Brian Wilson wrote this song with Tony Asher, who was an advertising copyrighter and lyricist that Wilson worked with on songs for Pet Sounds. 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."
This song is considered a Beach Boys classic, but it only managed to scrape the Top 40 in the United States. That's because it was released as a B-side, partly because of fear that radio stations would refuse to play a song with "God" in the title. In the liner notes to the reissued Pet Sounds album, Tony Asher explained, "I really thought it was going to be everything it was, and yet we were taking some real chances with it. 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."
Carl Wilson handled lead vocals on this track. Not long after the song was released, he said, "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 Beatles' "Here, There And Everywhere
" was inspired by this song. John Lennon and Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds
at a party and went back to Lennon's house to write it. Paul McCartney once called "God Only Knows" "The greatest song ever written."
The famous French horn on this song was played by Alan Robinson, who appeared on the scores for many films, including The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments. He got the call for the session because he could play without music written out. Brian Wilson sang him the horn line he had in mind, and Robinson played it by ear using a glissando technique suggested by Wilson.
Brian Wilson planned to sing the lead vocal himself, but decided that his brother Carl was better suited for the track. "I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice," said Brian.
This was featured at the end of the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually
. It was also used in the films Boogie Nights
(P.T. Anderson's drama about the porn industry) and Saved
(a 2004 drama about a Christian high school, where there are two versions, both covers).
This was the theme song for the first three seasons of the HBO television series Big Love, which ran 2006-2011.
Asked by The Guardian which Beach Boys song took the least effort to write, Brian Wilson replied: "I wrote 'God Only Knows' in 45 minutes. Me and Tony Asher."
In Al Kooper's tell-all autobiography Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards
, Kooper talks about his evening visiting Brian Wilson only a week before Pet Sounds
hit the streets: "Brian played a test-pressing of the record, jumping up and stopping cuts in the middle and starting them over to emphasize his points. He was very proud of his accomplishment, maybe even a little show-offish, but I wasn't about to argue. Do you remember the first time you heard 'God Only Knows'?"
A cover version
of the song was broadcast simultaneously across BBC television and radio channels on October 7, 2014 to launch BBC Music. The new adaptation featured Brian Wilson himself as well as various guest stars including Pharrell Williams, Sir Elton John, Lorde, Chris Martin, Stevie Wonder, One Direction and Dave Grohl.
Brian Wilson first toyed with the idea of titling this "Fred Only Knows" before settling on "God Only Knows."
John Legend and Cynthia Erivo played this to bookend the "In Memorium" segment at the Grammy Awards in 2017. There were an extraordinary number of musical passings that year, David Bowie, Prince and George Michael among them.