Monday, 4 August 2014

The Beach Boys "Surf's Up" (1971) (Album Review)

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The Beach Boys "Surf's Up" (1971)

Don't Go Near The Water/Long Promised Road/Take A Load Off Your Feet/Disney Girls/Student Demonstration Time//Feel Flows/Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)/A Day In The Life Of A Tree/'Til I Die/Surf's Up

Of all the shifts in the Beach Boys discography, of the deeper lyrical couplets, the more complex chord sequences and the sheer amount of session musicians combining to make a drum sound like a tuba, perhaps the biggest shift for the band's songs is in tone. Even when Brian Wilson finds his once endless horizons confined to the four small walls of his bedroom, he's still buoyant enough to come up with a song like 'Busy Doin' 'Nothin' 'Friends' 'Time To Get Alone' or 'Add Some Music To Your Day' that lift your spirits with an indescribable down-to-the-bones joy. 'Sunflower', the majestic predecessor to 'Surf's Up', may well be the band's happiest album - the band have a new recording contract, a second chance to start their image anew and with all six members of the band pulling strongly and roughly in the same direction. 'Sunflower' is a lot of people's favourite Beach Boys album for one very good reason: it is the single best Beach Boys album (as opposed to the best Beach Boys album written, arranged and produced by Brian Wilson). However at first all that hard work and team togetherness seemed to have very poor rewards: the band were stung by the album's poor sales (a mere #151 on the American charts) and even more stung by the fact that critics simply ignored the album because it had the Beach Boys name on it. Squabbling amongst themselves once more, the band lost a lot of their momentum and their unity, with Brian retreating to bed (three of his four co-writes on this album come from 'old' songs), Mike retreating to a meditation centre in his head (getting just two co-writes and two lead vocals) and Dennis - the powerhouse behind 'Sunflower' - has effectively left the group, writing nothing and appearing on a mere handful of songs leftover from earlier sessions thanks to a hand injury and an aborted solo album (there's no mention of him on the sleeve which unusually has no photos of the band). The Beach Boys are clearly in disarray.

So how on earth did 'Surf's Up' become the best selling Beach Boys studio album of the 1970s? By giving up on the optimistic songs about endless summers and perfect relationships and coming up with arguably the band's most troubled and autobiographical work, that's how. As a result 'Surf's Up' sums up its troubled period of 1971 better than almost every other album out that year. All the songs on this album are unhappy in some sort of a way; typically Beach Boys, the narrators of both 'Long Promised Road' and 'Lookin' For Tomorrow' are imagining a beautiful future, 'the narrator of 'Disney Girls' is fed up of the present and is looking back to a beautiful yesterday and Pete taking care of his feet is added in for somewhat unconvincing comedy relief not quite knowing what day of the week it is, but all the narrators on this album, if asked about their state of mind at the time of singing to us, would admit that life sucks. Even Pete, if we ask him at the exact same time he's just stepped on something sharp. As a result, 'Surf's Up' is the yin to 'Sunflower's brightly cheerful yang, the tears behind the laughter, the frown behind the 'smile' even, with a series of songs full of warnings about the state of the band, the state of politics, the state of the planet, the state of the human condition - and, yes, the state of our feet (of all the two-fer-one CDs that put two Beach Boy records together on the same disc, this combination works the best, the two albums sounding like two halves of the same 'whole'). Even Mike Love, the group's cheerful cheerleader bar none, is reduced to singing a Beach Boys pastiche song about the state of the world's oceans and re-writing the words to 'Riot In Cell Block Nine' to take in references to the shootings at Kent State University and comparing the scene to the hippie festivals in 'People's Park', San Francisco. The years 1969-72 were a tumultuous time and until now the Beach Boys have been largely oblivious to the fact with only Dennis' earlier songs (ironically the one Beach Boy not really a part of this album) coming anywhere close. While most of 'Surf's Up' was being made the band came up with the collective working title 'Landlocked' which would have been perfect for an album where for once the band are avoiding the beach and the inherent sunshine: the seas polluted with water, the streets to the beach filled with riots and the narrators trapped in memories of the past and dreams of the future while scared of the present.

Yet only an album ago we were talking about how 'Sunflower' embodied the natural Beach Boys sunshine more than any album since 'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!)' in 1965. So where did such a fundamental shift come from? Well, if any album owes its existence to a band's manager then 'Surf's Up' is former disc jockey Jack Rieley's greatest life achievement. A shadowy figure who sensibly won first the affections of Brian Wilson (turning a sensitive ear to him on Rieley's Los Angeles radio show) and then the rest of the band with an unsolicited 'memo' with a plan to make The Beach Boys both hip and rich again. The band couldn't believe their luck: Brian Wilson never took to strangers in the 1971period as he'd taken to Jack, he was young, he was hip, he was everything the band wanted and his credentials seemed amazing - even though half of them (such as Riley running a TV network named NBC in Puerto Rico) turned out later not to be true. What's more Rieley's demands weren't revolutionary, they just needed someone outside the band's inner circle to suggest them: instead of headlining tours with dwindling audiences, Rieley booked the Beach Boys to be the support act on the Grateful Dead's 1971 tour (the Dead were thrilled to both have them there and have them lower o the bill, making everyone happy); Rieley also concentrated more on the band's European market - though has been in America the Beach Boys were still big draws in Britain with a number one single ('Do It Again') as recently as 18 months ago. Rieley then slowly built up the band's venues bit by bit as word of mouth about the band's sets grew until they first reached the prestigious Whisky-A-Go-Go (home of The Byrds among others) and then had enough of an audience to fill Carnegie Hall (not bad for a band who were making a loss on most gigs they played across 1970).  By the time 'Surf's Up' came out The Beach Boys had a whole new audience  who saw them in a different light to the striped-shirted beachcombers of yester year. All the band had to do now was give the audience what they might have wanted to hear.

