The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up – Classic Music Review
Within months of releasing “one of the greatest masterpieces in rock music” to worldwide acclaim, the Beach Boys entered a four-year period of hyper-bad karma where nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong.
That’s one perspective on the post-“Good Vibrations” era. The other view is that the Beach Boys did some of their finest work during an exceptionally difficult period but the only people who noticed were music fans in the UK. One of the most iconic bands in American history was essentially dismissed by their compatriots as the washed-up, seriously unhip “Bleach Boys.” Even Brian Wilson seemed to agree with the sentiments of his fellow yanks: “I think rock n’ roll—the pop scene—is happening. It’s great. But I think basically the Beach Boys are squares. We’re not happening.”
While both perspectives have some validity, many of the wounds were self-inflicted. Pulling out of the Monterey Pop Festival at the last minute was a really bad call, as was Dennis Wilson’s decision to start hanging out with Charles Manson. An American tour with Maharishi Mahesh Yoga in support of TM began right around the time that John Lennon was on The Tonight Show denouncing the Maharishi; as things turned out, the self-styled guru abandoned the tour to fulfill film contracts, forcing the band to cancel twenty-four shows and kiss a quarter of a million dollars in revenue goodbye. A nasty royalty dispute with Capitol resulted in the label deleting their entire catalog when their contract expired; in the midst of the controversy, Brian Wilson told the press that the band was near bankruptcy, a dumb move that ended contract negotiations with Deutsche Grammophon.
Meanwhile, Brian Wilson had begun his drug-fueled decline into mental illness with his bandmates doing their best to hide the truth from the public. The highly-anticipated Smile album never came close to completion, and Brian’s participation in the creation and recording processes became spotty at best. While record sales remained strong and steady in the UK, the Beach Boys were yesterday’s news in their homeland; their previous release, Sunflower, peaked pathetically at #151 on the Billboard charts—the worst-selling Beach Boys album up to that time.
There’s always a capitalist ready to turn disaster into opportunity (see Trump Family, The) and at this point American huckster Jack Rieley aka John Frank thrust himself into the narrative. Rieley-Frank was a DJ who told Brian he’d won a Peabody Award as a journalist for NBC News (bullshit), leading Brian by the nose to his first full-length radio interview (accompanied by Mike Love and Bruce Johnston). Sensing opportunity like a buck smelling a doe in heat, Rieley submitted a six-page plan designed to return the Beach Boys to relevance. Figuring they had nothing to lose, the Beach Boys fired longtime co-manager and promoter Fred Vail and turned over the keys of the kingdom to Jack.
The most important quality Jack Rieley brought to the table was his decisiveness. He immediately promoted Carl Wilson into the bandleader role, ending Brian’s Howard Hughes’ style reign. He demanded they rid themselves of the matching stage uniforms that shouted “passé.” Jack also put them to work rehearsing their asses off for the Big Sur Folk Festival, a performance that helped to re-establish their cred and earned them an apology from Jann Wenner, who had publicly written off the Beach Boys as failed Beatles imitators. A European tour went well, and Brian Wilson even joined in the fun for four dates at the Whiskey A Go Go.
All very well and good, but Jack Rieley’s aggressiveness knew no boundaries. He involved himself in the songwriting process for Surf’s Up (originally titled Landlocked), earning co-writer credit for three of the tracks and pissing off the three non-Wilsons in the process. He also appears as a vocalist on two tracks and selected the album cover. Most heinously, he encouraged the Beach Boys to write more “socially conscious and topical material,” with sometimes unfortunate results.
Despite the misses, Surf’s Up has an undeniable feel about it, synthesizing melancholy, sweetness and non-secular spirituality. Although the album isn’t as harmonious as other efforts (that’s a double entendre, by the way), there are still some blessed moments when the group vocals remind you that the Beach Boys will always remain in the top tier when it comes to vocal harmony. Though the lyrics are generally not particularly compelling, the music and production magic is often fascinating.
