This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get: God Only Knows and BBC Music
Posted on Friday, 10 October 2014 | No Comments
Wouldn't it be nice? Well, not really...
The lists of 'greatest songs ever' that magazine and major website are accustomed to pumping out when it's a slow week are, invariably, a somewhat ossified lot: the same old songs just shuffled around in a slightly different order - my, I wonder where on the elephant they'll pin Be My Baby this time? This isn't the same as saying that these songs are not necessarily worthy of such acclaim though. Take God Only Knows: the narrative of Brian Wilson hitting his peak of songwriting and arrangement around Pet Sounds, the lyrics provided by Tony Asher, Paul McCartney's adoration and jealousy of the finished product, all of these little factoids long since etched in stone on the towering pill of Q-ism. But remove the layers of received opinion, and it's a recording that still stuns. That grand, stately horn opening that offers up teenage romance as a majestic, elemental force, that still startling middle-eight that then sends that same lovestruck reverie up to the stars, as if the Earth's atmosphere cannot contain these revelations, and yes, that famed opening line. I may not always love you, because - time, distance, mortality? All these things and more, and yet within the moment is something vital and life-changing, life-defining to be celebrated. Forget the "teenage symphonies to God" party line: God Only Knows is a symphony to the teenage experience itself, the heavens themselves parting and shining down in benevolent praise. It's a minor miracle of the twentieth century.
So yes, covering it is a risky proposition to put it mildly. And this latest interpretation, wheeled out as an advert for BBC Music, is quite firmly not one for the purists. It's a celebrity-packed spectacle designed to boast of the BBC's pulling power and contacts, and also demonstrate the diversity and range of their Music output - the implicit message being that you-know-who knows where music programming would be without the kindly intervention of Auntie Beeb. The performance is, well, tacky at best. Brian Wilson briefly appears to deliver a line that is, almost without question, dropped in from the original recording, his standard look of confusion strikingly apt this time given that the effects wizards have decided to land him amidst a fantasy landscape that incorporates Dave Ghrol as Zeus, Paloma Faith swinging through the clouds and a tiger perched atop his piano. (Even Elton John looks somewhat bewildered by the extreme note of gaudiness struck here.) It's a messy performance, full of conflicting styles and sounds, but then that's the point - it's an advert that works on the level of look at how much stuff we can throw at you. Whether it works on a musical or aesthetic level is functionally irrelevant. Just look at all the famous people we can bring in for just the basic Equity rate!
The BBC did this before of course with a similarly star-studded take on Perfect Day back in 1997. This original justification for the licence fee fitted into an era of relative optimism for the corporation back in the early days of the Blair premiership - far before the coalition, far before David Kelly. God Only Knows takes the same format - take a classic song with cultural credibility, get a whole host of stars across the genres to take a line each, make a flashy video and voila - but manages to bungle the whole thing up. Perfect Day arrived at a time when the BBC could promote itself with relatively little hostility, and so the performances took the song's lyrics at face value, with only Brett Anderson's delivery of "You're gonna reap just what you sow" tapping into the ever-present darkness of almost any Lou Reed composition, a Cassandra-like vision of the opposition the BBC would face come the turn of the millennium, or perhaps a requiem for the death throws of Britpop and the imminent implosion of his own band (more thoughts on the death of Britpop and nineties optimism are upcoming in the not-too-distant future here on Endless Window). God Only Knows arrives with the corporation with its back against the wall, asking not for more public money but for its survival. If Perfect Day was the public face of a prominent, well-loved institution, God Only Knows is the over-cooked commercial for a business going through hard times.
Indeed, the more overtly-pop line-up for God Only Knows reveals some of the cracks within BBC Music as it currently stands. There's still some representation for the classical and jazz worlds, but whereas Perfect Day only featured a couple of performers who could realistically be called pop stars (Boyzone, Tom Jones), God Only Knows packs them in to bursting point - Pharrell, One Direction, Florence Welch, Lorde, Kylie, Sam Smith and (inevitably) Emeli Sandé - like an overbraring divorced dad piling presents upon presents on their offspring as a kind of forlorn apology. When Perfect Day arrived, the BBC had a direction for its music programming - Radio 1 was indie-concerned, Top of the Pops was still ongoing, Later with Jools Holland had the adult crowd covered. Despite the plethora of new channels and mediums however, BBC seems to have lots its way with music a little. Given the sins now uncovered, a revival of Top of the Pops is unwanted and unthinkable, Radio 1's programming now follows the lead of rivals like Capital FM and Kiss rather than vice-versa, and the only consistent musical programming on television - Jools Holland and BBC Four on a Friday night, essentially - is strikingly limited in ambition, aimed purely for a middle-class and middle-aged audience. Whether it is a lack of desire or lack of know-how, the shift to a curatorial policy at the BBC that Perfect Day announced in 1997 has now congealed into ghettoisation. The indie music that Radio 1 might once have played is now abandoned on 6 Music, Radio 3 is cut to the bones, and beyond festival season the television channels just aren't interested.
God Only Knows then is a desperate cavalcade of celebrity drafted in to disguise the serious shortcomings of BBC Music as it stands, a tawdry plaster over a gaping wound. If they really think stunts like this are the answer, then they're in even greater trouble than could have previously been suspected. What BBC Music has to do is take the initiative, take risks, actually engage with its audience again rather than shunting them off into their own safe zones like 1 Extra. Sure, it's a lousy cover, but it's the total lack of willpower or innovation at the BBC that this stunt exposes that's the real concern here.