Lennon-McCartney song I selected late last year, with each of those Pop icons contributing their verse and vocals to, Day in the Life:
But, if you’d limit me to just the U.S., it would be the timeless classic I have below, which was in response to another definitive piece of music, Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Written and performed by my mother’s favorite singer, the song that exemplified the Civil Rights Movement, the great Sam Cooke and A Change Is Gonna Come: