Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Beach Boys - Surf's Up (1971)


Released August 1971

"Surf's Up" is regularly rated as one of The Beach Boys' classic albums. For me it is a strange one. It is certainly by far superior to the execrable "Smiley Smile" and since then there had been the quirky "Wild Honey" and three patchy offerings in "Friends", "20/20" and "Sunflower", so it stands out as being the group's best album for quite a while. Despite also possessing a fair amount of idiosyncrasies too, it definitely has some moments of brilliance. It is a sad album, though, giving a poignant notice that The Beach Boys in the seventies were a group in turmoil, a group long distanced from the carefree glory days of 1963-1967. Taking into account its role as a symbol of chronological transition it is an important and relevant album. It is a work of genius? No. Is it a beguiling, evocative and symbolic release? Undoubtedly.

Some of the material on the album had been knocking around for a while, but there is more of a cohesion present here, in comparison with "Smiley Smile", far more. It works much better as an album. I still find it a somewhat disparate creation, though, full of different material from different writers all intent on doing their own thing. A bit like "Let It Be", it was a work from several different individuals by now masquerading as a "group".


1. Don't Go Near The Water
2. Long Promised Road
3. Take A Load Off Your Feet
4. Disney Girls (1957)
5. Student Demonstration Time
6. Feel Flows
7. Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)
8. A Day in The Life Of A Tree
9. 'Til I Die
10. Surf's Up                                                    

"Don't Go Near The Water" is the very antithesis to the "glory of sea, sand and surf" songs that so characterised the group's sixties output. Here the water had now become a polluted hazard to health that people needed to stay away from. It was a cynical, terribly sad way for the seventies to begin, but thought-provoking and highly moving too. It was an example of the group's efforts to write more socially-conscious material, possibly as a reaction to the contemporary zeitgeist, possibly at the behest of their latest manager, an ex-journalist called Jack Rieley.

 "Long Promised Road" is a harmonious, soulful piece of pop from Carl Wilson. It was similar to the stuff that he did for the "Carl And The Passions" album and it wouldn't have sounded out of place on 1973's "Holland" either. "Take A Load Off Your Feet" is melodious enough and vaguely appealing, but it is also a bit of a silly song, (about painful feet), of the sort of semi-nonsense that Brian Wilson had been coming up with since 1967. Despite its silliness, the vocals and backing are quirkily pleasurable.

Bruce Johnston's "Disney Girls (1957)" is, for me, by far the best track on the album - evocative, nostalgic and basically wonderful, musically, vocally and lyrically. Johnston's lead vocal is hauntingly beautiful. It rarely appears on "best of The Beach Boys" compilations. It should do.

"Student Demonstration Time" has a "Revolution"-style buzzy guitar riff before blasting into that Elvis brass riff rock 'n' roll thing, using Lieber and Stoller's "Riot in Cell Block No 9" to provide the melody. The song tells of the social upheaval of several violent student, anti-war demonstrations of the time. It is a most un-Beach Boys number. Anarchic social comment and heavy guitar riffs? Surely not. I guess this is what makes this album unique. Carl Wilson's "Feel Flows" is a melodic, gentle number reminiscent of the material on "Sunflower", while "Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)" is a vaguely Beatles-esque short, hippyish acoustic number. The Beatles and psychedelic vibes continue with Brian Wilson's oddly moving "A Day In The Life Of A Tree". "'Til I Die" is also experimentally unusual, as indeed is the Sgt.Pepper-ish title track. Again, there is something very psychedelic about these final three tracks and for many people, it is these three that are the best tracks on the album. I can see where they're coming from, but me, I prefer the blatant sentimentality of "Disney Girls".

For a comparatively short album of vastly differing songs, with several seemingly throwaway tracks,  it is is surprising how much can be be written about it. One could write far less about much better albums.


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