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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Beach Boys: Surf's Up


THE BEACH BOYS: SURF'S UP (1971)

1) Don't Go Near The Water; 2) Long Promised Road; 3) Take A Load Off Your Feet; 4) Disney Girls (1957); 5) Student Demonstration Time; 6) Feel Flows; 7) Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song); 8) A Day In The Life Of A Tree; 9) 'Til I Die; 10) Surf's Up.

This and the following two albums are inextricably linked to the Beach Boys' new management. After the commercial crash of Sunflower, Jack Rieley, a former radio DJ, was hired to try and do the impossible — return the band to «respectability». Apparently, Rieley had good musical taste and a decent understanding of the laws of the times, so it was assumed he could steer the band in the right-est direction. The talent was still there, but you had to process it the right way.

Even if Rieley had been a genius of planning and organization (of which there is little indication), he still had to fight against really tough odds. The Beach Boys, at the time, were basically divided in two camps – the Wilson brothers and the rest (Mike/Al/Bruce). The Wilson brothers were the artistically gifted ones, but, as it often happens with artistic gift, also the chaotic, erratic, and rela­tively weak-willed ones. The other part of the gang could care less about serious artistic ambition, but were fairly active, and, in a large part, responsible for the overall image of the band. They might have yearned for respectability, but they didn't have the faintest clue as to the actual ways of earning it. But to step aside and leave all credit to the Wilsons? No way! The «democracy» of 20/20 had given them a taste of power, and they weren't about it to let it go.

Thus, Surf's Up is split fifty-fifty: the «surfers» dominate Side A, while the «artists» emerge from the shadows on Side B (with but one exception on each side). The «surfers» mostly retain the proportions of 20/20, whereas in the «artists»' camp, there are some changes made. For vari­ous unpleasant reasons, not a single song by Dennis made it onto the final cut of the LP, although at least three had been recorded. Instead, Carl finally emerges as a composer in his own right, with two originals sitting next to two new Brian tunes — and, of course, the crowning master­piece of the album, the old Smile nugget 'Surf's Up' itself.

The discrepancy between the quality of the LP's two sides is HARSH, and I mean it. The only song by the «surfers» that, in my opinion, stands the test of time — and, apparently, Brian is with me on that one — is Johnston's 'Disney Girls (1957)', which is quite unmistakably written from the bottom of the heart (leave it to a guy like Johnston to gush out heartfelt nostalgia for the Dou­glas Sirk era — then again, my teenage years fell on the late Eighties, which was a nightmare of a cultural epoch next to the late Fifties, so maybe I shouldn't be the one to judge. Plus, I dig a Dou­glas Sirk movie every now and then, and Patti Page is a marvel to look at, as long as looking is not supplemented by listening). Anyway, it's a very touching slice of nostalgia, beautifully arran­ged in the twin cloak of falsetto harmonies and watery wah-wah effects, and the vocal part is ar­guably Bruce's finest ever — soft, but not syrupy.

The rest of the «surfers»' songs may take a hike. Rieley's biggest mistake was to demand that the guys at least write «socially conscious» lyrics — resulting in such ridiculous misfires as Mike Love going all rebellious on our heads ('Student Demonstration Time', a re-write of Leiber and Stoller's 'Riot In Cell Block 9' with new, more «relevant» lyrics — somehow it escaped Mike that the original was, first and foremost, a comic song), Al Jardine lamenting the fate of the underdog ('Lookin' At Tomorrow', subtitled 'A Welfare Song' for those too lazy to extract the message from the lyrics; a generic folk ballad, almost impressive with its echo effects and harmonies, but who are they kidding?), and both of them instructing our five-year olds — I cannot imagine the typical audi­ence of this song being even one year older — on the disastrous consequences of installing cheap plumbing ('Don't Go Near The Water'). If Rieley was actually happy with lyrics like "Don't go near the water / Ain't it sad / What's happened to the water / It's going bad", I will have to take back everything I said about good taste. My bet is he just saw that it was hopeless, and gave up. Not that the melody is much better — sounds like a nursery rhyme as well.

Taken from this point of view, Surf's Up is a complete disaster. Fortunately, the «artists» come to the rescue — and the biggest surprise is Carl, who contributes two magnificent ballads, not one little bit weaker than any selection of Brian's classics. 'Long Promised Road', with its shades of gospel, features a perfect build-up technique, although it is one of those rare occasions where the verse melody might actually be superior to the bridge and the climactic chorus — just because Carl is always at his vocal best in quiet, pensive mode rather than in all-out screaming mode. And 'Feel Flows' is even better — the lyrics are stream-of-conscious nonsense, but this is exactly what such a title requires: just some poorly strung together, optimistic, idealistic, Jon-Anderson-ish bullshit that still makes you feel good if you do not think too much of it. What matters is how the song really «feel flows» around you, totally psychedelic without embracing any superficial psy­chedelic effects — although the instrumental mid-section, contrasting distorted electric guitar with Moody Blues-ish flute, is quite in line with the light-psycho stylings of its time (still sounds fairly unique with that combination).

