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The Beach Boys – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Surf’s Up”

The Album First Came Out on August 30, 1971

Sep 27, 2021
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By the dawn of the 1970s, Brian Wilson was but a ghost of his former self, having all but officially resigned from the hit making pop group he had co-founded with his two younger brothers, first cousin, and former El Camino College roommate 10 years prior. The road to The Beach Boys’ second decade had been rocky, to say the least. Plagued by in-group animosity, drug abuse, a brief affiliation with the Manson Family, and Wilson’s worsening struggle against then-undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder, the five youths from the working class Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne were watching their chance at maintaining their status as unrivaled pop music revolutionaries dwindle before their very eyes.

With Wilson frequently hidden away, his regular influence over the band had been delegated to its remaining members, namely youngest Wilson brother Carl, who was coming into his own as a skilled songwriter and performer.

1970’s Sunflower had seen the younger Wilson brothers, along with guitarist Al Jardine, vocalist Mike Love, and later addition and former Rip Chord Bruce Johnston, contributing their own compositions with some success, opening numerous doors within the group for fresh creative direction. While charting poorly, critical response to Sunflower was considerably enthusiastic, especially in comparison to that of the group’s previous few releases, though it failed to return The Beach Boys to the prominent mainstream status they had enjoyed earlier in their career.

Released 30 August 1971 on the group’s own Brother label, their 17th studio album Surf’s Up received favorable reception. The painted depiction of John Earle Fraser’s sculpture End of the Trail on the uncharacteristically stark album cover emphasizes the group’s departure from its earlier interests—gone were the days of surfing, fast cars, and girls on the beach, now replaced by the haunting reality of The Beach Boys’ transition from fresh-faced all-American youths to husbands and fathers sporting full beards and shoulder-length hair to obscure their sunken features. With the exception of four tracks, Brian Wilson’s presence on the album was minimal at best, leaving the remaining members—sans Dennis, who was recovering from a nasty hand injury—along with group manager Jack Rieley, to their own devices. Their efforts were ultimately rewarded, with Surf’s Up quickly charting higher than any Beach Boys release since Wild Honey, their 1967 foray into R&B. While some critics remained skeptical, the darker, often politically conscious new album received acclaim from Time and Rolling Stone magazines, as well as slightly wider interest from the decade’s booming counterculture.

Surf’s Up continues the group’s transition from the baroque glee of their ’60s output to the mellowed-out murkiness prevalent in early-’70s rock, placing on full display the group’s capabilities independent of Brian Wilson’s direction. On the idealistically eager opening ecological protest number “Don’t Go Near the Water,” which features a distant piano melody and trippy aquatic “boings” against a low, crepsecular backdrop, while still retaining the group’s signature doo wop harmonies, Mike Love sings, “What’s happened to the water/It’s going bad.” The use of experimental techniques such as vocal distortion and “issues”-oriented lyrical content reveal the culturally-aware Rieley’s significant influence on the band’s creative direction during this period, helping to hone some of the most unique and innovative work of their post-Pet Sounds career. If one is able to overlook laughable lines such as, “Toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubble bath/So let’s avoid the ecological aftermath,” then “Don’t Go Near the Water” serves as a mesmerizing opening track on what is a beautifully bizarre declaration of creative independence of a band who had spent nearly a decade crushed beneath the weight of its own understated brilliance.

Of the album’s first of three Rieley collaborations, the crisp soft pop of “Long Promised Road” is the first to lend credence to Carl’s still boyish voice and waxing songwriting abilities, revealing him as a worthy replacement leader in the wake of brother Brian’s departure. The quirky “Take a Load off Your Feet,” a product of the Sunflower sessions and inspired by the swollen ankles of Jardine’s then-pregnant wife, finds Brian’s once wholesomely youthful falsetto drenched in watery reverberation and sped up to resemble Jardine’s own singing voice. Brian also provides his signature penchant for kitchen sink sound effects, creating the track’s percussion via a rubber mallet against a glass water container, topping it off with the honking of the horn of his Rolls Royce Phantom. The song may come off as a bit of psychedelic silliness, but there is a very telling line present within the song, which may or may not reflect the general mood circulating within the group, as well as within the mind of Brian Wilson—“You better take good care of yourself/‘Cause nobody else will.”

