Seventeen years ago, when the BBC first unveiled a megastar-laden lineup performing a beloved rock classic of a certain vintage, this paper had a withering take on matters. The performance of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, this paper said, offered “a none too subtle message: keep writing the cheque”.
Now, with the corporation’s battle to retain the television licence fee getting almost tougher by the week, it has unveiled a new take on a beloved song with a new cast of performers, and its message is, if anything, even less subtle, given its chorus runs: “God only knows what I’d be without you.” The new version of God Only Knows was given its first airing across all BBC platforms at 8pm on Tuesday evening, with slightly delayed airings on Radio 3, and the BBC News and World News channels.
BBC’s God Only Knows
The official reason for the new recording of the classic 1966 Beach Boys song is to mark the launch of BBC Music, which the corporation describes as “an ambitious wave of new programmes, innovative partnerships and ground-breaking music initiatives that amount to the BBC’s strongest commitment to music in 30 years”. As with Perfect Day, the song will be released as a single to raise money for the BBC’s Children in Need appeal.
As in 1997, the BBC has succeeded in gathering together a fairly staggering array of stars. Joining Brian Wilson, the song’s writer, are Sir Elton John, One Direction, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams. Jake Bugg, Lorde, Emeli Sandé, Chris Martin, Kylie Minogue, Paloma Faith, Sam Smith, Florence Welch, Chrissie Hynde, Brian May, Dave Grohl, Alison Balsom, Martin James Bartlett, Danielle de Niese, Nicola Benedetti, Eliza Carthy, Baaba Maal, Jamie Cullum, Jaz Dhami, as well as the BBC’s Zane Lowe, Lauren Laverne, Katie Derham, Gareth Malone and Jools Holland. They are joined by the Tees Valley Youth Choir and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Sir Elton John is the only survivor from Perfect Day. The song is accompanied by a lavish video filmed at the disused Alexandra Palace theatre in London, which hosted the first BBC broadcast more than 90 years ago.
Wilson, unsurprisingly, pronounced himself delighted with the results. “All of the artists did such a beautiful job I can’t thank them enough,” he said. “I’m just honoured that God Only Knows was chosen. God Only Knows is a very special song. An extremely spiritual song and one of the best I’ve ever written.”
BBC’s Perfect Day
The BBC will be hoping God Only Know can replicate the success of its predecessor. Perfect Day was originally just a televised advert for the BBC, but became so popular it was released as a single, reaching No 1 in the UK, and selling more than 1.5m copies since its release. Single sales alone raised more than £2m for Children in Need. It was so successful, in fact, that the BBC tried to do it again in 2000, when Lou Reed led a second performance of Perfect Day with a new cast across all BBC networks simultaneously as part of the BBC Music Live event. Lightning did not strike twice, however: when released as a single, that version reached only No 69. And, given it featured Rolf Harris, the BBC is doubly unlikely to want to remind viewers of it.
God Only Knows, even leaving aside the not-all-that-subliminal message about treasuring the BBC, is a perfectly suitable choice for this latest attempt at a genre-straddling, globe-bestriding pop phenomenon. Though never released as the A-side of a single – it appeared on the Pet Sounds album, and as the B-side to Wouldn’t It Be Nice – it has become one of the best-loved songs in pop history, frequently appearing in the upper reaches of best-song-ever polls.
Cast of BBC's God Only Knows Photograph: Steve Brown/BBC
Who’s who of God Only Knows. See the larger version of the image here. Full list of names below.
1 Dave Grohl; 2 Alison Balsom; 3 Lorde; 4 Pharrell Williams; 5 Zane Lowe; 6 Sam Smith; 7 Paloma Faith; 8 Eliza Carthy; 9 Nicola Benedetti; 10 Chris Martin; 11 Jaz Dhami; 12 Martin James Bartlett; 13 Danielle de Niese; 14 Stevie Wonder; 15 Florence Welch; 16 Lauren Laverne; 17 Brian Wilson; 18 Jake Bugg; 19 Katie Derham; 20 Gareth Malone; 21 Kylie Minogue; 22 Chrissie Hyde; 23 One Direction; 24 Emeli Sande; 25 Elton John; 26 Baaba Maal; 27 Ethan Johns; 28 Jools Holland; 29 Jamie Cullum; 30 Brian May; 31 Tees Valley Youth Choir; 32 BBC Concert Orchestra
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