Rieley's other big missive to the band was to take the ecology element that had started creeping into their work circa 'Smile' (ie 'Cool Cool Water')  and make it the focal part of their writing. This came more naturally to come of the band than others: Brian pitched whole-heartedly into 'A Day In The Life Of A Tree', his one new song for the album, even if he chickened out of singing lead on the song. Mike Love is enthusiastic too - a lot of his songs have been headed that way anyway thanks to the influence of his time with Maharishi and the 'twist' enables him to sing the sort of oceans-filled imagery of songs he always sang with the Beach Boys anyway (even if it takes Dennis to write the ultimate Beach Boy song on this theme, the title track of 'Pacific Ocean Blues'). However it's Al Jardine who really takes Rieley's advice to heart, inspiring a lifelong series of songs about saving the planet and natural phenomena that really help him find his 'voice' in a band that's already gifted with several strong writing styles. In time this will lead to Jardine's career highlights 'California Saga' and 'Santa Ana Winds' but even his two tentative songs here show are useful stepping stones for the quiet guitarist who, till now, has had to make do with adding bits to other people's songs or singing twee songs about birds at windows. Typically, Carl and Bruce are too busy going their own way to pay much heed to such advice.

Which is just as well because both Beach Boys are going through something of a creative high point. Perhaps Rieley's masterstroke in the whole of his short (three years) period managing the band was to properly encourage and recognise the hard work put in by the youngest Wilson brother. While all five Beach Boys stepped in creatively to some extent when the Brian Wilson well went dry, it wasn't clear who had the unusual combination of the good ears, the patience and the discipline to make a group as polished and harmony-based as The Beach Boys sound as good as they always had. Carl was a natural, despite having no experience other than soaking up his big brother at work and the rest of the band responded better to Carl's gentle nods than they would have done with Mike or Dennis (who left to their own devices would surely have stormed off long before 1971 when the latter finally did - don't worry folks, he'll be back in 1972) or an outsider who didn't 'get' the unusual inter-band relationships between cousins, friends and brothers. However Capitol had been reluctant to change the 'produced by Brian Wilson' tag line that had become a byword for excellence and sophistication long after Brian became incapable on delivering on that promise and even 'Sunflower' features a proud boast that it was 'produced by The Beach Boys' in a show of brotherhood. Rieley also encouraged Carl to have a go at writing songs (his only ones till now have been polishing his brother's song 'Our Sweet Love', possibly while he was singing it in the studio, and the guitar-based surf jam 'Carl's Big Chance'). Carl's first two 'proper' songs set Rieley's Van Dyke Parks-style stream-of-consciousness style to music that's remarkably good for such a beginner. In short, Carl shines on most Beach Boys albums anyway but he positively beams on 'Surf's Up' - an understatedly beautiful, thoughtful album with a big heart and deep thoughts far more in keeping with Carl's personal style than noisier albums like 'Summer Days' and 'Pet Sounds' in the past and 'MIU' and '15 Big Ones' in the future.

Talking of Van Dyke Parks-style lyrics, Rieley's final big development for The Beach Boys in 1971 may be his cleverest move of all. The band had fallen from grace in 1967 not because they were hip and unfashionable and unable to cut it with 'the big boys' as so many people thought following their no-show at the Monterey Pop Festival. 'Smile' was an album way ahead of its times, not behind it and only Brian's crucial loss of confidence and loneliness when Van Dyke Parks had left the project (plus a few too many drugs) had prevented it from seeing the light of day. The world wasn't exactly ready for 'Smile' in 1971 - to be honest it wasn't ready for it in 2003 when Brian finally finished it solo - but word of mouth had been growing among true Beach Boys fans that 'Smile' was something special and that the world would soon see one day when the group got around to releasing it (the two songs added to pad out '20/20' when the band came up short had also helped its reputation no end). The Beach Boys will aim to do just that in 1972 (the plan is to make next album 'Carl and the Passions - So Tough' a double set with 'Smile' before Brian gets scared by too many ghosts and 'Pet Sounds' get re-issued in its place instead).  Rieley has the power no other Beach Boys fan has - he can actually listen back to tapes of the project and one song in particular hits him: 'Surf's Up', in many ways the centre-point of that album (the fact that he writes with something approaching the same intellectual style as Van Duke Parks did is either a happy coincidence or evidence that Rieley had been doing a lot of listening to these tapes). Although unfinished the song is hauntingly powerful and its lyrics of doom and tragedy make a lot more sense in 1971 than in 1966, summing up Brian's own fall from the creative Garden of Eden as well as the world's in general since the sixties. What's more 'Surf's Up' is the perfect title for the 'Beach Boys' Rieley wants to take into the 1970s; the surfing days are over and darker times are here. However Jack hit something of a brick wall: while Brian had responded well to his new manager's conversations and chats, he baulked at the idea of re-using anything from a project that had nearly wiped him out for good. 'Surf's Up', in particular, was a song that was sacred to him and the ghostly lyrics about 'columnated ruins domino' echoed too chillingly with his current predicament for comfort. Brian simply shut down and stopped communicating, effectively ending his involvement in the album, with Carl stepping into the breach to fill in the 'missing parts' of the song so superbly that few fans in 1971 even realised they were listening to a collage. By the time The Beach Boys started work on the coda (slightly altered from Brian's original intentions) Brian's curiosity had overcome his fear and eventually he declared himself happy with the result (although he still hates his original 1966 vocal - recorded hastily for what he thought was a simple demo - to this day; this seems strange given that it's bang on the money for such a simple recording, full of pathos regret and  melancholy - perhaps it's the realness of this demo and all the dark shadows it invokes rather than the pitch and timbre that worried him so much?) The decision to include it at the end of this album was a masterstroke, a recording so powerful that all the people who'd thought the Beach Boys past it suddenly got interested again and all those who had kept the faith over 'Smile' could smugly walk around saying 'I told you so' in between crying bucket loads of tears over their lost youth, a fact already mapped out in song five years earlier.

