How Long Will the Wind Blow?
Brian Wilson and Surf’s Up
by Aaron Heisler – Eighteenth July 2001
Much ink has been spilled in the Brian Wilson fan and critical communities regarding the merits of Surf’s Up. That is, not the 1967 Van Dyke Parks collaboration and Smile casualty, which might be Brian’s masterpiece; rather, the aggressively difficult 1972 album of the same name has caused this debate. The Beach Boys are no strangers to critical controversy – opinions remain sharply divided regarding such diverse albums as Smiley Smile, Summer Days, and Love You – but Surf’s Up is a curious animal that has never been granted the attention it deserves. That album, which saw the abortive Landlocked as its genesis, triumphs in the face of extreme adversity and artistic division. Brian’s involvement on the album was minimal, having participated in the writing of less than one half of the record, and not participating in recording till the very end of the tracking sessions when he contributed Til I Die and rewrote Child is the Father of the Man for the title track. Brian had largely retreated from the world, content to listen in on the tracking from his upstairs bedroom. Furthermore, Dennis, whose songwriting and production marked many of the most stirring moments on the soaring Sunflower, seemed to have disappeared entirely, not contributing a single song of his own and shifting the production and vocal reigns almost entirely to Carl. The resultant album was also a broad shift away from earlier Beach Boys precedents; gone was the bracingly soulful rock classicism of Wild Honey, 20/20 and Dennis’s portions of Sunflower, the broad orchestral sweep and emotionally wrenching purity of Today, Pet Sounds, or the remainder of Sunflower, and the hauntingly mellifluous soundscapes of the unheralded masterpiece Smiley Smile and Friends. Rather, it was substituted with the more aggressive psychedelia of Smile, the troubling fragmentary metaphors of ‘Let the Wind Blow’, ‘Country Air’ and ‘Little Pad’, an obsession with grim themes and despair, and, in places, a return to Pet Sounds’s odes to lost innocence coupled with a newfound sense of social and environmental responsibility. The heady, uneasy combination of themes and styles makes Surf’s Up the most startling pop record of the seventies and, perhaps, second only to Pet Sounds as the Beach Boys’ crowning achievement as America’s most important pop band.
For the most part, on Surf’s Up the admirable songs composed by Carl contribute least to the cyclic themes, and Mike Love’s entries are similarly detached from the rest of the record. That said, Surf’s Up begins with a statement of purpose, a microcosm of the schizophrenic emotional and stylistic shifts that will take place in the rest of the record. ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’, a Jardine/Love collaboration, begins as a cloying ballad with a deceptively simple theme. However, the odd production (even for the Beach Boys), with shuddering tremolo guitars and brief synth bass stabs, pulls the listener away from the simple theme, bringing to light the true underlying theme – resignation. The weary piano bridge is the first indicator of the album’s overwhelming fatalism; the haunting vocal collage that constitutes the song’s coda only forces home the suggestion that the environment, like the band dynamic, is resigned to and destined for cataclysm. Carl Wilson’s dramatic compositional debut ‘Long Promised Road’ is ushered in by another foreboding piano harmonic, and Carl’s fatigued but soulful vocal rest on a bed of gradually intensifying tones, with the chorus recalling vaguely brother Dennis’s ‘Slip on Through’. But despite this brief detour into Carl’s psyche (we get one more glimpse in the form of ‘Feel Flows’ later on), the album quickly regains its footing in the form of ‘Take a Load off Your Feet’. On the surface a Jardine composition, this song bears tacit involvement from Brian in its themes. Since 1967 Brian had found himself interested in physical fitness; the major difference being that by 1972 he was becoming obsessed with decay and death. The deceptive innocence of this song bears evidence thereof, with something as trifling as the feet being mere placeholders for the body as a whole. Furthermore Brian’s most obvious contribution is indicative of his own feeling of isolation from society, and his need to be self-sufficient despite lacking wherewith to be so (‘Better take care of your life/Cos nobody else will’).
