Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

The Beach Boys On CD: Surf’s Up

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on December 31, 2012

Shortly after the release of Sunflower, the Beach Boys hired former journalist and DJ Jack Rieley as their manager. Outside of the band members themselves, Rieley rapidly became the most important figure in the band’s story for the next few years.

Rieley was not just a manager in the traditional sense, he was also an advisor on how to relate to the counterculture that had been ignoring the band for the previous few years, as well as being a collaborator in their songwriting. Rieley encouraged the band to focus on more political subjects, particularly the environment and the treatment of Native Americans, at the expense of the love songs that had dominated Sunflower. He also tried to recapture the mystique of the unreleased Smile album, encouraging the band to finish Surf’s Up, the masterpiece that had been intended as the centre of that album, as well as writing his own lyrics in a style pastiching that of Van Dyke Parks (Rieley’s lyrics are far closer to the ‘acid alliteration’ tag Mike Love applies to Parks’ work than the Smile lyrics are).

The difference is apparent even from comparing the cover of this album to that of its precursor. While Sunflower‘s cover features the Beach Boys and their children sat around near some blossoming trees, the cover of Surf’s Up is a murky painting, in dark blues, based on the sculpture End Of The Trail, showing a Native American, head bowed in defeat.

Rieley’s tactics were successful — within a short time the band would be hugely popular with college audiences and magazines like Rolling Stone, paving the way for their commercial resurgence in the mid-70s — but they divided the band. Rieley claims that Love, Johnston and Jardine were more-or-less hostile to his aims for the band, while the Wilson brothers were more enthusiastic.

Inter-band disagreements made this album less than it could be — arguments about sequencing led to two tracks by Dennis Wilson being pulled from the album, in favour of lesser works by Love and Jardine (Dennis Wilson also contributed little to the album instrumentally, having injured his hand part-way through recording and being unable to play drums for a while). Nonetheless, this is still a significant artistic improvement over Sunflower, with the differences of opinion within the band leading to a real stylistic diversity, rather than the bland softness of much of the earlier album.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to listen to the album as it was intended to be heard at the time. Steve Desper, the band’s principal engineer in the late 60s and early 70s, mixed the album in a stereo-compatible quadrophonic system, which allowed it to be played on a normal turntable but ‘decoded’ by a special piece of equipment called a Stereo-4 decoder, sort of the audio equivalent of wearing 3D glasses. These decoders are, of course, long-obsolete, and while apparently there are technological ways of extracting the extra pseudo-channels from the stereo sound, it is unlikely that these will be used by even one percent of those who listen to the album.

Even so, and even given its patchy nature, this is still in the very top tier of Beach Boys albums.

line-up

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston

Don’t Go Near The Water
Songwriter:
Mike Love and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine

The opening track is one of the most radical, brilliant things the Beach Boys ever did, production-wise.

No, seriously. I’m not joking.

This track is (rightly) regarded as a bit of a joke among Beach Boys fans, because the serious intent of the song — a plea to end pollution of the world’s water, a reasonable enough environmental message in itself — is completely undermined by the ludicrous nature of the lyrics, culminating in a strong contender for the most risible line in a released Beach Boys song. After Al Jardine sings “toothpaste and soap will make our water a bubble-bath/so let’s avoid an ecological aftermath”, any hope of taking the song at all seriously evaporates.

But under those lyrics, the arrangement is finally pulling together all the different pieces of ideas that the band had been using for some time, and making something totally different from anything anyone’s done before or since, but which would be the dominant mode of the band’s studio output for the next few years.

This track has almost no electric guitars or drums on it. Instead, there are multiple layers of Moog sounds, but coupled with acoustic, folk instrumentation — acoustic guitars, banjo and harmonica. This seems to have been a sound arrived at by compromising different people’s artistic visions — Brian and Carl Wilson, especially, seemed in love with the Moog for much of the 70s, while Jardine has always been a folkie at heart (and his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California sounds much like these early-70s albums would if you stripped the Moogs off). This combination of progression and futurism with tradition is in spirit (if not in execution — the song itself is still relatively poor) very much a return to the ideas the band had abandoned with Smile.

