Classic Rock Review

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The Beach Boys Surf’s Up (1971)


Dennis Wilson had been emerging as one of the Beach Boys’ main songwriters in previous albums, but he suddenly left that stage for Surf’s Up. On top of that, Brian also was less-functional when it came to song writing. Apart from a few co-writing credits (in which he most likely only ‘help a bit’), his only contributions were a depressing ballad, “Til I Die,” a minimalist tune about a tree, “Day in the Life of a Tree,” and an unused outtake from the busted Smile sessions, the title track. This of course meant that Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston had to come up with the remaining songs. And they did it surprisingly well. (Except for Mike Love.)

Carl Wilson, who apparently hadn’t penned anything for the band at this point, contributed “Free Flows,” an oddball and completely original song that proved the guy had some bottled up creativity. The chord-progressions certainly aren’t as majestic as Brian’s (in fact, there are only two chords being used in a major section of this), but the harmonies aren’t the point of it. The choppy chords are somehow mesmerizing, and that mystical jam in the middle (basically a duet between a flute and a mysterious electric guitar) is quite exciting. It more closely resembles Frank Zappa than the classic Beach Boys, and that is a really compelling aspect of it. (Of course, they still wanted it to be relatively accessible whereas that wasn’t a main concern for Zappa…) Carl also wrote the more traditional “Long Promised Road,” a multi-part suite that is nearly as ‘epic’ and tuneful as one of Brian’s. The only major difference, again, is it doesn’t quite exhibit Brian’s incredible knack for harmonies. But it was surprisingly close.

Bruce Johnston wrote a surprisingly heart warming gem, “Disney Girls (1957).” It’s a ballad that probably belongs in 1957, but I guess that was the point. It’s a sweet song with one of those melodies that’s prone to stick in your mind. Al Jardine co-wrote a quirky pop tune (with some help from Brian), “Take a Load Off Your Feet.” You’re more likely to remember the somewhat overactive vocal performance amidst the sound-effects-ridden instrumentation, which could be described as ‘a lot of knocks.’ It’s sort of fun to hear, though. “Don’t Go Near the Water” is another funny pop song, except the melody is a little cliché and Mike Love wrote terrible lyrics about water pollution. I do like those rubbery synthesizers they use to give the overall song a watery texture! That was a brilliant move in what would have otherwise been a dull, routine pop song with terrible lyrics. Another Al Jardine contribution was the folk ballad “Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” a formidable piece of song writing but ultimately unmemorable.

A lot of die hard Beach Boys really hate Mike Love. Whether or not such sentiments are deserved, his only major contribution is the only real drag on Surf’s Up. “Student Demonstration Time” is the same thing as “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a blues song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but he rewrote the lyrics to reflect the college campus protest riots. The Beach Boys weren’t known for playing blues-rock, but they did OK considering they’re the whitest band on earth. But that melody was already generic blues-rock, and those incredibly pretentious and dated lyrics don’t help. Bluh!

Naturally, the three Brian Wilson contributions are the ultimate highlights. Even though the band members hated it, “Til I Die,” is a gorgeous masterpiece and further proof that the guy had a natural ear for harmonies. True, it’s incredibly depressing, but there is a lot of beauty to be seen in this black-and-white picture. “A Day in the Life of a Tree” isn’t as compelling to me, although it’s much more minimal than you’d expect a Beach Boys song to be. The predominant instrument there is a very plain-sounding organ and somewhat shaky vocals. It’s not Brian’s best work, for sure, but it is also oddly majestic and something that could be easy to take to heart. And the title track, of course, is a fairly well-known classic. It’s one of those classic sentimental, multi-part suite that shows all the pre-breakdown Brian Wilson at the height of his powers. It sounds a little bit like a demo to me (though with a little bit of orchestration that was actually recorded in 1966), but they probably lacked the budget and inspiration to go crazy with the song production they had originally planned.

Despite its flaws, Surf’s Up is a very enjoyable middle-period Beach Boys album that any pop-rock fan should listen to. There’s too much good material here to pass up. Considering it’s available on the same CD as the also-splendid Sunflower, there’s really no excuse for not picking it up.

May 5, 2013 Posted by | The Beach Boys Surf's Up | | Leave a comment