One other big plus for this album is that famous cover, actually a painting based on a sculpture titled 'End Of The Trail' by James Earle Fraser, of a pioneer slumped over an equally weary horse, the very image of sadness. Perhaps the band were reminded of it by their similar logo for their label 'Brother Records' (which depicts an Indian on his horse, arms outstretched, as if in greeting). 'The End Of The Trail' did indeed sum up how The Beach Boys had been feeling after the poor reception to 'Sunflower' and 'Lookin' At Tomorrow' makes special reference to 'pioneers', struggling in the dirt and mud but dreaming of a brighter future when everything has sorted itself out. That cover was everywhere for a while in 1971 and was a clever move for a band looking to distance themselves from their surfing past (whilst I'm highly fond of the sheer intimacy of it, the 'Beach Boys with family shots' on 'Sunflower', similarly designed to show off the band's deeper maturer selves, doesn't work as 'art' : any teenager interested in the band would have run a mile at the thought of listening to a group old enough to have kids of their own). At least part of the album's success can be born from it (which makes it a mystery why at least the next five Beach Boys studio album covers are so bland and generic - it will take 'LA Light' to add some colour to the Beach Boys' world again and that album does it by hiring 12 painters to illustrate the record).

'Surf's Up's other big hero is engineer Steve Desper. While calling this album The Beach Boys' best engineered record would be too much of an insult to Brian's right hand man in the 1960s Chuck Britz, 'Surf's Up' does have a sparkle and life to it that a lot of other Beach Boys don't possess (if 'Holland' had shone as much as 'Surf's Up' with its even better songs then there's no way The Beach Boys would have lost their Warner Brothers contract in 1973). A lot of the songs on this album are 'Smile-'like in their ability to fit several contrasting sections together: to pull of something like that you don't only need a strong arranger but a strong engineer whose able to get the same sounds over and over again. 'Take A Load Off Your Feet' might be too oddball to be a Beach Boys classic, but the way its arranged - with panning sound effects, stunning block harmonies and unusual instruments draped over the mix like a foot-bath, the recording comes close to sounding the best the Beach Boys ever had.  'Surf's Up' is a busy, frenetic record - surprisingly so given its general downbeat tone - but it's never cluttered (even 'Sunflower' was cluttered occasionally).
So, an album featuring a re-energised band, a gifted manager (for the moment - things go downhill quickly for Jack Rieley by the time of the 'Holland' saga), several strong songs, great engineering and production and finally the five-year-delayed appearance of what's generally regarded as one of the greatest Beach Boy songs of all time begs the question : why isn't 'Surf's Up' one of our original  'core' 101 near-perfect albums? Well, like most of 'Pet Sounds' I as a listener have a real problem with having my emotions tugged in such a firm way. At times 'Surf's Up' is like that television soundtrack that keeps going 'duhn duhn daaaaahn!' every time the baddy shows up or has a violin 'weeping' after every other line of dialogue. This change in Beach Boys personas is such a sudden one that everyone feels the need to point out that this is a 'sad' and 'solemn' album (except for 'Feet' which is an overtly jokey and silly song) that your brain hardly gets a workout; only two albums ago we were trying to come to terms with the patchwork quilt of emotions that was '20/20', an album full of trapdoors, shadows and unexpected glimpses of sunshine. By contrast 'Surf's Up' has the weather raining all the frigging time, with the exceptions of 'Disney Girls' (a technicolour sunshining past too perfect to have ever really been) and 'Feet'. Along the way 'Student Demonstration Time' 'does' angry, 'A Day In The Life Of A Tree' 'does' sad and 'Feel Flows' 'does' weird. The only songs that really sound completely natural are the yearning  'Long Promised Road' and 'Surf's Up' - and when two of the three weirdest songs on the album (along with 'Feel Flows') become the benchmark for normal emotions then you know something is slightly out of kilter.

While none of the songs are truly bad - certainly not to future low standards such as  '15 Big Ones' or 'MIU' standards  - only about half of them are truly worthy of the praise 'Surf's Up' always seems to get from critics then and now. Carl's pair, Bruce's 'Disney Girls', Brian's 'Til I Die' and particularly 'Surf's Up are all sublime, while Al's 'Lookin' At Tomorrow' is a likeable song simply a verse too short to make much of an impact. That leaves the single dodgiest Beach Boys lyric till 'Mekelekikimaka' (or how to say something patronising in Hawaiian - I must admit I can't remember anymore and I'm resisting looking the song up in case it goes round my head again): 'Don't Go Near The Water', which manages to rhyme 'bad with 'sad' and the surely unique rhyme of 'aftermath' and 'bubble bath'. Remember that The Beach Boys were writing powerful pocket vignettes like 'This Whole World' a mere album ago and sigh. As if this wasn't enough the albums also contains the second dodgiest Beach Boys lyric, 'Student Demonstration Time', a re-write of a Leiber-Stoller song that finds Mike Love's heart in the right place but his usual lyrically instinctive brain disengaged (a lot of it doesn't even scan!) 'Take A Load Off Your Feet' would have made a fine comedy B-side but sounds deeply out of place on an album designed to make The Beach Boys seem serious and grown-up and even that excellent arrangement can't make up for the fact that this is a second-strong Beach Boys song, sensibly left off 'Sunflower' in favour of better, deeper material. That just leaves 'A Day In The Life Of A Tree' which is a song right on the balance of pastiche with its doomed church organ and over-dramatic lyrics: so much so that fans have debated for decades now whether Brian and Jack meant it genuinely or as a joke. Chances are it's either your favourite or your least favourite song on the album, although interestingly it tends to be the less-than-devoted Beach Boys fans who hate it the most.