Long Promised Road
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The first actual song Carl Wilson ever wrote (as opposed to contributing ideas to other people’s songs, or ‘writing’ generic surf instrumentals), this is based around a simple but effective chord sequence, playing with the chords of Cmaj7 and F. The slow, meditative verses cycle through Cmaj7, Em (the same chord without the root note) and F (with a brief stop at Dm at one point, the relative minor of the F chord), while the choruses are a straight uptempo C – F rock chorus, ending with an ecstatic climbing bass scale which turns the penultimate F into a Dm. Meanwhile the Moog-dominated middle eight plays with inversions of these chords, adding in an Am7 (whose notes overlap those of F and C) and a Dm6.

This harmonic unity helps hold together a song whose different sections otherwise have very different moods. The verses are straightforward piano-based ballad sections, featuring just piano, bass and some light percussion, while the choruses feature a full drum kit, answering backing vocals, Moog, and horns, and the solo (over the chorus changes) also features rock guitar. All this instrumentation is played by Carl Wilson on what is essentially a solo track.

It doesn’t entirely work, partly because Rieley’s lyrics are new age platitudes about fighting back against adversity, but couched in overly-complex words for such banal thoughts. But as a first effort at songwriting, this is superb.

Take A Load Off Your Feet
Songwriter:
Al Jardine, Brian Wilson and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine

This, on the other hand, is practically the definition of filler. Written primarily by Jardine, the lyrics to this are a self-consciously ‘quirky’ guide to good foot hygiene. While this sort of thing has sometimes worked for the band, normally there has been something interesting in the arrangement or chord sequences to latch on to. But this song is, for the most part, just cycling between two common chords, and the arrangement seems perfunctory — like a sketchy half-improvisation rather than something more thought out. Various production tricks don’t seem to hide the less-than-stellar nature of the composition.

Disney Girls (1957)
Songwriter:
Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

Johnston’s sole songwriting contribution to the album, and his last until 1980, may well be his masterpiece.

One of the most complex pieces of composition on the album, the verses to this song of wistful longing start out in G flat before descending a tone into E, returning to the home key on the words “I’m coming back” at the end of each verse — a wonderful unity of lyric and music.

Lyrically, the song seems completely out of step with the concerns of the rest of the album. While the other band members are singing about the environment, civil unrest and political upheaval, Johnston is singing the praises of Patti Page, and saying of a girl “she’s really swell, ‘cos she likes church, bingo chances and old-time dances”.

This is, of course, the point though — the song works precisely because it’s a song of nostalgia in a time of unrest. Taken out of the context of the rest of the album, it can sound slightly cloying, and even here it teeters precariously right on the point of descent into Hallmark card territory (an area where Johnston would spend much of the rest of his songwriting career, in some cases very lucratively — he would go on to write I Write The Songs during his hiatus from the band).

But here, surrounded by songs about death, depression and environmental destruction, one can more than sympathise with the desire to go back to what was (at least for a rich white man like Johnston) a happier, simpler time, even if it’s a desire most of us won’t share.

This song remains a staple of the Beach Boys’ live performances to this day, one of the only songs from this period that has remained regularly in their repertoire. Johnston’s songwriting contributions to the band were patchy, but when, as here, he hit on something good, he could deliver.

Student Demonstration Time
Songwriter:
Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (new lyrics Mike Love)
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This, meanwhile, has no redeeming features whatsoever. Love’s attempt to be ‘relevant’ involves singing about student demonstrations to the tune of a 1950s hit, Riot In Cell Block Number Nine. This, however, has none of the earlier song’s subtlety or humour, and is not helped by the fact that Love, a right-winger, is trying desperately to sit on the fence here, attempting to appeal to the demonstrating students who made up the audience they were trying to court, but without ever actually saying anything to endorse their cause.

