"Surf's Up" - Brian Wilson is a Genius
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
The Beach Boys performing "I Get Around" on The Ed Sullivan Show (September 27, 1964)
The Beach Boys are the quintessential American rock band. They rode the highs and lows of the counterculture era, made numerous hit records, and left an innovative blueprint for later bands to follow. Nearly sixty years later, the band is still performing and touring despite their advanced old ages.
The band's original lineup consisted of Al Jardine, the Wilson brothers (Carl, Brian, and Dennis), and their cousin Mike Love. Besides a few temporary splits from the group, the introduction of Bruce Johnston in 1965, and the deaths of Carl and Dennis Wilson, the lineup has pretty much stayed the same throughout the group's run.
If you're from Southern California, there's a good chance you've heard anywhere from 10-20 different Beach Boys songs throughout your life being played at beaches, bars, or any place that's coastal-themed. Even if you can't recall any of their songs from memory, you're likely familiar with the tune of "Surfin' USA," "Good Vibrations" or "California Girls."
Many of their early songs were pop ballads about going to the drive-in, relaxing at the beach, and hanging out at soda shops (or whatever the fuck people used to do for fun in the '60s). The funny thing is, only one member of The Beach Boys actually knew how to surf (Dennis Wilson), but Capital Records ran with the image of the picturesque So-Cal lifestyle and encouraged the band to make songs that glorified this way of life.
Despite the pleas from their label, things took a positive turn for the group once they stopped singing about the surf and sun and instead embraced divinity, romance, and psychedelia. After gaining creative control, The Beach Boys ascended to a level of artistic growth that many bands yearn to reach but seldom do, and by the end of the decade, they'd released some of the best albums ever.
Much of the genius that came from The Beach Boys can be directly attributed to the group's lead singer, keyboardist, and founder Brian Wilson. Wilson is easily one of the most influential musicians of the '60s and was the mastermind behind the band's creative endeavors. Though he doesn't always receive the same praise as his peers, Wilson is a better songwriter than Bob Dylan, has more range than Paul McCartney, and might be the greatest pop producer of all time: at least according to me.
Who knew that the man who received an "F" in a high school music class (for a composition which eventually became The Beach Boys' debut single "Surfin'") would become a superstar? Well, obviously not his high school. Since then, the grade has been changed to an 'A' in Hawthorne High School's records, making his musical resume essentially flawless.
The best thing that happened for The Beach Boys was Wilson receiving complete authority over the band's songwriting and production, which he used to single-handedly improve their music.
This artistic turning point for The Beach Boys began in 1963 when Wilson became obsessed with Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production technique. This practice is when musicians re-record their instrumentals and a song's production is layered to create an echo chamber sound. By placing a more significant focus on the harmonic and orchestral aspects of production, this technique added a symphonic side to rock n' roll that never previously existed. In The Beach Boys' case, it strengthened their soothing melodies and made their music innovative and unique.
Although The Beach Boys have been releasing music for decades, their biggest period of output by far was from 1962-1971, spanning from "Surfin' Safari" to their 17th studio album titled "Surf's Up." Since there is a significant difference between The Beach Boys' earlier songs and their later work, it is easy to divide their music into two eras.
The Beach Boys' first era (from 1962 to early 1965) was their mainstream period, which produced many of the group's summertime classics. The second (from late 1965 to 1971) was an age of creative and critical success that saw the band release their most fulfilling music, helmed by none other than Brian Wilson.
The Beach Boys' brief golden age ended once Wilson took a break from the band and became increasingly less involved with each album after 1967. Wilson's decision to step back was a culmination of his battle with schizoaffective disorder, drug addiction, and his failure to finish "SMiLE."
QUICK BACKSTORY: "SMiLE" was Brian Wilson's unfinished passion project and meant to be "a teenage symphony to God." It was intended to be the band's follow-up to their legendary 1966 album "Pet Sounds" and their response to The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club." Wilson's failure to finish "SMiLE" haunted him for many years, and for over three decades he refused work on the project or perform any songs from it because he was too ashamed. This further alienated Wilson from the rest of the group and spiraled them towards obscurity.
Though "Pet Sounds" is most associated with the peak of The Beach Boys' brilliance, "SMiLE" is their best album, even if it was never officially released. With many great songs to choose from either album, it's hard to pick a favorite; but I think the song most emblematic of the group's greatness is "Surf's Up."
