God only knows why: the BBC and the Beach Boy

This week an internet phenomenon has hit everyone’s inbox and Twitter feed: it’s here, it’s loud and it’s proud. In fact, it’s so endemic one is beginning to wish the world wide web didn’t exist.

BBC Music has relaunched the charity-giving season with a Botticelli-inspired, budget-busting video. Think angel wings, an awful lot of clouds and glory-days Hollywood musical thrown in for good measure. A reboot of the ‘Perfect Day’ phenomenon 17 years ago, and supported by a stellar cast of musicians, this time the BBC has elected to cover The Beach Boys’ iconic ‘God Only Knows’.

The response has been Marmite – extraordinarily so

The response has been Marmite – extraordinarily so. Some people adore it, while others are quietly grinding their teeth, wishing their auricles had never been assaulted by such an abomination.

Predictably, One Direction fans are mobbing Twitter with screengrabs of Harry Styles and his bois in the video. They’ve probably never heard of Brian Wilson. It’s possible their parents weren’t even born when Pet Sounds came out.

As The Express put it today:

“Some of the biggest names in music have teamed up to raise money for the BBC’s Children in Need by featuring on a new song called ‘God Only Knows’.”

If 1966 is ‘new’ according to the nationals, goodness knows what they think of rap.

My CD collection has two cornerstones: The Beach Boys, and James Taylor. The very fact that I still listen to The Beach Boys regularly over The Beatles says a lot (and yes, I am of the Surf’s Up camp – I had the happy privilege of being at the debut concert of Smile in London years ago, and even like their more obscure stuff such as Holland).

Taylor has had his off moments – you only need to experience some of the more saccharine bits of his prolific output to see what I mean – but it’s easily forgiven in a career spanning nearly 50 years, and they are few and far between. Nonetheless, Taylor’s longevity and talent as a songwriter are well established, and often taken for granted.

A work’s power to inspire should not be overlooked

The same applies to The Beach Boys. Everyone has bopped along to their golden, California ‘Best of’ tracks at some point in their lives.

Many of their fans have never moved beyond these favourites, and that’s ok; not everyone is a purist. However, just because a body of musical work is so well known and appears to be a part of the furniture does not mean that its quality should be underestimated, nor its power to inspire strong emotion overlooked.

When the video hit my Twitter feed, the first thing I did was to watch it. Then I got out my copy of Pet Sounds and listened to the original. Heartstrings tugged for Carl Wilson, Dennis too.

At that point I made a decision. I decided that I wasn’t going to let a plastic cover version ruin my experience of this song.

There are more songs than you can shake a baton at which have been improved by being covered, but ‘God Only Knows’ is not one of them. Put simply, it is the canon. As Tony Asher said in 2003, when some art is made, it’s an instant masterpiece. It can’t be topped, and is not to be messed with – there’s simply no point in trying.

“‘God Only Knows’ is, to me, one of the great songs of our time. I mean the great songs. Not because I wrote the lyrics, but because it is an amazing piece of music that we were able to write a very compelling lyric to. It’s the simplicity—the inference that ‘I am who I am because of you’—that makes it very personal and tender.”

I think this is what people relate to in the song. Whether they interpret it as a manifestation of true love and intimacy with another person, or even with a universal life force or higher power of some kind – it means something.

Iconoclasm is not the new punk

These days, iconoclasm is not the new punk. It’s appropriating a masterwork for marketing purposes, and this raises an ethical question. Is there ever a situation where using brilliant, groundbreaking art for one’s own ends is justified?

Of course, advocates for the BBC’s use of the song will state that this is a celebration of music, and that it’s for a good cause, and what better way to do this than with a much-loved contemporary work?

But there is a line in the sand, and – much as I hate to say it, as I really do love the BBC and everything it stands for – this time our national broadcaster has crossed it.

We have to assert that Brian Wilson must be absolved in all of this. The BBC will have approached him and said, ‘This is for charity, for the children – may we use your song?’ He is an industry grandee and gracious, so of course he was going to agree; it would have been churlish to refuse. And of course he would have to accept the BBC’s natural invitation to take pride of place in the video.

This is just the start of the campaign; it will be with us for weeks yet. Having said that, there is one saving grace: at least Bono is nowhere to be seen. Currently U2 are busying themselves on iTunes (their latest, free album being deleted by irked iPod subscribers).

William Blake must be spinning in his grave. Songs of Innocence indeed.

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