Isolated Vocals The Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows'
(Credit: Capitol Records)

From Fleetwood Mac to David Bowie: The 10 best covers of The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys are one of those bands who can spark a lot of debate. A serial contender for the most underrated or overrated rock band of the 20th century, depending on your viewpoint, Brian Wilson and the rest of the band have a habit of dividing opinion.

Looking at this list of incredible covers of the California boys’ work and you can count on some of the finest musicians of their day and present day as just a few of their many, many admirers and be safe in the knowledge that it’s okay to belt out some classics from The Beach Boys.

There no doubting that Brian Wilson quickly ascertained himself the moniker of ‘genius’ after he orchestrated one of the finest pop albums of all time in Pet Sounds. As an introduction to The Beach Boys’ divisive nature, often people will cite this seminal album as being lifted from the Phil Spector rulebook on the Wall of Sound and therefore not as valuable.

Of course, they would be wrong. What Wilson did with Pet Sounds and what he and the rest of The Beach Boys did across their entire back catalogue was to transcend any categorisation or labelling, theirs is a career of complete musical evolution as they grew from the roots of surf rock into something inspiring and tantalisingly unattainable.

With a voice unlike any other band and a maestro like Brian Wilson controlling the show, The Beach Boys became a huge influence on the countless artists who heard them while beginning their own musical journeys. It has seen the band from Cali become one of the most widely covered in history.

Below, we have ten of our favourites.

10 best Beach Boys covers:

10. ‘Farmer’s Daughter’ – Fleetwood Mac

Taken from Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 live record Live, the band are in their harmony hotspot as Nicks and Christie McVie adds some luscious tones to the cover as the group rhythmically plod through the song.

Originally released in 1963 as part of The Beach Boys early rise to prominence, the song is hinged on the harmonies of the Wilson boys so this adaptation is not only perfectly fitting in with the style of the track but it also feels fresh and new. Subtlely is a friend on this cover and Fleetwood Mac does that better than anyone.

9. ‘Good Vibrations’ – Todd Rundgren

Taken from Todd Rundgren’s seventh album Faithful from 1976, the record saw the singer provide accurate re-recordings, in fact, they’re near replicas of the originals, of what he determined as classical pop songs. It was a brand new take on covering songs as, instead of putting a fresh spin on things, Rundgren was keen to keep things “faithful”.

What transpires, therefore, is a near-identical cover of The Beach Boys classic, ‘Good Vibrations’ a song which Brian Wilson wrote as the ultimate pop song to remove bad energy. Of course, when something is near identical to The Beach Boys it’s near-perfect too.

8. ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ – The Jesus and Mary Chain

The 1980s Scottish rock band, who rose to fame following the release of their debut album Psychocandy, The Mary Chain had earned a somewhat infamous live reputation with furious performances often combining copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and violence at early small gigs.

The influence The Beach Boys had on The Mary Chain is undeniable and, in a direct nod of the head to the band, they released the B-side Kill ‘Surf City’ which was a reworking of Brian Wilson’s ‘Surf City’. While other tracks like ‘Never Understand’ displayed the Beach Boys melodies, it wasn’t until 1988 when the Scottish group decided to address the comparisons with a cover version of ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’.

The recording, which was included in their compilation album Barbed Wire Kisses (B-Sides and More), is a noisy, guitar-heavy take on the original with plenty of reverb. Naturally.

7. ‘God Only Knows’ – Elton John

The life and times of Brian Wilson is certainly worth celebrating. That’s what television network TNT thought and in 2001 they brought to the public An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson. The show, hosted on 29th March 2001 by acclaimed actor Chazz Palminteri, keeps true to its name and produced an evening full of some of the most iconic stars of the TIME as well as some glamourous guests from the past.

The show welcomed a range of artists, a couple of which are featured in this list, giving their own special performances of Wilson classics. When one performance came up, however, it blew the others out of the water. A real treat would come when Elton John would take on the iconic Beach Boys’ song ‘God Only Knows’, which you can see below.

6. ‘Surfin’ Safari’ – Ramones

A song to come from the band’s tribute album to the sounds of the 1960s, 1990s Acid Eaters from the New York punks, was the Ramones cover of The Beach Boys classic, ‘Surfin’ Safari’—it’s a match made in heaven.

Who’d have thought it but as the East Coast upstarts take on the West Coast gems a marriage of furious punk tone with the pounding rhythm of surf-rock is created. It’s an absolute joy to behold and one that The Beach Boys have reciprocated on, singing ‘Rockaway Beach’ live on numerous occasions. But this is an outstanding reimagining of the fast-paced surf-rock sound put through a punk meat grinder.