"Surf's Up" Review
"Surfs Up" was the brainchild of Brian Wilson and his creative partner Van Dyke Parks, and meant to be the centerpiece of "SMiLE." Since the album was never finished, the song remained unreleased for several years, only existing as a live performance from 1967 and several loose fragments.
After years of delays, "Surf's Up" eventually landed the group's 1971 album of the same name and their 2011 compilation album "The Smile Sessions." The 2011 version features full orchestral production and is much closer to Wilson's original intention, so this is the version I'll be reviewing.
Brian Wilson, his brother Carl, and Al Jardine share lead vocals throughout the song, while the remaining members harmonize during the first and final sections. The Beach Boys' eccentric frontman also composed the song and co-wrote the lyrics with Parks.
On the surface, it's exactly what you'd expect from the average Beach Boys song. There's a variation of the word "surf" in the title, the lyrics reference religion, and the charming California blondies harmonize their hearts out like a choir of angels. Yet the song has little to do with surfing and it's the most profound music the group ever made.
The story of "Surf's Up" is split into three sections. The first section details a man going through disillusionment and how his separation from reality leads to a spiritual awakening. The second section continues the man's journey as he edges toward enlightenment and rediscovers the joy of innocence. The third and final section is a final declaration that the only escape from mind-numbing despondence is a return to youthful bliss.
The song's sound begins upbeat with an abundance of horns and bells, making the first section sound glorious. By the end of this section, the harmonies and horns have completely faded away. This orchestral component pairs perfectly with the man losing his grip on reality, and as the music fades, so do his senses.
Contrasting with the first section's positive and psychedelic feeling, the second section has a steady piano melody that sounds somber and introspective. This flawlessly corresponds with the man's mood and how he's asking God for help.
As the song closes, the piano rhythm picks up to match the various overlapping background vocals, and this soothing harmony finishes the song on a high note (literally).
Throughout the song, the lyrics are doused in complex allegories, references to God's kingdom, and bouts of eternal sorrow. At first glance, it's hard to realize what the song is referencing, but the most revealing verse comes from section two.
"A choke of grief / Heart hardened I / Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry"
The man is sorrowful and depressed because he feels completely lost. His feelings of agony about the world are so intense that he can't even cry.
"Surf’s Up / Aboard a tidal wave / Come about hard and join / The young and often spring you gave"
In this line, surfing the ocean refers to experiencing the ups and downs of life. Though the messages get lost in the waves, you must prevail to understand. As the waves toss and turn, the man surfs the waves, and through this journey he finds enlightenment.
"I heard the word / Wonderful thing / A children’s song"
This line is the climax of the song's story and alludes to the popular arts and literature theme of "the loss of innocence." This coming of age period is when a child, usually in their teenage years, begins to understand the harsh and evil reality of the world around them.
But instead of concentrating on this perspective, Wilson focuses on the importance of maintaining youthful exuberance to escape mundane adult life. The lyrics not only emphasize the importance of childhood but encourages listeners to regain their childish innocence.
In the song's closing verse, Wilson claims the purity and happiness of childhood can determine the future by singing:
"A children's song / Have you listened as they played / Their song is love / And the children know the way."
Though this is a significant lyric, the one withstanding message that should be taken from the final section is "The child is the father of the man." This phrase is harmonized by the entire group throughout the last verse and further declares that adults must follow the word of the next generation.
Aside from the irresistible vocals and incredible lyrics, the thing that stood out to me was the stunningly beautiful production. It's so polished and refined it could be played in cathedrals worldwide as a testament to God. It's an emotional rollercoaster that begins triumphantly, grows sadder as the song goes on and finishes with a positive affirmation.
Overall, "Surf's Up" is an extraordinary tale of self-reflection and proves Brian Wilson is a master of storytelling with his writing and production style. The stunning psychedelic elegance of this track makes it The Beach Boys' best song, an all-time classic and the greatest example of "SMiLE"'s incredible potential.
My words can only do so much justice to interpret the meaning behind "Surfs Up,", so if you'd like to gain a deeper understanding, read Brian Wilson's lyrical annotations here. In addition, if you'd like to learn more about Brian Wilson and the dramatic life he's lived, check out the excellent 2014 biopic "Love and Mercy."