Still, if that last paragraph sounds a little harsh then that's meant as more of a compliment to the other, wonderful albums around 'Surf's Up' that don't get much of a look in. 'Carl and the Passions' has similar extremes of brilliance and incompetence and that album's barely even mentioned these days; 'Holland' is a much tighter, thematical album with an even richer tapestry that only true passionate Beach Boys fans seem to rate highly; finally 'Sunflower' has all the things the better known 'Surf's Up' has in spades, without as many mistakes. What's more, all of these albums have Dennis Wilson's grit to counteract the occasional lapses into bad taste, goonery or impenetrability (or in the case of 'Feet' all three). Frankly I'm just grumpy that 'Surf's Up' did so much better when it's actually one of the weaker Beach Boys albums in a great period and it always saddens me when non-fans (or at least only 1960s Beach Boys fans) gives this album a little taste, decides it's not that great ('Surf's Up' apart, generally speaking) and then passes over all the band's other 70s material because they assume it's worse. All that said, 'Surf's Up' would have to be a pretty poor album otherwise to get less than half marks when it contains a recording as powerful as the title track. The brilliance of 'Long Promised Road' (a candidate for Carl Wilson's greatest ever song) , 'Feel Flows' (perhaps the best song I've ever heard containing lyrics that are actually complete gibberish), 'Disney Girls' (sickly and sentimental but powerful with it) and 'Til I Die' (another of the greatest Brian Wilson songs ever written and tailor made for their soaring harmonies) nudges the album up at least another couple of marks too. Above all else, 'Surf's Up' meant that fans could stop asking the question 'what would a sad Beach Boys album sound like?' which had been on everybody's lips since 'The Lonely Sea' revealed that there was more to the band than having fun in the sun. The answer is lyrical, poetical, sweetly melancholic rather than downright miserable but with a little touch of anger and brittleness, but with a tendency to go over-the-top rather than ply things with subtly. In all, then, Surf's up isn't bad then - in fact by and large it's greats, with a lot of things finally falling into place for the band after an incredibly difficult five years - just don't consider it the high watermark of the Beach Boys canon.

Opening track 'Don't Go Near The Water' sums up both the strengths and weaknesses of 'Surf's Up' in a handy three minute summary. On the one hand it's fascinating to hear The Beach Boys have fun with their own formula, using the beach not as a safe haven but as a place of danger and using their block harmonies not as the voice of angels but as the voice of doom. A better-than-average arrangement also makes this song feel really busy, bouncing from one unrelated section to another with all sorts of electronic effect trickery added on top (the 'underwater guitars' are especially strong) and an 'ah-hum diddy waddah' chant originally part of the 'lengthy' 10 minute version of 'Heroes and Villains' plus a choral section straight out of 'Good Vibrations' - the band have clearly been listening back to a lot of 'Smile' in 1971. There's even a moog synthesiser in there somewhere too, giving the song a feeling that we've gone back to the days when the band were pioneers, not has-beens. Unfortunately, though, the song itself is rather limp. You get the sense that Mike and Al think that writing an ecological statement is a good idea but they don't actually know anything about pollution and ecology (few in the general public did in 1971) so they're simply filling in time until the killer one-line chorus comes in. Mike sounds even more uncomfortable on the lead vocals than he has of late and Al is a touch too convincingly 'crazy' on the manic counter-verses (the others don't do much, although apparently that's Brian playing the unusual dissonant piano chords - a kind of eerie variation on his favoured 'boogie woogie' lines). That's a shame because overall this is exactly the sort of thing the new-look Beach Boys should have been doing. The second verse about 'poison floating out to sea, threatening life on land' is a great inversion of what most people would have been expecting from the first track on a new Beach Boys themes and production-wise this is the most complex we've heard for some time (barring Dennis' songs) - possibly since the heady days of 'Smile'. Timothy White's intriguing sleevenotes for the CD re-issue adds that the band may have been trying to pull of a grand metaphor here for the state of the band and their disappearing career (ie the creative seas that used to be so grand are now 'polluted'); usually I'm all for unlikely autobiographical metaphors (as any long-term reader will know!) but I'm not quite buying this one, even if it does mean the band can unite at the end with a triumphant cry that they will 'all help the water'. I'd love to tell you all jokingly not to go near 'Don't Go Near The Water' but in truth this is a good idea that nearly comes off - it's just a shame that some of the lyrics and especially the rhymes are so awful.

