God Only Knows

God Only Knows (The Beach Boys, 1966).
God Only Knows (Andy Williams, 1967).
God Only Knows (Ava Cherry and the Astronettes, 1973).
God Only Knows (Bowie, 1984).

When you listen to “Smile” now, what words come to mind?

Childhood. Freedom. A rejection of adult rules and adult conformity. Our message was, “Adults keep out. This is about the spirit of youth.”

Brian Wilson, Wall Street Journal interview, October 2011.

Brian Wilson, who is nearly 70 years old, talked recently about the latest salvage of his would-have-been masterwork Smile. He has been asked about this “lost” record for much of his life, and he’s long run out of stories to tell. Never the most articulate of people, Wilson typically recalls half-remembered things that others have said about him. So here Wilson repeated, yet again, the statement that Smile was meant to be “a teenage symphony to God.” But then Wilson kept on that thought. “It’s a teen’s expression of joy and amazement. It’s unrestrained. We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our 20s….Van Dyke [Parks] and I wanted “Smile” to be a musical tour of America through the eyes of kids—from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head.

We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our twenties. A simple statement that has a world in it: the Sixties ideal of the teen, with adulthood now an afterthought, a curse, something to be put off as long as possible. In Wilson’s case, he has permanently put it off—he is a senior citizen who still sings about being a teenager, and his life is a teenager’s idea of an adult’s. He is Bowie’s Uncle Arthur made flesh.

Odd Victorians—butterfly collectors, mathematicians, table rappers, quietly heretical parsons—had idealized children. Somewhere in the Sixties, in California, that cult was overturned, the child was supplanted by the teen, by the beautiful, corrupted child, one pure with appetites. It was a happy usurpation. Adolescence—a brilliant dream-version of it, at least—was now the peak of life. Catalogs of songs were made in its honor.

Wilson’s Smile, intended as a hymnal for the new religion, was never released, although fragments of it have been around since 1967. The record collapsed for a host of reasons—too many drugs; the exhaustion of its composer; the resistance of the Beach Boys’ reactionary wing, led by Mike Love; the fact that some of its songs weren’t that good. And maybe because it was just unnecessary. Wilson had already written a teenage symphony to God in miniature: his and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows,” his most perfect song.

Recorded in March 1966, when Wilson was only 23, “God Only Knows” is a prayer in a love song. This wasn’t anything new. What was soul music but singers using expressions and phrasings crafted to praise God and pressing them into service for baser ends, to pronounce lust and love? It was a heresy far older than soul: in 1939, The Ink Spots offered “My Prayer,” which wasn’t to commune with God but simply to “linger with you, at the end of each day.”

So “God Only Knows” falls in this line, but what makes it special is its awkwardness, its honesty. Asher’s lyric captures the tumult of an adolescent’s thoughts: the sudden revisions, the stumbling, the defensiveness. I may not always love you, the song begins. What a start! The kid has to back his way into a vow of eternal commitment, but the bluntness of the opening line (Wilson initially hated it, and had wanted Asher to rewrite it) defines the song’s core ambiguity. It’s an eternal pledge made by a kid with a weak grasp on eternity. The second verse even opens with bluster: If you should ever leave me/though life would still go on, believe me! And again, the singer has to work his way back into pledging his love. The lyric, intentionally or no, is bled through with a teenager’s manic narcissism: every line in the second verse ends with “me” (it’s the only rhyme).

Wilson’s music and arranging for “God Only Knows” deepens the sense of love-as-confusion. The song is tonally vague (it’s a sway between E major, the key of the verse, and A major, the apparent key of the refrain), while its instrumentation is a series of blends, of instruments whose tones bleed into each other in the mono mix. The opening melody is carried on a fusion of accordion, French horn and strings; the staccato quarter notes that undergird the track are a motley of sleigh bells, pizzicato strings, organ, harpsichord and slap-echoed piano and bass (the latter sometimes played so high it sounds like an electric guitar).

