Classics Revisited: The Beach Boys - 'Surf's Up'

Surf’s Up remains the darkest and most difficult artefact of The Beach Boys’ long and storied career. A year into the 70s, it was clear that the Summer of Love had truly ended and Surf’s Up is, appropriately, an album for the fall. On Surf’s Up’s 50th anniversary, Owen White shares his thoughts on the album which is deemed a classic by many.

On Surf’s Up, the honeyed sweetness of their prior material had dulled completely, leaving in its place a strange sense of absence that permeates all these recordings. This rendered the disposition one of quiet, nostalgic melancholia rather than the naïve idealism they had up to this point been known for. A grim cloud of interpersonal strife and tempestuous creative tension hung over the recording of the album, one that forecast a stormy period ahead for the band, and one that would see the tragic death of key songwriter and founding member Dennis Wilson. Additionally, it saw the continued physiological, personal and creative decline of musical mastermind Brian Wilson, which had begun during the collapse of his unreleased opus Smile the previous decade, and would continue until he was all but completely absent from the band’s recordings. This left them a faint echo of their former-selves, little more than a touring farce. In light of this dramatic irony, it’s difficult not to see Surf’s Up as an uncomfortably prophetic record at times. These are not songs for surfing, but instead for the long, slow painful sensation of sinking.

Things open somewhat sluggishly with Don’t Go Near The Water, a competent enough Love/Jardine composition featuring ornate harmonies and intriguing synth textures. An environmentalist screed with a palpable subtext of personal and creative bitterness and resignation, it’s maybe not the most compelling vibe the band ever mustered but it does serve as an appropriately downtrodden mission statement for the album more broadly. The subsequent Long Promised Road, the first of Carl Wilson’s two compositions on the album and moreover the first substantial song-writing contribution of his time with The Beach Boys, is a sumptuous Rhodes-led ballad that manages sonic maturity while skirting the poised inertia of Adult Contemporary instead, attaining a kind of soulful art-pop. The bridge’s spectral harmonies suggest the haunted elegance of old cathedral ceilings washed with iridescent pigment and shadow. The dense layer of warbling abstract electronics that fizzle and glitter out towards forever seem impossibly ahead of their time, pre-emptive of the experimentalist production and enigmatic pop of contemporary art-pop innovators such as Animal Collective. Replete with a captivating vocal performance from Carl and an addictively uplifting chorus, it’s the first true The Beach Boys classic on the record.

Al Jardine’s droning gimmick Take A Load Off Your Feet features enough production decisions that baffle in charming ways and enthusiastically oddball vocal performances from Brian Wilson to be lethargically compelling, at least for the first 30 seconds. After this point, it transitions into being chiefly patience testing. Your mileage with Johnson’s sole contribution Disney Girls (1959) may depend on your tolerance for the kitschier dimensions of The Beach Boys’ music. This is an aspect that I personally feel must be absolutely and wholly embraced to get the maximum from their discography. It’s certainly pleasant enough, with its gently plucked mandolin introduction and swooning Moog embellishments, complementing one of Johnson’s tenderest vocal performances. It conjures an aura of appealingly nostalgic sentimentality, in spite of the unmistakable whiff of the geriatric about it. Basically, it’s grandma music. But, you know, very accomplished grandma music for the classy matriarch. Love’s Student Demonstration Time has infamously curled the toes of fans and band members alike since the album’s conception, with its castrated instrumental rendition of R&B classic Riot in Cell Block Number 9 and its lyrical tone and style that are, for want of a better word; greasy. Time has done it absolutely no favours.

"The album truly clicks into creative gear in its latter half, with one quality contribution after another culminating in the sublime three song Brian Wilson medley that closes the record out"

The album truly clicks into creative gear in its latter half, with one quality contribution after another culminating in the sublime three song Brian Wilson medley that closes the record out. This is a musical feat that stands assuredly aside their greatest work, even on an album as acclaimed as Pet Sounds. Carl’s second and arguably superior composition on Feel Flows is driven by pattering aqueous keys that wash soft pastel hues over the track like tiny crystal shards of pure light refracting only the deepest and most vivid spectrum of colours imaginable. An irresistible chorus washes in like deep blue velvet tide on a California beach at dusk, bringing in a wave of hazy ocean harmonies that murmur like sea breeze, then disperse into one of the most swooning melodies of the bands career. The arrangement and production here could rival or even be mistaken for Brian at his apex, alluring and unconventional in equal measures, dabbling in both austere flute arrangements and fuzzed out guitar solos to unceasing success. Finally, before Brian’s closing trilogy, we get Jardine’s final and best track by a country mile, Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song). Despite apparently being just the group’s rendition of an old folk song, the track succeeds on the strength of the lyrics, which consist of dejected meta-commentary on the state of the band. This theme also comes through in Jardine’s plaintive delivery, the wistfully brow beaten harmonies of the group, and the charming tune at the core of it all.

