Song of the Week: Surf’s Up

The Beach Boys' Latter-day Masterpiece

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Next week, one of the biggest tours of the year ends. For the past month, the tour “Something Great from ‘68”, featuring Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and The Zombies playing many of their classic songs, has been going across the country, with The Zombies playing songs from their album “Odessey and Oracle”, and Brian Wilson playing songs from “Friends” and “Surf’s Up”. It’s the last album that’s the subject for today, specifically it’s epic three-part title track.

The genesis of this epic began in May 1966, with an early version being penned by Wilson and his frequent collaborator Van Dyke Parks. However, it wasn’t until later that year the song fully took form. During one session, Brian’s younger brother and bandmate Dennis Wilson lamented a recent performance in Britain, where the crowds at the show laughed at The Beach Boys’ uniformed striped shirts and clean cut image. Though over the last two years,The Beach Boys had been trying to break away from this image with more serious work. However, despite Brian Wilson’s achievements in Wall of Sound production and concept album format, the group was still associated with the simpler material of the past. This led to the main idea of the song, the “Surf’s Up” title, which had a double meaning suggesting that the days of the band of simple surfing and car songs was done. This song was intended to be the finale of a four-part sequence of songs, called the “Life Cycle”.

The song’s lyrics, written by Parks, detail a man who has given up on life, and one day while at an opera concert, he sees the pointlessness of the world. He is saved from total hopelessness by hearing the voice of a child, and remembering the joy of youth. When asked about the ending, Wilson said: “Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood. I heard the word of God; Wonderful thing; the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? A children’s song!”. The music was written using Wilson’s unique compositional style, complete with minor sevenths, key modulations, and unconventional melodic and harmonic progressions.  

The song was produced using the same style as many other Beach Boys songs such as “Good Vibrations”, “Heroes and Villains”, and “Cabinessence”: the modular style, which consists of short musical fragments recorded over months at different studios. “Surf’s Up” has three distinct parts: the first is a medium tempo heavily orchestrated piece, complete with jangling jewelry as percussion, the second is a slow piano ballad, with soaring double-tracked vocal from Wilson, the third is again heavily orchestrated with multiple harmonies in complex counterpoint crashing over each other until the song fades. This third segment reprises the main theme of the life cycle: “Child is Father of the Man”, a short song fragment full of interlocking harmonies.

Wilson was filmed performing the song solo that fall for the documentary “Inside Pop”, a study of rock by Leonard Bernstein and David Oppenheim. For a long time, this was the only way the public could witness the composition. This performance led to great public hype for the song at the time.

Early recording of the song took place that November, along with other songs intended for the album “SMiLE”, a sprawling concept album consisting of short modules formed into songs, with themes such as Americana and The Classical Elements, however, this album was not meant to be. It was scrapped in May 1967 after 15 troubled months of recording, and replaced with “Smiley Smile”, a much simpler work.

And that is where the story of “Surf’s Up” ended, that is, until 1969. After the troubled recording of SMiLE, Wilson had largely withdrawn from public life, and was now running a health store called The Radiant Radish. One day while there, he met Jack Rieley, a journalist and radio personality, who The Beach Boys later hired as their new manager. He suggested many ways for the band to increase their popularity, including writing more socially and politically conscious songs, and appearing with the Grateful Dead in concert. One of his suggestions was the completion of “Surf’s Up”. Though Wilson was at first skeptical, he was convinced by his brothers Dennis and Carl to let them complete the track, though he still refused to work on it.

With most of the track completed and it almost ready for release, it seemed as though it’s story was done. However, after he had said he would not help it’s recording at all, Wilson came into the studio on the last day of recording, announcing that an elaborate vocal coda must be added to the end. The announcement of “Surf’s Up” being finally released led to the album, also called “Surf’s Up, becoming the band’s best charting album in six years. Today, “Surf’s Up” is widely recognized as a masterpiece, and one of the greatest Beach Boys songs.

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