Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Beach Boys 12: Surf’s Up

This is one odd little album, nearly sunk by some embarrassingly earnest tracks, and saved by some truly great ones. Surf’s Up gets its title from yet another Smile refugee, this one the haunting centerpiece that was supposed to be the capper of that abandoned album. Its inclusion is welcome, but an odd choice for an album largely “concerned” with ecology. The cover, featuring a rendition of the 19th-century sculpture “The End Of The Trail”, gives the album a link to the American past, and suggests a gravitas we’re still not convinced the band could carry.
The Beach Boys had a new manager who’d managed to finagle his way into their orbit at a time when they weren’t looking too closely at résumés for accuracy. He thought they should be more socially conscious, so that’s why “Don’t Go Near The Water”—an odd sentiment from a bunch of guys who’d spent ten years telling us of the wonders of the beach and surf—starts the program with a lament about pollution. It’s an impressive recording; it’s just too bad the lyrics try too hard. All is nearly redeemed right away with Carl’s wonderful “Long Promised Road”, his first great song, and a terrific match of lyrics and music. But then “Take A Load Off Your Feet” has that same rinkydink approach that sank Smiley Smile, and it’s hard to believe they could really take themselves this seriously. The seesaw goes back for “Disney Girls (1957)”, a suitably nostalgic reverie from Bruce that’s not at all embarrassing. Which can’t be said for “Student Demonstration Time”, a stupid rewrite of “Riot In Cell Block Nine” referencing recent antiwar activity, complete with idiotic sound effects and Mike Love’s voice processed as if it were coming from a megaphone. (You know, for that “realistic” feel.)
“Feel Flows” got some exposure in this century on the Almost Famous movie soundtrack; a mildly psychedelic track, it’s layered in phasing effects and stops for a lengthy free-form jazz flute solo. “Looking At Tomorrow” is helpfully titled “A Welfare Song” as if the bleak lyrics weren’t clear enough. Its bathroom echo effects recall John Lennon, of all people, and its brevity sets up the final three songs of the album, all pointedly credited in whole or in part to Brian. “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” is one of the more bizarre songs, if only because that quivery vocal is provided not by Brian, whom it resembles, but that earth-friendly manager, singing from the point of view of a dying tree. “’Til I Die” continues the virtual wake, gorgeous despite its bleak outlook. This leads up to the unveiling of the title track, embellished from its original, abandoned 1966 incarnation to include some newer touches, and fading grandly, just like “Cabinessence” did two albums prior.
There really is more good than bad on Surf’s Up, although the bad is bad enough to mar the album as a whole. Still, Carl and Brian contributed some of their best work, though Dennis, the recent rising star, is virtually absent. Even Bruce had something worthwhile to say. At the turn of this century, Capitol reissued the album as a two-fer with Sunflower, which again had some people hailing the pair as buried treasure. Truthfully, the Boys could do a lot worse, and they would.

The Beach Boys Surf’s Up (1971)—3


  1. I have a site lots of bboys stuff. happy to exchange links and blah.

  2. Indeed! I've seen and enjoyed your site; glad you're still updating it.