Surf's Up

Not Rated

I've been waiting impatiently for this record since Sunflower, and the small letdown I feel could be the other side of that impatience: the wish that they could have kept it a little longer to make it perfect. In this case that would not be a matter of production (why not expect technical perfection from a group that began producing itself in the early Sixties that handles the studio with such mastery?), but rather of waiting for the material to even out in quality. (Perhaps drummer Dennis Wilson's absence as songwriter and, because of a hand injury, on five of the ten cuts contributes to this flaw; Wilson wrote "Forever," on Sunflower, an incredibly beautiful piece.)

Still, I recall my own first reaction to Sunflower; some cuts at first seemed too thin, too light. ("Deirdre," for instance, which later became a favorite of mine precisely for the cream-puff-thrown-in-the-machinery effect, and for Brian Wilson's occasional showbiz-Broadway flair.)

But the important thing about the Beach Boys is just this aspect of their music. The production is usually flawless and the melodies so frequently exquisite that one tends to hear, then listen for and finally dismiss it as surface. Yet the surface is manipulated so carefully and so brilliantly that (and here I am forced by a certain poverty of analogy to shift senses) it becomes hologrammatic. Cotton candy: bite into it and the pink fluff becomes sugar on your tongue then, poof! mere aftertaste. Yet wait, there's more pink fluff inside the cone, and more, and more ... (Not to mention the best aftertaste in the business.)

Wilson, Wilson, Wilson, Jardine, Love and Johnston form rock's only choir, and what one misses on Surf's Up are more of the incredible group vocals that have been equalled in power only by the Band. I'm thinking especially of "This Whole World," the most perfect example on the last album (aumdidit, aumdidit), but also of "Cottonfields" (so much more energy and emotion than Creedence's) on 20/20, and the slightly ragged but good-natured title-cut of Friends. And especially Wild Honey, the entire album.

Now there is an under-rated album, Wild Honey; it is surely the most even of their post-surfer LPs, and the last time they truly rocked their asses off, one cut after another. Capitol has scratched all their albums after '65, Pet Sounds and everything, including Wild Honey, that followed. But Wild Honey is a masterpiece. Sometimes the last thing I hear at night before falling asleep is from "Country Air," Carl holding that note ("Mother Nature, she fills my eyeyeyeyeyey") and rhyming it to the rooster's crow that begins the cut.

"Surf's Up" itself was to be the piece de resistance to Smile, the album that never was, Brian's collaboration with Van Dyke Parks. The song itself emerges out of the legend that withholding it so long created. (It had been performed once by Brian at a piano, in 1967 on a Leonard Bernstein-bestows-his-blessing-on-rock television show, never to be heard again.) Is it as good as was breathlessly rumored by those who had heard the partial track? Well, yes. Simple as that well, not that simple. The production is ornate elephant calls melting into French horns and clarinets, percussion via housekeys slapped against a top-hat, and you name it yet never opaque.

Here it is, however, just part of the puzzle. Like "Cabinessence" on 20/20, another Smile number, it is the last cut on side two, and even though this version was recorded completely in 1971, there is something of the effect of Brian saying: "Oh yeah, that's our new album, but hey, you wanna hear something we had left over around here?" In any case, there is cause to be grateful they got around to it:

Dove nested towers the hour was
Strike the street quicksilver moon
Carriage across the fog
Two-step to lamp lights cellar tune
The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.

It would have more than given a run to anything on Sergeant Pepper, which was the current competition, though an album full of these rich pastries might have been perhaps oppressive. Maugham said that you could only really look at a painting for a certain number of minutes. My guess is that there was one central musical concept on Smile, on sound, one brand new chord theretofore undiscovered and accessible only to the Wilson-Parks songwriting ear; to listen to this lost album might have been exhausting or, better, another visual analogy; blinding. That is what "Surf's Up" is, dazzling almost to ear-blindness, from the diamond necklace in the first line to the muted lyrics of third and fourth stanzas, pausing for an extended pun:

The glass was raised, the fire rose
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting
While at port adieu or die.

Parks' lyrics make the most of the Beach Boys' obsession with the polished surface of their music: one is never unaware of the artistry in their construction, and you are tossed mercilessly from content to technique, behind and before the scene, attention drawn to the song itself as an entity:

Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping?

And:

Back through the opera-glass you see
The pit and the pendulum drawn
Columinated ruins domino ...

Like their very best music, it is Light (ness) itself, fragile and transparent as sunshine.

Surf's Up, the album, is almost a concept album (remember them?) in its near obsession with the subject of water (if not the Beach Boys, then who?); the last cut of Sunflower was "Cool Water," five minutes worth, and the first track here is "Don't Go Near the Water," by Al Jardine and Mike Love. It begins without much promise, a rather trite melody that reminds the ear of commercial jingles, but the chorus is imaginative. Jardine wails the third verse with rather more soul than is called for with a lyric like:

Toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubble-bath
So let's avoid an ecological
aftermath.

