The Beach Boys Surf’s Up

[Caribou; 1971]

Styles: classic rock, pop, psychedelic pop
Others: The Zombies, The Beatles

There are two California myths in popular imagination. The first is the sun-drenched utopia; young Americans, ushered to the waves of the Pacific by the twin developments of suburbanization and highways, basking in pre-packaged conformist culture. The second focuses on these same youths; jaded by assassinations, war, and injustice, indulging in the San Francisco counterculture.

Of the two images, many contend that The Beach Boys and their music are emblematic of the first one, if not an outright soundtrack to it. That may be, but they went deeper than fun, sun, cars, and girls. If Pet Sounds was Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, 1971’s Surf’s Up, while far from a tour de force, may be the group’s ultimate departure from the euphoric California symbol. A spotty album, containing the good, the bad and the ugly, it's marked by the sound of gorgeous harmony, and a band in disarray.

The opening track, “Don’t Go Near the Water,” is ostensibly a plea for environmental awareness. A noble effort, but it smacks more of a group bravely (and unsuccessfully) trying to remain on par with its peers. After years of protest music, lines such as “Don’t go near the water/ Ain’t it sad/ What happened to the water/ It’s going bad” might do for the high school Eco-Fair, but not for rock n’ roll. Upon hearing Mike Love’s nasal shout about social unrest on “Student Demonstration Time,” one begrudges him for destroying the prison themed “Riot in Cell Block No 9,” and laughs at his pathetic attempt to sound bluesy and tuned in to the strife of the day. Not to be outdone, Bruce Johnston waxes nostalgic over tootsie rolls and lemonade on the schmaltzy “Disney Girls,” a saccharine welcome to the ‘70s that sounds like a discarded Paul Simon demo.

So why might Surf’s Up be a forgotten classic? Simply put, moments of brilliance completely outshine the duds. Al Jardine makes his finest contribution to The Beach Boys catalogue in “Lookin’ At Tomorrow,” a call for social responsibility marked by a psych-folk sound that holds up against anything written by The Animals. Like an awakened giant, Brian Wilson emerges from his slumber at the end of the album and tenders his resignation from rock music by way of a three-song suite. The title track is a magnum opus mourning the loss of innocence felt by all at some point in life. On “Til I Die,” Brian sighs in defeat regarding his increasing waywardness. The work here is a worthy predecessor to the theme of personal alienation that has come to permeate much of American indie-rock thirty years later. 

An equal star of the show, however, is Carl Wilson, who pumps as much soul into his guitar and vocal tracks as humanly possible for a white guy from the LA suburbs. The organ line on “Long Promised Road,” along with the upbeat guitar and horns in the bridge section, exudes a fresh sound that became a hallmark of 70s classic-rock, long before it went stale and invaded FM airwaves. “Feel Flows” is among Carl’s best compositions, and comes equipped with a beautiful melody and instrumental section as psychedelic and bluesy as anything of the time. He makes a case for the band to continue as a progressive musical force.

By 1974, however, Endless Summer would be released, and the fate of The Beach Boys as a nostalgia act of the establishment would be sealed. Surf’s Up treats us to a final glimpse of an embattled group who helped create the 1960s. With its members all going in opposite directions, it’s the sound of a band falling apart at the seams. If some tracks are forgettable, the moments where a Wilson brother’s is on lead, fleshed out by Beach Boys harmonies, are truly angelic. For one final time, Brian’s wish for the group to make innovative ‘pocket symphonies’ was fulfilled

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