The album opens with the rather unfortunate PSA, “Don’t Go Near the Water.” I should have said “PSA targeted for tots,” as the lyrics barely rise to Dick & Jane levels:
Don’t go near the water
Don’t you think it’s sad
What’s happened to the water
Our water’s going bad
Even more ludicrous is Al Jardine’s insertion: “Toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubble bath/So let’s avoid an ecological aftermath.” I’m a passionate environmentalist, but I sure as hell don’t want to live in a world full of people with bad breath and B. O. (I would also remind Mr. Jardine that “ecological” does not mean “disastrous”). Despite the hokey lyrics, I absolutely adore the music. The dissonant piano and harmonies are marvelous, and the choir-like ending communicates the image of a dying planet more effectively than the trite language. It’s possible that the song may have had more impact at the time than I can appreciate—after all, these were the Beach Boys telling people to forget about those surfin’ safaris and stay the hell away from the ocean.
“Long Promised Road” was Carl Wilson’s first solo composition, and he obviously put a lot of time and energy into its creation, earning credit for lead vocals, electric lead guitar, acoustic guitar, electric piano, Moog synthesizer, piano, bass guitar, drums, percussion and backing vocals (Jardine, Marilyn Wilson and Diane Rovell added additional vocal backing). It sure doesn’t sound like a first-time effort to me—“Long Promised Road” is a well-structured composition combining reflective verses with a muscular chorus sweetened by a gorgeous bridge bathed in shimmery synth. The lyrics are strong and clear, sung in a voice powered by sincere emotion:
So hard to answer future’s riddle
When ahead is seeming so far behind
So hard to laugh a child-like giggle
When the tears start to torture my mind
So hard to shed the life of before
To let my soul automatically soar
But I hit hard at the battle that’s confronting me, yeah
Knock down all the roadblocks a-stumbling me
Throw off all the shackles that are binding me down
I didn’t mention it in the bad karma section, but at the time Carl had spent years battling the feds who wanted to put him in prison for refusing to heed his draft notice in 1967. I find it fascinating that the incident wasn’t mentioned or even hinted at in this song, especially given Rieley’s demand for more topical material (he is listed as the song’s co-writer, after all). My take is that Carl was always more spiritually-oriented and tended to view life’s earthy challenges as things you have to deal with in the quest for higher consciousness. “Long Promised Road” certainly expresses defiance and determination, but it’s also obvious that Carl knew that the more important battle lies within.
Al Jardine redeems himself with the delightfully quirky “Take a Load Off Your Feet,” a composition inspired by conversational stream of consciousness where someone brought up the musical Hair, which spawned the idea about writing a song about a different part of the body, and, as luck would have it, co-writer Gary Winfrey’s wife was present with her ankles swollen from late-stage pregnancy . . . hence the desperate need to take a load off one’s feet. The lyrics tell a surprisingly coherent story featuring a lead character named Pete who knows all about feet, treats his pair with exceptional discipline and can look forward to a bright future as a reflexologist (love the avocado cream tip). Brian Wilson and Al Jardine take turns in the lead vocalist position, and when I re-engaged with the album for the first time in years, I felt an emotional rush upon hearing Brian Wilson’s falsetto in the bridge. “Now that’s the Beach Boys,” I said to the otherwise empty room.
According to Keith Badman’s definitive diary of the Beach Boys’ career, the band thought Surf’s Up was a wrap back in April 1971, but instead they returned to the studio in June to record what turned out to be the two strongest tracks on the album. The first is Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls,” a song that expresses his wish for a world where people were “a little naïve but a little healthier.”
Man, I’d give anything to be surrounded by naïve, healthy people right now.
While one might make the case that “Disney Girls” is a nostalgic fantasy of the kind later depicted in Happy Days, “Disney Girls” is more than an empty wish to return to the past. First, the song has a touch of tongue-in-cheek (particularly in the bridge) that tells us Bruce Johnston was fully aware of the unreality of the nostalgic pull. Second, Johnston wrote the song after seeing too many kids in the audience attempting to create their own fantasy worlds through the use of illicit substances. In the first rendition of the chorus he sings two lines that reflect a certain empathy with the stoners:
Oh reality, it’s not for me
And it makes me laugh
Man, I’d give anything for a reality that made me laugh right now.
Those lines also tell us that Johnston considered his current reality absurd, and his response is a longing for a simpler life where people took delight in the simpler pleasures life has to offer: kisses, pillow fights and hey—how about a smog-free Los Angeles?