'Long Promised Road' is, at last, the real Carl. He may be singing a torturous lyric from Jack Rieley that lesser singers would have given up on, but you sense that this song's mixture of laidback ease and sudden bursts of adrenalin at life's obstacles is at last close to the 'real' Carl. Like many of brother Brian's songs, the best thing about this song is the way so many disparate sections somehow 'fit' together to make a whole much bigger than the sum of their parts, taking the listener on a journey from being wary of the future, to 'hitting hard' at any of life's obstacles and ending up finally, briefly, at our goal, 'at one' with the Earth. Carl's music manages to be both tough and resilient,  ready to fight but only when necessary (ie when a whacking great key change comes along and the whole ground underneath our feet shifts). Carl was always the band's most reliable vocalist but he excels himself here on a song he truly feels, growing in stature with every push and pull of the song's dynamics and his sudden variation on the howled 'dow-e-wo-wen' in the last verse, hinting at more troubles unspoken, just when you think the song is coming to a safe ending is delicious. Rieley's lyrics, whilst far too busy (sample lyric: 'So hard to lift the jewelled sceptre when the weight turns a smile into a frown')does successfully convey the idea that life is sometimes tough but you always have the capacity to be tougher than you realise (the lines about the difficulties 'shedding the life of before' are the song's real heart and particularly apt for this period in Beach Boys history - no wonder the band felt such a connection with Rieley who clearly shared their hunger for change). The other Beach Boys don't get much to do on this one but when they do appear the effect is mesmerising, block harmonies launching into a backing chorus of 'hit hard hit hard at the battle yeah, knock down knock down all the roadblocks, throw off all the shackles binging me down, down dow-wn down!' that makes them sound like a group of cheerleading spirit guides, willing you on down the road. The song also manages to be just about ambiguous enough: this could be you in the present day (well, 1971) but it could equally be the American pioneer on the album cover, 'planting the seed of reform' in the hope that future generations can nurture these seeds the best way. There's even the single best use of the synthesiser on a Beach Boys recording, way before their use became common (The Who are the other band using the digital sort this early on) and the fact that the band keep it for that glorious moment when the narrator's life goal is finally sought, leaving him misty-eyed and filled with more wonder, is a brilliant idea (again its Steve Desper's brilliant idea, the engineer turning the band on to the new equipment around to use). Overall, yes the lyrics are often fussy bordering on gibberish but 'Long Promised Road' still manages to convey real emotion and it's life journey is one of the greatest of all Beach Boys songs. Another in a series of flop singles (peaking at just #79 in America) 'Long Promised Road' deserved to do much better - its easily the highlight of the album tracks not to be originally taken from 'Smile' and is in fact one of the band's greatest songs of the 1970s. A triumph for the band but specially Carl (who plays everything except the moog - notably there are no drums on the track), the younger Wilson may have been slow adapting to songwriting but when he did take the plunge he had the talent to become one of the band's most gifted of writers, in touch with the band's past but with the band's future in mind too.

'Take A Load Off Your Feet' has a complicated history for such a simple, silly song. When the first version of 'Sunflower' (still titled 'Add Some Music To Your Day') was drawn up Brian Wilson was in productive but frivolous mood. His early songs for the project included the delightfully dotty 'HELP Is On The Way' and 'I Just Got My Pay' as well as that album's 'At My Window' - delightfully childish songs the elder Wilson may well have written for his young daughters as much as his band. Al Jardine was fast becoming the emotional sponge of the band, soaking up the ideas flying round at a particular time and trying to match them and came up with his own daft novelty song, a hymn to feet (Al recalled later that the song had started when his old school friend Gary Winfrey came round to his house and they jokingly decided to write a musical in the vein of the ever-popular 'Hair'; the pair chose feet because Gary's wife was pregnant and finding it painful to walk on her swollen ankles, the writers being intrigued by how much they took their feet for granted). The Beach Boys wouldn't have known it, being Californian, but comedy actor Bernard Bresslaw had already had the same idea in the 1950s, recording his own novelty song 'You Need Feet', a song even dafter than what the band delivers. The group then had fun dressing up the song with all sorts of funny electronic trickery and sound effects (again the band have clearly been listening to 'Smile' sessions, notably 'Workshop' - here Brian hits a water container with a rubber mallet, records his own footsteps and the horn of his new purchase, a Rolls Royce Phantom he never actually drove which can be seen on the inner sleeve of the 'Sunflower' LP; however the most effective sound effect is a simple 'ouch!' from Mike Love when narrator 'Pete' stands on some broken glass, the vocalist returning to his days of 'daft' overdubs on the likes of ';Cassius Love V Sonny Wilson' and 'Beach Boys Party') which at least makes this song sound interesting, even if the lyrics have already palled by the second verse. What's interesting, though, is how involved Brian is with the song, tackling the first verse with such aplomb that it must have fooled more than a few people into thinking this was a Brian Wilson song. The result is a novelty track that would have worked fine on the original 'Sunflower' and fans would have been jumping up and down over had it appeared for the first time on one of the two Beach Boys boxes (the first one is stuffed full with 'Sunflower' outtakes); here as track three on 'Surf's Up' it sounds woefully out of place, like a comedian invited to a dinner with nine philosophers vainly trying to make them all laugh. Few out and out Beach Boys comedy songs have ever worked (see 'County Fair' 'Drive-In' and a good two-thirds of the forthcoming 'Beach Boys Love You'); the best you can say about 'Take A Load Off Your Feet' is that it gets closer to being funny than most.

