This messy little album perfectly illustrates the oddball creative dynamic within the Beach Boys: their resident genius checks in for three tracks of quirky brilliance, their resident asshole offers the worst “song” in the history of recorded sound, and the others just pick up the pieces trying to keep their dignity relatively intact. All in all, just another 70’s Beach Boys album. But Surf’s Up is an interesting one, evoking an eclectically weird vibe reminiscent of early Ween. It’s a little dark too, as the cover might suggest, but there’s lots of darkness lurking about the Beach Boys’ story: drugs, insanity, Manson. And what could possibly be more frightening than Mike Love’s hairline?
The album opens with the hackneyed “Don’t Go Near The Water,” a clumsy attempt at social commentary. Mike Love’s brand of insight essentially boils down to “bad stuff in the water is bad, man.” One could perhaps interpret this track as a comment on the state of the band itself (“Our water’s goin’ bad”), but that would probably be giving Mr Love too much credit. Carl contributes two spacey but bland songs that still manage to fit with the mood and flow of the album. I get the sense that Carl is always trying his best, staying late for practice to clean up for the team, spending hours in the batting cage, hustling out for every fly ball – but he’s still only batting .250 while his brother scores the game winning hit after stumbling in from a three day acid binge. Al Jardine contributes “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” a hazy fingerpicked tune of the sort Lennon might have written and discarded at the Maharishi’s in India; it’s not “Child Of Nature,” but it has a spooky vibe. And I even like Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls (1957),” with its stately piano chords and laconic vocal delivery that sounds like Bruce might have taken eight or nine too many Quaaludes before the session. It would be easy to make a joke about the song’s lyrics celebrating the joys of teenage girls, but Bruce is just too wimpy and earnest for that sort of thing. (Compare it with Jagger’s “Stray Cat Blues”: “I can see that you’re only fourteen years old/But I don’t want your ID” – Bruce would have delivered those lyrics with the innocent tone of ticket taker at a family theme park.)
The centerpiece of Surf’s Up is the trio of songs at its conclusion, with Brian Wilson dialing in from wherever he’d been residing to save the album from obscurity. “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” is warbled off-key by co-manager Jack Rieley, who bungles the vocal from the very first note. Everything about this song is just weird: the lyrics seem to be aiming for poignancy but are too literal and overbearing (“Trees like me weren’t meant to live if all this world can give is pollution and slow death”), while Rieley’s mangled delivery just destroys any sense of real sadness. The backing track is suitably strange as well, with the droning organ chords sustaining over the bass notes carrying the progression, along with sound effects of birds here and there. Then Rieley seems to tap out halfway through his awful performance, allowing Van Dyke Parks to chirp out the final lines. Parks has a voice so effete that one imagines a gay hobbit tweeting about the studio with the boys, probably getting hassled and insulted by Mike Love. The whole thing is just strange, but it works. Next is “‘Til I Die,” which is exquisitely produced and performed, with an artificially pleasant sheen that contrasts with the desperation of lyric. It doesn’t take much interpretative work to recognize this as a postcard from Brian’s fragile state of mind, but even without that context this is a haunting little song. The album ends with the title track, which should have been properly released on a fully configured Smile LP several years before, but such is the ways of the Beach Boys. Of course it’s a gorgeous song, played out in three sections, with Carl’s vocal reaching the high turns of the melody and the wordy lyrics followed by Brian’s piano solo section that dates from the original sessions. It’s as if these final three songs are a completely different band than the rest of the album. Weird, but compelling; oddly arranged, but melodic. The world needed more Brian Wilson in the seventies, at the height of his madness.
Finally we must address Mike Love’s “Student Demonstration Time,” an utter abomination of a “song.” It’s beyond bad, it’s abysmal. Painful. It’s not just the offensive tone of the lyrics, which seem to gleefully recall the Kent State murders and other such lighthearted fare for the sake of the hacky rhyme scheme, and it’s not just the music itself, which borrows an old fifties tune of the simplest of “rock” music. It’s really Mike Love’s delivery, which is so confident and assured as he sings his shoehorned rhymes (“univer-si-ty”) through a cheap megaphone, complete with siren sound effects. Classy. There’s no musical talent, no insight, no humor, nothing. It’s just bad, vomitously bad.
The real tragedy is that the song left off of the album, Dennis’s “Fourth Of July,” would have perfectly fit the haunting mood and perhaps propelled this album to the status of minor classic. Dennis quietly wrote a good share of the Beach Boys’ best songs of this period (except for “Forever,” which we all know was written by John Stamos) and this elegiac hymn to a desperately hopeful sort of national pride seems to capture the mood of the times. Too bad there wasn’t any space left on this album. Did I mention “Student Demonstration Time”?