Open cars and clearer stars
That’s what I’ve lacked
Putting aside the Korean War, Cold War, Joe McCarthy and Sputnik, the Fifties were a great time to live in the United States if you were an average middle-class white person. The economy boomed through most of the Eisenhower years, giving the typical worker plenty of disposable income to spend on cars, baseball, Elvis or Sinatra . . . and growing families. The general perception in America was that things were working and that the American Dream was real (at least for white men). The Kennedy assassination disrupted that norm, unleashing a Pandora’s box of doubt, conflict and uncertainty. Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement and a dawning awareness of the environmental impact of living the good life told Americans that things weren’t working anymore. Bruce Johnston wasn’t the only one longing for a more understandable, manageable life; some decided to go back to nature; some believed Richard Nixon could restore order and the American Way. In this context, “Disney Girls” is a completely understandable expression of a shared cultural sentiment to return to a world where people had more time and social stability to appreciate the good things in life.
The song is a chordal masterpiece, a dazzling combination of major, minor, diminished, seventh and minor sevenths that flow beautifully in the gentle sections and effectively build drama in the builds. The mandolin in the opening passage helps establish the melancholy, nostalgic mood, while the Moog, flute and wah-wah add the dreamscape. It was a brilliant call to have Johnston sing the first verse and chorus alone, as the sudden appearance of group harmony in the transition to the second verse sends good chills up and down the spine. The swooping harmonies in the second chorus are perfectly executed to echo the delightful swooning feeling of falling in love.
The key passage of the song is found in the bridge, where Johnston bids farewell to all restraint and acts out a fondly-remembered television fantasy:
(Love) “Hi Rick and Dave!
Hi Pop! Well, good morning mom!
(Love) Get up! Guess what?
I’m in love with a girl I found!
She’s really swell
Cause she likes
Church, bingo chances and old-time dances.”
When the Beach Boys go a capella on that last line, their voices heightened by an echo chamber effect—well, you’ve just heard what “breathtaking” sounds like. The key change for the final verse was another masterstroke, confirming my theory that the song had to be written on a keyboard—the chords present a serious challenge for a guitarist (unless you come up with a tuning that even Sonic Youth couldn’t have imagined).
It really sucks that “Disney Girls” is followed by the completely lame attempt at “socially conscious and topical lyrics” represented by “Student Demonstration Time.” The alarm bells should go off a nanosecond after you hear Mike Love sing the opening line: “Starting out with Berkeley Free Speech.” Hold on there, pardner! Where were you in ’64? Ah, I see you released a concert album! Let’s look at the track listing:
- “Fun, Fun, Fun”
- “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”
- “Little Deuce Coupe”
- “Long, Tall Texan”
- “In My Room”
- “Monster Mash” . . .
Okay, I think I’ve made my point. The Beach Boys had zero credibility as protest singers, coming to the party at least seven years too late. And as for that verse on Kent State . . . let’s just say it sure as shit ain’t “Ohio,” acknowledge the non-violent common sense on display in the song and move on.
Carl Wilson’s “Feel Flows” reveals that he was still in the infant stage of songwriting . . . or that he had imbibed in CSNY’s “Helplessly Hoping” to excess. He deserves a medal for getting through the tongue-twisting alliteration that dominates the song:
Whether whistling heaven’s clouds disappear
Where the wind withers memory
Whether whiteness whisks soft shadows away
Wow wow wow.
The best part of the song isn’t the reverse echo applied to the vocals nor the extensive processing applied to the keyboards but Charles Lloyd’s flute in the instrumental section. Though I don’t think much of the song, it does have a mellow, spiritual feel that fits within the larger context.
The most obscure song on Surf’s Up is our second Jardine-Winfrey effort, “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song).” The piece is a dramatic monologue relating the story a man down on his luck due to the demise of an undefined trade or craft, now having to settle for whatever he can get—but in defiance of the subtitle, the man has no intention of signing up for welfare (“And I don’t need nobody to pay my aid.”) The key verse in the song tells us that the man accepts the ups and downs of life in a capitalist economy; what frustrates him is the sheer human waste generated by a system that sometimes fails those who are willing and able to work:
Well I don’t mind that so much
Or the changing of my luck
But you know I could be doing so much more
The deep reverb/chorus effects applied to Jardine’s voice combined with similarly processed acoustic guitar results in a haunting soundscape further intensified by the introduction of an organ in the fade. I’m not exactly sure why this song doesn’t earn much notice, but I find it moving and poetically economic.
