God Only Knows

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the Beach Boys song. For other uses, see God Only Knows (disambiguation).
"God Only Knows"
Cover released in Italian territories with flipped A and B-sides
Single by The Beach Boys
from the album Pet Sounds
A-side "Wouldn't It Be Nice"
Released July 11, 1966 (1966-07-11)
Format 7" vinyl
Recorded March 10 / April 11, 1966 (1966-04-11), United Western Recorders and CBS Columbia Square, Los Angeles
Genre Baroque pop[1]
Length 2:51
Label Capitol 5706
Writer(s) Brian Wilson, Tony Asher
Producer(s) Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys singles chronology
"Sloop John B"
"Wouldn't It Be Nice"/
"God Only Knows"
"Good Vibrations"
Pet Sounds track listing
Music sample

"God Only Knows" is a 1966 song by American rock band The Beach Boys. It is the eighth track on the group's 11th studio album, Pet Sounds, and one of their most widely recognized songs. "God Only Knows" was composed and produced by Brian Wilson with lyrics by Tony Asher and lead vocal by Carl Wilson. As writer, producer, and arranger, Brian Wilson used many unorthodox instruments, including French horn, accordions, and a quartet of violas and cellos heard throughout the piece in counterpoint.[2]

It was voted no. 25 in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the second of seven Beach Boys' songs to feature (the first being "Good Vibrations" at No.6). The song was also recognized by Pitchfork Media as the number one "greatest song of the 1960s" in their feature on the "200 Best Songs of the 1960s".[2]


Brian Wilson has explained that some of the melody in "God Only Knows" was inspired by the 1965 song "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" by the Lovin' Spoonful.[3]

The song is reputed for its harmonic complexity and extensive use of inverted chords, including third inversions such as B7/A. The first chord of the verse (D major/A) is a non-diatonic chord. The tonic chord (E major) usually only appears with the major 3rd or the 5th in the bass. The entire verse progression sounds restless and ambiguous, until the line "God only knows what I'd be without you" when the chord progression finally reaches a clear goal (A—E/G#—F#m7—E). This has been cited by musicologists as a good example of how lyrical meaning can be supported and enhanced by a chord progression—along with the melody hook which also provides an example of "a sense of increasing melodic energy that comes by way of the gradually ascending line."[4]

The song is told from the point of view of a man or woman contemplating life after death to his/her lover, as Tony Asher describes, "'I'll love you till the sun burns out, then I'm gone,' ergo 'I'm gonna love you forever.'" Brian has said that he initially hated the opening line of the song as "it was too negative." He eventually gave in after hearing the subsequent lyrics.[5] Asher describes his interpretation:

This is the one [song] that I thought would be a hit record because it was so incredibly beautiful. I was concerned that maybe the lyrics weren't up to the same level as the music; how many love songs start off with the line, 'I may not always love you'? I liked that twist, and fought to start the song that way. Working with Brian, I didn't have a whole lot of fighting to do, but I was certainly willing to fight to the end for that. [...] '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.[5]

"God Only Knows" was one of the first pop songs to use the word "God" in its title, a decision that Brian and Asher agonized over, fearing it would not get airplay as a result. As Brian's former wife Marilyn describes, "The first time I heard it, Brian played it for me at the piano. And I went, 'Oh my God, he's talking about God in a record.' It was pretty daring to me. And it was another time I thought to myself, 'Oh, boy, he's really taking a chance.' I thought it was almost too religious. Too square. At that time. Yes, it was so great that he would say it and not be intimidated by what anybody else would think of the words or what he meant."[6]

Tony Asher also explains that he and Brian "had lengthy conversations during the writing of 'God Only Knows', because unless you were Kate Smith and you were singing 'God Bless America', no one thought you could say 'God' in a song. No one had done it, and Brian didn't want to be the first person to try it. He said, 'We'll just never get any air play.' Isn't it amazing that we thought that? But it worked."[5] Brian added that although he feared putting the word "God" in the title of the song, he eventually agreed to keep it, firstly, "because God was a spiritual word," and secondly, because the Beach Boys would "be breaking ground."[need quotation to verify]


The instrumental section of the song was recorded on March 10, 1966, at United Western Recorders, Hollywood, California, with the session engineered by Chuck Britz and produced by Brian Wilson. The instrumental part of the song took 20 takes to achieve what is the master take of the song. Present on the day of the instrumental recording was younger brother and bandmate Carl Wilson on twelve string guitar[7] among other session musicians collectively known as The Wrecking Crew.