5. ‘Surfer Girl’ – Paul Simon

Another moment from the TNT show tribute to Brian Wilson was when singer-songwriter and legendary folk man Paul Simon delivered his poignant version of ‘Surfer Girl’. Taking on Wilson’s very first composition, Simon transforms the track into something entirely different.

Simon’s version approaches the song not with the unstoppable vigour and optimism of youth, as Wilson did, but with the knowledge of how golden those moments are. Wilson remembers writing the track, “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

Watch Paul Simon’s incredible version of the song below:

4. ‘God Only Knows’ – David Bowie

Featuring on Bowie’s 1984 record Tonight, the Starman adds a heavy dose of his dulcet tones on this harmony-driven classic. It sees the mercurial chameleon of rock, Bowie, pay tribute to the foundations laid by the pop maestros The Beach Boys.

The song, originally written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, would later lay the down the blueprints for popular music. As well as being a truly captivating listen, the song is cherishable because of Wilson’s use of an unorthodox and pioneering selection of instruments during its period of recording.

Brian Wilson’s impeccable writing is given yet another lease of life by Bowie here who adds not only another layer of vocal purity but the sultry and sexy nonchalance of an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing. It was a facet of his career that has never been denied as Bowie almost always adds a little bit of extra star power to any cover he comes across.

3. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – Ronnie Spector

Sometimes you can hear a song from your favourite artist and it just sounds right coming out of somebody else’s mouth. For our money, there is nobody who sounds as at home covering The Beach Boys than Ronnie Spector. On The Ronettes singer’s cover of ‘Don’t Worry Baby,’ we’re all comforted and swept away at once.

The answer may be that, as well as being contemporaries, Spector is arguably one of Wilson’s own favourite artists. In most clips of the pair together hee is completely besotted with her as a person as well as an artist, even calling The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ his favourite song of all time. “This is the song that inspired me to produce records,” Wilson once recalled. “When I first heard it, it blew my mind. The drum sound that Phil Spector got, the harmonies, the piano and guitar sounds — I thought it was the greatest record I ever heard.”

Ronnie Spector repays the compliment by taking on this Beach Boys classic with aplomb and delivering a beautiful rendition Wilson would be very happy with, we’re sure.

2. ‘Little Honda’ – Yo La Tengo

Often a good avenue to follow if you’re looking to both record and release a cover of a huge artist like The Beach Boys is to go for a comparatively rare song from their catalogue. For indie legends Yo La Tengo’s 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, the band took on ‘Little Honda’.

Originally composed by Mike Love and Brian Wilson for The Beach Boys album All Summer Long, Carl Wilson remembers the song’s composition: “Brian does exactly what he wants to do. I remember [sits back and laughs] — this is so funny — when we did ‘Little Honda,’ Brian wanted me to get this real distorted guitar sound, real fuzzy. “This guitar sounds like shit,” I said. “Brian, I hate this.” And he goes, “Would you fucking do it? Just do it.” When I heard it, I felt like an asshole. It sounded really hot. That was before fuzz became a big deal.”

By 1997, when Yo La Tengo took on the track fuzz was in and in a big way. This cover takes the fuzz to a whole new level as the distorted vibes of the track permeate the airwaves. For a fresh take on a teeny-bop classic, it’s about as good as it gets.

1. ‘I Know There’s An Answer’ – Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth are one of the most innovative bands of modern rock. Formed as the full-frontal attack of New York’s no wave movement, the band quickly became the disgruntled voice of a disenfranchised generation. The inspirational band can’t quite match up to The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson though.

Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley are responsible for launching a plethora of alternative rock acts and their ability to inspire and influence cannot be underestimated. The band formed in 1981 in the depths of New York’s art world and were soon bringing their innovative sound to the masses with Daydream Nation and Goo in the late eighties.

So by the time the group were asked to take part in Smiles, Vibes & Harmony: A Tribute to Brian Wilson in 1990, they were the biggest act on the bill. The group took on the Pet Sounds classic, ‘I Know There’s An Answer’ and, of course, delivered a sensational version of the classic. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo also had some insight on the song, via Sonic Youth, “We had some help from Don [Fleming] and J. [Mascis] on that one. We were all listening to Pet Sounds at the time and passing around [the Beach Boys’ biography] Heroes and Villains. I ended up singing that song by default, because no one else could sing it.” Judging by the complexity of Wilson’s vocal melodies, we’re not surprised.

“Thurston tried and even Don tried,” continued Ranaldo. “Then it was like – alright, you try. I played the one main bass harmonica part on this little cheesy corncob harmonica. It was fun listening to the Beach Boys and pulling apart their arrangement and figuring out how we could do it.”

The final result was a piece of experimental and creatively driven of music that not only paid homage to The Beach Boys but showcased SOnic Youth as one of the most important bands of the time.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content