God Only Knows

This article is about the Beach Boys song. For other uses, see God Only Knows (disambiguation).
"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 – April 11, 1966
United Western Recorders and CBS Columbia Square, Hollywood
Length 2:55
Label Capitol
Producer(s) Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys singles chronology
"Sloop John B"
"Wouldn't It Be Nice"
"Good Vibrations"
Pet Sounds track listing
"Sloop John B"
"God Only Knows"
"I Know There's an Answer"
Music sample
"God Only Knows"

"God Only Knows" is a song written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher for American rock band the Beach Boys, released in May 1966 as the eighth track on the group's album Pet Sounds. Two months later, it was released as the B-side of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" in the United States. In other countries, "God Only Knows" was the single's A-side, peaking at number 2 on the UK Singles Chart. According to historian John Robert Greene, "God Only Knows" led to the reinvention of the popular love song.[10]

The song names God in its title and lyrics, unusual for a pop single of its time, as Asher recalled: "Unless you were Kate Smith and you were singing 'God Bless America', no one [in 1966] thought you could say 'God' in a song." The sentiments expressed in its lyric were not specific to any God, and could be addressed to any higher force, being a song about moving forward after loss. Wilson explained that his and Asher's intention was to create the feeling of "being blind but in being blind, you can see more".

Sung by his younger brother Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys' recording was produced and arranged by Brian using an unorthodox selection of instruments, including French horn, accordions, sleigh bell, harpsichord, and a quartet of violas and cellos heard throughout the piece in counterpoint.[11] The musical structure has been variously cited for its harmonic complexity, inspiring tension through its disuse of authentic cadences and a definite key signature. Its closing section features perpetual rounds, a device that was not normally heard in popular music of the era.

"God Only Knows" was voted 25 in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,[12] the second of seven Beach Boys songs to feature (the first being "Good Vibrations" at 6), and was ranked by Pitchfork Media as the greatest song of the 1960s.[11] The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included it as one of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll".[13]

Musical structure

The song is known for its harmonic sophistication[1] 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".[14] Stephen Downes similarly named the song's "tonal plasticity" emphasized by the disuse of authentic cadences and root-position tonics as the reason for its "expansiveness".[1] In musicologist Philip Lambert's opinion, the song's vocal counterpoint evokes the sacred traditions of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach or an oratorio by George Frideric Handel.[15] Andy Gill of the post-punk band Gang of Four describes the composition:

It’s really very like the way classical music works, like a classical opera, say Lakme by [Léo] Delibes (the music that British Airways has appropriated). The melody rises and falls while the echo of that melody, sung by another voice, intertwines with it. Then it goes back to the verse, with its own melody, which is a variation on the chorus melody. As that is sung, the background voices provide an abstract, disconnected harmony. All the time, upfront, is the poetic heart of the lyric.[16]

The key gravitates between A major and E major,[17][18] while the bass-line was written in a different key from the rest of the song.[19] Music theorist Daniel Harrison compared the song to an earlier Brian Wilson composition, "California Girls", as it both avoids a root-position tonic and suppresses a cadential drive.[20] It also contains a step-wise descending bass-line like Wilson's other compositions on the Pet Sounds album.[21] Dominic King believed the barbershop flat seventh saved the song from "excessive sentimentality".[22]

After its instrumental linking passage, the key ascends to its fourth interval.[23] According to author Jim Fusilli: "Brian came pretty close to writing himself into a dead end. There's really nowhere to go coming out of the bridge, which modulates to G major from D major but ends with a D major–A major–B minor pattern. Thus, when the song returns to D Major, it must do so from B minor, which is kind of a static change, particularly when the next chord is a B minor with only a slight variation in the bass."[24] Along with the 8+4 measure verse/chorus scheme, Downes called the idea of a "bridge section in a related key" standard for rock/pop music, but adds: "What is different here, however, is how the move to the subdominant in the bridge conditions the tonal behavior of the entire song, which, though nominally in E Major, is characterized throughout by a tension between it and A major."[1] The "choral fantasy" during this key change eventually concludes that "a clear sense has eluded us for the entire experience–that in fact, the idea of 'key' has itself been challenged and subverted", in Lambert's opinion.[17]

The song closes with perpetual rounds, a centuries-old technique that was not normally heard in pop music of its time.[25] According to Wilson: "I liked all those old songs that used rounds, like 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat' and 'Frère Jacques'. I liked rounds because they made it seem like a song was something eternal."[26]


An original handwritten manuscript of the lyrics to "God Only Knows"