Then there are the moments of grace. The little instrumental bridge that briefly sends the song off into a new world. The sweet sighing of Brian Wilson’s voice. The extended coda, with its gorgeous, humble polyphony (just the Wilson brothers, with Bruce Johnston as the top voice): it’s a sense of awe inspired by a suddenly imaginable bliss.

Bowie, like many British musicians of his generation, had loved Pet Sounds—Paul McCartney’s infatuation with the record is one of the more shopworn facts in Beatles lore. The sweetness, the teenage grandeur of the Beach Boys’ records, their sense of a paradise effortlessly achieved by young people somewhere on the West Coast, were something alien to the UK. To no surprise, a cult soon formed around Wilson.

I believe you, Mr. Wilson, John Cale sang, I believe you anyway. Because by 1975, when Cale wrote the song, Wilson had become a zombified figure padding about in a bathrobe, writing songs about Johnny Carson, while the California mythland he had authored had gone to seed (already, in the promo film for “God Only Knows,” Dennis Wilson looks dissolute, Manson-like). When I listen to your music, you’re still thousands of miles away, Cale sang. The line was a play on Cale’s memory of being a nobody in Wales hearing Wilson’s Californian exotica for the first time, and on Wilson’s distance from the promises that his own music made.

The distance that McCartney, Cale and Bowie felt from (and in) Wilson—a dreamer who could never fall asleep, so he doled out his dreams to others—gave them a better vantage to appraise his work. They saw that the Beach Boys at their finest made a modern holy music; religious music for a generation that never thought it would die, one that would never grow old.

Bowie recognized that “God Only Knows,” one of his favorite Wilson tracks, was at heart a soul song. His first attempt to cover the song, with Ava Cherry and the Astronettes in 1973, got it half-right. Cherry was a marvelous singer who never got the chance to really prove it, and here she gives a fervor to the lyric yet doesn’t lose the sense of happy bewilderment and humility. But Bowie’s arrangement, with an odd mandolin accompaniment in the verse and a garrulous saxophone solo that nearly flat-out kills the song, was an ill omen.

A decade later, making Tonight, Bowie seemed to have lost everything that had once made him—his tactical intelligence as a singer, his innate good taste, the precision of his performances, his easy way of reconciling styles within himself. For whatever reason, he decided at last to cover “God Only Knows” himself. He sounds like a man lost in a cathedral who begins to deface the walls in panic.

Bowie’s inspiration seems to be Andy Williams’ version of the song, from 1967 (Bowie’s schmaltzy version of “Imagine” from 1983 seems an initial run-through). But Williams was respectful, cool: he lets himself sink into the song, letting the melody occasionally slip away from him, and whenever he moves to the grandiose, he quickly checks himself with his awed, quiet phrasings of the title refrain. Williams and Ava Cherry had known that the song was bigger than them, and wandered happily within its confines.

At first, Bowie’s version on Tonight seems adequate. He sounds somber and restrained in the opening verses, if seemingly doing a parody of Scott Walker, though the croaking begins to irritate after a time—the lyric is meant to be sung by someone bewildered by love; Bowie seems to be serenading a corpse. A few warning signs come: the grotesque way Bowie sings “stahhhrs,” like he’s gargling, or how he gets snagged on “sure,” rolling the word around on his tongue.

Then Bowie decided that the performance needed to build, that some act of professional grandiosity was required on the record, a contractual obligation that EMI had slipped in. So he and Hugh Padgham (and maybe Derek Bramble—no one’s claimed ownership, unsurprisingly) start to trowel things on. Strings, which had been part of the communal sound world on the Beach Boys’ version, just playing sustained chords and mixed with organ, are used on Bowie’s cover as offensive weapons, soon followed by the horns. One saxophone gets a little solo phrase that’s utterly hateful in its insipidness. Then the singers come in, up to no good. The thing is, everyone sounds so damned pleased with themselves. They’re vandals with delusions of artistry.