Musically, it’s an embarrassing attempt to ‘rock out’, featuring a clodhopping, lumbering drum beat, squealing distorted guitar, and a processed vocal from Love which is intended to sound like he’s singing through a bullhorn. The whole thing is a mess, best forgotten.

Feel Flows
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson’s second song for the album has, in recent years, become one of the most popular songs that the band has done without Brian Wilson, thanks largely to its inclusion in the soundtrack of the film Almost Famous.

In feel, this is very similar to the verses of Long Promised Road, and is based around a simple four-chord sequence (opened up a little by a descending scalar bassline on the alliterative words-starting-with-w sections), with a brief key change on the chorus lines.

The recording is in large part a solo performance by Carl Wilson, who played the piano (doubled but recorded slightly out of phase), organ (which was added to the track both clean and put through a Moog), bass, guitar and Moog, as well as adding some of the percussion. The only other instrumental contributions are by percussionist Woody Thews and flautist Charles Lloyd (a semi-regular collaborator with the band in the 70s, and a well-known jazz musician in his own right).

Some have claimed that Carl Wilson provided all the backing vocals as well, but while all the original Beach Boys could sound very like each other, Johnston’s distinctive voice is in the mix, and I believe I can hear the other band members (Johnston and Jardine are credited on the AFM papers for the session, but the logs for this period are unreliable). Much of the track (but most notably Wilson’s lead vocal) is slathered in reversed echo.

Lyrically, this has variously been described as about either ejaculation or being on cocaine (the backing vocal line “white puff glistening shadowy flows”), but frankly the lyrics don’t make any kind of sense on a literal level, and they’re not meant to. They’re pretty mouth-noises, and they do a good job of being that.

A much more successful song than Long Promised Road, and a declaration that now there was a third Wilson brother capable of producing great work.

Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)
Songwriter:
Al Jardine and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

Jardine’s main solo song for the album was this acoustic folk song. Accompanied by only multiple acoustic guitars and a cymbal (until the very last line, when a keyboard also enters), a heavily-processed Jardine sings about being unable to find a good job, but still having hope for the future.

Jardine has never been the most talented or original of songwriters, but this works very well, in part because Jardine takes inspiration from the folk tradition. The melody of this is largely taken from The Wanderer, a hit for the Kingston Trio (a favourite band of Jardine’s). That song, in turn, is based on the American folk song 900 Miles, which in turn is based on the bluegrass song Reuben’s Train. Jardine makes up for his lack of songwriting inspiration by making himself a link in a longer chain, and the result is a nice, if slight, melody.

Lyrically, this is perhaps a little naive — it’s the work of a man who had never himself been out of work, or had to hold down the kind of menial job he sings about here, and it shows — but it’s well-intentioned enough. Unlike the cynicism of Student Demonstration Time, this song has its heart in the right place.

This song was briefly added to the band’s live set around this time, where rather astonishingly it was rearranged to have an almost proto-trip-hop feel, quite unlike anything else the band ever did, and decades ahead of its time.

A Day In The Life Of A Tree
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley

The most controversial song of the band’s career up to this point, to this day people still ask whether this was intended as a joke, or whether it’s entirely serious. The answer, of course, is “yes”.

Over a pump-organ backing, with a pedal note held throughout the verses, Jack Rieley sings in a broken, off-key, quavering voice that sounds spookily like Brian Wilson’s voice would a few years later, singing from the point of view of a tree that has been damaged by pollution and wants nothing more than to die.

While this sounds a ridiculous premise for a song, the actual sound of it is heartbreaking, if nothing else because the central idea of the tree, once tall, brought down into depression, is a pretty good metaphor for the state of Brian Wilson’s own life at the time.

And then we get to the tag, where over cascading barbershop ‘bom bom’ vocals by the group, spread all over the stereo spectrum, Van Dyke Parks starts singing “trees like me weren’t meant to live, if all this world can give is pollution” while Al Jardine responds “Oh Lord I lay me down, my branches to the ground, there’s nothing left for me.”

