The Beach Boys - Surf's Up

Surf's Up... Artwork's a little gloomier than Sunflower's

10 Underrated Beach Boys LPs: Surf’s Up

Published on June 18th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams

Throw the words ‘classic Beach Boys album’ at the world at large and the immediate association would be Pet Sounds, maybe even SMiLE if they’re a little further through the looking glass. By definition, this enables every other LP they made to be considered for ‘underrated’ status, and we here at Rocksucker are in the midst of chronicling ten Beach Boys albums we feel to be criminally overlooked by the world at large – ‘criminally’ on account of the fact that they are each bloody brilliant. Here’s our ninth selection, 1971’s Surf’s Up

Click here to read part 1: Surfer Girl  –  here to read part 2: All Summer Longhere to read part 3: Today! – here to read part 4: Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) – here to read part 5: Smiley Smile – here to read part 6: Wild Honey – here to read part 7: Friends – here to read part 8: Sunflower – and here to read our somewhat hallucinatory review of the recently issued version of SMiLE

9. Surf’s Up (1971)

For The Beach Boys’ 17th studio album, their newly installed manager Jack Rieley insisted that Carl Wilson be appointed officially as “musical director” in recognition of his contribution to keeping the band going through the difficulties of the preceding few years. He also demanded that Brian dust down his SMiLE number “Surf’s Up” and get it fit for release, a request that was initially met with reticence until Carl weighed in with a vocal overdub on the first part of the song.

Another suggestion of Rieley’s was that a lyrical preoccupation with social awareness might help reclaim some  of the group’s credibility amongst the cool kids, and this is abundantly evident straight from the off with Mike Love/Al Jardine co-write “Don’t Go Near the Water”, a rather more troubled affair than Sunflower closer “Cool, Cool Water”. Paced not all that dissimilarly to “This Whole World”, the agenda-of-sorts is laid bare with lines such as “Toothpaste and soap will make our ocean a bubble bath / So let’s avoid an ecological aftermath / Beginning with me / Beginning with you-OOH!” belying the relative breeziness of the song itself, which then nips down a few keys on luxurious piano and into a fast-picked banjo oasis, all watched over like the sun by those supernatural, deliciously reverb-drenched harmonies.

Co-written with Rieley, Carl’s “Long Promised Road” rides a pared-down, softly rendered verse into a chorus brimming with soulful gospel elation about throwing off “the shackles that are binding me down”, a reference perhaps to the then split in the camp between the more artfully minded and recreationally experimental Wilson brothers and the more commercially motivated trio of Mike, Al and Bruce Johnston. While the sprinkly synth pads and lyrics such as “So hard to lift the jeweled sceptre / When the weight turns a smile to a frown / So hard to drink of passion nectar / When the taste of life’s holding me down” may not be the stuff of “Surfin’ USA”, it’s hard to see in retrospect how the likes of this couldn’t be a hit on its own terms given the right backing – it’s not as if it’s wanting for melody or a memorable chorus, and the dynamic between Carl’s assured, measured lead delivery and the staccato backing vocals in the chorus just blows you away. 

“Take a Load Off Your Feet”, written by Brian and Al with Gary Winfrey, toes (no pun intended) the very fine line between inspired and just plain daft with its clunky percussion, comical sound effects and lyrics about podiatric maintenance. It just about lands on the side of inspired, perhaps stepping on a piece of glass with a cartoonish “ouch!” as it does, while the amusingly squawky backing refrain of “beeee sweet on your feet!” is the almost impossibly endearing high point of a track rich on gentle playfulness.  “Better take care of your life ’cause nobody else will” – good advice, and a rather pointed refrain to drape over such a drunkenly stupendous chord sequence.

Bruce’s “Disney Girls (1957)” is as ornate yet sweetly understated as his Sunflower contributions “Deirdre” and “Tears in the Morning”, a beautiful shade cast over the adorable, Tootsie Roll-referencing lyrics by those divine harmonies. It’s so unassumingly sophisticated, so cosily nostalgic and blessed with a mid-section that sounds like an old-fashioned European love song – a sort of Gallic or Mediterranean flair to it, anyroad – and resolves itself so swoonsomely with Bruce’s loved-up delivery of “She’s pretty swell ’cause she likes church, bingo chances / And old-time dances”. With “a peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid some day” he comes across as old beyond his years, renewed artistically by the pursuit of craft rather than the Wilson brothers’ more experimental streak. Hey, Sgt Pepper’s is all the stronger for the presence of “When I’m Sixty-Four”, isn’t it?

