I have always considered Surf’s Up to be the best Beach Boys studio album of the 1970s. Surf’s Up may not have the consistent production wizardry of Sunflower nor its pleasant flowing feel but it is a better fit for the societal background against which it was released. It also has an edgier feel and tends to rock a bit more in places. Whatever you’re feelings about Sunflower vs. Surf’s Up, it would be the last consistently excellent Beach Boys studio album.
The Vietnam War and the resulting protest movement, plus the fact that Led Zeppelin and like groups were taking music far away from the Beach Boys sound and image, would cause Surf’s Up to be another commercial failure. This was a Beach Boys release that definitely deserved better from the buying public.
There are only two songs that are out of place on Surf’s Up. “Don’t Go Near The Water” and “Take Good Care Of Your Feet” both have good production but lightweight lyrics. “Don’t Go Near The Water” is a song about conservation and “Take Good Care Of Your Feet” is about health. It’s nice that some of the Beach Boys were developing a social consciousness but there were a lot more important issues around in 1971. These songs were naive and simplistic in 1971 and today are just odd relics.
Carl Wilson contributes two excellent, if somewhat depressing, songs to Surf’s Up. “Long Promised Road” features a fine lead vocal by Carl that runs counterpoint to the harmonies. It contains sophisticated lyrics about life’s struggles and perseverance and are some of the best Carl Wilson would write. “Feel Flows” has a soulful, spiritual feel to it. The vocals ride along on a combination of instruments that almost defy description.
Bruce Johnston contributed three pretty but inconsequential songs on Sunflower. Here Bruce Johnston creates the song of his career. “Disney Girls” is one of the best pop songs of all time. This is a song that transports the listener to times that have passed. It evokes an emotional response to those times. When this song was released in 1971 I would think of my childhood and adoring such Disney icons as Hayley Mills and Annette. The song has held up through the years as now two more generations can think back upon their “Disney Girls.” A laid back lead vocal by Johnston set against gentle harmonies explore a long gone world that is now only fantasy.
“Student Demonstration Time” is either a song that you love or hate. Personally, I have always liked this song. Mike Love took the music from “Riot In Cell Block Number 9” and re-wrote the words to fit the chaos of the early 70s. The Beach Boys use brass and rock a little harder than usual here.
Brian Wilson reaches back to Smile for the last three songs on the album. “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” is underpinned by a somber dirge like organ. Brian Wilson’s vocals float above harmonies as he sings about life passing by. “Til I Die” is another depressing song about death and killing of the soul, but is hidden in muted harmonies. “Surf’s Up” is a brilliant creation where a simple piano note sets up the song structure. The use of textured harmonies and lyrics only serve as another reminder of how unique a creative Smile would have been.
Surf’s Up may have been a product of its time but it continues to hold up musically 37 years later. Few albums can make that claim.