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"God Only Knows" is a song by American surf rock band The Beach Boys. It is the eighth track on the group's eleventh studio album Pet Sounds (1966), and one of their most widely recognized songs. "God Only Knows" was composed and produced by Brian Wilson, with lyrics by Tony Asher, and the lead vocal was sung by Carl Wilson.

The song broke new ground in many ways. It was one of the first commercial pop songs to use the word 'God' in its title. The song was also far more technically sophisticated than anything the Beach Boys, or arguably any pop group, had ever attempted before - particularly the complicated melodic structure and vocal harmonies. As producer, Brian Wilson also used many unorthodox instruments for the genre, including the harpsichord and French horns that are heard in the song's famous introduction.

Mojo magazine ranked the song as the 13th greatest song of all time. Pitchfork Media named it the best song of the 1960s. The song is 25th on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.


Brian Wilson explains in his autobiography Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story that the melody of "God Only Knows" was inspired by a John Sebastian song that he had been listening to. However, the opening French Horn motif bears a very close relationship to a motif, also stated by the French horns, in Act II Scene 2, the "Hagen" motif (itself a variation of the "nature" motif) of Richard Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).

Wilson once described that the song "was a vision that Tony and I had. It's like being blind but in being blind, you can see more. You close your eyes; you're able to see a place or something that's happening." According to Wilson, "the idea summarized everything I was trying to express in a single song."

Tony Asher felt confident when writing the song that it would be a big hit. As he explains, "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. I was probably saying to myself, 'God, I hope I'm right about this,' because you're never quite sure. But I knew that it would work, because by the second part, the real meaning of the song has come out: 'I'll love you till the sun burns out, then I'm gone,' ergo 'I'm gonna love you forever.' I guess that in the end, 'God Only Knows' is the song that most people remember, and love the most."

Just as Tony Asher said, Wilson "hated the opening line" of the song as "it was too negative." He eventually gave in after hearing the following lines in the song.

Naming the song

"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."

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, and '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.

Wilson explains that although he feared putting the word 'God' in the title of the song, he eventually agreed to keep it. He explains 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."

Choosing the vocalists

Brian Wilson originally intended to sing lead vocal on "God Only Knows" but in the end sacrificed the lead vocal to his brother Carl Wilson: "Well, I thought I was gonna do it. As the song progressed, I said, 'Hey, I feel kind of natural doing this.' But when we completed creating the song, I said my brother Carl will probably be able to impart the message better than I could, so I sacrificed that one. But he had a good time singing it."

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."

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."


The instrumental section of the song was recorded on March 10, 1966 at Western Recorders, Hollywoodmarker, Californiamarker, with the session being engineered by Chuck Britz and produced by Brian Wilson. The instrumental part of the song took twenty takes to achieve what is the master take of the song. Present on the day of the instrumental recording were Hal Blaine on drums, Jim Gordon on percussion, Lyle Ritz on string bass, Carol Kaye on electric bass, Ray Pohlman on danelectro bass, Don Randi on piano, Larry Knechtel on organ, Carl Fortina and Frank Morocco on accordion, Leonard Hartman on clarinet and bass clarinet, Bill Green and Jim Horn on flute, Alan Robinson on French horn, Jay Migliori on baritone saxophone, Leonard Malarsky and Sid Sharp on violin, Darrel Terwilliger on viola and Jesse Erlich on cello.

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 twenty-three 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. Twenty-three musicians was at the time an incredible number of musicians for a pop record. All the musicians played simultaneously, creating "a rich, heavenly blanket of music."

The vocal track was recorded between March and April 1966 at Columbia Studios, Hollywood, California with the session being engineered by Ralph Balantin and produced by Brian Wilson. The song only features three voices on the track. Carl Wilson is featured on lead vocals, with Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston featured on backing vocals. Bruce Johnston explains 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." 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

While Mojo Magazine ranked the song 13th greatest song of all time, when first released it only reached #39 on the US charts in 1966 (although it did reach #2 in the UK).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.

Paul McCartney has expressed on a number of occasions his love for the song. In an interview with David Leaf in 1990, he stated that "It's a really, really great song—it's a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top ten 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."

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."

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 a famous American popular music composer has also stated his love for the song stating that "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."

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."

In a 2003 solo concert in Tel-Avivmarker, 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. In a poll on the MTV station, Vh1, it was placed #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 peoples lives.

Simon Neil of Scottish band, Biffy Clyro, has the lyrics 'God only knows what id be without you' tattooed across his chest.

Jake Burns, the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers thinks "God Only Knows" is the best song of all time.

Album and alternate releases

The song first appeared on The Beach Boys classic 1966 album Pet Sounds in monophonic sound format. It was also released on 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 appear on two of the band's albums: Live In London and Good Timin': Live at Knebworth England 1980.

In the documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, there is a version of Brian Wilson playing the song at his piano with his mother by his side, and with Carl Wilson singing lead vocals. Live versions of the song were also recorded and released on two of Brian Wilson's live albums. The 2000 release Live At The Roxy Theatre and the 2002 release Pet Sounds Live.

There is another live version of this song on Al Jardine's solo album, Live in Las Vegas, which has lead vocals by Carnie Wilson.


Cover versions

Cover versions of the song have been recorded by many artists, including Glen Campbell, Jack Jones, Claudine Longet, Andy Williams and Neil Diamond, David Bowie as well as many others. David Bowie recorded a version for his 1984 album Tonight. The 2004 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. In 2005, Joss Stone recorded a version for a CD produced by Gap, on which various artists sang their own favourite songs. Brian Wilson also released a live CD version of Pet Sounds, Pet Sounds Live, which featured 'God Only Knows'.

List of cover versions

Cultural references

The Beach Boys' version of the song appears on several movie releases. It underscores a lengthy montage sequence near the end of the Paul Thomas Anderson 1997 film Boogie Nights and it also appears on the Boogie Nights Soundtrack. It appears in the 2002 Raja Gosnell live-action film Scooby Doo. The song is the closing track of the Richard Curtis 2003 movie Love Actually and hence it appears on the Love Actually Soundtrack. Two cover versions of the song were featured in the Brian Dannelly 2004 film Saved!. The song also serves as the opening title credit score for the HBO series Big Love. The song has also been featured in an episode of "The Wonder Years" and recently in a commercial for the Mastercard credit card company.

The song itself was featured in the film My Life Without Me. The main character (played by Sarah Polley) sings the song to her husband. "God Only Knows" was also featured prominently in the British drama/thriller entitled Enduring Love. In it one of the characters, Jed (Rhys Ifans) sings the song on screen as he stalks Joe (Daniel Craig) in several of the film's creepier scenes.

'God Only Knows' was also featured in the British teen drama Skins, where it was sung in a choral style by Nicholas Hoult and Georgina Moffat as a way for Hoult's character Tony to emotionally damage his friend and girlfriend.

See also


  1. 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
  2. The Pet Sounds Sessions: "The Making Of Pet Sounds" booklet
  3. Pedro Aznar
  4. the official site of petra haden
  5. [1]

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