Thus ends the first third of Surf’s Up, with three dramatic shifts in tone already logged. The album finally begins sinking together with Bruce Johnston’s delicate ‘Disney Girls’. Boasting more depth and beauty than any Johnston composition before or since, it begins with a Pet Soundsesque collage of nostalgic imagery (‘Just in time/Words that rhyme/Well bless your soul/And I’ll fill your hands/With kisses and a Tootsie Roll’) before collapsing into the same haunted retirement from active life (‘Reality, it’s not for me…a fantasy world/and Disney girls, I’m coming back’). All this played out against a dreamy major-key backdrop contrasting against the seventh-chord atonality of the ‘old time dances’ portion drifts Surf’s Up close to the heart and somewhere in the somnambulistic portion of the soul, previously explored in ‘Caroline No’ and ‘All I Wanna Do’. Mike Love’s rewrite of ‘Riot in Cell Block Number Nine’, granted the clumsier title ‘Student Demonstration Time’ marks the fifth consecutive abrupt shift in album tone to fiery revolution. Kickstarted by a scorching lead guitar courtesy of Carl, the song was Mike’s attempt at grasping hold of social responsibility and if its lyrics date it somewhat, it remains the most pellucid statement of purpose in the socioeconomic field the band ever made, even if the rest of the group had limited support for Love’s contribution. This tension is what grants the song and its end the dynamic force it still possesses. But without much by way of warning (it fades out during its bluesy refrain) we are tossed right back into the hazy realm of jazzy psychedelia in the form of Carl’s change-of-pace ‘Feel Flows’. Smooth keyboard textures and rumbling bass butterfly the tune till it finally collapses into twin solos, with guitar and sax on the left channel and flute on the right channel. It is an apt metaphor – the tension between the ragged and the sweet forming the emotional backbone of the Surf’s Up album. Admittedly ‘Feel Flows’ is also the most indulgent moment on the album, and coupled with Jardine’s heavy-handed minor-key meandering ‘Looking at Tomorrow’ (a slightly labored plea on behalf of welfare recipients) forms perhaps the most controversial (and certainly the weakest) portion of the album.
All this is imminently repaired when the album is handed back – from a compositional standpoint – to Brian. ‘A Day in the Life of a Tree’, decried by some as silly, is in fact one of Brian’s most deeply touching compositions. Had the subject matter been literally rather than implicity about Brian’s weariness with life rather than the tree’s (selected as his analogue), and had Brian sung it rather than placing lyricist Jack Rieley in the booth because he ‘sounds like a tree’ (which seems like a gimmick, till one realizes how effective Brian’s gamble turned out), it would be regarded now as one of his very finest compositions. And even in the state it is in it still is; the haunting pipe organ washes and devastating ‘O lord I lay me down’ round a fitting welcome to Brian’s ‘Til I Die’, a simply brilliant resolution to all of the record’s central themes in the form of a shiftingly oceanic arrangement and Brian’s most elaborate harmonic experiment. Every desperate line, from the self-minimizing ‘I’m a cork on the ocean’ to the precariously hopeful ‘how long will the wind blow?’ evoke loss within ones environment, of the decay of the spirit. And even those lofty summits are surpassed by ‘Surf’s Up’ itself, which may be the greatest pop song in history, and certainly one of the most convincing after-the-fact entries of above-ground psychedelia. Beginning with a serpentine, free-associative swirl courtesy of Van Dyke Parks’s peerless lyrics presaging Brian’s collapse (‘the music hall a costly bow/the music all is lost for now/to a muted trumpeters swan’) and Brian’s minor-seventh orchestrations, it collapses into a minimally recorded, devastatingly plaintive prayer for his return (‘I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children’s song’). Prior to this point the song veiled its multiple meanings in the simultaneous play of prose, song and music, but thereafter it becomes something much vaster – sheets of voice and instrumentation surround, rhythmic voices, uniting the underground and the celestial on earth. In short, it is fine, fine music, and, its transcendence a bit too much for my pen, I shall spare you any further attempts to explain it.
With all this stunning music at its disposal and its miraculous rise from such overwhelming adversity, it is a wretched shame that the Surf’s Up album is granted such short shrift by the fan and critical community at large. It is time that this buried masterpiece is recognized as just that; its recent reissue on the same disc as Sunflower should provide a new generation of fans with the opportunity to bask in its radiant and singular glow, and perhaps permit its reappraisal by its critics. Surf’s Up grants us an invaluable snapshot of the sun-kissed California dream after the collapse of the Summer of Love, a stunning step outside the bounds of what is expected from the Beach Boys, one of the finest albums of the seventies, and a soundtrack whilst we board the tidal wave that is our day to day lives.
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