The whole thing is heartbreaking, if not exactly easy on the ears, and is an absolutely beautiful piece of work. Unfortunately, the effect is slightly undercut by the sequencing of the album, which places all three Brian Wilson songs at the end. All three songs have a similar tempo, and all end with vocal rounds, and the two songs that immediately follow this are two of the best songs ever written, so this one, which is merely very good, suffers in comparison. It’s probably the worst piece of sequencing on any Beach Boys album.

‘Til I Die
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

And so, after eight songs which have rarely risen above the level of quite nice, we get to an absolute masterpiece, and what may be the finest song Brian Wilson has ever written on his own.

Wilson has said to Don Was that the original inspiration for this song came from sitting at the piano, playing a chord, then trying to make the most interesting-looking chords he could with his fingers, while keeping the top and bottom notes the same.

If this is the case, this didn’t survive until the final version of the song, but the chord sequence here is cramped and obsessive, using the smallest possible finger movements to make the biggest possible changes.

These changes, which swell up and sink down like waves but sink inexorably down from a key of A flat at the start of the verse to the key of G at the end, are reinforced by the vibraphone arpeggios going up and down over the organ, bass, and mechanical drums, as the band sing the haiku-like lyrics in block harmony:

I’m a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
How deep is the ocean?

And then Brian takes a solo line, and your heart breaks:

I’ve lost my way, hey hey hey

It’s the “hey hey hey” that does it. The sense of almost cheerful resignation to fate. Brian is being buffeted by forces that he can’t understand, that he has no hope of controlling, and which will eventually destroy him. And he’s fully aware of that, but that’s just how things are. So it goes.

And then, if your heart hasn’t been shattered enough, he does it again at the end of the next verse — “It kills my soul, hey hey hey!”

There is no possible combination of words that can express the feelings that this evokes, and it’s when dealing with songs like this that one realises most the powerlessness of music criticism. How to describe the empathy that these words, sung like this, evoke? Words of the deepest despair, tossed off lightly, almost childishly, in the voice of an ancient child. See? It just turns one to pretension. There is no language that can cope with this.

If Brian Wilson had only ever written this song he would still be regarded as one of the great songwriters of all time. The Beach Boys’ reputation could rest on this track alone.

But they also recorded the next track…

Surf’s Up
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine

Surf’s Up was to have been the centrepiece of the aborted Smile album (FOOTNOTE For more on Smile see volume 3, out later this year, where I will discuss the Smile Sessions box set and Brian Wilson’s 2004 completed solo version of the album), and had become legendary among pop music fans after the 1967 TV broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution showed Brian Wilson playing a solo version of the song. However, when the Smile project was scrapped, the song had not yet been completely recorded.

During the recording of this album, Van Dyke Parks, the song’s lyricist, who was at that point an executive for Warner Brothers (their record label), suggested they rerecord the song, as it was felt that they didn’t have enough new strong material. Brian Wilson vehemently opposed this, as he had bad memories of the Smile period, and it has been argued by many that the disagreement over this song’s inclusion was one of the principal reasons for Brian Wilson’s decreased participation over the next few years.

While the band attempted to record a totally new version of the song, they eventually ended up piecing together something that contained both 1967 and 1971 components. The backing track for the first half is the original Smile era backing track, but all the vocals are new, including a new lead vocal by Carl Wilson, and there are a couple of overdubs. Then the second half (for which a backing track was never recorded in 1971) is a piano/vocal demo by Brian Wilson dating from 1966, with some subtle synthesiser overdubs, and the tag is the ending of Brian’s demo, looped, with the band singing and some hand percussion added.

It shouldn’t work. But in fact it’s one of the most magnificent recordings of all time.

The song, of course, is the key thing. One of the first things written for Smile, it’s as good — and ambitious — as any song of the 60s.

