Lord Only Knows
By: Beck Hansen

Written by: Beck Hansen

Alternate Titles:

a.k.a. Oralé

  1. Lord Only Knows (4:14)
    Available on Odelay and 1 other release.
    Beck Hansen: Bass, Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Electric), Guitar (Slide), Mix, Producer, Vocals
    Joey Waronker: Drums, Percussion
    The Dust Brothers: Mix, Producer
    Mike Millius: Vocals (Scream)
Lord Only Knows [Version (a)]:

Ahhhh. Roll out the big one.
You only got one finger left, and it's pointing at the door
And you're taking for granted what the Lord's laid on the floor
So I'm picking up the pieces and I'm putting them up for sale
Throw your meal ticket out the window, put your skeletons in jail

'Cause Lord only knows it's gettin' late
Your senses are gone, so don't you hesitate
To give yourself a call, let your bottom dollars fall
Throwin' your two-bit cares down the drain

Invite me to the seven seas like some seasick man
You'll do whatever you please and I'll do whatever I can
Titanic, fare thee well, my eyes are turning pink
Don't call us when the new age gets old enough to drink

'Cause Lord only knows it's gettin' late
Your senses are gone, so don't you hesitate
Move on up the hill, there's nothing dead left to kill
Throwin' your two-bit cares down the drain

Yeah, odelay odelay odelay odelay [Orale]
Just passin' through
Odelay odelay odelay odelay
Goin' back to Houston, do the hot dog dance
Goin' back to Houston to get me some pants
The Song:

This amazing song from Odelay begins with a loud yell. The yell is a sample from a song by Mike Millius, an obscure singer from the '60s folk scene. Dust Brother Mike Simpson remembers playing Millius for Beck: "This guy...it's amazing that anybody let him make a record. His songs were really corny, and he had an awful voice, but there was something about it, the vibe of it was so cool." Beck liked him so much that the early title for "Jack-ass" was in fact "Millius"! This scream comes from Millius' song "Lookout for Lucy."

After that, "Lord Only Knows" kicks off into a wild mix of sounds and layers. Typical Odelay stuff, I guess, but for me, this is a stand-out track, especially as one of the non-singles. A slick slide guitar buzzes throughout the song, while after the first and second verses two wildly different guitar solos occur. The first is a humorous pseudo-nod to Eddie Van Halen guitar histrionics, while the second is much heavier and more atmospheric. The acoustic guitar in the background is also quite fancy at times. Beck loves it: "Going from fuzz guitar to kicking the wheedle, that's sort of what it's all about. It's all good, y'know? If you can get the fuzz, the slide, and the wheedle in one song you're pretty much there." All of this goes on over an infectious robot funk rhythm.

"Lord Only Knows" may be one of the older songs that made it on to Odelay. Beck performed it in 1995, at his grandfather (and biggest influence) Al Hansen's memorial. Surely, Al was an influence on the song—see below about the "hot dog dance"—and certainly the main theme of doing what you want was one of the philosophies Beck picked up from Al and the Fluxus movement. Don't let past successes control your future. Throw your meal ticket out the window, and start fresh. (A guiding philosophy on the creation of Odelay.) Don't hesitate when you're in unfamiliar territory ("your senses are gone"), because that's when you're on to something new.

The ending outro recalls Beck's own past specifically. Apparently when Al Hansen taught Beck how to rhyme as a little boy, Beck's first rhyme was "Pull down your pants and do the hot dog dance." Beck once told a story about how he once worked as Hot Dog Man at a kid's birthday party, which gives the phrase a little autobiographical resonance. His use of of the word "orale" (which mutated to "odelay")—a mutated Spanish word he used to hear while growing up in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood—also references his past.

Played live 122 times:
Earliest known live version: July 5, 1995
Latest known live version: March 24, 2018

"Lord Only Knows" was a regular for a few years but has not shown up much in a long while.

1995-1996 pre-Odelay tours

The earliest mention of this song on stage that I have heard is from July 1995, Beck dropped the lines "Titanic fare thee well" and "don't call us when the new age gets old enough to drink" into his performance of "Pay No Mind." He sang them to that song's melody. (The song is in an earlier setlist too, but I am not aware of a recording.)

