God Only Knows
The Beach Boys
Writer(s): Brian Wilson, Tony Asher (see lyrics here)
Released: July 18, 1966 (B-side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”)
First Charted: July 28, 1966
Peak: 39 US, 38 CB, 32 GR, 38 HR, 1 CL, 2 UK, 6 CN, 17 AU, 4 DF (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): -- US, -- UK, -- world (includes US + UK)
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 2.0 radio, 39.65 video, 236.94 streaming
Click on award for more details.
About the Song:
Paul McCartney called “God Only Knows” “the greatest song ever written.” SF U2’s Bono said the string arrangement was “fact and proof of angels.” WK In American in the Sixties, John Robert Greene calls it “one of the most complex – and beautiful – songs in the annals of American popular music.” WK Brian Wilson “attributed the impetus for the song to [co-writer Tony] Asher’s affinity for standards.” WK Asher said it was the pair’s most effortless collaboration. WK
About twenty session musicians were enlisted to play drums, sleigh bells, clarinets, flutes, strings, French horn, accordion, guitars, upright bass, harpsichord, a tack piano, and even the bottoms of two plastic orange juice bottles. WK Initially Brian sang lead on the song, but decided his brother Carl was better suited to the track. He said, “I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice.” SF According to Carl, Brian said, it fit his “beautiful spirit.” WK Carl had rarely sung lead on Beach Boys’ songs.
The song is sung by a “narrator who asserts that life without their lover could only be fathomed by God.” WK The lyrics have been interpreted as demonstrating a suicidal inclination on the part of the narrator citing lines such as “what good would living do me?” but Asher says that was not his or Wilson’s intention. WK However, the song does reveal how conflicted Wilson was an artist and in his relationships, suggesting his “apparent helplessness in dealing with the other forces in his life.” TC Wilson has simply said he was striving “to write a song that would last forever.” TC
Referencing God in song lyrics and titles was considered taboo at the time. Asher says he and Wilson had long discussions about it, concerned the song wouldn’t get airplay. He believes Wilson agreed to the title because it would be far out and generate controversy. WK Still, out of fear that American radio stations wouldn’t play it, the song was released as the B-side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It still managed to crack the top 40.
First posted 4/29/2021; last updated 9/16/2023.