A Day In The Life of A Tree might be the most harrowing song Brian Wilson ever wrote. From the dense thicket of organs of its opening and the meek vocals they entangle, it’s disarming in its vulnerability and bleak sincerity. Album producer and lyricist Jack Rieley gives a sobering voice to Brian’s lilting melody, a vocal performance rawer and more despondent than any of the actual members would be capable of (or comfortable) performing. His affectingly straightforward lyricism is one of the few times any individual other than Van Dyke Parks was truly able to translate the musical language of Brian Wilson to prose. It’s more than fitting, then, that Parks himself appears towards the end of the track to join in its devastating coda “Trees like me weren't meant to live / If all this world can give / Pollution and slow death”. In its first 30 seconds alone, it manages to make total resignation sound beautiful, and by that gorgeous ending coda it stands like a clear, crisp mirror reflecting the tender soul of Brian Wilson. It effectively capturing the tragedy, uncertainty and beauty in the heart of one of the most talented and damaged songwriters of the 20th century. Moving in a way few songs can ever hope to, it laments the pain of not just what has been, but what could’ve and should’ve been in its place.

'Til I Die was written during an existential crisis that Brian went through just prior to the recording of Sunflower. During this period, he threatened to drive his car off Santa Monica pier and ordered his gardener to dig his own grave while grappling with the unanswerable questions that of course weigh on us all. However, these questions had become particularly compounded in his own life, by rapidly spiralling mental health, troubled interpersonal relationships and (what he perceived to be) his creative failings. This internal maelstrom was conjured and then captured in stunning aural fidelity in a tight two minutes and thirty seconds. Some of Brain’s most awe-inspiring chordal magic shines through the torrents of aqueous organ, and douses the track in incandescent pastel hues that the human mind can’t even begin to fathom. Silvery vibraphone lines dance across the instrumental with the delicacy of perfect raindrops on an ocean tempest, and the rest of the band form the choir of the damned that call out from every rock, each golden harmony cutting through the black clouds of the storm. It’s one of the few times Brian ever fully composed the lyrics to a The Beach Boys song himself and the results are stunning. They capture the childlike charm and disarming emotional directness that makes outsider songwriters like Daniel Johnston so enduringly appealing, while also showing a degree of poetic proficiency few would’ve expected. It’s at once all-consuming, personal and totally universal, and in that fact lies its appeal. After all, how many of us would die to know “How long will the wind blow?”.

"The best thing The Beach Boys ever recorded? For sure"

So many words of praise have already been heaped on the titular Surf’s Up, it feels a waste to contribute more. The beating heart at the centre of Brian’s unfinished masterpiece Smile was stuff of legend since the unceremonious implosion of that albums recording, long before this record’s release. So, I’ll be brief. Is it a masterpiece? Obviously. The best thing The Beach Boys ever recorded? For sure. Brian Wilson’s lofty creative peak? Very probably. The best thing anyone ever recorded? I mean, if the shoe fits. The kind of music that can never be encapsulated with the flimsy utensils we call words, the kind of song that you have to hear, to feel, to truly understand the genius of? Unquestionably. Van Dyke Park’s "acid alliteration" is on full display here, much to the chagrin of Mike Love and the unbound wonder of just about everyone else. It summons up detailed scenes of baroque beauty, crisp and atmospheric enough to be called cinematic. Brian’s instrumental and vocal work are the product of a true auteur, untethered at the height of his creative power. He created combinations of notes and sounds so profoundly human that they seem to reverberate in the depths of our subconscious minds. It's almost like the music has always existed there and just required a conduit as pure as Brian to finally find its voice. The album culminates with a coda that can only accurately be described as sublime. Speaking through the voice of his elegant harmonies, Brian delivers what I see as a poignant and perfect post-text to not only this album but the entire career of The Beach Boys, and by extension the musical project of Brian Wilson. Truly, “A child is the father of the man”, and we would all do well to heed their words more often as Brian reminds us here.

Written by: Owen White

Edited by: Gemma Cockrell

Featured image courtesy of The Beach Boys via Facebook. In-article images courtesy of The Beach Boys via Twitter.