Written by: Brian Wilson, Tony Asher
Recorded: May-June 1984
Producers: David Bowie, Derek Bramble, Hugh Padgham
Released: 24 September 1984
Carlos Alomar: guitar
Derek Bramble: keyboards, synthesizer
Rob Yale: Fairlight CMI synthesizer
Carmine Rojas: bass guitar
Omar Hakim: drums
Sammy Figuerosa: percussion
Guy St Onge: marimba
Mark Pender: trumpet
Stanley Harrison: alto saxophone
Lenny Pickett: tenor saxophone
Steve Elson: baritone saxophone
Robin Clark, George Simms, Curtis King: vocals
David Bowie recorded a version of the Beach Boys’ classic ‘God Only Knows’ for Tonight, his 16th studio album.
The song was originally a highlight of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. It was written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, and originally sung by Carl Wilson.
Bowie had recorded ‘God Only Knows’ during the Pin Ups sessions in 1973, but chose instead to focus mainly on British beat music.
He did, however, record it with the Astronettes, the short-lived trio of Bowie protégés – Ava Cherry, Geoffrey MacCormack, and Jason Guess – whose album he produced at London’s Olympic Studios in 1973. ‘God Only Knows’ was arranged by Tony Visconti, with a pretty mandolin backing and a saxophone solo by Bowie.
The project was shelved, but eventually saw light in 1995 as the album People From Bad Homes, credited to Ava Cherry and the Astronettes.
David asked me to write some string arrangements for a side project of his, the Astronettes, who consisted of Ava Cherry, Geoffrey MacCormack and Jason Guess. They were a vocal group that looked incredible and sounded unusual. I wrote some very different arrangements for songs such as ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘I Am A Dodo’ [sic] (which was rewritten as ‘Scream Like A Baby’ for Bowie’s Scary Monsters album). I also wrote strings for ‘1984’, a theme song for Bowie’s television special, which was in the early stages of development. The ‘God Only Knows’ arrangement features mandolins playing what would normally be for violins; I thought I would have to persuade David to accept it, but he did so without hesitation.
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I think that this album gave me a chance, like Pin Ups did a few years ago, to do some covers that I always wanted to do. ‘God Only Knows’ I first did – or tried to do – with Ava Cherry and that crowd The Astronettes when I tried to develop them into a group. Nothing came of that! I still have the tapes, though. It sounded such a good idea at the time and I never had the chance to do it with anybody else again, so I though I’d do it myself… it might be a bit saccharine, I suppose.
NME, 29 September 1984
Bowie’s version swapped the order of two verses, so the famous opening line – “I may not always love you” – was relegated to the second verse. This changed the effectiveness of the song, turning it from a declaration of unending devotion (“As long as there are stars above me/You’ll never need to doubt it”) to making the narrator appear more paranoid and possessive (“If you should ever leave me/My life would still go on, believe me”).
There wasn’t much original material on Tonight. And ‘God Only Knows’ was a bit of a dodgy song to cover. I’ve never thought it was a good idea to cover a classic unless you have a fairly strong chance of improving it, which is unlikely, or subverting it in some way… ‘God Only Knows’ was bad judgment. My production had too much reverb and pomposity on it.
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‘God Only Knows’s was arranged by guitarist Carlos Alomar, with strings scored by Arif Mardin.
He said, ‘Carlos, Arif Mardin is coming in to do some strings.’ Robin and I had worked with Arif for years, so we knew him very well. So I needed to do something amazing. I don’t know why he [Bowie] did ‘God Only Knows’. We tried our best with everything, but it’s a cover and I don’t mess with arrangements of covers… When it came to Beach Boys or Beatles songs, I was very delicate with arrangements.
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Tonight is commonly considered to be one of Bowie’s creative low points, and his overwrought and unsympathetic cover of ‘God Only Knows’ as its nadir, the lowest of the lows. In 2001, however, Tony Asher declared Bowie’s rendition his favourite Pet Sounds cover version, an opinion which is rarely shared by even the most devoted Bowie fan. God only knows what he was thinking.