The song is told from the point of view of a man or woman contemplating life after death to his/her lover, as Asher describes, "'I'll love you till the sun burns out, then I'm gone,' ergo 'I'm gonna love you forever.'" Wilson explained that "God Only Knows" 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."[27] He initially hated the opening line of the song as "it was too negative." He eventually gave in after hearing the subsequent lyrics.[28] In 1976, Brian said there was no one particular that the song was written for.[29]

Fusilli extrapolated that the song was "a mature proclamation of love and a desperate plea. And it's a distillation of what much of Pet Sounds is about: the sense that if we surrender to an all-consuming love, we will never be able to live without it. And, though we're uncertain that the reward is worth the risk, we yearn to surrender." Fusilli also noted a closing phrase Wilson had once written to his wife in 1964: "Yours 'til God wants us apart."[30] James Perone wrote: "While Wilson's character may indeed be in love with the woman to whom he sings, there is a hint that part of this 'love' may be self-serving and part of a cycle of codependency."[31] Asher denied that the song alluded to suicide.[12] He 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.[28]

"God Only Knows" is frequently cited for referencing "God" in its title,[nb 1] a decision that Wilson and Asher agonized over, fearing it would not get airplay as a result. As Wilson's then-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."[36] Asher 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."[28] Wilson 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".

Jim DeRogatis states that, as was common in psychedelic rock, the spiritual invocations in "God Only Knows" express non-specific sentiments which could be addressed to any higher force, and that it is "less of a prayer than a sensitive meditation about moving forward in the face of loss".[37] Even though the Wilson family did not grow up in "a particularly religious household",[38] younger brother and bandmate Carl Wilson was described as "the most truly religious person I know" by Brian, and Carl was forthcoming about the group's spiritual beliefs stating: "We believe in God as a kind of universal consciousness. God is love. God is you. God is me. God is everything right here in this room. It's a spiritual concept which inspires a great deal of our music."[39] Gil writes: "It’s a love song, yes, but again, echoing its classical forebears, there is something not quite secular about it. Yes, 'God Only Knows' is a common, casual phrase, but in this context it feels much more literal."[16]

Recording and production

The instrumental section of the song was recorded on March 10, 1966,[12] at United Western Recorders, Hollywood, California,[40] 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.[34] Present on the day of the instrumental recording was Carl on twelve-string guitar[41] among other session musicians collectively known as The Wrecking Crew. A strip of masking tape was placed over the strings of a piano while the bottoms of two plastic orange juice bottles were used for percussion.[42]

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". He added that 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".[43] A string section was overdubbed thereafter.[34]

"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[36]

Brian originally intended to sing lead vocal on "God Only Knows" but after the instrumental portions of the song had been recorded, Brian thought Carl could impart the message better than he could.[36] 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."[44] At the time, it was rare for Carl to sing lead on a Beach Boys song.[22]

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."[36]

The final vocal track was recorded between March and April 1966 at CBS Columbia Square, Hollywood,[40] 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."[36] 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. The song's sessions concluded on April 11.[45][40]


Sourced from Keith Badman[34] and liner notes included with the 1999 mono/stereo reissue of Pet Sounds,[46] except where otherwise noted.

The Beach Boys
Additional musicians

Release history

Cover released in Italian territories with flipped A and B-sides

The song first appeared on the Beach Boys' classic 1966 album Pet Sounds in monophonic sound format. Initially, Brian considered releasing it as a single under Carl Wilson's name, but the group were in demand for a new single. Because their impending "Good Vibrations" was not yet ready, "God Only Knows" was issued instead.[47]

On July 11, 1966, it was issued as the B-side of the American "Wouldn't It Be Nice" single. In other territories, the song was the A-side.[12] When first released it only reached 39 on the US charts in 1966.[48] Treated as the A-side across Europe, it was a success, peaking at number 2 in the UK,[49] and in national charts cited contemporarily by Billboard: 3 in Ireland, 4 in the Netherlands and Belgium, 6 in Norway, 22 in Germany; and 2 in Australia. In September, the song peaked at 6 in Canada and 24 in France.[50]

Domenic Priore reports that in some parts of the United States, "God Only Knows" was banned from radio for blasphemy.[39]


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 stereophonic 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 recordings appear on three of the band's albums: Live In London (1970), Good Timin': Live at Knebworth England 1980 (2002), and Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour (2013). As solo artists, Brian released live versions of the song on Live at the Roxy Theatre (2000) and Pet Sounds Live (2002); Al Jardine released a live version on Live in Las Vegas (2001).

Legacy and acclaim

The level of Wilson's studio artistry–he used session musicians, double-tracking, and other techniques–was astounding. "God Only Knows" literally remade the ideal of the popular love song (using, for example, harpsichord and French horn as melodic instruments in the song); it stands as one of the most complex—and beautiful—songs in the annals of American popular music.