By the time we hear the original melody again, however, repeated with different words, it is rather lovable, and even the lyrics redeem themselves:

Don't go near the water
To do it any wrong
To be cool with the water
Is the message of this song.

"Long Promised Road," the next cut, is with "Feel Flows" on side two, Carl Wilson's first solo composing effort, with lyrics by Jack Reiley, the group's publicist. It is, as they say in more auspicious reviews, an auspicious debut. Carl produced and played every track on "Long Promised Road," but it has none of the static feeling or self-indulgence one might expect from such megalomania. His vocal is gentle and displays superb rhythmic control, begins light and travels into a rocker without seeming to shift gears; Reiley's lyrics are quite fine.

"Take A Load Off Your Feet," with a too-thin melody, obvious production and some good but wasted solo vocals by Jardine and Brian Wilson.

For me, the best realized song on the entire record, aside from "Surf's Up," is "Disney Girls (1957)." In an album that takes lyrics as seriously as this one (they are for the first time enclosed with the record), Bruce Johnston's contribution is, without reservation, brilliant, the lyrics as accomplished in their way as are Parks'; understandably we are more surprised by Johnston's achievement. Nobody's going to do the Fifties this well for quite a while:

Patti Page and summer days
On old Cape Cod...
Open cars and clearer stars
That's what I've lacked
But fantasy world and Disney girls
I'm comin' back.

Unrestrained sentiment, be forewarned (the Beach Boys have never hidden the emotion in their music), but not without a painless funny edge:

Love... Hi, Rick and Dave
Hi Pop... Well, good morning, Mom
Love, get up, guess what
I'm in love with a girl I found.
She's really swell
Because she likes
Church, bingo chances, and old time dances...

Its placement on the record, and the understated group backing, lulls you for the last song on this side, "Student Demonstration Time," new lyrics by Mike Love to the old Coasters' hit, "Riot on Cell Block No. 9." Sometimes I get the feeling that, because for so long there was a hipper-than-thou dismissal of the group, they are now trying too hard and maybe unnecessarily to prove their credentials. It's great that they're doing political rallies and benefits, but I suspect the real reason they're being taken seriously again is their live performances; it is impossible to hear them, as I did last fall at the Whisky, and not be knocked out. Anyway, this song has some spectacular horn-playing (they currently travel with a ten-man section), superb crackling lead guitar by Carl, and a police siren or simulated siren that really does make it as an instrument, but the lyrics, with one exception:
The violence spread down South
Where Jackson State brothers
Learned not to say nasty things
About Southern policemen's
mothers
strikes me as embarrassing. Somehow more generalized protest (Gaye's "What's Goin' On?") works for me, where this specific catalogue seems to trivialize the events themselves. In any case, I'm told this is the show-stopper at their current round of concerts, so chacun a...

Carl's "Feel Flows" opens side two; an excellently produced number, the highlight is a break with Charles Lloyd's flute that is incredibly good. The transition from this is a tantalizingly brief piano riff and Carl's guitar, sucked back into the song in a weird imploding warp. The reverse or forward echo works beautifully with Reiley's lyrics.

"Looking at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)" is folkish, hyped up with phase distortion. It grows on you, but the guitar work is over-delicate, if that is the word. It's minor.

"A Day in the Life of a Tree" is reminiscent of "Wind Chimes" on Smiley Smile, with Brian on pipe and pump organ and lyricist Reiley the solo vocalist. At first it comes off as too somber, but one's ear ripens for it. The real treat is the "Lord oh now I lay me down" chorus. This is another "ecology" thing, and even if I could get over the banal political position banal since audience and artist may be assumed to agree a word like "pollution" is a cliched catchword for a lot of other cliches. The line in question seems better, for instance, when it is sung in the background by Van Dyke Parks, whose voice frequently gives lyrics a campy resonance:

Trees like me weren't meant to live
If all this world can give
Is pollution and slow death.

Even so, it is hardly forgettable. Haunting, even.

Brian sings alone on "Till I Die," the last cut before "Surf's Up," but later the group joins in. "Till I Die" also has the disadvantage of meeting the ear first almost as a throwaway and then taking shape, listening after listening, inside the head. It is extremely moving.

This is a good album, probably as good as Sunflower, which is terrific, and which I've had six months more to listen to. It is certainly the most original in that it has contributed something purely its own. Perhaps because of the ecology theme, it is not as joyous. But it will do to keep the turntable warm until their next. (Myself, I hope it will be live, to show what they can do in concert.) They remain unique, and though they still promise more than they deliver, this group has delivered plenty throughout its history. For that reason, they are perhaps still the most important and certainly the most "accomplished" of all American groups.

You can come home, guys, all is forgiven.

From The Archives Issue 574: March 22, 1990
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