Beach Boys, circa 1971
In service of my gradual and ongoing rediscovery/appreciation of the Beach Boys, I bring you couple of stellar tracks from one of their later albums.
I’ve discussed my feelings about the Beach Boys to a limited extent in the past.
I have owned their albums since I first started buying records as a teenager, having worn out a copy of the old 2-LP ‘Endless Summer’ set back in the day.
Flash forward a decade, and I’m experiencing a knee-jerk reaction to the ‘Brian Wilson’s a genius’ wave that was around on the periphery of the garage/mod/60s scene.
My (uneducated) opinion at the time was, ‘Sure, I dig the Beach Boys, but genius? Really? In a world where the Beatles exist?”
I can chalk up my failure to dig the vastness and brilliance of Wilson’s oeuvre entirely to a combination of ignorance (I hadn’t listened to any of the full albums from ‘Pet Sounds’ on) and undeveloped sensibilities, i.e. my ears/brain were not yet attuned to a more sophisticated variety of pop music.
That is a problem I’ve grappled with my entire adult life. Fortunately, the older I get, the more open I’ve become to experimentation, especially with music.
In the case of Brian Wilson, and the later Beach Boys, that openness has been richly rewarded.
This can all be laid at the feet of Brian Wilson.
One of the great musical tragedies of the 1960s, is the area where the creative flowering, and the psychological dissolution of Brian Wilson intersect.
Just as he was reaching his creative peak, pushing the band into unexplored territory, he was crumbling.
The only good thing about this, is that even though Brian fell into the background, the Beach Boys, especially Carl Wilson picked up the slack.
Recorded (for the most part) in 1970 and early 1971 (it was released in the summer of ’71), the ‘Surf’s Up’ album was another in a string of less than successful outings by the band.
They hadn’t had a hit single since 1968’s ‘Do It Again’ (from 20/20), and their LPs hadn’t been doing that well, either.
Fortunately for us, they were still managing to make quality music.
‘Surf’s Up’, named for the long-dormant ‘Smile’-era Wilson/Van Dyke Parks collaboration that would be finally be completed for the album (using the original 1966 tracks), was the first Beach Boys LP after manager/collaborator Jack Rieley came on board.
Though I’d heard of the album, I hadn’t actually heard any of it before I encountered ‘Feel Flows’ on the soundtrack to the 2000 film ‘Almost Famous’.
The track blew me away, not only because it was an amazing (new to me) Beach Boys track, but because – like the sounds on 1968’s ‘Friends’ LP – it revealed to me how much of the contemporary music I was digging had been influenced by this era of the Beach Boys catalog.
It would be all but impossible not to see the influence of this period of the Beach Boys in the sounds of groups like the Sneetches, Stereolab, High Llamas and Eric Matthews, all of which were in heavy rotation in my ears.
The three tracks I’m including today all hail from the second side of the ‘Surf’s Up’ album, and all feature Carl Wilson as lead (or co-lead) vocalist.
‘Feel Flows’ starts out in a poppy, upbeat vibe, but fairly quickly turns into something different, mixing group harmony, psychedelia and even jazz (Charles Lloyd on flute), with some very cool, distorted lead guitar weaving in and out of the mix.
‘Til I Die’ is one of the most beautiful things that Brian Wilson ever wrote. A kind of existential meditation, wrapped in waves of stunning harmonies, the instruments are almost invisible behind the wall of voices. This is one of those songs that has to be appreciated through headphones, repeatedly, to pick up on all the layers.
‘Surf’s Up’ is one of the most interesting chapters in the creative saga of Brian Wilson.
Begun in 1966 for the ‘Smile’ sessions, with lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, the song is a beautiful, impressionistic, poetic work, in which Wilson manages to shake off the Spector-isms of his 1966/67 epics while retaining all the sophistication and beauty of the song.
As in ‘Til I Die’, ‘Surf’s Up’ sees the voices coming to the fore, with the instrumentation painting the background. Through the just over four minutes of the song, only the piano in the middle section really makes a statement over the harmonies.
It really is quite spectacular and improves with repeated listening.
If you haven’t found your way into this era of the Beach Boys, you really ought to give it a try. It took me a while to track down an original copy of ‘Surf’s Up’ (the late 60s/early 70s BB LPs didn’t sell well in the US), but you can grab it all inexpensively in iTunes.
I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll see you all next week.