REVIEW: The Beach Boys Surf’s Up album

By Alan Smith

It’s exciting, isn’t it? Feel Flows (The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971) sets are imminent and our perceptions and knowledge of Sunflower, Surf’s Up and The Beach Boys standing within the world of popular music is possibly about to change radically and be enhanced further for those who’ve taken the long road.

Given David Beard and team ESQ are etching away at the history and actions of the era and fans are currently blessed with access to album engineer Stephen Desper’s unique and priceless study guides taking us into the music and spirit committed to tape – – I thought it would be a good appetite wetter to look at Surf’s Up, as per what we’ve had in our hands since August 30, 1971.

Responding in contrast to Sunflower’s epic and reverent “Cool, Cool Water,” the band wear their hearts on their sleeves and showcase the intent of Surf’s Up via “Don’t Go Near The Water,” a cautionary but still current tale of the fatal pressures humankind has put on the world’s waterways. It’s been sometimes criticized for its simplistic, lowest-common-denominator lyrics – but perhaps the message wasn’t simple enough, as the concerns voiced fifty years ago still boil as humanity continues to stretch its resources well into the 21st century. The urgent backing track chirps and meanders like a burbling stream while Mike and Al lay down the heavy news on us (you can hear the backing track in its urgent workman-like glory on 2013’s Made In California compilation or hang tight until you get your hands on Feel Flows box (track and backing vocals are included as track 01 of CD 4). The Daryl Dragon arranged coda is an entire iced cake on top of an already morish number, his laid back “Swanee River” styled musings optimistically restoring a romantic vision of a clean cool river rolling into a setting summer sun, a comfort to the dire warning provided by Mike and Al. “So, let’s avoid an ecological aftermath” is possibly the band’s best tongue twister.

“Long Promised Road” introduces us not only to Carl the accomplished songwriter, but also Carl the soulful singer, his voice taking on a style hinted at on earlier Beach Boys albums but not fully realized until now. Compared to Carl’s Sunflower and great Sixties vocals that display a mellow and softer delivery, there’s a minor deepening to his voice matched with a controlled edge now adding a tough and formidable bedrock to his singing. Do you know what Jack Rieley’s lyrics mean? Please write [email protected], if you do – I have no idea, although I do appreciate the flowery bloom of language Jack employed. The chorus, however, makes it clear the song’s message is stay positive, believe in yourself and keep moving along your path to fulfilment – like the message of 1969’s “Breakaway.” The mediative tunes of the verse and middle eight beautifully complement the energetic insistence of the chorus and the funky tones of the guitar licks and fuzz synth sounds. A great track that on some releases can sound a bit “hot” or distorted – check out the study guide for a crisp and clear version.

“Take A Load Off Your Feet” continues the band’s long held fascination with humor songs and is here combined with their willingness to share what was going on in their lives. It’s also potentially a fun-loving SoCal car song of the vintage years – well, transportation song at least, that finds Al, with co-writing help from old buddy Gary Winfrey, gushing with pride as their man Pete burns rubber to get around LA in his new sandals.Held over from the Add Some Music/Sunflower sessions, “Take A Load Off Your Feet” builds on the vaudevillian soundscapes of Smiley Smile’s “She’s Goin’ Bald” while utilizing a wall of sound displayed on Sunflower’s “At My Window.” Overall, it provides a nice relief to the predominantly heavy proceedings in discussion.

Bruce strikes gold on “Disney Girls (1957),” arguably a culmination of the various sounds he’d displayed in years past, covering the sound journey of “Nearest Faraway Place” through to the kitchen sink dramatics of “Tears In The Morning.” It’s perhaps the most radical track on this album as it looks backwards to an idealized time and cultural period of the USA, while the rest of the album seeks to blaze a trail for moving forward. There are some inspired production choices, perhaps intentional, perhaps not, that link “Disney Girls” into the album’s other tunes – the banjo strum of the intro and the wet guitar squelches tie in beautifully with “Don’t Go Near The Water,” while the attention-grabbing snare and rim shots inspire your focused listening, similar to the arresting wood block clinking of “Long Promised Road’s” verse arrangements. Amongst the portraiture style lyrics of the ideal summer, Bruce is perhaps sadly announcing his upcoming departure from the band as he longs to submit to the fantasy world of the “Disney Girls.”

