God Only Knows

A potted history of God Only Knows, a line-by-line breakdown of the BBC Music version, plus a behind-the-scenes video of the making of the new trail.

Published: 7 October 2014

A potted history of the song

God Only Knows has reached almost mythical status in the pop canon. Written and produced by Brian Wilson with lyricist Tony Asher and younger brother Carl Wilson on vocals, it was released in 1966 as part of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. It reached Number 2 in the UK and Number 39 in the US Charts.

It has become one of the most lauded tracks of all time. Rolling Stone placed it at 25 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and in 2006, Pitchfork magazine crowned God Only Knows as the best song of the 1960s saying: "God Only Knows is so ideally conceptualized and realized, critics can't help but support it. Somehow, even that can't turn it into an art exhibit; its humanity resists the attempt. To me, this song is a goodbye to being a kid, and hoping that love actually is the answer.”

The original album track notes say: “Even during the writing of the song, Brian and Tony Asher knew God Only Knows was going to be something special. Asher said: 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.”

Part of its appeal lies in the complex musical structure and range of instruments not often associated with pop - including the very distinctive French horn - with a quartet of strings adding texture through their counterpoint.

The song is told from the point of view of a man or woman facing life after the death of a loved one and it’s a firm favourite amongst musicians as well as pop aficionados. Many have been affected by the emotional power of its simplicity and honesty. And there have been many notable cover versions from Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet to David Bowie and the Shadows to Joss Stone.

Line by line breakdown

BBC Concert Orchestra

Martin James Bartlett - celeste

Pharrell Williams – I may not always love you

Emeli Sandé - But as long as there are stars above you

Elton John – You never need to doubt it

Lorde – I’ll make you so sure about it

Chris Martin – God only knows what I’d be without you

Brian Wilson - If you should ever leave me

Florence Welch – Well life would still go on believe me

Kylie Minogue – The world could show nothing to me

Stevie Wonder – So what good would living do me

Eliza Carthy - God only knows what I’d be without you

Nicola Benedetti - violin

Jools Holland - piano

Brian May – electric guitar

Jake Bugg – lalalala

Katie Derham - violin

Tees Valley Youth Choir – God only knows

Alison Balsom – piccolo trumpet

One Direction - God only knows what I’d be without you

Jaz Dhami - God only knows what I’d be without you

Paloma Faith - God only knows what I’d be without you

Chrissie Hynde – God only knows

Jamie Cullum - God only knows what I’d be without you

Baaba Maal – God only knows

Danielle de Niese - God only knows what I’d be without you

Dave Grohl - God only knows

Sam Smith - God only knows what I’d be without you

Brian Wilson - God only knows what I’d be without you