The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

Surf’s Up, but the sentiment is definitely down

By the late 1960’s, songs about Hot-rods and surfing were clearly passé, especially as many had begun to ride a whole new wave of their own, thanks mainly to the effects of marijuana and LSD. So it should come as no surprise that The Beach Boys would eventually change tack, and begin to take their songwriting a little more seriously. Albums such as Pet Sounds (1966), Smiley Smile (1967) and of course the aborted Smile sessions proved that the band could be experimental while remaining true to their roots.

However because trends were changing so rapidly, The Beach Boys were increasingly seen as being irrelevant in a business becoming ever more dominated by the likes of The Who, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and a host of other heavy-rock bands from England.

Back in the early ‘60s a title such as Surf’s Up would have no doubt been taken literally, however by 1971, the year this album was issued, the meaning was ironic, due to the band’s interest in political, social and ecological issues. Where before they encouraging everyone to enjoy the ocean, by now they were advising people to stay away.

Mike Love and Al Jardine’s “Don’t Go Near The Water” is the opener, including the lyrics “Oceans, rivers, lakes and streams/Have all been touched by man/The poison floating out to sea/Now threatens life on land,” indicating just how far The Beach Boys had evolved since their debut some ten years earlier.

Much of the innocence of younger days has now been supplanted by the realisation that the world was not what it used to be. But despite all their troubles, the band’s exquisite harmonies and gift for melody remained intact, none more so than on Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls (1957).” Jardine finds time to express his sympathy for the poor (“Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)”), while Mike Love, often the more mystical Beach Boy, ponders over the state of the nation on “Student Demonstration Time,” (“Starting out with Berkeley Free Speech/And later on at People’s Park/The winds of change fanned into flames/Students demonstrations spark”).

Carl Wilson, normally quite reserved, also proves himself to be a fine songwriter with the trippy “Feels Free” and “Long Promised Road,” although it will always be Brian Wilson’s show, contributing the cosmic-melancholy of “Til I Die,” the ecologically themed and philosophical “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” (“Now my branches suffer/And my leaves don’t bear the glow/They did so long ago”), and of course the glorious title track itself, a song from the fabled Smile.

Apparently Brian was against the track being included, though ultimately common sense prevailed, and its inclusion here was a masterstroke of foresight on the part of the band’s manager Jack Rieley, who thought that the album could do with a little cheering up.

As on previous albums, each song floats around the two minute mark, something which the listener will hardly notice, because as was the case with The Beatles, The Beach Boys were capable of packing more into two minutes than many other groups could in 20.

Surf’s Up is a record filled with bittersweet reflection (the exception being Jardine’s comical “Take A Load Off Your Feet), that remains a shimmering, often thoughtful journey, and one which any fan of their later period should investigate.