Cratedigger: The Beach Boys, “Surf’s Up”


The Beach Boys - Surf's UpConsidering my favorite Beach Boys album is a daunting task. Of course there’s the monolithic Pet Sounds, standing out there in the field, towering above everything else. So let’s just put that aside for awhile. What inevitably happens is that my choice changes from time to time. The Beach Boys Today, Sunflower, and Holland have all been favorites at one time or another. Lately I’ve started to reconsider the virtues of Surf’s Up, which was released by Reprise on the Beach Boys’ Brother Records imprint in 1971.

The title track, with Van Dyke Parks’ “muted trumpeter swans,” and “columnated ruins domino,” is perhaps Brian Wilson’s most brilliant work. The towering composition was originally intended for the ill-fated SMiLE album, the costs of which we still see Brian paying to this day. The impetus for the completion of the song came from the Beach Boys new manager Jack Rieley, who was determined to make the band relevant again. Brian, understandably, was not interesting in revisiting his personal hell, so it was left to Carl Wilson, the band’s newly appointed (by Rieley) Musical Director to move forward. Brian did finally emerge to help out with the song’s third movement. The finished song is one of the great achievements in popular music.

“Surf’s Up” was hardly the end of the story though. The powerful and somewhat ominous “Until I Die,” a song that Brian had been working on for quite awhile, emerged. The only completely new Brian Wilson song on the album is the probably best forgotten “A Day In the Life of a Tree.” But Carl Wilson picked up the slack with two of his greatest songs, “Long Promised Road,” and “Feel Flows.” Rieley demanded that the band embrace more topical material, and the result was the Mike Love/Al Jardine songs “Student Demonstration Time,” and “Don’t Go Near the Water.” The capper for me is one of my guiltiest musical pleasures. Bruce Johnston’s sticky sweet “Disney Girls” is every bit as saccharine as you might imagine, and yet it has a beautiful melody and lyrics that transport you (well they transport me anyway) back to a more innocent time. Given the state of things within the Beach Boys organization at the time, that’s not such a bad thing.

Just like Pet Sounds towers over the field of Beach Boys albums, the title track towers over this album. There are, however, several other treasures to be found on Surf’s Up, and until the winds shift again it will be my favorite Beach Boys album.

Below you will find Brian’s original demo for “Surf’s Up,” followed by the Beach Boys’ finished recording of the song.

  • bob boilen

    Pretty great record, though it wasn’t released on Capitol, it was on Reprise records with the bands Brother records logo. At least that’s how I remember it coming out.
    thanks for this.

  • kshane

    Yikes!!!! Thanks Bob. Bad brain fade this morning. The label is right there in front of me. Correction coming.

  • Thierry Côté

    I recently watched The Beach Boys: An American Band again for the first time in years, and the clip of Brian playing “Surf’s Up” at the piano is still that one musical moment I would chose if I were allowed to listen to only one piece of music for the rest of my life. As for the album, there are a couple of stinkers (“Student Demonstration Time” and “Take A Load Off Your Feet”, which is pretty interesting musically but has genuinely awful lyrics) that prevent me from naming it as one of my favourites. Surf’s Up has high peaks but low valleys, and doesn’t hold up as a whole as well as Pet Sounds, Today, Sunflower or Friends.

  • Brendan

    That Leonard Bernstein special “Surf’s Up” performance is by far my favorite Brian moment. It is magical. The Vigotone Bootleg version of the song which takes this and the extended intro is one of the long lost treasure of 60s rock.

    I do find myself playing this LP and Holland the most now a day. Carl at his finest.

  • Anonymous

    While Pet Sounds is my favorite album above anything else in existence, it’s been one of my least-listened to Beach Boys albums in recent years to preserve its clout. I inevitably wind up revisiting Surf’s Up by proxy thanks to its 2000 CD pairing with Sunflower, my fave BB record of the 70s. It doesn’t stick in my brain as deeply as Sunflower as a whole, but that title cut, “‘Til I Die” and Carl’s compostitions make it essential. (All told, I give Today the second-place ribbon.)

  • grayflannelsuit

    Agreed. Sunflower is the album that should’ve restored the BB’s mojo, but sadly didn’t. Although Holland has some strong points too, particularly “Sail On, Sailor”.

  • Old_Davy

    “Surf’s Up” was the album I played to a friend who said he hated The Beach Boys. I converted him to a fan…albeit, just to the late 60′s early 70′s period. As good as “Pet Sounds” is, this album has the band’s two greatest songs on it, the title track, and “Feel Flows”.

  • deltaslide

    Excellent stuff! Truly a great underrated album. “Feel Flows” is a masterpiece and “DIsney Girls” is a GREAT song. I freed myself from guilty pleasures-who cares what ANYONE thinks-if something moves you that all that counts! Fond memories- the 90′s Bruce Johnston came to the video station where I worked in Montreal and hung around after his interview chatting and telling stories about Brian’s mother yelling at those “dirty Manson girls to get out of the pool!” Priceless…

  • Diversion20032001

    Yes. Thank you for confirming that the BB’s recorded other albums besides Pet Sounds. Their late 60′s early 70′s period was their best artistically. I’ve always loved the Surfs Up album. Don’t dismiss “A Day in the Life of a Tree” entirely. The tree is Brian singing about his life–very heavy. Too bad the vocal was done by manager Jack Rieley. It diminishes the impact of the song.
    Carl is great and so is Feel Flows. Wish Dennis would have had a song on there.

  • Liam Kennedy

    the Beach Boys’ late 60s & 70s albums are wonderfully eccentric and inconsistent, its all part of the charm. I actually really like “A day in the life of a tree” and the fact that they got their manager to sing it because he sounded more “tree-like” just adds to the appeal – the final 3 tracks (“…tree”, “Til I die” “Surf’s Up”) are as good a 3-track run as you’ll hear anywhere.

    On “Holland” they gave the vocal duties on “Sail On Sailor” to Blondie Chaplin who was essentially a backing musician – thats just a crazy decision for a band with so many great singers, but its still a great track.

  • Mark

    Blondie Chaplin was a full member of the Beach Boys, as was Ricky Fataar. They wrote songs along with the others and were not mere backup musicians. Blondie’s vocals on Sail On Sailor and other songs gave the BB’s a welcome added soulfulness.