But the worst crimes are left to Bowie. Too much of an egoist here to share the vocals, he has to carry the coda by himself. He starts singing the title phrase in a hectoring tone, souring the pleasures of the long vowels—the way “OHN-lee” and “KNOWS” are warm sisters, a communal reassurance following the initial hard, short vowel of “God.” Instead Bowie places his weight upon “God” and rushes through the rest of the phrase, letting it expire in a sickly gasp on “with-out you.” The last repeat, in which Bowie brutalizes each word, wringing whatever effect he can from each syllable, is the apex of the dreadful performance. It’s astonishing in its tastelessness.

The story goes that Bowie was too young for the Sixties, he was always outside of it. But maybe, as this terrible record shows, he was just always too old.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Steve Kagan: Anthony Michael Hall, John Hughes and Molly Ringwald on the set of The Breakfast Club, filmed 1984; Molly Ringwald in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984); Eric Fischl, The Brat II, 1984.

48 Responses to God Only Knows

  1. Diamond Duke says:

    Yes, I fully agree that Bowie’s vocal is waaaaaaaaaayyy OTT – above and beyond the call of duty – and the instrumental arrangement is perhaps too far on the cheesy side. But the simple fact of the matter is that Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s song – in addition to being just simply, exquisitely beautiful – is bulletproof. It doesn’t really matter what dodgy arrangement and performance choices are applied to it. God Only Knows is a song that I always find personally affecting, and I personally believe that it doesn’t really matter what dubious arrangement and/or performance choices are applied to it. It’s a teflon classic, and it can’t help but be genuinely moving.

    (BTW, on a future Bowie mix disc, I plan on having God Only Knows as the second-to-last track – sandwiched in between Conversation Piece and the closer The Wedding Song.)

    • Diamond Duke says:

      [*SIGH*] It appears I’ve once again screwed something up, and I’ve got a big redundancy in my post. You have my permission to delete the first “It doesn’t really matter what dodgy arrangement and performance choices are applied to it”, right in the middle of the first paragraph. Y’know, I really ought to proofread myself more often… 😦

    • Maj says:

      Not bulletproof to my ears. If I didn’t know the original version I’d just rush to change the station had it popped up, and wondered what the HECK that dreadful shite was.
      But these things are individual…while the original can make me cry, Bowie’s version can, too, but in a totally different way. ;o)

  2. MC says:

    The terribleness of this rendition is undeniable – a friend of mine said that it sounds like they chose the worst take of every line. Definitely DB’s Across The Universe of the 80’s, only more so. The thing is, for me it’s the most perversely listenable thing on the record, in the way Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance is – definitely so bad it’s good territory. The grotesque emoting at the end is just priceless.

  3. jopasso says:

    Ridiculous, but I got to confess that it is one of my guilty pleasures.
    The few times I listen to it, there is nobody home, crank up the volume and perform a dramatic playback, he he.

    By the way, I never got the grandeur of Pet Sounds. I try hard but I can’t get it.

    Great writing as usual

  4. Anonymous says:

    Bowie is almost exactly the same age as Carl Wilson, or would be if Carl was still with us. He wasn’t really too young for the sixties.

  5. Frankie says:

    Thanks for the great write-up. When I first heard his rendition I was 21 and his vocal delivery made me consider 3 possible meanings to the phrase “God only knows” that a teenager’s mind might think up.

    1. God only knows: meaning only God knows.
    2. God only knows: meaning that’s the only thing that God knows. 3. God only knows, meaning nobody knows, who knows?

    But like an aerosol can from an alien lab, Bowie manages to spray past all 3 possible meanings, and yet he belts it like its the most important part of the tune. I think Wilson was more subdued.

    If I were still a Mormon at the time I would’ve been impressed. Maybe he should have sung it as a secret love song to Mick Ronson instead!