Surf’s Up is an especially intriguing entry in The Beach Boys’ catalogue, not only in that it is one of their most uniquely experimental efforts to date, but also due to the scattered remnants of Brian’s shattered psyche present within each of his four contributions to the album. As the aforementioned line suggests, the confessions present on Surf’s Up are thinly veiled and plainly spoken, in sharp contrast to those of lyricist Van Dyke Parks’s pun-and-metaphor-strewn, stream of consciousness poetry from the Smile recordings or the often whacky comedown daydreams of their post-Smile releases. Whether intentional or not, Brian has left a trail of creative breadcrumbs for the listener to follow, hinting at many of the issues which would plague him throughout the rest of his career.

Bruce Johnston’s pristine nostalgia trip “Disney Girls (1957)” is likely his finest achievement as a Beach Boy, his wistful recollections of Patti Page, the titular young starlets, and boyhood romance on “old Cape Cod” set to the melody of romantic mandolin paired with heavy notes of a Moog synthesizer. It may be that lyrically Johnston is reflecting upon more than a summer fling, but also upon the changes that had occurred between the distant years of his 1950s childhood and the recording of the song in the Nixon era, although it remains difficult to pinpoint any resentment on his part. Indeed, Johnston seems content with the passage of time, resigning himself to “country shade and lemonade,” while admitting, “guess I’m slowing down.” We see the narrator confessing his desire for a “peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid someday,” as his refusal of reality, which “makes him laugh,” washes him away entirely.

“Disney Girls” is followed by the somewhat disconcerting “Student Demonstration Time,” Mike Love’s confounding attempt to offer his interpretations of several major events such as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the People’s Park protests, the burning of Isla Vista’s Bank of America, and the Kent State massacre. Set to the raw, fuzzed-out melody of R&B standard “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine,” “Student Demonstration Time” is certainly one of the group’s heaviest songs to date, rollicking to and fro as Love barks cultural observations through a bullhorn, but ultimately achieves little for the band in terms of integrating them into the generation’s youth culture. Following suit, Al Jardine’s heady “Looking at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” sees the group once again tackling some of the timely issues plaguing America in the early ’70s—namely the high rate of unemployment—awash in a ray of glimmering psychedelic folk pop. Although minuscule in comparison to the rest of the album’s more grandiose compositions, “Looking at Tomorrow” remains a fascinating, if not continually relevant, relic of its time.

Co-written once more with Rieley, the psychedelic-infused jazz rock revelation “Feel Flows” remains among the most remarkable in the Beach Boys’ canon. “Unfolding enveloping missiles of soul/Recall senses sadly/Mirage like soft blue like lanterns below/To light the way gladly,” Rieley’s surrealist lyrics recall the metaphysical journey upon which the band had been attempting to embark since the implosion of Smile, only to have their efforts curbed at the relentless hands of perplexed critics and disappointed fans. “Feel Flows” received it’s due nearly 30 years later, however, when director Cameron Crowe featured it in his critically acclaimed 2000 coming-of-age drama Almost Famous.

Sounding the most tree-like of the group, Jack Rieley was asked by Brian, with whom he had co-written the track, to sing on the unintentionally creepy “A Day in the Life of a Tree.” Rieley’s unpolished vocals against the eerie drone of a pipe organ effectively embody that of the aching, weathered old narrator looking back on his life “from seed to tree” and lamenting the effects of increased pollution, which are killing him. This song, as many have observed, doubles as another telling statement of Brian’s current state of mind. Lyrics such as “But now my branches suffer/And my leaves don’t offer/Poetry to men of song” suggest a weariness from the great creative failure of an intended masterpiece, while statements such as “Trees like me weren’t meant to live/If all this world has to give/Pollution and slow death” echo his sense of alienation and predict his eventual retreat from the world he once knew.

