One Song/Three Versions – God Only Knows

Wherein I take a song – the original and two covers – and lay them out side by side if you will. If I can find radical reinvention, I’ll go for that rather than rote covers. 

Unlike a lot of music fans, I’ve never been a particularly big Beach Boys fan. I initially dismissed them as a surf band, then kinda liked some of their stuff, thinking of them as an occasional pleasant diversion on the radio. Then I came to realize that Brian Wilson was regarded as some kind of genius by those who make music. That didn’t turn me into a raving fan but I do dig some of their stuff.

Of all their tunes, “God Only Knows” is considered one of their best if not *the* best song they ever did. Famously, Paul McCartney is a huge fan of the tune. Some say he said it was the best song ever written but I believe he said it was one of the best songs ever written and certainly his favorite Beach Boys tune. (There was some level of rivalry between the bands. Rubber Soul begat Pet Sounds which begat Sgt. Pepper.)

Wikipedia: “‘God Only Knows’ is among the several songs that Brian Wilson and Tony Asher wrote for the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. Asher felt that it was the pair’s most effortless collaboration, remembering that Wilson “spent more time tweaking the instrumental part than we did writing the words!

Recalling “God Only Knows,” Wilson acknowledged that he had “not written that kind of song” before and said, “I think Tony had a musical influence on me somehow. After about ten years, I started thinking about it deeper … And I remember him talking about [the 1944 standard] ‘Stella by Starlight’ and he had a certain love for classic songs. Asher concurred that he felt he inspired Wilson to write the song.”

Carl Wilson sings lead:

Spotify link

How these three-song posts come to be typically is because I hear a cover version on the radio and go, “Oh, yeah. That’s interesting.” Well, to my great surprise, David Bowie did his own cover of it. Apparently, he was another great admirer of the Pet Sounds album and this was his second try at recording it. It is somewhat odd and typically Bowie.

A reviewer in writing about this cover – from Bowie’s 1984 Tonight album – said, “the TV-special-style cover of the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ is as stirring, in its cold, almost Brechtian way, as Station to Station’s ‘Wild Is the Wind’ – it’s like watching Elvis in [Las] Vegas through a sheet of ice.” Could not have possibly said it better myself:

Spotify link

Joss Stone is a British singer/songwriter whose singing I enjoy but who I have never featured. It seems at this point like she’s been around forever but she’s only in her early 30’s. An interesting side note to her career was that back in 2011 she was part of a “supergroup” called SuperHeavy with Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart. Not sure exactly what made this a supergroup as, for the brief time they were together, no one paid much attention to anyone but Mick.

Anyway, I heard Joss’ version of this song and it’s nice to hear a female version. I will herewith listen to it and pretend this beautiful lady is singing it directly to me:

Spotify link

26 thoughts on “One Song/Three Versions – God Only Knows

  1. I really like the piano in the Joss Stone version – brings out Brian Wilson’s complex chord structure really well. Carl Wilson is such a good singer it’s hard to surpass the original though.

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    1. Yes it’s typical that the original is the best. Or at least that’s the one floating around in our heads. I enjoyed hearing it from a female point of view.

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  2. I think we largely share the same sentiments about The Beach Boys. The one thing I find truly outstanding is their harmony singing. The surf songs aren’t bad, but after you’ve listened to a few, they all start sounding the same.

    While I’ve warmed a bit more to “Pet Sounds”, I still don’t quite understand the fuzz so many people make about this album. I suppose God only knows…😀

    Speaking of “God Only Knows,” I’ve been fairly indifferent about this tune for many years. But like the album overall, I’ve also come to appreciate it more in recent years. Again, the aspect that mostly stands out to me is the singing, though I recognize musically it’s much more advanced than the surf tunes.

    The longer I listened to David Bowie’s cover, the better I liked it, though it is somewhat weird. Jess Stone’s take, on the other hand, was love at first listen.”

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    1. My sister was very influential on my tastes early on. She couldn’t stand the Beach Boys. She was indifferent to blues as well. I think in both cases I managed to get out from under her shackles. 😅 But it really is a beautiful song. And I think the idea of a loved one as a savior is one a lot of people can relate to.

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    1. Yeah! I heard that one and almost used it. Damn, I love a capella. But then I heard Joss’ version and I also wanted the weirdness of Bowie. If memory serves you’ve written about Stone before.

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      1. No wonder the name Jess Stone sounded so familiar, as did the cover art of the album, for we which she recorded her cover of the tune! 🙂

        Yep, I did indeed write about her Body, Mind & Soul album last May. It’s good I can search my own blog. Sometimes I can’t remember what I did the previous day! 🙂

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        1. That’s funny. I think it’s the second time I’ve reminded you of something on your blog. I know it better than you. Suggestion – pay me to be your secretary so you can avoid those embarrassing situations. 😂

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        2. One of the things some people have told me is I’m too honest sometimes. I just can’t keep a straight face and would make a terrible gambler, which is why I never play poker.