A confession – I like “Student Demonstration Time.” Okay, Mike’s rewritten lyrics are a bit dicey, the great man alluded to as much in his autobiography, but this is a rockin’ riot with a great solo and vocal performance by the group reflective of the esteem they’d started to build as a formidable live rock act. Desper’s sonic manipulations employed to mimic the sound of a megaphone or outside PA reflecting off the walls of office buildings is genius stuff, and the jarring faux sirens certainly establish a mood conveying the palpable desperation that accompanies civil unrest and institutional violence. The message may not have been hard hitting, but I’ve been given much worse advice than “take care.” I’ll get my coat!

Jack Rieley once confessed his beautiful, but enigmatic “Feel Flows” lyrics are about male orgasm. Thanks Jack, perhaps that was a tad too much information, but whatever your preferred interpretation, at least the outcome was a hauntingly ethereal and cosmic fusion of sweeping layers of a musical dream matched with Carl deftly emoting sensually against the wind like backing vocals and finally to the outro chant, where he is joined in singing by none other than the fabulous Marilyn Rovell, who was subbing for Brian who stayed in bed that day. A killer jazz jam of a solo makes for trippy listening.

Al’s (and Gary Winfrey’s) second big chance on the album, “Lookin’ At Tomorrow,” finds him lamenting the plight of unemployed transient workers struggling to find self-worth in the depressed economy of the Union, another theme that remains current today. It’s an interesting lyrical foil to the earlier optimism of “Long Promised Road” as the song’s protagonist and wife are here grappling to find their path to enlightenment – despite their hard work, things remain out of their control. Stephen Desper’s seemingly simple trick of adding a flange processed sound to Al’s vocal was hideously complicated due to its analogue nature and caused further complications during mastering by a last-minute tweak requested by Al – I encourage you to read the mind-boggling tech details in the study guide, it’s fascinating stuff. It’s a simple song, but not a slight song. Its downbeat theme and mellow delivery provide a moving view of lost direction capped by a resigned and unsure prayer for better days.

And now to a song voiced by tree – albeit a dying tree lamenting its final moments while briefly recalling days of wonderment and glory in the protection of the now threatened Mother Nature. “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” is musically taken to the next level by its appropriate choice of instrumentation – an old school organ with a wooden reed was employed to provide a physical link to a spiritual tale. As Stephen Desper notes in his study guide, the visual similarities between a stack of organ pipes and a wooded forest further provide organic aspects to this sad tale. There have been previous implications that “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” may have been one of Brian’s legendary arch put-ons, but I think that theory focuses on the initially surprising subject matter and ignores the amount of effort and thought the production team put into painting of a wonderful yet tragic portrait.

Similar in theme to “Lookin’ At Tomorrow” but with the fatality knob dialed up to ten, “’Til I Die” is one of those beguiling pieces that transports us into Brian’s head as he efficiently ponders the many random roles and guises he must take on during his time in the realms of the mortal. Interestingly, he eschews mortal existences and takes on the qualities of natural organic but non-sentient elements to personify his childlike curiosity about his surroundings and purpose. However, unlike Al’s meditations, Brian accepts his fate and the many wanderings he may undertake before moving to the next world. Fairy dust abounds on the meticulous track with heavenly vibes and organ pulses carrying Brian and the listener into the great beyond. Cosmic stuff.

I first heard “Surf’s Up”on CBS/Caribou Records’ Ten Years Of Harmony double album compilation in 1982 – I’m yet to recover. I don’t know if there are any new words available for me to talk about “Surf’s Up” – haunting, aching, beautiful, translucent – they’re all true, and many others have beaten me to these words many a-time. The most evocative and moving of Brian and Van Dyke’s unrealized SMiLE composition and recording revived here with reverence and aplomb by Carl, Stephen Desper, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and Brian’s last-minute idea to work in a variation of “Child Is Father Of The Man,” adds a new dimension to something previously left incomplete. Despite its relative age, the song lyrically and musically ties together the “new” direction introduced by Jack Rieley, once again testament to how far ahead of their time Brian and Van Dyke travelled during their SMiLE odyssey.

So, there ends Surf’s Up, and the album as originally presented – for those with an original pressing, you may notice the tone-arm glide over the words “Thanks Marilyn” etched into the run-out groove, a great shout-out from Carl to his (then) sister-in-law for putting up with a strange gathering of cousins, friends and brothers embarking on the pursuit of a new direction.

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Sue Dwyer

3 months ago

Love this, Surf’s Up is an amazing album and thankfully one in my collection. Great review Alan!

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