'Disney Girls' is the best known Bruce Johnston song from his time in the band (his hit for Barry Manilow 'I Write The Songs' is his only solo contender) and surprised more than a few critics who had Bruce pegged as the least prolific member of the band. 'Disney Girls' makes good on the promise shown in 'The Nearest Faraway Place' 'Deirdre' and 'Tears In The Morning', returning to the same 1950s childhood theme but with slightly more polish and originality. While some of the lyrics are confusing (are the 'Disney Girls' of the title the Mickey Mouse 'mouseketeers'? Or is this a more literal interpretation of every Disney heroine from 'Snow White' through to Eva Gabor voicing the 'posh' mother cat in 'The Aristocats', the nearest equivalent film to the 'Surf's Up' period) they successfully invoke the idea of a past golden age that will probably never come again and probably only existed in people's imaginations anyway ('Reality, it's not for me'). We're in a real shift back to the 1950s in 1971, with glam rock reviving the innocence of the age (the very real danger of the 1950s, all Teddy Boys and military service, is left unsaid for now although the punks will recycle a lot of the imagery in about five years' time) - the sense that somehow civilisation took a wrong turning at the crossroads (the 1990s will later do the same with the mid to late 1960s). Interestingly, Bruce gives this song a very specific dating though (1957), which suggests that at least part of this song is based on memory (when Bruce would have been fifteen) - is this perhaps a clouded memory of a first romance, back in the days when love seemed easy and natural and came without responsibilities, arguments and mortgages? Like Carl, Bruce conjures up a dreamy world from his own  laidback melody and with the Beach Boys in disarray chooses to record most of the instruments himself (playing the keyboards, mandolin and a pioneering use of the moog to play the 'bass line' - the new romantics will be full of this idea but not for another few years yet), with Ed Carter adding the guitar and Dennis' collaborator Darryl Dragon (later the one half of the Captain and Tennille) on drums. The result is a song that borders on the sickly sweet and sentimental (I could have done without the flute flourish) but just about gets by thanks to some typically gorgeous block Beach Boys harmonies and the fact that, unlike Bruce's other songs, there's a resolution of sorts here: the narrator wakes up in the last verse to find his dreams have become real and his perfect imaginary girl is now real; the twist being that he then sets off an entire new set of 'dreams' for the future ('It'll be a peaceful life, with a forever wife and a kid some day' - Bruce is the only Beach Boy without children to pose with on the cover of 'Sunflower', apart from Dennis who had already lost touch with most of his - a fact that may well have hit the sensitive Johnston when looking back at the proofs). A quiet triumph, this song has been covered by a wider and more varied selection of artists than almost any other Beach Boy track (including fellow AAA star Art Garfunkel who records a nice version of this song on his 1975 'Breakaway' album). Alas the bad news is that this song's success tempts Bruce away from the band and into a solo career that never quite happens and by the time he's back with the Beach Boys (in 1979) he's treated more like a hired hand than a writer their equal.

Very unusually, it's Mike Love who kicks 'Disney Girls' imaginary supports away from under her, reminding the world of the turbulent reality of 1971's America. 'Student Demonstration Time' is a good example of a song with its heart in the right place (commenting on the peak period of disobedience and protest, particularly on college campuses) that gets it all so fundamentally wrong. Mike is as fascinated yet horrified as anyone would have been at the time, watching the violence on television gradually edge nearer and nearer California, but his way of reacting to the song the horror is not to fan the flames or condemn the whole scene; instead Mike warns people 'like him' to 'stay away when there's a riot going on' (and, its hinted, pretend the whole thing isn't happening). The fact that Mike sets his loosely political lyrics to an already existing song (Leiber and Stoller's 'Riot In Cell Block Nine' - not for the first or last time the song is close enough for the original writers to receive a co-credit and half the royalties on the track) that for some of the youngsters causing 'trouble' would have been the music of their parents (if they had children young, anyway) shows just how out of touch The Beach Boys still were. Like 'Don't Go Near The Water' this is the sound of a band trying to do all the ecology and contemporary politics their new manager has asked of them, but never quite understanding the brief. Instead of pitching himself on one side or the other, Mike takes the easy way out and simply lists the facts, not his opinions, mentioning  the Berkley Free Speech Movement protest of 1964 (in response to a decision to band free speech at the Berkley, California University), May 1969's 'People's Park' again in Berkley (created by students for students to use and a natural meeting point for political rallies), June 1970 riots in Isla Vista, California (a riot against curfews for teenagers), the Jackson State Killings (where students at a Mississippi University were shot for protesting against Vietnam) and the May 1970 Kent State shootings (when a group of Ohio students were shot on Nixon's orders during an anti-Vietnam rally; the same event that inspired CSNY's 'Ohio'). However while the song makes clear that 'there's a riot going on' and people aren't happy, there's no sense that Love has learnt anything more than from watching the news - there's no sense that an evil regime is being overthrown, no sense that people should be allowed freedom of speech without the troops being sent in, just the thought that America is out of control. The decision to have Mike singing as if through a megaphone throughout, while a nice idea, doesn't work either: Love sounds more like the news reporter watching it happen than a man at the heart of the action. The result divided fans on release - some loved the fact that the Beach Boys had finally got 'political' while others felt the song was so left-field and clumsy for The Beach Boys that it ruined the album for them (in a rare case of standing up to his cousin Brian reportedly hated this song and tried to have it taken off the album; the song clearly still bothered him in 1990 when the CD sleevenotes were being written). As for me, I'm pleased that the Beach Boys were brave enough to risk their reputation and try something like this, but this song is merely secondhand emotion tacked onto a song that was already 12 years old and it too quickly runs out of interesting things to say. Were it not for another strong album production (with bullets and sirens whizzing past your ears throughout), most fans then and now probably wouldn't have given it the time of day.