          And, yes, you’ve reminded me of my own earlier posts on one or two other previous occasions! 🙂

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  3. I reviewed Pet Sounds recently and I didn’t find it as great as everybody said except for this song which I agree with Paul and could be one of the best songs ever written. Never heard the Joss Stone one before and I love her voice so can’t wait to play that one. To add about my comment about Pet Sounds, I still enjoyed the album a lot, just didn’t get the fuss.

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    1. Yeah, I don’t get it either. I guess you either like it or you don’t. In terms of their place in rock and roll history, the Beach Boys are not unimportant. But that whole ‘California Sound’ was always lost on me.

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      1. I agree, they have their place and importance. I do like their songs in general and have a few on vinyl, but don’t pull them out much. I have to be a certain mood and that mood doesn’t strike too often.

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  4. Pet Sounds is an all timer for me and I reckon God Only Knows is a dizzying high point among many high points. I’d go so far as saying it’s quite possibly the greatest song ever written.

    I’ve never heard Bowie’s version, but I really like the coldness of it. Strangely I find Joss Stone’s colder (she’s never appealed to me – pleasant enough voice, but other than that there’s not really much to it. I guess she’s a bit like wallpaper).

    Lon the subject of Stone and SuperHeavy, I bought that CD for £2 (a £2 with any purchase deal)… I don’t quite know what to say about it… it’s all over the place. I remember reading that it’s basically edited down from hours upon hours of jamming.

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    1. You’re the first one to come on and say it’s a hot one for you. But I definitely get that some people just freaking love it. For me, the Beach Boys are less any particular album and more a handful (‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’) of good tunes. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is probably my favorite.

      As to SuperHeavy, boy I don’t know what they were thinking. I give Mick credit for trying something different. But outside the Stones he’s never really hit the mark.

      I find it amusing that the first few albums of theirs had pictures of them with surfboards and Dennis Wilson was the only surfer.

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  5. I’m not a huge Beach Boys fan at all… Pet Sounds, however, I really dig and God Only Knows is an all-time fave. These are some solid covers but nothing can touch the original for me

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    1. Funny how comment-wise, everybody likes the band or at least some of their tunes. You and J are real ‘Pet Sounds’ adherents, for the rest of us it’s…meh.

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      1. maybe it’s a generational / cross-Atlantlic thing?
        All that early surf stuff like Surfin’ USA and I Gat Around are very American in a number of ways and couldn’t apply to the pebbled beaches of, say, Littlestone-on-Sea by any stretch of the imagination. Whereas songs like Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Caroline No and God Only Knows are just gorgeous. What’s weirder still is that only months separate them from California Girls and Help Me, Rhonda

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        1. Yes, the Sixties were a fervent time for that quick growth and creativity. And the competition with the Beatles really ratcheted things up for both bands. I’m always amazed at how the Beatles went from Love Me Do to A Day in the Life in 5 years. As to Littlestone-on-Sea, perhaps they wouldn’t appreciate it. But I have no doubt that the crowd in Marmalade-On-Toast would eat it right up!

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        2. I dunno… they’re a bit of a sticky bunch.
          Yeah – massive leaps in creativity at that time for so many. Beatles’ jump is one thing but you also have Pink Floyd going from Bike to Echoes in 4 years.. maybe it was down to constant playing and no restrictions or maybe there was something in the er… ‘water’

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  6. I used to agree with much has been said here regarding the Beach Boys until very recently. I was always told that Pet Sounds was a great record by music buffs. God Only Knows is a nice tune but the record never took hold primarilly due to my preconceived notions of it being “just the Beach Boys” pop for the tastes of a hard blues rocker fan.

    I do not have anything to add regarding Bowie or Stone; so the following might be a little off topic but it’s about what changed my mind on Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys.

    By random streaming on Amazon Prime, last year I came across what I consider an entertaining movie about Brian Wilson called “Love and Mercy”. It explores with some dramatic license the Pet Sounds era. It stars heavyweights John Cusak, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti; portraying Brian’s rise and subsequent struggles with mental illness post Pet Sounds.

    The strength of this movie are the segments on the recording sessions with the Wrecking Crew in 65/66. The creative energy, vision and attention to detail displayed in those sessions are facscinating. There is a great little segment where he is coaching some cellists about the rhythm and attack on Good Vibrations.

    The other part of the movie which is interweaved with the Pet Sounds sessions is about his dark times under the control of the megalomaniac Psychotheraptist Eugene Lundy in the 70’s and 80’s. An over the top performance by Giamatti. Brian’s romance with his future wife Melinda Ledbetter is nice yet probably embellished somewhat. Mike Love’s important role in helping Brian get away from Lundy is not included in this story either.

    It’s an enjoyable little movie and I really like the sweetness of the Brian’s tune Love and Mercy. I have now become a big fan of the Pet Sounds era and if there is some fiction it, I am happy it turned me on to the Beach Boys!

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    1. No, not off topic at all. That’s how conversations go, eh? I saw that movie as well and forgot to mention it. I second that suggestion. A good flick and the unlikely casting of Cusack here works. I used to read Rolling Stone religiously back in the day and they painstakingly detailed Brian’s interactions with that “therapist.” Anyway, good recommendation, thanks.

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