  6. Jasper says:

    I really like Bowie’s version of this song. I like the way it starts out and works it way into a very dramatic or desperate sounding ending. In general I like when Bowie sounds desperate lol. It is over the top, but so is the nature of the song
    I would have loved to hear Bowie’s vocal on the Ava Cherry version, especially if they killed the mandolins.
    I couldn’t find a credit for the painting, My guess is that it’s by Eric Fischl. Somehow thinking of Fischel’s work made me think of how Bowie changed in the eighties. He became famous for the paintings of a sort of somewhat perverted or dark small town America narrative painting, they were really good. The two last shows I saw was one of portraits of his rich collectors and one of mostly unsexy naked people on the beach, those two shows I could not really relate to, even thou I could clearly see what he wanted to do, but they didn’t move me. Basically there was more production than content.

    • col1234 says:

      Jasper–it is a Fischl–“Brat II.” Credits at the end of the post. I had really wanted to use a Jeff Koons, but ’84’s a bit too early.

      • Jasper says:

        Sorry I missed that credit, I was looking for it. Mid eighties Koons have the object sculptures, vacuum cleaners and basket balls etc, later Koons probably fit better. I think his, in my mind, master piece is the silver rabbit is from 86

  7. Maj says:

    There is nothing I like about this. When I first heard it I actually couldn’t believe my ears. It’s just pure abomination.
    I usually love croonings baritones but even if Bowie sang this with just a paino I would still completely hate THE WAY he sings it. So for me the biggest fault of his cover is not even the production (though the production IS really bad), it’s his style of singing it. It just sounds so shallow, as if he recorded this for a TV ad. Blergh.

    For the record, I don’t listen to The Beach Boys at all. I love the Beatles though and I’m apparently the only person on the planet who likes Bowie’s Across the Universe. Strange.

    • Jasper says:

      you are not alone 😉 I love his Across the Universe

    • giospurs says:

      You should open your ears to the Beach Boys. I love the Beatles too and until a year or so ago had never bothered with the Beach Boys. Their surfer-boys reputation and treacly harmonies initially put me off but after making an effort, I now like them just as much as the Fab Four, even if their output is nowhere near as consistent as the Beatles’. So yeah, stick on Pet Sounds and give it a chance!

      • Maj says:

        I’ve been trying to make myself listen to the Beach Boys for about a decade now…maybe one day I will. I guess I’m afraid of the sunniness… 🙂

    • danmac says:

      For the record, I love Bowie’s Across the Universe too and don’t understand the hate for it. Glad someone else is out there….

  8. Maj says:

    Oh, for all the hate in my comment I forgot to say this write-up is exeptionally brilliant. Thanks man! 🙂

  9. Remco says:

    Just when you think he’s hit rock bottom with ‘Neighborhood Threat’ he manages to create another layer of hell by brutally ravaging such a beautiful song. The way it just oozes with schmaltzy melodrama would make Celine Dion envious. If there were ever a collection entitled ‘The ‘Very Worst of David Bowie’ this would be its centerpiece.

    Wonderful write-up of the original, thank you for doing justice to it and proving why the Bowie version is so horribly, horribly bad.

  10. giospurs says:

    Well I was looking forward to hearing DB tackle one of Brian Wilson’s best but I should have known better. I do kind of like the Ava Cherry version though.

    There’s a more interesting take here from Bullion’s Beach Boys vs. J Dilla mixtape, combining a number of cover versions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt69eLmol5o

  11. Diamond Duke says:

    By the way, according to Nicholas Pegg’s reference guide The Complete David Bowie, in 2001 song lyricist Tony Asher cited Bowie’s recording of God Only Knows as his favorite cover version from Pet Sounds! So I guess we all better put that in our pipes and smoke it… 😉

    Frankly, I can’t wait until we get to Never Let Me Down! 🙂 It is definitely my big guilty pleasure out of the entire David Bowie catalogue. In fact, I think I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the one Bowie disc released in the 15-year span between Scary Monsters (1980) and Outside (1995) that I’d put on just for the sheer pleasure of it would be Never Let Me Down.