Last, but not least, comes Brian, with his three songs again intentionally or accidentally squished toge­ther at the end of the album. Not being the biggest fan of 'A Day In The Life Of A Tree' (sung by Jack Rieley himself in a voice that creepily reminds one of Brian's own cracked voice circa Love You), a song that does not seem to be able to decide whether it wants to take itself as a kiddie joke or as a tearful metaphor, I, however, have to say that both 'Til I Die' and 'Surf's Up' should be in the man's, let's say, Top 15 (I'm stretching the number a bit so as to leave room for 'I'm Bugged At My Ol' Man', of course). The former was infamously called a «downer» by Mike Love, but the song's atmosphere, strange enough, is not at all depressing — deeply romantic, ra­ther, in a vein that is very similar to solo McCartney, so that, as the band chants "I'm a cork on the ocean, Floating over the raging sea", you almost get the feeling that it's sort of nice to feel yourself like a cork on the ocean.

Then there's 'Surf's Up', somewhat altered here from its original version by being merged with 'Child Is Father Of The Man'. I have always been puzzled by the title — it certainly makes its ap­pearance in the actual lyrics ("Surf's up aboard a tidal wave"), but only in brief passing, im­me­di­ately giving way to Van Dyke Parks' usual incoherent and poorly strung, ungrammatical nonsense ("Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave"). In this context, the words al­most sound like a self-ironic deconstruction of the band's former image. But, on the other hand, there is nothing truly ironic about 'Surf's Up' — it is a stern, solemn, religious suite that, during any live performance of Smile, would be the perfect spot to stand up and then land on one knee or something, never mind the lyrics which any well-read person could rival in ten minutes (and even surpass, since Parks was clearly experiencing a violent fit of agrammatism while putting the words together — try conducing a syntactic analysis and you'll end up having a friendly barbecue with Mike Love).

'Surf's Up' is a cold song, though. With incomprehensible lyrics, perfect, unwavering singing (both on Brian's original demo and the new version, where Carl takes most of the lead vocals), and an odd, echoey production that tries to weave a Gothic cathedral around you, it approaches «classical» standards of beauty rather than «pop» ones, and not even «romantic classical», there is something very 18th (if not 17th) century about it. It is as «serious» as Brian ever got in his art, and I am not sure that an utterly serious Brian is my favorite kind of Brian. But to deny the great­ness of the composition is ridiculous, and would get the denier nowhere. Better get over it, take the hat off, and place your knees on the prayer rug.

Thumb's up aboard a tidal wave — one that washes away the silliness of Side A and plunges you into the magnificence of Side B. One thing that remains unexplained, though, is why the al­bum sleeve, the band's first since Wild Honey not to feature all the members, reproduces James Earle Fraser's End Of The Trail. Were they afraid they wouldn't live long enough to release one more record? Or was it just supposed to represent a peculiar type of good luck charm?..


Check "Surf's Up" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Surf's Up" (MP3) on Amazon

5 comments:

  1. Surf's up "cold"? Mmm, I don't agree, if we take "coldness" as "absence of emotion", at least. It may be my favourite pop song, I find in it the magic I don't find in any Beatles' song, and I love Beatles. But if Beatles perfection (see Abbey Road, for instance) makes me think "whoa, how can they do this sound so perfect, so musical", with "Surf's up" I simply don't think at all. There's another level, I guess, in its power of evocation.

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  2. This was the first Beach Boys album to really grab me and say "hey, there's a whole lot more to these guys than Surfin USA", so it will always hold a special place in my heart.
    I actually quite like most of the first side, songs like "Don't Go Near The Water" and "Take A Load Off Your Feet" have a very charming naive quality to them that always cheers me up, albeit in a dippy sort-of way.
    I agree with you on "Disney Girls", it's a fantastic song, but I also find it curious that nearly everything else Bruce has done hasn't even come close.
    "Surf's Up" is just simply an incredible composition. One of my absolute favorite songs of all time. And it was written in just one evening! The new version of The Smile Sessions (with Brian's demo vocals) is incredibly good as well.
    Of course "Student Demonstration Time" totally sucks and "Lookin' At Tomorrow" is almost as lame, but swap those out with the Dennis songs of the era and this album would be in my BBs top 5 easy.

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  3. Dean the Surf's Up Fanatic LaCapraraNovember 11, 2011 at 12:01 AM

    My first studio album by the greatest American band that ever was (Pearl Jam, Metallica, Nirvana...are you kidding?) remains in that rare category of supergenius. Not perfect but usually underrated; glad to see George likes it as late as 2011. A real treat all the way through.
    My only gripe is lack of anything by Dennis. I'm pretty sure he plays on songs with a beat, yet wish the most fucked-up brother had a couple of tunes here: "Independence Day" turned up on the 1993 box and it's likely other DW tunes were floating around when recording this great album.

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  4. Reply to the last commenter: AFAIK, Dennis had three songs prepared for this album, but shelved them after arguments with his brother Carl over the running order of tracks on the album (which is probably why the album is only ~ 1/2 an hour long), with the intent of using them for a solo album.

    They were "Fallin' in Love (Lady)", which was also recorded by American Spring, "Fourth of July", and "Wouldn't It Be Nice to Live Again". The first two have appeared on bootlegs, while the last has remained unreleased to this day; given that the few people who have heard it have typically raved about it, hopefully it will eventually be officially released, perhaps on a Dennis compilation.

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  5. "could care less"? So, they actually did care about the artistic ambitions, after all?

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