Brian Wilson’s final two contributions, “‘Til I Die” and “Surf’s Up,” triumphantly close the album, compensating for any flaws heard on previous tracks. The former serves as the final thread between wounded genius and the world beyond its increasingly foggy windowpane. Undeniably one The Beach Boys’ most significant recordings and quite possibly Brian’s finest composition of the ’70s, “‘Til I Die” depicts Brian at his most confessional, singing, “I’m a cork on the ocean/Floatin’ over the raging sea.” In the second verse, Brian becomes a “rock in a landslide/Rollin’ over the mountainside,” then a “leaf on a windy day,” adding, “Pretty soon I’ll be blown away.” Something of a final stand for Brian Wilson, or at least the most final he believed he would ever take, the artist offers what remains of his vision to the sweeping grey sea below him. The ruins of his teenage palace gathering rust far beneath the waves, the time he had counted so closely now scattered in the sudden breeze. Most stirring, perhaps, is Wilson’s weary acceptance of his fate, concluding, “These things I’ll be until I die.”

“Surf’s Up” is, as frequently noted, an ironic title, as its lyrics contain no air whatsoever of surfing, fun, sun, or girls. But the album’s closing track may be the closest Brian ever came to speaking with God himself, a persistent yearning he began expressing during the Pet Sounds sessions.

From the ruinous aftermath of the group’s 1966–1967 Smile sessions, fragments of the incomplete “Surf’s Up” emerged and were salvaged for later use. The song’s debut arrived in the form of a solo piano rendition of the track’s first movement on the 1967 television documentary Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, which had left audiences anticipating its official release, but to no avail. It was not until 1971 that Brian would re-examine the blueprints for his lost masterpiece, bringing Carl into the studio as a collaborator. The final product, debuted on the album, is a gorgeous prog pop suite, complete with the original lyrics contributed by Van Dyke Parks and sung by Carl and Brian, with backing vocals provided by the band—minus Johnston—and joined by Brian’s then-wife Marilyn. The title track, perhaps more than any other modern composition, is an intoxicating example of what otherworldly echelons an educated, innovative pop tune can reach.

Fifty years later, Surf’s Up stands as an unconventional achievement on the part of Wilson and his bandmates. Existing in a realm all its own, its influence has managed to cross into various genres, with King Crimson’s John Wetton citing it as a favorite prog album. The comparison feels sensible, given the highly experimental, often weighty nature of the album and the distorted lens through which it views the conventions present in the tried and true American Songbook, warping them into its own dark wonderland of psychedelic thrills and delirious pleasures. It was also mentioned as an influence by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold in the liner notes of the indie folk group’s 2008 debut, an influence which can be heard on each of the band’s subsequent releases.

Notwithstanding Brian’s reduced involvement in the sessions, who was later described as “more of a visitor” by Bruce Johnston, he said more about himself in his four songs on Surf’s Up than he had in the past five years. His presence with the group remained spotty at best, sometimes entirely present, as on 1977’s mind-bending Love You, or nowhere to be found. Ultimately, he was unceremoniously ousted from The Beach Boys in 1982, reuniting with them only once, to record their 50th anniversary album That’s Why God Made the Radio and to participate in the ensuing tour.

Between 1963 and 1977, The Beach Boys ventured on a timeless journey, producing some earth-moving material, and influenced scores of artists of multiple generations. Surf’s Up may not have the polish of Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!), nor the labyrinthine complexity of Pet Sounds, but it does exceed the quality and consistency of much of their late-’60s output. One can only hope that, as their final high point as a group, Surf’s Up will continue to receive its due from the musical community, as well as from, perhaps, a new generation of music lovers, many of whom will surely find something in the album’s earnest quirks and persevering idealism worth valuing.

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