    What’s more, I would further suggest that Never Let Me Down should have gotten its very own American Psycho chapter! (Remember the chapters devoted to Patrick Bateman’s favorite ’80s discs by Phil Collins and Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston – or Christian Bale’s brilliant fanboy monologues from the film version?) I mean, where’s the justice here?! As a matter of fact, I would suggest we all have a competition to see who can write the best “Patrick Bateman review” of Never Let Me Down! 🙂

    • giospurs says:

      Haha, that’s a great idea. Hopefully we don’t have to deliver it to webcam while slaughtering anyone though. That might take the fun out of it.

  12. Gnomemansland says:

    The way Bowie yelps “Gawwd only knoooows waht I’d beeeeee without you” towards the end sounds like a man in a spoof advert singing about his need for laxative……..

  13. Gnomemansland says:

    The Williams version in contrast is not bad at all – there is a strong MOR streak in Wilson’s work after all.

  14. Marion Brent says:

    This karaoke disaster certainly plumbs new depths of utter wretchedness. But it’s funny how throughout his career Bowie has always insisted on covering other people’s material despite the fact that he’s never been terribly good at it, even during his golden years. Of the dozens of covers he’s done, to my mind there are very few (Sorrow and Wild Is The WInd are the only ones that come to mind at the moment) that he really makes his own. I mean if you just take the canonical period:

    Hunky Dory/Fill Your Heart: not awful, but not exactly one of the album’s highlights, and not really different enough from the Biff Rose original to justify its existence
    Ziggy/ It Aint Easy: in recent years I’ve warmed to it a little, but it’s still the worst song on the album and sticks out like a sore thumb
    Aladdin Sane/Let’s Spend The Night Together: easily the worst thing on the album
    Pin-Ups: largely pointless
    YA/ Across The Universe: proof that even at his best, Bowie was capable of the worst
    STS/Wild Is The Wind: the exception that proves the rule
    Alabama Song: not awful, but not all that different from the Doors version
    SM/Kingdom Come: album filler

    Honestly, if Bowie had never done a single cover version, the world wouldn’t have lost much…

    • Remco says:

      I love Bowie’s ‘Alabama Song’ and he also does a pretty decent ‘Cactus’ on Heathen but apart from that I’d say you’re absolutely, and eloquently, spot on

    • Gnomemansland says:

      Agreed – spot on Analysis.

  15. algeriatouchshriek says:

    I heard the Bowie version of GOK before I heard the orginal (same with Let Spend The Night Together and the Stones).

    Although it is wildly over the top, bombastic, over produced and marred by association I much prefer it to the tepid original. That said I find much of the Beach Boys work headache inducing.

    Didn’t Angie Bowie refer to his cover of GOK as like ‘dudley moore taking the piss’ … not a bad summation. At least one can laugh at it … even if the jokes on Dave.

  16. Jeremy says:

    Great comments from everyone and great analysis in the essay. I’m a major fan of the Beach Boys and really you can’t top their version. Even before I became a Beach Boys fan I didn’t like Bowie’s version. Even though I normally love melodramatic Bowie this version is just way too souless to have any impact. People are right, Bowie is a strange one when it comes to covers, he rarely gets it right. As to why there’s a whole essay just in that!

    As Bowie once said – Have a cool yule…

  17. David L says:

    So we’re all agreed, this is a great song!

    Yeah, right. But bad as this is, at least he seems to be trying. For that reason, in my book, this is only the second worst track on the album. “Tonight” is not only the album’s nadir, but his career nadir. It’s just about the only time he actually set out to create muzak. The only way Iggy could possibly return the favor is by strolling into a Vegas lounge, arm in arm with Kenny G, and announce “Hey party people, me and my good buddy here are going to cover David Bowie’s ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, Kenny G-style. And hopefully we’ll make a lot of money and be asked to sing it for every charity raising event.”

    Anyway, I’d pretty much written off this whole album and hadn’t listened to it since 1984. But then, of course, Chris’ great writing makes me listen again and you know, if you cut out “Tonight,” “God Only Knows” and “I Keep Forgetting,” it’s not bad. Blue Jean, Dancing with the Big boys and Loving the Alien (the single version) are solid, enjoyable. Overall better than the next album, and probably better than Black Tie.

