Listen to this track, a marvelous piece of orchestral pop, and indeed a fragment of a bona fide teenage symphony to god. It’s ‘Surf’s Up’ from the album of the same name from 1971, and recently coupled with 1970’s Sunflower album in a CD twofer, Sunflower/Surf’s Up.
The song itself came out of the famously, or infamously if you prefer, aborted SMiLE album, which was to be Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson’s magnum opus, with the help of lyricist Van Dyke Parks. The vision for the album was certainly grand, with Parks’ lyrical architecture proving to be somewhat cumbersome to at least one group member. Lead singer Mike Love warned Brian ‘don’t fuck with the formula‘ upon which they had built their success during the first half of the 1960s, to wit: writing songs about cars, girls, and surfing.
Yet, Wilson’s proclivities for grand arrangements seemed to demand him to get past the confectionery pop of “Surfer Girl”, “I Get Around”, and “Little Deuce Coupe” among other hits, and into a more ambitious musical milieu. Van Dyke Parks seemed to be the perfect collaborator to help him get there, to Mike Love’s purported chagrin. The SMiLE LP, meant for a 1967 release, would never be completed within the lifetime of the original incarnation of the band. Yet, there were many fruits that came out of its ashes, including this track which was salvaged and re-arranged for this later release.
The song comes off like a suite, on this version led first by Brian’s brother Carl Wilson (who also served as the band’s musical director by the early 70s) with his famously angelic vocal range on the ‘Are you Sleeping Brother John’ sequence. Then, on the second ‘Dove nested towers …’ section, Brian himself takes the lead vocal, with a follow-up section ‘The Child is the Father of the Man’, actually another track from the original SMiLE sessions, tacked on to it. This section features the full range of what the Beach Boys had to offer as a vocal unit, which is no less than an approach to male harmony vocals that changed the face of pop music forever.
And that’s the thing that strikes me most about this; that the formula wasn’t really ‘fucked with’ at all. It had simply evolved. The primary Beach Boys elements were still well in place; the lush harmonies, the on-the-beat piano lines, and the sheen of child-like optimism that colours their whole body of work, and that makes them so beloved. By 1970-71, the Beach Boys were no longer boys at all. They’d grown up. “Surf’s Up” in that respect takes on a new meaning.
Brian Wilson of course would revisit the SMiLE project again in 2004, when he recorded an album based upon his original work in the 1960s. He would even take it on tour to an adoring crowd, happy in the knowledge that he’d inspired a whole new generation of admirers, some of which had started bands themselves in the Pet Sounds/SMiLE-era Beach Boys tradition.