Brian Wilson wrote this song with Tony Asher, who was an advertising copywriter and lyricist that Wilson worked with on songs for the “Pet Sounds” album (considered Brian’s Magnum Opus). This song reflects Wilson’s interest in spirituality, and it was a big departure from previous Beach Boys songs that dealt with girls, cars and surfing. Wilson explained to Goldmine in 2011:
Tony Asher and I tried to write something very spiritually. It’s got a melody similar to the song (recites lyric to ‘The Sound Of Music’), ‘I hear the sound of music…’ (Sings lyrics to ‘God Only Knows’) ‘I may not always love you…’ It was similar to it. Tony came up with the title ‘God Only Knows.’ I was scared they’d ban playing it on the radio because of the title but they didn’t.
Brian Wilson was fascinated by spirituality and said this song came out of prayer sessions in the studio. “We made it a religious ceremony,” he said of recording “Pet Sounds”.
The song names God in its title and lyrics, unusual for a pop single of its time. “God Only Knows” is frequently cited for referencing “God” in its title, 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.
Tony 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.
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.
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”.
Wilson explained that his and Asher’s intention was to create the feeling of “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.”
The song is told from the point of view of someone contemplating life after death to their lover, as Asher describes, “‘I’ll love you till the sun burns out, then I’m gone,’ ergo ‘I’m gonna love you forever.'”
Brian initially hated the opening line of the song as “it was too negative.” He eventually gave in after hearing the subsequent lyrics. In 1976, Brian said there was no one particular that the song was written for. Author Jim Fusilli (who once described “Pet Sounds” as “Despite the sunny singles, the achingly beautiful album is composer Brian Wilson’s cry for understanding and a sense of place in a tumultuous period that would lead to a psychological breakdown that would remove him from his gifts for decades), 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.” Co-writer Tony Asher denied that the song alluded to suicide. 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.
Sung by his younger brother Carl Wilson, 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. 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.
At the time, it was rare for Carl to sing lead on a Beach Boys song. Beach Boy 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.
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.
At present our influences are of a religious nature. Not any specific religion but an idea based upon that of Universal Consciousness. The concept of spreading goodwill, good thoughts and happiness is nothing new. It is an idea which religious teachers and philosophers have been handing down for centuries, but it is also our hope. The spiritual concept of happiness and doing good to others is extremely important to the lyric of our songs, and the religious element of some of the better church music is also contained within some of our new work.
The instrumental part of the song took 20 takes to achieve what is the master take of the song. Present on the day of the instrumental recording was Carl on twelve-string guitar 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. 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”. A string section was overdubbed thereafter.
The final vocal track was recorded between March and April 1966 at CBS Columbia Square, Hollywood, 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.” 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”.
Acclaim and awards for “Pet Sounds” and “God Only Knows” are almost universal among critics and fellow artists. “God Only Knows” was voted 25th in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, 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. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included it as one of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. 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 Frédéric Chopin.”
McCartney has called it his favorite song of all time. 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.
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.
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.
I think there are many that don’t agree with Brian on that. He is truly a legendary lyricist, composer, musician, and producer that advanced the art of music to a degree only very few have done.
To take a look at the recording process and the artists who performed it, here are some videos that documents that and shows the genius of Brian Wilson as a producer.