John Robert Greene, America in the Sixties[10]

Author Barry Miles wrote that it was one track of Pet Sounds which proved that rock music was an art form.[51] Sound engineer Eugene Gearty called "God Only Knows" a perfect example of "how much [Brian] modulated from key to key. He was far more complex than the Beatles and mostly like [Igor] Stravinsky in orchestral music where the key changes and key centers change four or five times within a pop tune, which is unheard of."[52] Gill believes: "I can’t think of any other 'pop love song' that is pinioned between a febrile, almost desperate desire and fear and its opposite, a contented contemplation of a harmonious relationship."[16]

Mojo magazine ranked the song as the 13th greatest song of all time. In a poll on the MTV station, Vh1, it placed at number 28 on the UK's Nation's Favourite Lyric. It was voted by listeners of BBC Radio 2 as one of the three songs that changes people's lives. In its list of the 100 best singles of the last 50 years, Popdose ranked "God Only Knows" at number 1, saying: "It is simply one of the most beautifully composed and arranged songs in the history of not just pop music, but Western music. To place 'God Only Knows' in its proper context is to compare it not just to 1966 Paul McCartney, but 1836 Frederic Chopin."[53] English broadcaster Dominic King deemed it the most "perfectly constructed song in pop history".[22] 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."[36]

Other musicians

McCartney has called it his favorite song of all time.[54] In an interview with David Leaf in 1990 he stated, "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."[36] Speaking again in 2007, 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."[55] Brian responded apprehensively to McCartney's admiration of the song in the 1970s: "Like, if 'God Only Knows' is the greatest song ever written, then I'll never write anything as good again! And if I never write anything as good, then I'm finished."[56]

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."[57] Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne wrote that "It's impossible to exaggerate how beautiful this song is. Everywhere, it takes risks."[58] 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 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."[28] 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.[59]




Chart positions

Chart (1966) Peak
Australia Go-Set 17
Norway VG-lista 6
UK Singles Chart 2
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 39

Cover versions

BBC Music version

"God Only Knows"
Single by Brian Wilson and Various artists
Released October 7, 2014 (2014-10-07)
Format Digital download
Recorded 2014
Length 2:25
Label BBC Music
Producer(s) Ethan Johns
Brian Wilson chronology
"The Like in I Love You"
"God Only Knows"
"The Right Time
Music video
"God Only Knows – BBC Music" on YouTube

A cover version of the song was simulcast across BBC television and radio channels on October 7, 2014, to launch BBC Music. It featured Brian Wilson himself and other major artists from different musical genres (creating a supergroup called the Impossible Orchestra). The music video, directed by François Rousselet, features the artists in lavish, fantastical computer generated settings.[64] The track was released the following day as a charity single for Children in Need 2014.[65]

Wilson said: "All of the artists did such a beautiful job ... I can’t thank them enough, I'm just honored that 'God Only Knows' was chosen. 'God Only Knows' is a very special song. An extremely spiritual song and one of the best I've ever written."[66]

Despite the musicians all performing free, the promotion has drawn some criticism in the press. Adam Sherwin wrote in The Independent: "With its message, that the BBC 'owns' the entire musical waterfront and licence-fee payers would do well to remember that, it is the kind of propaganda film an autocratic regime sensing that its legitimacy is crumbling might produce."[67] Writing for The Guardian, Alex Petridis observed "There's clearly something a little self-aggrandising about the BBC getting a raft of stars to sing an unambiguous song of undying devotion apparently to the corporation itself. ... perhaps we should forgive them three minutes of self-congratulation, particularly when it’s raising money for charity."[68] The Daily Telegraph, however, reported that the project cost less than the 1997 version of "Perfect Day" which drew much of the same criticism but went on to raise over £2 million for charity.[64]

Accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, each of the following performers are listed in order of appearance, singing vocals unless otherwise specified:[69]

Lauren Laverne, Gareth Malone, and Zane Lowe also appear in the video.[71]

Chart (2014) Peak
Ireland (IRMA)[72] 77
Israel (Media Forest)[73] 10
Scotland (Official Charts Company)[74] 18
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[75] 20


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  2. Speculated by Mark Dillon to be Tony Asher.[12]
  1. 1 2 3 4 Downes 2014, p. 37.
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  68. "God Only Knows: not quite a perfect day as BBC sings its own praises". The Guardian. October 7, 2014.
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  74. "Archive Chart: 2014-10-18" UK Singles Chart. Retrieved 12 October 2014.


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