About three months before Odelay was released, on March 18 1996, Beck opened a show for Sonic Youth in Holland. He played the show solo, with just a guitar, and he closed his set with an unadorned version of "Lord Only Knows." Beck sang the first two verses/choruses, not doing the ending "hot dog dance" bit. The lyrics are identical to the recorded version, which was most likely finished and done, just waiting to be released. This is a nice preview, and Beck surely didn't perform it this way too often.

He plays another acoustic preview of the song on March 21 1996 in Paris. He introduces the song as "Odelay" and starts to explain he got the word from the neighborhood where he grows up (but he doesn't really get that far). This is interesting, because he does not perform the ending coda, where the title "Odelay" comes from. Anyway, the performance is nice, but I think the song really misses something when done alone.

By June 5 1996 (two weeks before Odelay was released), Beck had finally changed the name of the song to "Lord Only Knows." "It's a closing time song," he declares before a superb solo rendition. After the first verse, he announces "This is the part where the hammer-on solo would come on." Since nobody's heard Odelay yet, the crowd doesn't quite get it. Again, he does not perform the coda.

1996-1997 Odelay tours

Like all the songs on Odelay, "Lord Only Knows" was then played frequently from 1996-1997 as Beck toured to support the album. There are plenty of shows without it, but most were fortunate enough to get it. Listening to various live performances, the song doesn't have the acoustic side that the record does, as the electric guitar almost buries the song. Beck and Smokey Hormel are inspired during the song, getting to do all the hammer-on solos and feedback and licks and whatnot. Check out the March 25 1997, version for some great, amusing live guitar solos.

1998-1999 post-Odelay / Mutations tours

After the Odelay tour, "Lord Only Knows" was delegated to just some speedy run-throughs every once in awhile. One such instance, on June 10 1998 in Pittsburgh, is a very funked-up version. The crazy guitar antics of earlier aren't quite so evident, as horns and bass and more layers of music drown them out. I really enjoy the 1998 versions, the song is sped-up, new wavey, and fun to sing along with. They did this a handful of times in June 1998, and then another handful in spring 1999 when Mutations was out.

2000-2001 Vultures tours

There were a lot of concerts in 2000 behind Midnite Vultures, but "Lord Only Knows" was only played at around 17 of them. And all of them were in the first half of the year, before the song was dropped entirely.

2002-2003 Sea Change tours

The first "Lord Only Knows" in a couple of years was on August 3 2002, in Portland. Beck said it was the first time he played it alone and warned that it "could be disastrous." After a good first verse, he drummed the guitar for the solo. The second verse was forgotten, though Beck adlibbed "Titanic, fare thee well / The movie was three hours long / Invite me to the seven... shalala!" before heading into the ending. The version in Dallas on August 23 is much more together than that. Beck tried the song three times on this August 2002 tour.

A full band jam of "Lord Only Knows" was re-introduced on October 14 2002, with the Flaming Lips as Beck's backing group. They played the song quite regularly, almost every show together. It's good stuff, though not drastically different or anything. Steven Drozd's slide guitar leads are very cool, and it's always good to get Beck shouting "odelay!" again.

In the summer of 2003, Beck took a different band out on the road, and continued with the song in the first half of the 2003 US tour, though it was eventually dropped from the set entirely.

2007 end of Info tour

After not playing the song at all on the Guero tours in 2005, nor on the Info tours in 2006, Beck went to Australia and Japan in spring 2007 for a short tour. Before that, he played a warm-up gig in Los Angeles, at which the band gave "Lord Only Knows" a try. It didn't last though, and they did not play it in Australia or Japan thereafter.

Similarly, 8 months later in November 2007, Beck went to South America to open a string of shows for The Police. Before doing so, and with a new band member (Nigel Godrich!), they played a warm-up show again in Los Angeles. At the warm-up show, they gave "Lord Only Knows" a (possibly spontaneous) shot. And again, it didn't stick, and they did not play the song in South America either.

The song has not been played since then.