Mike’s Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller co-write “Student Demonstration Time” is, purely as a song, not as bad as the opprobrium it has been met with over the years might suggest, changing the pace either welcomingly or jarringly (depending on your viewpoint) with sleazy blues and “Savoy Truffle” brass, but the tone with which the heavy subject matter is tackled just feels a bit misjudged – and perhaps it’s best to leave it at that. It’s a protest song on an album full of them, sure, but as a rocky interlude it doesn’t enliven the album as effectively as “Got to Know the Woman” and “It’s About Time” do on Sunflower.

Another Carl/Rieley effort, the ensuing “Feel Flows” is a bona fide psychedelic masterpiece, a notion lent some modern-day vindication when Super Furry Animals made it the first pick on their Under the Influence compilation. Everything about this is simply masterful, from the lyrical imagery (“Unfolding enveloping missiles of soul / Recall senses sadly / Mirage like soft blue like lanterns below / To light the way gladly”) to the disorientingly phased vocals swooshing past you in the mix, while the heavily lysergic extended instrumental section plays host to a flute fluttering hither and thither like an unpredictable butterfly. Soul-soothing and mesmerisingly imaginative, “Feel Flows” is fit to rival any of The Beatles’ excursions into the realms of the trippy, and you can’t afford it much higher praise than that.

An Al co-write with Winfrey, “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” is a quietly astonishing little intrusion of sparse darkness on an album that until this point has only evidenced disquiet in its lyrics. A downbeat, acoustically fingerpicked number comprised of ominously brooding chord changes, it all sounds a bit like Cat Stevens re-imagining “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, with extra added ba ba bas that somehow supplement the mood of disenfranchisement rather than contravene it. It is, frankly, superb, although the best is yet to come.

Rieley pitches in with a dry and suitably weary vocal on Brian co-write “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, which also goes on to feature a vocal cameo from none other than Van Dyke Parks. A defeated-sounding lament from the point of view of a tree, this dire-warning-as-pop-song casts an ethereal presence with peeping recorders and bird noises in a way that shouldn’t work at all but does in spades, asserting itself with too much strange beauty to bum you out and paving the way very nicely indeed for two of the greatest songs ever made.

“‘Till I Die” is on the very top rung of Brian songs, an awe-inspiring snapshot of still life on Earth, frozen in time (“I’m a rock in a landslide / Rolling over the mountainside / How deep is the valley?) – in fact, how this song is not more broadly known is a damning indictment on our planet. This is the kind of song around which everything melts away while it’s playing, the kind of song that takes all of the beauty, pain, mystery and love in the world and bottles it all up as an offering to a higher plain on behalf of all humankind, a blown-minded response to the crazy world around us and very conceivably the music you might feel inside yourself if you were isolated on an island, looking out to sea as the sky turns orange and leaves dance past you in a caressing breeze…dammit, it might not even be possible to summon a truly apt description of how wonderful “‘Till I Die” is, and yet all known language, every natural process, is in there somewhere. There are few pieces of music in history that sound like life itself, and this is one of them. What more can we say?

It’s followed by “Surf’s Up”, which if you’ve never heard before, prepare to make a special occasion out of it, because you may never be the same again afterwards. I mean, you’ll still be you, but that jewel-encrusted kingdom will inhabit you and colour your dreams. That there couldn’t possibly have ever been a better closing two tracks on an album is a notion only tarnished by the fact that “Surf’s Up” is now available on its true home of SMiLE. As an album, though, Surf’s Up is entirely worthy of consideration alongside that magnum opus and its predecessor Pet Sounds (you might have heard of it) – it’s perfect, 10 out of 10, even with “Student Demonstration Time”. Perhaps with a little tinkering it could have been 11 out of 10 – and how suitably transcendental would that be?

That’s Why God Made the Radio is out now on Capitol. For more information, please visit thebeachboys.com

With thanks to thebeachboys.forumsunlimited.com and www.smileysmile.net/board

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.