The three last tracks on Surf’s Up are Brian Wilson contributions that have been labeled “works of genius” by several critics. Having never bought into the “Brian is a genius” thing, attributing the moniker to effective PR rather than the evidence supplied by his inconsistent body of work, I beg to differ with the general consensus. To be fair, I think the genius label is seriously overused and firmly believe that no one in the history of the human race deserves such a title. There have been people blessed with flashes of brilliance and moments of penetrating insight, but no human being has lived an entire life in genius mode. Not Mozart, not Einstein, not Jackie Gleason, not nobody nowhere never.
I defy the geniuses in the crowd to unravel that quadruple negative.
I am singularly unimpressed with the apparently much-beloved “A Day in the Life of a Tree.” Word has it that Jack Rieley earned the shot at the narrator’s role because everyone else took a pass, and his performance is worthy of a fifth or sixth-stringer. I also have a hard time buying into the “if trees could talk” gambit or the autobiographical interpretation you can find on AllMusic. I think the song is a bore but could have some value in educating children (especially those children who still believe in Santa Claus and might buy into the talking tree b.s.) about man’s inhumanity to his environment.
The same goes for “‘Til I Die,” where Brian comes up with a series of metaphors (a cork in the ocean, a leaf in the wind, a rock in a landslide) to add to the endlessly burgeoning body of metaphors designed to capture our utter insignificance in the universe. Sorry, but I’m going to go with that macho asshole Hemingway on this one:
“Once in camp I put a log on a fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first toward the center where the fire was; then turned back and ran toward the end. When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire. Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
The song apparently arose during a period when Brian was obsessed with death, which by itself should have disqualified him from writing such a song—he was too wrapped up in the subject matter to achieve aesthetic distance. Musically, the song isn’t all that interesting even with the unusual chords that appear to have been selected because the chord changes involve very little physical effort (at least on the piano).
The June sessions that gave us “Disney Girls” also gave us the title track, a piece Brian had begun five years before in the Smile sessions. After digging through mounds of Smile session tapes, Rieley finally found the unfinished song and urged Brian to include the song on the new album. Brian resisted at first but finally succumbed to Rieley’s badgering, with a couple of catches: he wouldn’t help with the recording (which took place in his home studio—awkward!) and insisted that Carl take the lead vocal. Carl exceeded expectations, not only overdubbing the lead vocal to the first section but adding the refrain from another Smile song (“Child Is the Father of the Man”) to serve as a possible coda. Fortunately for the Beach Boys and posterity, Brian finally decided to stop pouting and help finish the work on “Surf’s Up.”
It’s hard to call such a labored work a “flash of brilliance,” and the story of how it came together confirms another aspect of my genius-is-bullshit theory: most human endeavors are collaborative in nature. After all the digging, patching, whining and experimenting, the Beach Boys left us a suite in three sections. Suites were all the rage in rock in the early 70s largely due to the influence of Abbey Road. A cynic might say that the suite fad arose out laziness, giving musicians an opportunity to recycle song fragments and (with a little production help) repurpose the garbage into something the ignorant masses would think was the coolest thing ever.
That is not the case with “Surf’s Up.” Call it serendipity, dumb luck or just Brian Wilson finally realizing he needed some help to get him over the hurdle, but “Surf’s Up” is a brilliant musical composition. Though many have characterized Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics in the first two sections as pompous and overblown, I think they’re equally impressive.
