God Only Knows

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"God Only Knows"
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, 1966 (1966-03-10); 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 a French horn leitmotif, with accordions and a small string section heard throughout, most noticeably in the song's introduction.

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]

Lyrics and composition[edit]

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. The first chord (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.'" Wilson 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 Wilson 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]

Wilson explains that although he feared putting the word 'God' in the title of the song, he eventually agreed to keep it. He explains[where?] that he agreed to keep the word 'God' in the title firstly, "because God was a spiritual word," and secondly, because Brian and The Beach Boys would "be breaking ground."


Instrumental sessions[edit]

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 band member 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." 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. At the time, 23 musicians was an astounding number of musicians for a pop record. All the musicians played simultaneously, creating "a rich, heavenly blanket of music."

Vocal overdubs[edit]

Brian Wilson originally intended to sing lead vocal on "God Only Knows" but after the song had been tracked, Wilson thought his younger brother 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."[8]

Carl Wilson later described how lucky he felt being given the opportunity to sing "God Only Knows": "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."[6]

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 Wilson. The song features three voices on the track. Carl Wilson is featured on lead vocals, with Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston backing him. Bruce 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 Wilson used this technique often during the recording of Pet Sounds.

Recognition and influence[edit]

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.[9] 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]

Paul McCartney has called it his favorite song of all time.[10] 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."

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."[11]

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". 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 J.S. 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.[12] 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]

Album and 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 versions[edit]

Following the song's release it became Carl Wilson's signature song during live shows. It appeared at almost all live shows and was prominently featured until the death of Carl Wilson. Following his death God Only Knows was sung by longtime Beach Boys member Bruce Johnston,with Johnston dedicating the song to Carl before every performance. The song was not played however after Wilson's death in 1998 until 2001.

Live versions appear on two of the band's albums: Live In London and Good Timin': Live at Knebworth England 1980.

Live versions of the song were also recorded and released on two of Brian Wilson's solo live albums: the 2000 release Live At The Roxy Theatre and the 2002 release Pet Sounds Live.

For The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Tour, a video of Carl Wilson with vocals from the Live at Knebworth England concert was played with live backing vocals and instruments by the band. For concerts where there was no video screen to play the recording the songs writer Brian Wilson would take over the lead.


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, Jars of Clay, Glen Campbell, Jack Jones, Claudine Longet, Andy Williams, Neil Diamond, David Bowie, Olivia Newton-John, Captain & Tennille, Athlete, Jonatha Brooke, Natalie Maines, Rivers Cuomo, Judie Tzuke, among others.

  • 1968 – P. P. Arnold recorded the song for her second LP Kafunta.
  • 1975 – The Shadows did an instrumental version of the song on the album Specs Appeal.
  • 1976 – A Spanish version of the song by Captain & Tennille entitled "Lo Sabe Dios" is included on their Por Amor Viviremos album.
  • 1978 – An orchestral version of the song by The London Symphony Orchestra appears on the album Classic Rock: The Second Movement.
  • 1984 – David Bowie recorded a version for his album Tonight.
  • 1991 – A Spanish version by Charly García and Pedro Aznar is included in their album Tango 4.
  • 1994 – Justin Hayward did a cover on his Classic Blue album
  • 2002 – Brian Wilson also released a live CD version of Pet Sounds entitled Pet Sounds Live which featured "God Only Knows".
  • 2004 – The film Saved! features a version by the film's star Mandy Moore over the opening credits, and a duet of the song by Moore and Michael Stipe (one of the film's producers) over the end credits.
  • 2005 – Joss Stone recorded a version for a CD produced by Gap, on which various artists sang their own favorite songs.
  • 2009 – Helen Reddy released a version of the song as a single available on iTunes. Reddy's version was originally supposed to be included on her 1971 debut album I Don't Know How to Love Him, but was not chosen for inclusion on the album.
  • 2010 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. included a cover of the song as the final track on their debut EP, "Horse Power EP."
  • 2013 - Circe Link and Christian Nesmith uploaded a cover version to YouTube in late October.[14]
  • 2013 – Terry Manning released a version of the song as a single available on iTunes. Manning's version is scheduled to be included in his 2014 album Heaven Knows.
  • There is another live version of this song on Al Jardine's solo album, Live in Las Vegas, which has lead vocals by Brian Wilson's daughter Carnie Wilson.

Cultural references[edit]

The Beach Boys' version of the song appears on several movie and TV releases.

  • "God Only Knows" is featured on the TV show The Wonder Years, in the season 4 episode "Heartbreak", in an emotional breakup scene at the end of the episode.
  • It underscores a lengthy montage sequence near the end of the Paul Thomas Anderson 1997 film Boogie Nights.
  • The song features in the finale of the Richard Curtis 2003 movie Love Actually, with the final chorus looped repeatedly against a montage of people greeting each other at the airport.
  • The song served as the opening title credit score for the HBO series Big Love during the first three seasons. Natalie Maines covered the song in the series finale.
  • The song was also featured in the films My Life Without Me and the live action adaption of Scooby Doo.
  • It appears in series 1 of Skins.
  • "God Only Knows" is also referenced in the video game Bioshock Infinite, where a barbershop quartet sings it in one of the introductory scenes to Columbia. As the game is set in 1912, the song is used anachronistically, one of many time-bending experiences which characterize the game. It also appears in the credits of the mentioned game.


  1. ^ Andrew Jones, Plunderphonics, 'pataphysics & pop mechanics: an introduction to musique, ISBN 0-946719-15-2, p. 214.
  2. ^ "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. ^ Hit Parader page 11, October 4, 1966 http://i351.photobucket.com/albums/q476/marcus1970/hit%20parader%201966/HitParaderp4October1966.jpg
  9. ^ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "500 songs that shaped rock and roll" [1]
  10. ^ Guarisco, D.A. "God Only Knows". Allmusic. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
  11. ^ Broome, Eric (September 2001). "Margo Guryan". Mean Street magazine. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  12. ^ ""Weird Rock": A Conversation with Simon Neil and Ben and James Johnston of Biffy Clyro". Pop Zap. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  13. ^ "Larry Knechtel biography". Retrieved March 17, 2011. 
  14. ^ Video on YouTube

External links[edit]