album from 1971 - their second for Warner Bros.
records (in the US, and their last for EMI-Stateside in the UK), and the start of their commercial and critical resurgence in the USA.
Originally an album called Landlocked, Van Dyke Parks, then working for Warners, asked the band to include the title track to improve the album - a wise decision as it gave the album shape and made it one of their best.
Strangely, given his prominence on the albums immediately before and after this, Dennis Wilson makes no real contribution. Carl Wilson however writes his first two songs for the band, Al Jardine also writes without Brian for the first time, and Bruce Johnston adds his best song, Disney Girls (1957). However, the album's style seems dominated by then-manager Jack Rieley - effectively a seventh member at this point, he suggested the environmental theme, wrote the lyrics to Feel Flows, Long Promised Road and A Day In The Life Of A Tree and took lead vocals on the latter.
Within a year Rieley's influence would have caused Johnston to quit the band, but for now, the entire band were working together like never before or since.
In some ways the album is a white harmony pop counterpart to Marvin Gaye's contemporaneous What's Goin' On, and is slowly coming to be recognised as the equal of that masterpiece.
Don't Go Near The Water, the album's opener, is probably the weakest track on the album. Written by Jardine and Love, it sets out the album's environmental theme, and has some nice moog and harmonies, but is hamstrung by weak lines like 'toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubblebath/so let's avoid an ecological aftermath'
Long Promised Road is Carl Wilson's first song, and some would say his best. The rather incomprehensible lyrics by Rieley manage to sound good, over a meditative verse and uptempo R&B chorus. When Carl Wilson toured solo in the early 80s, this was the only Beah Boys song he played.
Take A Load Off Your Feet is a half-finished Brian song completed by Jardine. It's about taking care of your feet. Not the greatest song ever written...
Disney Girls (1957) Bruce Johnston's greatest song is a wonderful (albeit over-lush) nostalgic ballad about growing up in the 50s. A truly beautiful little melody managess to overcome even lyrics like 'she's really swell 'cos she likes church, bingo chances and old-time dances'.
Student Demonstration Time is a rewrite by Love of the classic Riot In Cell Block #9. The original was better, but this is still worth listening to just to hear Love, whose politics are closest to DMan, try to sound 'relevant' to 1971.
Feel Flows, which opens side 2, is another Carl Wilson/Rieley song. It's basically Long Promised Road without the chorus, and the flute solo is too long, but it's still a nice track. As recently featured on the soundtrack to Almost Famous.
Looking At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song) is Al Jardine thinking he's Bob Dylan. He isn't.
A Day In The Life Of A Tree is... odd. by Brian Wilson and Rieley, and with Rieley singing, it may be a joke, or it may be an attempt to use the destruction of the environment as a metaphor for Wilson's failing mental health. Strangely, it works both ways. Van Dyke Parks sings backup on the tag
Til I Die is covered in more detail at that node. Suffice to say, this track is the proof of the claim made in Doonesbury that Brian Wilson is god.
Surf's Up, the title track, dates from the Smile era and is simply the greatest song ever written. The backing track to the first half is the original Smile track, with new lead vocals by Carl Wilson. The second half is Brian Wilson's demo for a TV show, dating from 1966, and then it fades with a rerecorded version of a different Smile track, Child Is Father Of The Man. Despite this patchwork recording technique, the track is still a masterpiece on the order of A Day In The Life, and remains the greatest work both of Wilson and of lyricist Van Dyke Parks.
Currently available on Capitol Records as a twofer with Sunflower
Previous album - Sunflower
Next album - Carl & The Passions (So Tough)
Band line-up Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston