There are few songs that capture the tenderness of love as well as The Beach Boys’ 1966 hit ‘God Only Knows’. Featured on their classic album Pet Sounds, the song was written by The Beach Boys’ megalomaniac genius Brian Wilson with the help of Tony Asher, the lyricist whom Wilson worked alongside. With its earnest, vulnerable expression of romance and spirituality, ‘God Only Knows’ stands in stark contrast to many of The Beach Boys’ previous hits which, until Pet Sounds, focused on such ’60s pop-song mainstays as cars, girls and surfing.
This departure from tired pop cliches allowed the single to take on a universal appeal, one that endures decades later. As well as being one of the most heartwarming songs of the 1960s, it continues to evoke a profound sense of nostalgia, the sheer warmth of which is rivalled only by The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes The Sun’. In the hands of these Canadian schoolchildren – who were recorded performing ‘God Only Knows’ as part of the Langley Schools Music Project in 1976/1977 – The Beach Boys’ hymn to undying love takes on even more poignancy.
This recording is undoubtedly one of the most hauntingly beautiful covers of ‘God Only Knows’ around. It features the delightfully rough-edged vocals of The Langely Project’s young performers accompanied by distantly strummed nylon guitars, glockenspiel, and xylophones. Much of the recording’s charm lies in its simplicity. The project’s director, Hans Fenger, was not attempting to match the harmonic perfection of Wilson’s meticulously crafted original. Instead, he was interested in capturing the innocence and joyful exuberance of the children he was working with, celebrating the unique quality of their voices. There is something so profound about listening to Wilson’s immortal lyric: “God only knows what I’d be without you”, sung by people who were – at the time of recording – still entirely reliant on the support of their parents and teachers.
The Langley School Music Project’s album Innocence and Despair – from which this track comes – is a stunning 19-track document of the 60-voice chorus of rural Canadian school children, age 9-12, that was recorded in 1976-1977. As well as The Beach Boys, the student’s gave unrestrained renditions of popular tunes by Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, and The Bay City Rollers. The percussion sections that accompany the chorus were arranged by its director, the music teacher Hans Fenger.
This recording was captured on 2-track tape in a Western Canada school gym, the acoustics of which gives the rendition its unique ambience. Far from being staged in the pursuit of money, fame, or a record contract, The Langley Schools Music Project was used as a vehicle by which to teach children about the power of music-making. Today, these recordings stand as mesmerising artefacts from a period in which pop music had the power to change the world from the ground up.