Behind the Meaning of the Brian Wilson-Written Beach Boys Classic “God Only Knows”

Prior to 1966, Brian Wilson filled up the California dreaming surfer pop bucket of the Beach Boys songs with tales of girls, cruising, beaches, and, of course, surfing. Hit by the 1960s British invasion led by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Animals, Wilson was moved to write something with more depth and penned the Beach Boys’ opus Pet Sounds

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A masterpiece of songs riding beyond the Beach Boys’ surf music chimes, one track in particular, “God Only Knows,” offered a more intimate revelation of love beyond the lighter fare of their “Don’t Worry Baby” summer pop.

45 Minutes

Wilson wrote the song with collaborator Tony Asher in less than an hour. “I wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes—me and Tony Asher,” said Wilson in a 2015 interview. Though finalizing the arrangement of the track took much longer with the more intricate tweaking by Wilson. “Tony Asher and I tried to write something very spiritually,” said Wilson, who compared the melody of “God Only Knows” to that of “The Sound Of Music.” He added, “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.”

Wrapped around a denser arrangement with sweeping French horns and harpsichords, the more orchestral opening of “God Only Knows” fits its poignant lyrics, cascading around fleeting and flowering notions of love. 

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it

“I really thought it was going to be everything it was, and yet we were taking some real chances with it,” said Asher. “First of all, the lyric opens by saying, ‘I may not always love you,’ which is a very unusual way to start a love song.”

A hazier look at love from previous Beach Boys hits, the song was only released as a B-side to the opening Pet Sounds track “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”—also written by Wilson and Asher along with Beach Boy Mike Love—due to the fear of alienating fans by the label, particularly since the word “God” was in the title, which was somewhat of a taboo at the time for a pop song. The song peaked in the Top 10 internationally and at No. 39 on the Hot 100 chart.

God only knows what I’d be without you
If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me

God only knows what I’d be without you
God only knows what I’d be without you
If you should ever leave me
Well life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me

Standards, John Sebastian, and The Beatles

Over the years, Brian Wilson revealed more layers of inspiration behind the song, from classics like the 1944 Victor Young standard “Stella by Starlight” and getting the melody from a John Sebastian song he had been listening to at the time, which he revealed in his 1991 memoir Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story. Later on, Wilson also admitted that he was so blown away by The Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul that he sat at the piano and started writing “God Only Knows.”

Religion v. “Universal Consciousness”

Sung by Brian, his younger brother Carl Wilson, and Bruce Johnston, the meaning of the song touches on more universal religious ideals, while deciphering the meaning of love and life. “At present, our influences are of a religious nature—not any specific religion but an idea based upon that of universal consciousness,” Carl Wilson said elaborating on the meaning of the song shortly after its release on July 18, 1966. “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.” Wilson added, “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.”

Carl Wilson

Brian Wilson wanted a sweeter levity around the lyrics, so he had Carl take over the lead vocals of the song, while he and Johnston filled in the harmony. “I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness,” said Wilson, “which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice.”

Paul McCartney: “The Greatest Song Ever Written”

Paul McCartney has called “God Only Knows” his all-time favorite song, and “the greatest song ever written.” The song is often cited as the inspiration for The Beatles Revolver track, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” as well as other songs written by McCartney, who was mesmerized by the music of Pet Sounds after attending a listening party for the album at the Waldorf Hotel in London in 1966.

A Vision

Brian Wilson called the song “a vision” and that it summarized everything he was “trying to express in a single song.”

“It’s like being blind, but in being blind, you can see more,” said Wilson. “You close your eyes; you’re able to see a place or something that’s happening.”

Photo Credit: Al Pereira

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