The verses are, musically, almost the opposite of those for Til I Die. They start very simply, alternating between Gm7/D and Dm7/G, before rising from the Gm starting key through the key of F to land in D, a major fifth above the original key, before the verse ends and it starts again.

This is then varied for the second, piano, section, and as it starts with Fm7/A flat alternating with E flat/B flat, the opening chords to Caroline, No, we realise that the whole thing is an elaboration of, and expansion of, the musical ideas of that song.

But where Caroline, No was about the loss of a single woman’s youth, Surf’s Up is about the loss of far more — the loss of an entire civilisation. In Van Dyke Parks’ elliptical, pun-filled lyrics, we see a concert-goer falling asleep to the sound of the rattling jewellery of the rich people in the other seats and the classical music being played, and dreaming of the collapse of an entire civilisation — “columnated ruins domino”, buildings and structures falling down, climaxing with the piano going silent as Brian sings “a broken man too tough to cry”.

But then there is the realisation — “Surf’s up aboard a tidal wave”. The wave that destroys is also a renewer, and for new things to be built, old ones must be swept away. “I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children’s song”. And over the chorus of “Child is father of the man” the song fades as Al Jardine sings “A children’s song, have you listened as they played?/Their song is love, and the children know the way”.

In the context of Smile there’s much, much more to say about this, how it ties together the musical and lyrical themes of that album, but I shall leave that for the discussions of that album in volume three. For now I’ll just say that this track is the crowning moment of the Beach Boys’ artistic career. It’s all downhill from here, though to start with the slope is pretty gentle.

6 Responses

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  1. Larry said, on December 31, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Thank you, Andrew – another stellar example of what we music fans are losing by you deciding not to continue writing these books – although your explanation was quite understandable. Especially great to read your always informed and passionate writing on “Til I Die,” one of the handful of songs I know that has moved me every time I have ever heard it. I once heard it in a supermarket with my children in tow, for Christsakes, and it immobilized me in the breakfast cereal aisle (long aisles they are in the USA) until its finish, my children tugging at Daddy to move along. I prefer “Sunflower”, with Dennis, the fuller arrangements, etc., I can even handle the two Bruce Johnston songs and Al’s bird song, but still, “Surf’s Up” is, for me, the band’s last truly great studio album. And “Disney Girls” is certainly Bruce’s best song with the group. Thank you again…

  2. Richard said, on January 6, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Long promised comment here at last…

    This is the post I was waiting for, and I’m not disappointed. This is one of the Beach Boys albums I listen to most often, but despite prior familiarity you’ve opened my eyes on quite a few things. For one thing, you make a very strong case for the musical virtues of “Don’t Go Near the Water.” I always let the lyrics put me off, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than I realized.

    You may be a bit too kind to “Student Demonstration Time” — the Kent State reference is pure tasteless kitsch. Apart from that, the track always makes me think of “Yer Blues” rather than the song it’s actually based on. It would have been better if they’d just gone that way and made it straight out parody, more like an improved version of “I’m Bugged at My Old Man.” Love trying to keep one foot on each side with his attempt at pathos keeps this from being any fun at all.

    Would you say “Take a Load Off Your Feet” is a half-hearted attempt to remake “Vegetables”?

    The only song here we disagree about is “Disney Girls” — I tried to appreciate it, I really tried, but this is a step too far. Those lyrics aren’t honest nostalgia in the face of social upheaval; they’re completely dishonest glorification of a nonexistent television fantasy version of middle America that exists in the Republican imagination. If he’s remembering his own youth, Bruce Johnston must have grown up in Pleasantville. (The sitcom-themed movie that is, not the real place.) I have a pretty high “easy listening” threshold — for instance, I see virtues in “Add Some Music To Your Day” — but this is really painful to me. That said, I may be biased against this song because it namechecks another song I utterly loathe with a passion. (No offense to the memory of Patti Page, but man do I hate that song.) I only highlight this because it’s rare I disagree with you about any given Beach Boys song, so I find these exceptions fascinating.