First, the music. The composition is dominated by minor seventh chords in each section, occasionally set against complementary major sixth chords. If you’ve messed with minor seventh and major sixth chords on a guitar, you’ll know that the fingering is fairly similar (a C6 has the same notes as an Am7). The difference in sound depends more upon the chord’s placement in the piece and the harmonic function it serves . . . but without getting into a whole lot of boring details on music theory, let’s just say that what gives “Surf’s Up” its sense of compositional unity is the heavy use of these twinned variations. Those chords establish different moods that shift the musical perspective; for example, the chords in the first verse are all minor sevenths (with some modification), creating a mood of “uncertain expectation” as we wait for the classical concert depicted in the lyrics to begin. By contrast, the verse in the second section that begins with “Surf’s up” begins with a major sixth, a sound that sounds more hopeful, approaching resolution without quite getting there.
The first segment also contains some key ambiguity with a shift from G minor to G major, but the passage resolves itself on the D major as one would expect. That key ambiguity adds a bit more spice to the song, and the experience of a sudden key shift resolving itself in a few measures is especially satisfying. The first two sections are quite varied, while the third section repeats the same four-chord pattern, giving the piece a triumphant ending. Another notable feature is the use of accelerando and rallentando in the second section, further adding to the diversity of the piece without distracting from the essential unity.
Now onto the lyrics. Van Dyke Parks developed an extended and multi-layer metaphor in the first section depicting a classical music concert presented in terribly ornate surroundings. The narrator is apparently uninterested in the music, instead choosing to focus his attention on the “blind class aristocracy” with their diamonds and opera glasses. The reference to “Pit and the Pendulum” indicates the narrator experiences the concert as a form of torture, and like many who attend an opera or symphony, finds refuge in a good snooze (“Are you sleeping?” as he observes the crowd and “Dim chandelier awakens me” as he confesses his own nap-taking). The repetition of the word “bygone” tells us that the narrator views classical music with all its pomp and circumstance as a moribund form of art. One might reasonably speculate that the “handsome man and baton” is Brian Wilson, extending the meaning of the segment to the artist’s constant worry that no one’s listening and no one really understands what the artist is trying to communicate.
The second section (also penned by Van Parks) is somewhat less accessible but revolves around a New Year’s celebration where people get progressively snockered, but snockered with a purpose: to forget. The accelerando used in the verse imbues the wish with a mad sense of urgency:
The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne
The glass was raised, the fire rose
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting
While at port adieu or die
Port refers to the wine that’s usually served at the end of the meal, where we arrive at our “Adieu or die” moment. The pun is a twist on the “do or die” mentality of the achiever, for the people at this party have no desire whatsoever to achieve anything except forgetfulness, like the ghosts of the dead who traveled the river Lethe and drank its waters to forget their mortal lives. The couplet that immediately follows reveals the pain motivating the desire to leave it all behind, musically supported by the extension of the rallentando:
A choke of grief heart hardened, I
Beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry
After a pause, we find our hero close to the sea, perhaps after having slept it off in the sand, or maybe watching the action from a safer distance. This verse reflects an awakening of sorts, a reconnection with one’s essence after a lifetime of compromise and spiritual denial:
Surf’s Up, mm-mm, mm-mm, mm-mm
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
A children’s song
This leads us to the appended “Child Is Father of the Man,” a piece very loosely based on a phrase borrowed from Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up.” Brian Wilson builds on the concept to advance the notion that we all began life in a relative state of innocence before culture, education and career spoiled it all—but we can still access that child and experience the joy of love and song. It may be an appendage, but it is a perfect ending to a story that began in dull adulthood, transitioned into alcohol-enhanced madness and ends with a spiritual awakening involving the source and the seed, the sea and the child:
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way
That’s why the child is the father to the man
A beautiful ending indeed.
Whether due to Rieley’s meddling or in spite of it, Surf’s Up restored the Beach Boys’ credibility and helped folks appreciate their legacy. There were detractors, of course, but the most surprising rejection came from Bruce Johnston: “To me, Surf’s Up is, and always has been, one hyped up lie! It was a false reflection of The Beach Boys and one which Jack [Rieley] engineered right from the start.”
I don’t know why a guy would trash the album that featured the best song he ever wrote, but I admire his passion in defense of the excellence the Beach Boys represented, excellence I believe was fully captured in Surf’s Up. Bob Dylan said it best after hearing the Beach Boys play at Fillmore East as part of the Rieley plan to return them to relevance.
“You know, they’re pretty fucking good.”