The Beach Boys On CD: Surf’s Up
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.
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.
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…
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.