  18. diamond dog says:

    Never liked the original ….sorry leaves me cold as does much of pet sounds. Cannot get into beach boys and could never get into any of the music , obviously some the singles are foot tappers but never touched me. This as with the many covers he has done is BADDDD and he simply hams it up like an xfactor finalist its awful. Funnily enough I like across the universe and much of pin ups but this misses the mark and I don,t like the orig I even would say its beneath being covered by Bowie .

  19. swanstep says:

    I don’t have time to write a full response right now but I think this piece is well off the mark (quite uncharacteristically for this blog).

    Here’s the basic problem: you don’t grapple *at all* with what Bowie actually does to the song: (i) he changes the order of Asher’s verses. (Numbering the verses in the obvious way, Asher’s 1,2,2 becomes Bowie’s 2,1,2; Williams preserves 1,2,2 as does Ava Cherry and Co.) (ii) He changes the second line of 2 to ‘My life…’ from ‘Well life…’ (Williams preserves ‘Well’, Ava Cherry confusingly modifies it to ‘Your’). No treatment that ignores these basic facts can be satisfactory.

    Asher’s 2 is the more coherent, but more desperate/self-involved verse (change (ii) further clarifies that/ratchets that up): ‘If you should ever leave me…’ I wouldn’t kill myself but I’d be dead inside so might as well have, and God Help me. Contrary to the write-up here, there is not a trace of a ‘pledge of love’ worked back to in that verse any more than there would be if a simpler, threatening (Reznor-ish!) ‘If you left me I’d kill myself’ idea had been used.

    1 famously has a slightly eerie and incoherent thrust: ‘Yes, I might in principal leave you/stop loving you, but in fact I won’t and don’t you worry about a thing’. But running it *after* the completely self-absorbed 2 makes it’s own self-absorption clearer (the sort of certainty Bowie will give his lover is little more than a self-serving ruse, one that it’s a little self-defeating to talk about!) That’s the reason for all Bowie’s odd, pricklish emphases in 1 on ‘stars’, ‘need’, ‘sure’ etc.. And whereas when verse 2 is repeated in 1,2,2 it carries no additional meaning whereas in 2,1,2 it does: 1’s self-defeating ruse of concern and assurance for the supposed beloved has been exposed to the singer himself, hence he’s back to what’s really on his mind, that she might leave him and how that would make him feel if it came to pass. A slightly ragged/hysterical vocal, not a million miles removed from Heroes, is what we might predict at this point and to close, and that’s pretty much what we get.

    In sum, I don’t see anything ‘shockingly tasteless’ about what Bowie’s tried to pull off: pushing God Only Knows’s perspective into a study complete neediness (maybe he went a bit heavy on the Scott Walkerisms, but that’s hardly a hanging offense). I do, however, see lots of commentator blindness and insensitivity and rush to hyperbolic judgment. I love this blog, but this entry in my view needs a lot of work.

    • diamond dog says:

      Gotta say your points made are valid and must say I agree about the vocal its just as I said before I just don,t think much of the song in the first place. I don,t begrudge an artist fancying having a go at a song they love but let’s just say restructuring it and adding an embarrassing over the top vocal to it is a crime to my ears. Conceited of him to think his version was worth release it should have been left on the tape room floor.

    • col1234 says:

      these are fine points, and this is an excellent rebuttal. The point about the switched verses is especially trenchant—that is something I frankly just overlooked, and you’re right, it does greatly change the context of the song, and makes DB’s cover a study in complete neediness and delusion.

      That said, I still think it is a terrible, tasteless recording, greatly oversung by DB—there’s a thin line between classic Bowie vocal grandiosity and sheer oversinging, and I think he sprints across it here— and, worse, given a garish, witless arrangement. But you’ve made a great case for it. I agree this isn’t one of the blog’s finer entries.

      all best, c.o.