Onto side two and 'Feel Flows' is effectively 'Long Promised Road' part two, an even more elaborate Carl Wilson-Jack Rieley collaboration that takes intellectual mysticism to new levels. Again Carl virtually plays solo and the other Beach Boys only appear briefly in a group chorus that flits in and out of the song to beautiful effect. Rieley's lyrics verge even more on the impenetrable at times ('encasing all embracing wreath of repose') but occasionally hit on a lyric that is genuinely poetic and multi-faceted ('Unbending never-ending tablets of time record all the yearning'). Together with the tick-tock rhythm of the percussion-heavy backing track, a heavier than normal guitar solo smothered in grungy feedback and the exotic treatment on Carl's voice (which sounds revolutionary now but must have sounded other-worldly in 1971) the pair just about get away with it, Carl sounding like a mystical prophet. In as much as this song makes any sense the idea of expanding on Brian's description of this sudden musical insights as his 'feels' is a good one, the song hinting that real emotion is such a deep and powerful feeling that at times it seems like it comes from somewhere 'else'. The hint that somewhere deep in all of this feeling there is a 'path', a warm glowing light that brings us to our senses, is less well presented but nevertheless even these thoughts chime with 1971-period philosophy (where an 'all appearing message divine' sometime in the future will 'ease the burning' and life becomes more readily understood. The riveting middle section where all hell breaks loose (Carl's guitar slicing through the song's mysticism before being partnered by floating Moody Blues-ish flutes and a demented saxophone part) is particularly strong, lasting a full 75 seconds and really making the listener feel as if they've been on a journey to some dark mysterious inner world. Overall, then, 'Feel Flows' is a flawed song that just about gets by thanks to an exotic backing track that manages to say more than the lyrics ever can, with Carl turning in another delicious vocal (treated with 'backwards echo' added afterwards that gives his voice the feeling its being pulled this way and that). 'Feel Flows' is another example of just how strong the natural Beach Boys sound can be with a more contemporary setting (and again all credit to Carl for creating it more or less on his own) and is another album highlight. The song has cropped up in modern popular culture a couple of times since - The Super Furry Animals, longterm Beach Boys fans, using it on their CD compilation 'Under The Influence' and the recording does indeed sound like many of their rich tapestries of sound, while Madonna lifted a sample of the bass and guitar part from the song's middle section for her own song 'Swim', although shockingly Carl doesn't get a credit for it.

'Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)' is another example of where The Beach Boys sound could have gone, this time largely courtesy of Al Jardine who plays nearly everything on this understated, muted composition. Al's voice and strummed guitar, both treated with echo and phasing, sounds delightfully eerie and the sudden full-quality appearances of other sounds 'dropped' into the song (from the band's vocals, to a bass part, to shining synthesisers) really catch the ear, sounding like the track slowly pulling into focus. The narrator is unemployed and restless, 'like a freight train off a track' as one memorable metaphor puts it, dreaming of the future when he can afford to eat and he won't 'need nobody to pay my aid'. The first verse could have been recorded at any time, but the second (and the song's subtitle) makes it clear that this is one of America's settlers, frustrated at having travelled so far for a new life only to find it as bad as the old one, again harking back to the album cover and weary pioneer trudging slowly home. Alas this promising song then ends not with a third verse that makes good on the promise of a 'better tomorrow' or comes up short with the fact that it will never happen but a simple wordless 'bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah' scat sung variation on the song's main verse. The CD sleeve-notes bill this song as a 'coda' to 'Long Promised Road, with the pioneer busted in his starry-eyed ambitions', which does make a kind of sense (and would have made even more had the songs been placed next to each other), but there's no actual evidence to link the two other than a feeling of short term pessimism and long term optimism. That's an awful shame because this low key composition desperately needs something more to it to make it a really good rather than merely good - certainly a big improvement on 'Take A Load Off Your Feet', Jardine's other collaboration with Gary Winfrey.

'A Day In The Life Of A Tree' begins a trio of Brian Wilson songs with his latest song - and the last to fully take up his attention, given that 'Marcella' 'Sail On Sailor' and 'Funky Pretty' were all more or less finished off by the rest of the band and/or manager. Rieley's discussions with Brian about the importance of conservation clearly struck a chord with a writer who was always sensitive to the needs of others. Brian's imagination even allowed him to 'feel' the pain of the planet in the form of a tree - actually Rieley's suggestion as a useful metaphor for passing on the melancholy of a planet once rich with promise and now ruined by greed. Brian clearly picked up on the 'sermon' feel of Jack's words and turned this ecological protest song into a hymn, based around simple organ chords that give the feeling of a tree 'rooted' in our ancient past. Brian was more enthusiastic about this song than any he'd written for ages, reportedly learning the first verse off by heart (no mean feat for his poor addled brain in 1971) and dancing round the studio singing it - but when he came to recording what was intended to be his main non-Smile lead of the record he figured he was having problems cutting it and refused to sing. Instead he coaxed Rieley - on hand to see how his composition was going - to sing a 'guide vocal' for him and without his knowledge used it as the final master. The result is a curious mixture: while heartfelt the song is undeniably childish and while a Brian Wilson vocal might have offered just the right childlike quality (see most of the charming 'Friends' and the rather less charming 'Beach Boys Love You'), Rieley sounds too much of a 'grown-up' to be indulging in such a nakedly empty song. Unlike some Beach Boys I'd never claim that 'A Day In The Life Of Tree' is an awful song or even an awful recording - but it does feel like an unfinished demo from a school play rather than the grand statement of the album the band clearly hoped it would be. The song only really comes alive with the glorious finale, where lots of glorious Beach Boys harmonies criss-cross over the top and really do sound like some second chance has just been granted (interestingly Al Jardine fits this track far better than he does his own 'Take A Load Off Your Feet' - perhaps the band should have got him to re-record the full vocal?)

