Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Who does the best version of “God Only Knows”?
Accepting that the true answer is probably “Beach Boys, Beach Boys, Beach Boys,” this is a song oft covered and rarely, if ever, bettered, such is its beauty and ubiquity, as reliant on the arrangement as the melody, the lyrics as the singer. Most who have met the cover-me challenge have failed, duplicating and copying, facsimiles falling and failing at the shrine of St. Brian. And at the feet of St. Carl, for it is his sublime vocal that nails it. Some of these are pleasant enough – come in, Elvis Costello and Michael Stipe – but leave a memory that just longs for the original. A distinctive or different voice isn’t enough, as both Joss Stone and P.P.Arnold have discovered.
Pet Sounds is the Beach Boys record that usually gains the maximum plaudits, Brian Wilson’s perceived masterpiece, a perennial in the oft-touted best-500/best-100/top-5 records ever lists. Yet how often is it listened to as a whole? I will suggest seldom, its reputation built on the three or so absolute belters present that allow a veil to be placed over and about some of the other offerings therein. But when those belters (and I will stick with three: “God Only Knows,” “Caroline, No,” and “You Still Believe In Me”… OK, throw in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) are included, the average tips the scales so far in the direction of genius, you can be forgiven, just, for hanging on to “Hang On To Your Ego.” Of the four, “God Only Knows” is so indelibly ingrained on my psyche as to be, possibly, my favorite song ever. So my bar these for covers has been set pretty damn high.
This piece began life as a “Five Good Covers” piece before I realized there weren’t. But of the ones I found…
The Mockers is good.
Christine Tobin is better.
David Bowie is best.
The Mockers – God Only Knows (Beach Boys cover)
OK, here’s where I eat my words – this is everything I rally against above, being little more than a copycat cover, merely replacing the orchestration with power pop guitars, but it’s done with such glee, precision, and aplomb as to render the impossibility of it working asunder. Who the Mockers? Sadly not the dudes visualized in the clip above, that being another band of the same name from New Zealand. The Mockers responsible for this 2005 version are a longstanding institution based in the U.S. but better known in Spain, this being where the group’s founders met, as expats at school in that country. As an incidental, at the time of this recording, their drummer, Nelson Bragg, was also a member of Brian Wilson’s tour of SMILE.
Christine Tobin – God Only Knows (Beach Boys cover)
Christine Tobin has had a distinguished if low-key career in the folkier end of jazz, torch-singing her way through the repertoire of, to name but two, Leonard Cohen and the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. She always manages to steer a path just far enough from hotel lobby, usually as a result of her phrasing and her accompanists, drawn from the top drawer of the British and Irish jazzmen. As with this, where her melody remains as intended, the backing a dense drizzle of mellow chords and restrained percussion. This song comes from her 2004 record Romance and Revolution, which also features covers by Bob Dylan, John Martyn, and Bessie Smith, but it is largely her own material, which stands alongside the others with credibility.
David Bowie – God Only Knows (Beach Boys cover)
I will honestly say that this came as some surprise. Sure, I was familiar with it, but had never really listened to it carefully: my Bowie peak years came earlier, switching off, ironically, with Pin Ups, his all-covers album of 1973, it then being a couple of decades before I went back to him. This comes from 1984’s Tonight, which seems otherwise to have bypassed me completely. In full croon mode, his vocals seem stronger than at any other time of his career, even as he descends, on occasion, into near self-parody as the verses unfold. It sounds real and heartfelt, the innocence in Carl Wilson’s performance transformed into a bitter lament of experiential dismay. I don’t like Bowie doing covers; I love this!
STOP PRESS: I need to give a late and honorary mention to this cover. Much as I struggled to track one down, there isn’t a fifth that would make this Five Good Covers, but there is a fourth, even if it is included part through sentimentality and part through right, the late Glen Campbell having been, for a while, a Beach Boy. I had never heard his cover of “God Only Knows” until researching this piece. I think it works, even if I can’t quite work out why. Probably because his voice manages to transcend the saccharine infusing and engulfing the arrangement.
The masterpiece that is the original “God Only Knows” can be found on Amazon.