At the dawn of the Seventies, the Beach Boys had a lot to prove. Their pop success was a thing of the past — even artistic triumphs like Pet Sounds and Wild Honey were commercial flops. The boys of summer were pushing 30 by now, bearded dads reckoning with marriage, divorce, changing times. When they went to work at Brian Wilson’s home studio on Bellagio Road in Bel Air, they were struggling to find their place in a new world that had written them off as a nostalgia act. But the Beach Boys found their adult voices on Sunflower and Surf’s Up, two soulful masterworks that caught them at a fierce creative peak.
This pivotal moment in the Beach Boys saga comes alive in the new box set Feel Flows — The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969–1971, out July 30th. Feel Flows, which Rolling Stone heard in an exclusive preview, is full of revelations, telling the story of the band’s rebirth across five CDs packed with previously unheard gems from the Bellagio Road era. In a new interview from this box set, Bruce Johnston calls it the best time they ever had together. As he says, “Everybody was grown up — but still young — and they used the studio as the ‘man cave’ and the clubhouse at Brian’s and they brought songs in.”
Brian Wilson was fired up again creatively, after a long slump. Yet the Beach Boys were now a band with six singer-songwriters, each one grappling with personal and cultural transformations. Even on the days when Brian couldn’t make it out of bed, he listened to the boys downstairs in the clubhouse. As he says, “Hearing music through the day in my home was an inspiration.”
Sunflower was their Abbey Road, with a clear-eyed sense of hard-won adult optimism; Surf’s Up was their Let It Be, darker and more elegiac, as in Brian’s mournful “’Til I Die.” Sunflower came out on August 31st, 1970, Surf’s Up almost exactly a year later. It’s symbolic that both arrived at the dying days of summer, which seemed all wrong for the Beach Boys, yet fitting for their new mature depth. Both albums are about moving on after the surf is gone, which is why they resonate today.
Produced by Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, Feel Flows includes definitive remastered versions of both albums, with outtakes, new mixes, studio chatter, isolated vocal and instrumental tracks, and live performances, totaling 135 tracks in all, 108 of them previously unreleased. It also has a 48-page book with photos and an essay by Howie Edelson, based on new interviews with all the living band members. Feel Flows will also be released in a shorter version on two CDs or four vinyl LPs. The unreleased material includes major songs that haven’t been heard until now: Mike Love’s pastoral reverie “Big Sur,” Dennis Wilson’s soulfully trippy “Hawaiian Dream” and “Behold the Night,” Brian’s solo piano demos of “Awake” and “Won’t You Tell Me.”
All over Feel Flows, you can hear the Beach Boys discovering a new collaborative spirit. Dennis, long pigeonholed as the group’s resident surfer, rocker, and party animal, came into his own as a songwriter. He stole the show on Sunflower with “Slip On Through” and “Forever.” (He also starred in Two-Lane Blacktop, the indie classic from the late director Monte Hellman, who just died in April. For both Wilson and James Taylor, it was a one-time shot at the movies, but they make it an unforgettable piece of hot-rod noir.) Dennis was stockpiling tunes for his own solo record, and judging by the selections on Feel Flows, it would have been a doozy. But unfortunately, he couldn’t finish it; the one album he managed to complete in his lifetime was 1977’s great Pacific Ocean Blue.
Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, and Carl Wilson also stepped out as writers. How did they all decide whose song to work on? As Dennis quipped, “Whoever hits the hardest, yells the loudest, and has the biggest overdraft that month.”
But they also rallied together like never before (or after), rescuing tunes Brian couldn’t finish, most notably “Surf’s Up.” He debuted the song on a 1967 Leonard Bernstein TV special, just a boy and his piano, but it took years to complete in the studio. They grappled with adult concerns like mortality, the death of youthful ideals, the environment, the Vietnam War, Transcendental Meditation. There are also oddities like “Seasons of the Sun” (produced by Terry Jacks, who made it a ghastly hit a few years later) and a brief instrumental goof on the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money.”
Sunflower went nowhere commercially, but ironically, the more downbeat Surf’s Up became their biggest seller since 1967 — most likely because of the title. Both became overlooked deep cuts in the band’s story, but in recent years, they’ve finally taken their place at the top. Here’s a tour of the 10 most revelatory moments on Feel Flows.
Mike Love’s folkie ode to the West Coast countryside, full of canyons, redwoods, seashells, and deer. “Big Sur” has never before been heard in its original form, though it was revamped for the 1973 album Holland as part of “California Saga (Big Sur).” He wrote it while escaping there during a divorce. “I had this old Martin [guitar],” Love says. “So I just wrote a poem about being there.”
“Behold the Night”
Dennis Wilson took off in this era — suddenly, songs spilled out of him faster than the band could release them. Clean and healthy for once (by his standards), he was on the roll of his life. This gorgeously wrenching harpsichord ballad is a worthy companion to “Forever,” as he pleads, “Don’t get me wrong/I want to love.” “Behold the Night” is a major statement from a major songwriter — tough to believe a song this great could go unreleased all these years.
“Til I Die”
“’Til I Die,” from Surf’s Up, remains one of the band’s most powerful songs — Brian’s elegy for his lost youth. It appears on Feel Flows as an instrumental piano demo, but the stunner is this long version with alternate lyrics and a stretched-out two-minute vibraphone intro.
“Medley: All of My Love / Ecology”
Another unreleased Dennis stunner — he was planning a solo album that sadly didn’t get finished. Feel Flows is full of his lost treasures. This lavish 1971 chorale shows how much he learned from Brian, as do highlights like “Hawaiian Dream” and “Old Movie (Cuddle Up).” (The latter got reworked for Carl and the Passions — So Tough). His collaborator in all three: Daryl Dragon, who went on to Top 40 fame as the nautical half of the Captain and Tennille.
A heart-piercing solo Brian take on a sunrise ballad by the obscure rocker Floyd Tucker. Among hardcore fans, “Awake” is best known for the Brian-produced 1972 version by his wife’s group American Spring — but this one is even lovelier.
“Won’t You Tell Me”
A voice-and-organ demo of a ballad officially co-credited to the Wilsons’ infamous dad, Murry. (It came out as a B side from a band he was managing, the Sunrays.) As Brian says, “I don’t think I wrote ‘Won’t You Tell Me’ with my dad. I think I wrote that by myself.” In this demo, you can hear Murry in the studio, claiming, “Best song you guys have sung for five years!” Brian’s response is to crack up laughing.
A fantasy of escaping to the farm for the summer, later done on the ill-fated 1976 effort 15 Big Ones. It’s far much more intimate in this stripped-down version, with Alan Jardine and Brian Wilson working on their vocals. There’s also a touching live rendition from 1976, with Brian sounding raw yet excited.
“Long Promised Road” (Live, 1972)
Carl took special personal pride in this tune, and this 1972 live version is a tribute to him. As Brian says, “His spirit was probably the spirit of the Beach Boys. His voice healed me when I was going through a lot of bad things, his voice helped me out a lot.”
“Add Some Music to Your Day”
An alternate take of the Sunflower highlight. It’s a prime example of the team spirit that marked the 1969–1971 Bellagio Road era, as those voices weave together to testify, “Music is in my soul.”
“Surf’s Up” (Live, 1973)
This live tour de force has a deadpan intro from Mike Love. “In case anyone’s interested, this song was written by Brian Wilson and his friend Van Dyke Parks,” Love tells the crowd. “Brian played it once on a TV show, a Leonard Bernstein special, and Leonard Bernstein said it was one of the best songs ever to come out of rock music.” Then Carl starts to sing — and proves Bernstein was right.