    The idea of fans trying to interpret the lyrics of “Feel Flows” makes me laugh. That’s just a pure beautiful recording, especially with the contribution of Charles Lloyd. I didn’t know he played on other BB songs, I hope you’ll mention it when you get to those.

    Nothing to say re “Til I Die” because there’s very little anyone can say about a song that achieves absolute timeless perfection.

    The line in the title couplet of “Surf’s Up” is written out as “aboard a tidal wave” but I always hear it as “Surf’s up, mmmm, a board, a tidal wave.” It must be both: the fellow responsible for “adieu or die” and “the music hall a costly bow” wouldn’t have been oblivious to “aboard” and “a board.” But I favor “a board” because making the surfing reference more explicit helps the narrative flow in the song. The way I read it, the narrator thinks of the songs of his youth — surfing music, the songs Wilson made in his own youth — and then the sound of children at play opens his heart. Putting aside obsession with the past and decay and loss and seeing innate value in the innocence of children is the act of becoming an adult. Sort of like the way Brian Wilson kept wanting to move music away from constantly retreading adolescent fixations and repeating old song structures. Unfortunately, others in the group had different ideas…

    • Andrew Hickey said, on January 6, 2013 at 5:48 pm

      Can’t comment properly right now — headache — but a few points:

      “If he’s remembering his own youth, Bruce Johnston must have grown up in Pleasantville. (The sitcom-themed movie that is, not the real place.) ”
      To all intents and purposes, he did. His father was President of the Rexall drug company, and was hugely wealthy, and he went to school with people like Nancy Sinatra. I have no doubt his life was pretty much completely idyllic as a child/teenager.

      Charles Lloyd’s association with the Beach Boys was mostly TM-related. He added the flute on Mike’s song about the Maharishi, Everyone’s In Love With You, various sax parts (that could have been played by anyone, just standard parts) on the MIU Album, and did the flute parts on California Saga. He was also an off-and-on member of their touring band in the 1970s (if you listen to late-70s live recordings, he often takes an extended flute solo on All This Is That, for example).

      • rabensam said, on January 19, 2013 at 6:19 am

        On further reflection, and on reading Hal’s comments…maybe my dislike for Bruce Johnston and the lyrics of Disney Girls blinded me to its musical qualities. I’ve listened to it again with both your comments in mind and it’s helped me let go of my intense bias against the song.

        Now if the lyrics had actually been the nostalgia of a Viet Nam vet as Hal suggests, with the emotional edge that would have added — turning the tackiness into an emotionally wounded person’s effort to construct an idyllic fantasy past, making the innate falseness a lyrical virtue instead of a flaw — then we’d really be getting somewhere. Not to mention it would fit in a hell of a lot better with the rest of the album.

  3. Hal said, on January 17, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    I missed this (hearing loss and illness – hey hey hey) so I’m glad to have found it now. I particularly loved your analyses of ‘Til I Die and Surf’s Up, true appreciations of beautiful, touching, almost literally *awesome* songs. Towering achievements both, “columnated ruins domino”? Yes.
    Bruce Johnston’s Disney Girls (1957) is a strange song, it is at one and the same time a dubious Stepfordish exercise in narrow nostalgia (if it was sung from the POV of a Viet Nam war veteran it might be less so) and a wrenching wonderful song I adore, “happy times drinking wine in my garage”? That should sound ridiculous yet it’s somehow redolent of loss even if it is just loss of youth, the pain of time passing. I may not like what appears to be beneath the surface of Johnston’s song but *as a track* it’s a fine moving piece of work, and I couldn’t care less if it’s easy listening, the tune, the arrangement and the performance convey *emotion* as do many Beach Boys songs.
    I even like A Day in the Life of a Tree! If only Rieley wasn’t the singer…

  4. Hal said, on January 22, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Rabensan, I’m pleased to read I made a contribution to you revaluating that song somewhat.


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