Last week, the BBC celebrated the launch of BBC Music with a short film featuring an all-star cast of performers covering ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys, and a nearly-fifty year old song became a smash hit all over again.
The Beach Boys released the song in 1966 as a part of their masterpiece record, Pet Sounds. The impact of the song has been felt over the past forty years, with many musicians calling it one of the best songs ever written. Sir Paul McCartney has stated it is his favourite song. The song is an early example of baroque pop music – a slow burn that becomes overwhelming as it reaches a crescendo. The song is made up with layers upon layers of harmonies, adding to one another in a round to create the wonderful sound of a choir.
The new cover single has incredibly amazing performers from several musical genres and multiple decades of performance – everyone can recognize the distinctive style of at least one artist. The video is exquisitely shot, taking place in a grand music hall, with the performers staggered through the room in exquisite costumes and little stage settings that reflect aspects of their personality. The performers all appear in uniquely different spheres, yet these separate pieces all blend together in the final product. Director Francois Rousselet deserves great praise for figuring out how to best create such a vision.
From Pharrell’s opening lines to Brian Wilson’s closing chord at the piano, the performers almost uniformly deliver stunning performances. The song is broken up into line-by-line segments, so that each performer gets a moment in the spotlight without infringing on another performer’s space. Emeli Sandé appears at the end of an Alice in Wonderland tea table, Elton John is covered in blue butterflies and Lorde sports dark red and purple wings – a symbol of her reigning status as the dark angel of popular music. Florence Welsh brandishes her fiery red locks in a jungle scene while Kylie Minogue floats away in a clear bubble. Stevie Wonder brings forward the great spirit of soul with his R&B vocals and harmonica. Brian May and Jools Holland bring out quick little instrumental appearances – and really there is no one better for a one-of-a-kind guitar solo than Brian May.
Unfortunately, there are one or two sour notes – not literal sour notes, more like bland and unoriginal appearances in an otherwise perfect team. One Direction makes a dis-harmonious and bland cameo in a shot which references one of the Beatles’ many performances on the BBC. I know it was probably meant to be an act of homage, but the result is only that the most contrived elements of the One Direction brand become blatantly obvious by the comparison. (Harry and Zayn give each other a look in this video that will probably keep the gay rumours floating for a few more weeks, though.) They’re not the only ones who lack a sense of purpose or charm in the video. Dave Grohl looks stiff and lost in his appearance towards the end of the video. Even lying on the floor, Chris Martin manages to have more life than these two acts put together. But these two are the only ones who remain adrift in a sea of overwhelming talent.
The video is also important to those of us in the United States who have yet to see or hear from many of the performers in the latter half of the video. Jake Bugg stands in a field of sunflowers, and Paloma Faith makes an appearance swinging from a cloud. I was particularly thrilled to be introduced to Danielle de Niese, an Australian opera singer who appears hanging from a large balloon floating in the sky. Jamie Cullum was another welcome voice, as was Eliza Carthy.
This new cover of a classic song could have easily ended in chaos, humiliation and disdain; yet somehow the single and the video both work. Though some are cynical about the motives behind the project, there is little doubt about the quality of the end result. This group of artists have delivered something incredible.