How Paul McCartney helped Brian Wilson see the effect of his music

The 1960s spawned two bands who made unparalleled contributions to music. In Liverpool, The Beatles pioneered counterculture and changed the workings of the industry forever. Meanwhile, just across the Atlantic, the United States’ answer to Beatlemania came in the form of The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson and his bandmates provided their own innovations to music, particularly in recording techniques and the invention of pop.

There was, expectedly, a healthy competition between the two bands – they were two of the biggest groups in the world, each looking to innovate and reinvent recording, production and genre. But rather than seeing each other as rivals, songwriters Paul McCartney and Wilson thrived in this environment. Their admiration for each other’s work often pushed them to be better songwriters.

The two songwriting pioneers first met in a studio towards the end of the decade. As Wilson recalls as part of I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir, he was “almost always” in a studio then. McCartney paid him a visit at Columbia Square while The Beach Boys were working on vocal dubs, and the two had a “little chat about music”.

Wilson acknowledged that McCartney’s love for ‘God Only Knows’ is widely known, stating, “Everyone knows now that ‘God Only Knows’ was Paul’s favourite song – and not only his favourite Beach Boys song, but one of his favourite songs period. It’s the kind of thing people write in liner notes and say on talk shows. When people read it, they kind of look at that sentence and keep going.” But, to Wilson, McCartney’s praise was invaluable.

He continued to gush: “Think about how much it mattered to me when I first heard it there on Sunset Boulevard. I was the person who wrote ‘God Only Knows,’ and here was another person – the person who wrote ‘Yesterday’ and ‘And I Love Her’ and so many other songs – saying it was his favourite. It really blew my mind.”

McCartney’s declaration of love for ‘God Only Knows’ still wasn’t enough for Wilson to comprehend the power of his songwriting, but a later interaction with the legendary Beatles songwriter finally allowed him to understand it. The two remained in contact, and McCartney once visited Wilson at his home. During his visit, he played him a song he was working on called ‘She’s Leaving Home’, which would later feature on the iconic concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

When McCartney played the tape for Wilson and his wife at the time, Marilyn Rovell, it reduced her to tears. The experience allowed Wilson to understand the effect of his own music on others, as he recalled, “Listening to Paul play a new song let me see my own songs more clearly. It was hard for me to think about the effect that my music had on other people, but it was easy to see when it was another songwriter.”

The combined impact of McCartney and Wilson’s songwriting is unmatched, from the emotional effect of their music on individuals to their enduring influence on the industry as a whole. Understandably, the songwriter couldn’t quite comprehend this. Wilson may have struggled to see the personal impact of his own output, but he found it in McCartney’s music. Witnessing the immediate effect of the song on both him and his wife, he could see his own music more clearly.

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