    • Thanks for this – your points are all valid and a great addition to this entry.

      I have to admit as a child of about 12 this was the first version of the song I had heard, and for that reason when I sing it to myself it’s in Bowie’s order, which I just think works better. Perhaps it is because I grew up with a musical theater background (don’t judge), but I like it when Bowie goes over the top even though I don’t necessarily consider it artful. Subtlety has its place but it isn’t necessary for everything. This is pure heart on its sleeve melodrama, and you know what? Compared to the apathy on the rest of the album I can live with that.

  20. J.D. says:

    Yes, I think there is an element of Bowie desperately burlesquing himself or the self-he-was, via his influences, with this one. (Quite similarly to a lot of the Pinups excursions, come to think of it.) I accept that no one who’s an enthusiast of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” could ever really countenance the Bowie Nineteen-Eighty-Floor-Show version in good faith.
    Coming around on them from a DB perspective, though, it’s not unexpected to see him skewing the originals, whether slightly or at an odd slant — as if to say, some aspect of this is me too, contorted in space and time, but at some level distinctly serious. I thikk the reference to the “soul” music quality of the original is worth seconding. Mr Wilson himself was an enormous fan of the girlgroup and soul movement earlier in the game….

  21. Pierre says:

    Astronette’s version is the best in my opinion.

  22. Zander says:

    I’m going to stick my neck out here. This is probably one of the best technical Bowie vocals on record. It’s not cool to like it, in fact it’s deemed shameful as you’ve all said…to this ears though, it’s a great performance and a solid cover. No wonder one of the writers cited it as the best cover of the song ever done.

  23. […] singing. Chris O’Leary, covering his ears just enough, dissects Bowie’s terrible choices: He starts singing the […]

  24. Steve says:

    Cant remember which English music paper it was, but reviewing 1984 at the end of the year, Bowie got an “award” “for murdering God Only Knows by the Beach Boys”. Agreed at the time and still do!!

  25. Aloysius says:

    Tonight is in my album Top 10. And I love the song! Shame on me!

  26. Ramzi says:

    While you may want to understandably tone this post down a bit for the book, the last line is really spot on

  27. Brian says:

    Time for my bad taste to be revealed- I actually think this cover starts well, but loses it by the end. If he had been reigned in, and everything but his vocal had been tossed out and replaced by something actually good, this would be remembered more fondly. As it stands now… “karaoke night” is too kind for it.

  28. postpunkmonk says:

    Bowie’s version of this song was the first I’d heard in 1999, after finally relenting and buying “Tonight” after deciding that I needed to hear it all – even the EMI trilogy I’d avoided for years. I immediately hated this song; considered it right up there with “Across The Universe” and “If There Is Something” as Bowie’s worst covers ever.

    Then, in 2013 I bought the B.E.F. volume 3 album, “Dark.” I became quite taken by the version sung on that album by Shingai Shoniwa, whose performance was delightfully personable and ambiguous, as befits the rather exceptional lyric. I really began to like the song at that time. Mind you, I still had not heard the original yet.

    Then, last week, I finally bought a copy of “Pet Sounds” since I was seeing Brian Wilson in concert, performing it last night. I found the album underwhelming on first listen, but subsequent listenings are worming their way into my skull, though at this point I still find it overrated, albeit with moments of brilliance.

    After last night’s performance, the song has been embedded in my cranium this morning and I pulled “Tonight” to compare and contrast. I’ll just say that I consider hanging too good for him!

  29. Cool S says:

    I can imagine Bowie singing this, with his leg over the other, a cigar between his fingers and sporting a sunbath Roger Moore-face. It’s absolutely dreadful and at the same time hilarious. It’s impossible to listen to this and not start giggling. This is Bowie in his absolute Nadir, self-consciously parodying himself, belting out an absolute awful piece of schlock, almost proud in his cheesiness. Hard to imagine that one man sang Ashes to Ashes four years prior.

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