*12.18-SURF'S UP (Beach Boys)

Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks
Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks


A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand in hand some drummed along
To a handsome man and baton.

A blind class aristocracy
Back through the opera glass you see
The pit and the pendulum drawn.

     Columnated ruins domino.
     Canvas the town and brush the backdrop.
     Are you sleeping?

Hung velvet overtaken me
Dim chandelier awaken me
To a song dissolved in the dawn.

The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter's swan.

     Columnated ruins domino.
     Canvas the town and brush the backdrop.
     Are you sleeping, Brother John?

          Dove nested towers the hour was
          Strike the street quicksilver moon.
          Carriage across the fog
          Two-step to lamp light cellar tune.

               The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.

                    The glass was raised, the fire rose
                    The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting

               While at port adieu or die.

                    A choke of grief heart hardened I
                    Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry.

                         Surf's up
                         Aboard a tidal wave.
                         Come about hard and join
                         The young and often spring you gave.

                              I heard the word
                              Wonderful thing
                              A children’s song…

                                   Child is the father of the man.
                                   (A children’s song
                                   Have you heard them as them play?
                                   There’s love, there’s love
                                   And the children know the way.)

After abandoning the SMiLE project in 1967, the Beach Boys suffered a reversal of fortune. Brian Wilson seemed to have lost his nerve, and began to write sunshine pop singles like the Beach Boys recorded before the psychedelic period (though not exactly “surf music”, it was often goodtime Summer music reminiscent of their heyday) in an effort to regain popularity: Darlin (December 1967 #19 / #11 UK), Do It Again (July 1968 #20 / #1 UK), and I Can Hear Music (March 1969 #24 / #10 UK) were the most successful among them. Upon the album release of Surf’s Up, the group was having financial difficulty and had to be paid in advance. Their recording company thus put the Beach Boys under pressure to make a better selling album than their recent attempts. Luckily, during this period the other members of the group had already begun writing songs to make up for Brian Wilson’s lack of output, and so the whole project wasn’t up to him. But they knew they couldn’t draw enough interest as a retro-group.

The song Surf’s Up had been a rumored “masterpiece” since late 1966 when Brian Wilson had performed a piano version of it on TV for a Leonard Bernstein show Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. It was supposed to have been included in the SMiLE album. Even in 1971, a lot of people (including myself) had a great deal of curiosity about how the song had turned out. Unfortunately, Brian Wilson had written all the music and Van Dyke Parks had contributed all of the lyrics, but the Beach Boys had never finished recording it. By 1971 Brian Wilson was disillusioned with the song and didn’t want to touch it. But his younger brother Carl took it up and started to piece the music together from old masters he found, while adding his own touches. He overdubbed his own voice over the song’s first section and augmented the “Surf’s Up” portion of the song with vocals and Moog bass overdubs. Engineer Stephen Desper combined the last contrapuntal section, recorded by all the Beach Boys in 1966, with a lyrical couplet and newly recorded vocals by Al Jardine, speeding up the track slightly in attempt to make them sound as they had five years previous. Finally, Brian himself got involved in the song again and began to help also, adding his voice to the mix. Van Dyke Parks indicated in an interview before the release of the album that he hoped the Beach Boys would name the album Surf’s Up so that Brian could sell enough records to keep his beloved house on Bellagio in Los Angeles. [Tom Nolan: Beach Boys: A California Saga, Rolling Stone magazine, 10/ 29/1971] Appeasing the curiosity of Beach Boys fans worked—the album sold far better in the U.S. than any of their other albums since 1967.

The lyrics of the song Surf’s Up are among the densest of the psychedelic period. Brian Wilson explained them this way in an article written by Jules Siegal, Goodbye Surfing, Hello God, which appeared in 1967: “It’s a man at a concert. All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama…Empires, ideas, lives, institutions—everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes. He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything…A choke of grief at his own sorrow and the emptiness of his life, because he can’t even cry for the suffering in the world, for his own suffering. And then, hope. Surf’s up!…I heard the word—of God; Wonderful thing—the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? A children’s song! And then there’s the song itself; the song of children; the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God, hiding His love from us, but always letting us find Him again, like a mother singing to her children. Of course that’s a very intellectual explanation. But maybe sometimes you have to do an intellectual thing. If they don’t get the words, they’ll get the music, because that’s where it’s really at, in the music.” The music is also complex, built up of many melodies and time signatures. Van Dyke Parks added in the Tom Nolan’s article for the Rolling Stone magazine in 1971: “I tried to help to contribute to the idea that perhaps all music did not have to be for dancing. And perhaps dancing was not the high expression it once was.” This was music to be contemplated. But then much of psychedelic music conformed to a listening, rather than dancing, form of enjoyment.

I hear a bit of Van Dyke Parks politics (as evidenced in his album Song Cycle) in the lyrics of Surf’s Up. For one, the title flies in the face of the psychedelic attitude (voiced by Jimi Hendrix in his Third Stone from the Sun: “You will never hear surf music again!”) by including the idea of surf in an entirely different context than sunshine pop. I realize that Surf’s Up was probably written before Third Stone from the Sun, but Hendrix was only giving voice to a prevalent attitude that reflected the progress of popular music under the psychedelic aesthetic. I think Hendrix was saying that surf music was as archaic as doo-wop. But it seems Brian Wilson (and Van Dyke Parks) saw no contradiction at the time between Beach Boy’s youth as surfers and their present as intellectual artists. Another political matter was the use of the word “domino”, which in the 1960s was used to justify the Vietnam War—“the domino effect” meaning that if one country fell to Communism the whole region of countries would fall to Communist influence. Parks seems to invert this logic to sing about the fall of Western Civilization, and the need for renewal.

The renewal was to take place in children. As so often stated in the present discussion of the psychedelic lyrics [see Laughing by David Crosby for instance], and with the Beatles especially, one of the main components of the psychedelic aesthetic was to return to the fresh vision of children, a Romantic notion that had been developed by William Wordsworth. Indeed the phrase “Child is father to the man” comes from Wordsworth’s The Rainbow or My Heart Leaps Up. During the Summer of Love, for which Surf’s Up was planned for release, this childlike vision was made possible through the use of hallucinogens like LSD. But the audience was not the same as it was in 1967 and the song’s release evoked a bygone period. The same year as the release of Surf’s Up the most popular song considered art rock was Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Outside of songs written for children, like Paul McCartney's Uncle Albert, innocence and playfulness had lost their value (even if induced by hallucinogens) as motivating factors for creating music.