According to Brian, many of the musicians who were present at the 'God Only Knows' sessions claim that those sessions were some of "the most magical, beautiful musical experiences they've ever heard."[need quotation to verify] According to Brian there were 23 musicians present during the 'God Only Knows' sessions, though only 16 are credited as being present on the actual take that was used for the final song.[need quotation to verify] At the time, 23 musicians was an astounding[according to whom?] number of musicians for a pop record. All the musicians played simultaneously, creating "a rich, heavenly blanket of music."[8]

Vocal overdubs[edit]

"I was honored to be able to sing that one. It is so beautifully written, it sings itself. Brian said something like, 'Don't do anything with it. Just sing it real straight. No effort. Take in a breath. Let it go real easy.' I was really grateful to be the one to sing that song. I felt extremely lucky."

Carl Wilson[6]

Brian Wilson originally intended to sing lead vocal on "God Only Knows" but after the song had been tracked, Brian thought Carl could impart the message better than he could.[6] Brian reflected in October 1966, "I gave the song to Carl because I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice. He brought dignity to the song and the words, through him, became not a lyric, but words."[9]

Bruce Johnston explains that "Brian really worked a lot on 'God Only Knows', and at one point, he had all the Beach Boys, Terry Melcher and two of the Rovell sisters [Brian's wife Marilyn and her sister Diane] on it. It just got so overloaded; it was nuts. So he was smart enough to peel it all back, and he held voices back to the bridge, me at the top end, Carl in the middle and Brian on the bottom. At that point, Brian's right move was to get subtler. He had a very tender track here. 'God Only Knows' is a very small masterpiece with a major heartbeat, and he was right to peel everybody back and wind up with the three parts. In fact, it's probably the only well-known Beach Boys track that has just three voices on it."[6]

The final vocal track was recorded between March and April 1966 at CBS Columbia Square, Hollywood, California, with the session engineered by Ralph Balantin and produced by Brian. The song features three voices on the track. Carl is featured on lead vocals, with Brian and Johnston backing him. Johnston explained that, "The really cute thing is that at the end of the session, Carl was really tired, and he went home. So Brian ... remember, this was 8-track, so, he now has these extra tracks at his disposal. But there were just the two of us. So in the fade, he's singing two of the three parts. He sang the top and the bottom part and I sang in the middle."[6] Brian used the production technique of double-tracking Carl's voice, so that his voice is simultaneously singing the same part twice, to give the vocal a fuller and richer sound; Brian used this technique often during the recording of Pet Sounds.


While Mojo Magazine ranked the song 13th greatest song of all time, when first released it only reached No. 39 on the US charts in 1966. Treated as the A-side across Europe, it was a success, scoring No. 2 in the UK, and in national charts cited contemporarily by Billboard, No. 3 in Ireland, No. 4 in the Netherlands and Belgium, No. 6 in Norway, No. 22 in Germany; and No. 2 in Australia. The song "God Only Knows" is part of the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list.[10] In a poll on the MTV station, Vh1, it was placed No. 28 on the U.K's Nation's Favourite Lyric. It was voted by the Listeners of BBC Radio 2 as one of the three songs that changes people's lives.[citation needed]

Other musicians[edit]

Paul McCartney has called it his favorite song of all time.[11] In an interview with David Leaf in 1990 he stated, "It's a really, really great song — it's a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top 10 favorite songs for a Japanese radio station ... I didn't think long and hard on it but I popped that [God Only Knows] on the top of my list. It's very deep. Very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. There are certain songs that just hit home with me, and they're the strangest collection of songs ... but that is high on the list, I must say ... God Only Knows' ' lyrics are great. Those do it to me every time."[6] Speaking on a special Radio 1 show to mark the British station's 40th anniversary, McCartney said "'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. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian."[12] The song inspired songwriter Margo Guryan to move into writing pop music. She said: "I thought it was just gorgeous. I bought the record and played it a million times, then sat down and wrote 'Think of Rain.' That's really how I started writing that way. I just decided it was better than what was happening in jazz."[13]

Bono said in October 2006 during Brian Wilson's induction into the UK Music Hall of Fame that "the string arrangement on 'God Only Knows' is fact and proof of angels".[need quotation to verify] Jimmy Webb, an American popular music composer, has also stated his love for the song, stating, "I love 'God Only Knows' and its bow to the baroque that goes all the way back to 1740 and Johann Sebastian Bach. It represents the whole tradition of liturgical music that I feel is a spiritual part of Brian's music. And Carl's singing is pretty much at its pinnacle — as good as it ever got."[5] In a 2003 solo concert in Tel Aviv, Steven Wilson, frontman of Porcupine Tree, declared "God Only Knows" as his favorite song of all time. On the Insurgentes listening party that took place in Mexico City in 2009, Steven Wilson said it was a perfect song. Simon Neil of Scottish band Biffy Clyro has the lyrics "God only knows what I'd be without you" tattooed across his chest.[14] Jake Burns, the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, thinks "God Only Knows" is the best song of all time.[citation needed]

Instrumental flourishes made famous by "God Only Knows" often reappear in other artists' works in tribute to Wilson. An example of which can be heard in the 1993 single "The Ghost At Number One" by Jellyfish.