'Til' I Die', however, is a pure carat gold masterclass of a song. Brian had had the song a while - perhaps as early as 1969, more likely from his creative burst of 1970 - but The Beach Boys had passed over it, feeling that this tale about being an insignificant speck in the vastness of human life had no place on a feelgood Beach Boys record. A lot of the 'rumours' about this song have spread because of the single best passage in Brian's autobiography 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?', recalling a beach trip he took late at night where he saw the vastness of space and wrote about how empty his life seemed, even thinking about attempting suicide until a voice in his head told him how there was 'no music' in death and he'd better go back inside. Brian then talks about spending an awful lot of time crafting this song - more than any since 1969 - only for the band to crush his spirit, cal it 'depressing' and refuse to release it. The fact that the song has appeared intact on just about every Beach Boys compilation eligible to include it (and that it appeared on the Surf's Up' album over more happy-go-lucky 'Sunflower' outtakes featuring Brian) suggests that yet again the gist of Brian's dubious autobiography (ghost-written by his therapist Eugene Landy) is right but the facts are wrong: The Beach Boys were eager to include it and put together the single best group performance on the record, all the band shining on a near capella track that ends in a haunting vocal round that lasts nearly a full minute. It could be that the song was 'delayed' because it didn't fit the overall happy theme of 'Sunflower' but that this song inspired the far more dramatic downbeat mood of 'Surf's Up'. Whatever the cause, this is a remarkable composition, again twisting the usual Beach Boys themes of the beach as a place of safety and joy and the sun as a golden glow of fortune by having three verses imagine in turn Brian's narrator as a cork bobbing helplessly up and down on life's oceans, a rock sliding painfully down a mountainside and a leaf being blown around on a 'windy day'. The first storm ever seen in The Beach Boys' perennially sunny Californian landscapes, 'Til I Die' also conjures up the sheer size of the backdrop musically: the Beach Boys sound locked together in a tiny corner in the middle of the sonic spectrum, trapped against their will. All the usual Beach Boys elements are here: the harmonies, the boogie woogie chord sequences and Brian's childlike voice at the heart of it all (or, possibly, Al Jardine doing an amazing impression of Brian's childlike voice), but everything is inverted: this isn't fun fun fun, this is misery misery misery, the narrator lost in a world he doesn't understand and unable to contemplate living in it anymore. Only those soaring harmonies, with Carl and Mike (allegedly the one who hated the song) outdoing themselves offers to put the song right, stretching up to the skies on some of the best harmonies the band ever arranged. The result is a masterpiece of a song, staggeringly brave for a band known for their summer sunshine and evidence of the darker shadows following the Beach Boys around by 1971.The only negative point you could make about the song - that at three verses, three minutes and no choruses or middle eights the song is too short to be as epic as it wants to be - was answered delightfully by an alternate mix made by Steve Desper unknown to the band, which built up the song layer by layer and instrument by instrument before cycling back round with the vocals placed even higher, doubling the running time. While unofficial, many fans now rate this mix as better than the original album version - you can hear it for yourself as part of the band's 1998 rarities set 'Endless Harmony'.

Only a totally magical song could possibly follow 'Til I Die' - but luckily 'Surf's Up' is that song. We've Already written about this song twice on this website (for Brian's solo version of 'Smile' in 2003 and the Beach Boys' original heard on the 'Smile Sessions' set in 2011). This version is a hybrid of both arrangements, Carl taking it upon himself to re-assemble the opening section from memory and half-finished tapes before seguing neatly into Brian's naked demo of the song before culminating in a  marvellous sequence of cascading harmonies taken from what was originally another 'Smile' song entirely, 'Child Is Father To The Man'. The result is a patchwork quilt that shouldn't work but does, Carl's gentle parental vocals gradually getting younger and younger on a tale of corruption and collapse before ending up at Brian's innocent vocal from five years before and the closing lines that 'the children's song is love and the children know the way'. 'Surf's Up' is a special song amongst Beach Boys fans for so many reasons: the melody line is both haunting and beautiful all at the same time, Van Dyke Parks' lyrics stretch the metaphor to breaking point but are filled with instant visual images that say a great deal about the natural ebb and flow of the universe ('Surf's Up' isn't all that far removed from 'Feel Flows' after all) and the Beach Boys' performance is stunning, even Brian's vocal on the demo which he was adamant the band shouldn't have used. What's eerie - and what particularly put Brian off working on the song - was how accurately 'Surf's Up' summed up his slump in form. 'Are you sleepy, brother John?' sings a younger Brian to his older self, who'd already taken to bed for many long years, with the Beach Boys' success and his creative prowess now replaced by a 'dim chandelier', a light source now too low for the grand surroundings. 'Columnated ruins domino', with one bad experience turning into another in a vicious cycle Brian couldn't escape from, could have been his signature tune of 1971, despite being written in 1966. The perfect finale to an album all about the darker, more unpleasant side to life, the timing was another masterstroke, stoking even more interest in a project dismissed at the time as 'unworkable'. What a shame, then, that the demons of 'Smile' were still too close for Brian's comfort; had he handed his pet project over to Carl to finish in 1971 it might not have sounded like it should have done, but like this re-recording 'Smile' would still have been sensitively handled and ended up sounding amazing. On any album 'Surf's Up' would have been the highlight, but here the song is the perfect ending to an album all about tragedy.

Overall, then, 'Surf's Up' is a good, strong album with the last two songs particularly among the top ten greatest recordings the Beach Boys ever made. The album largely deserved its success with the day's counterculture and offered the band a way to enhance their sound to a new era without getting rid of any of the factors that had always made the band so special. The problem is that 'Surf's Up' isn't one of the band's more consistent albums - there's a good three songs that should never have been released and another couple that while OK are nowhere near the high standards set by the rest of the album. In short, 'Surf's Up' deserved the success this album got, but the consistent 'Sunflower' deserved that success even more. However far from the surf being up, I think most fans who continued to listen to the band's records past 'Smile' recognise this album and this period as some sort of high-water mark, from a time when the tide was still very much in and there was still a major musical role for The Beach Boys still to play. Overall rating - 7/10

Other Beach Boys review from this site you might be interested in reading (some of which have been newly revised!):

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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