Brian's mother, Audree Wilson, believes that "God Only Knows" was one of Brian's finest ever compositions as she stated in an interview: "'God Only Knows' ... What can you say about it? I still think it's one of his greatest pieces."[6]

Alternate releases[edit]

The song first appeared on The Beach Boys classic 1966 album Pet Sounds in monophonic sound format. It was also released July 11, 1966, as the B-side of the "Wouldn't It Be Nice" single. The song appears in several stages of the recording process on The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, including its original monophonic mix; the first ever original stereo mix of the song, which was mixed by Mark Linett; highlights from the tracking dates, which documents the progress of the recording of the instrumental track; the finished instrumental track; an a cappella mix of the song; an alternate version, with a saxophone solo; another alternate version with an a cappella tag; and a version with Brian singing lead vocals.

Live performances[edit]

Following the song's release it became Carl Wilson's signature song during live shows.[citation needed] It appeared at almost all live shows and was prominently featured until his death in 1998 when it was dropped from setlists for three years.[citation needed] For The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Tour, a video of Carl with vocals from the Good Timin': Live at Knebworth England 1980 concert was played with live backing vocals and instruments by the band. For concerts where there was no video screen, Brian took the lead.[citation needed]

Live recordings appear on two of the band's albums: Live In London and Live at Knebworth England 1980. As a solo artist, Brian released live versions of the song on Live At The Roxy Theatre (2000) and Pet Sounds Live (2002).


The Beach Boys
Additional musicians

Cover versions[edit]

Cover versions of the song have been recorded by numerous artists, including Elvis Costello with the Brodsky Quartet, The Shadows, The London Symphony Orchestra, Jars of Clay, Glen Campbell, Jack Jones, Claudine Longet, Andy Williams, Neil Diamond, Justin Hayward, Helen Reddy, David Bowie, P. P. Arnold, Joss Stone, Olivia Newton-John, Captain & Tennille, Athlete, Jonatha Brooke, Natalie Maines, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Rivers Cuomo, Judie Tzuke, Terry Manning, among others.[citation needed] It's also performed n the film Saved!.[citation needed] The video game BioShock Infinite contains a turn of the century barbershop quartet who sings the first verse while floating past the player on an airship. As the game is set in 1912, the song is used anachronistically, one of many time-bending experiences which characterize the game.[15] It also appears in the game's credits. Other prominent covers include:

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1979) Peak
U.S. Billboard Hot 100[16] 39
UK Singles Chart[17] 2


  1. ^ Andrew Jones, Plunderphonics, 'pataphysics & pop mechanics: an introduction to musique, ISBN 0-946719-15-2, p. 214.
  2. ^ a b "200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2010-07-24. 
  3. ^ Beach Boys: Our top 50 hits
  4. ^ http://garyewer.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/classic-song-analysis-god-only-knows-wilsonasher/ Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting
  5. ^ a b c d I Just Wasn't Made for These Times: Brian Wilson and the Making of Pet Sounds by Charles L. Granata. Published by Unanimous Ltd, 2003. ISBN 1-55652-507-9
  6. ^ a b c d e f g The Pet Sounds Sessions: "The Making Of Pet Sounds" booklet
  7. ^ a b Elliott, Brad (August 31, 1999). "Pet Sounds Track Notes". beachboysfanclub.com. Retrieved March 3, 2009. 
  8. ^ http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=DJM6FgvlWw0C&pg=PA88&lpg=PA88&dq=%22a+rich,+heavenly+blanket+of+music.%22&source=bl&ots=UCC_-amnXY&sig=0SlvKkcSqV02SuVkBOovc-3JisI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=nT8hVM6jKI6B8QXZxoKgCw&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22a%20rich%2C%20heavenly%20blanket%20of%20music.%22&f=false
  9. ^ Hit Parader page 11, October 4, 1966 http://i351.photobucket.com/albums/q476/marcus1970/hit%20parader%201966/HitParaderp4October1966.jpg
  10. ^ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "500 songs that shaped rock and roll" [1]
  11. ^ Guarisco, D.A. "God Only Knows". Allmusic. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
  12. ^ http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/10/wils-o24.html
  13. ^ Broome, Eric (September 2001). "Margo Guryan". Mean Street magazine. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  14. ^ ""Weird Rock": A Conversation with Simon Neil and Ben and James Johnston of Biffy Clyro". Pop Zap. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  15. ^ Joe Traughber. "A Mighty Wind - Bioshock Infinite". Barbershop Harmony Society. Retrieved 2014-09-20. 
  16. ^ "Pet Sounds Awards". Allmusic. Retrieved 2014-08-21. 
  17. ^ "Beach Boys singles". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2014-08-21. 

External links[edit]