The Great Songs: The Beach Boys – Surf's Up

by Eric Melin on June 25, 2010

in Columns,The Great Songs

First off: If you are looking at the group name and the song title and you think this is one of The Beach Boys‘ earlier surf songs, DO NOT STOP READING THIS.

It’s not. It is, simply, one of the most beautiful and original pop songs ever recorded.

beach boys smileBy 1966, the idea of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson as just an opportunist cashing in on whatever youth craze he could latch onto started to fade, and the strange new sounds that were brought out in “Good Vibrations” were being acknowledged for their uniqueness. It didn’t hurt that the single was only the band’s third number one hit in the U.S., reaching the top of the Billboard chart in November 1966, as well as being their first British chart-topper.

Starting with the revolutionary “Good Vibrations,” which became the Beach Boys’ first million-selling single, Wilson began to perfect his “modular” recording style. This meant that Brian would assemble the song in his head and translate the sounds, instrument by instrument, to his studio band. If he wasn’t getting his point across, he would pick up the instrument and play exactly what he wanted to show the musician. He would then take over the soundboard and run the show from there, recording the song in three different parts, or what later became known as “pocket symphonies.”

Brian planned on using this approach on the entire “Smile” album, taking bits and pieces of songs and fitting them into other songs like a crossword puzzle. He had a bizarre and unique ability to hear all the parts separately, but also as one, seeing how they would fit together in the bigger picture after each section was complete. Songs were often re-written when a chorus from one would suddenly become the bridge for another. The recording studio was like its own instrument in Brian’s hands, and he was constantly bouncing, layering, and stacking tracks on top of each other to create what he termed “teenage symphonies to God.”

Amidst all this creativity, it was one night on network television in April of 1967 that helped change public perception of pop music as a cultural force.

No less a mature musical authority than classical composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein would whet a CBS viewing audience’s appetite for the already delayed “Smile” album, speaking reverently of the great leaps and bounds that the art of pop songwriting had recently undergone on a TV documentary called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. This icon of “dignified” music gave Wilson instant credibility in the eyes of non-believers when he mentioned he had “lyrics that sound like real poems.” Bernstein then introduced a clip of Brian singing and playing a heartfelt and beautiful version of an unreleased song called “Surf’s Up” at his piano, calling it “poetic; beautiful in its obscurity.”

Wilson and collaborator Van Dyke Parks thought of “Smile” as an American travelogue, as quirky a one as can be, but themes of Plymouth Rock were nestled next to more obscure lyrical phrases like the contentious “columnated ruins domino” passage from “Surf’s Up.” “Smile” drew its influences from the expanse of the American West, drawing a clear line in the sand between the Beach Boys of old and what Brian looked at as the Beach Boys of new. Although it had moments of humor, “Smile” was a serious work that transcended other rock because it operated on so many levels.

Brian made it clear to Van Dyke that there were no rules, and that the music they collaborated on could go anywhere. Parks called the period of working creatively with Wilson “heaven on earth.”

But not everybody wanted The Beach Boys to mess with the “formula.” After returning from the huge tour of the U.K. in the winter of 1966, The Beach Boys returned home to hear the instrumental tracks that had been completed, and bandmate Mike Love had strong words for the songwriters. His criticisms stung Brian deeply, and self-doubt crept in, while Parks left the project in disgust and frustration after Love asked him to explain lyrics like the passage from “Surf’s Up.”

With Love’s scorn, coupled with Brian’s advancing paranoia, a complicated legal suit the band had filed against their record label, and the impending release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” the album was decidedly scrapped. In fact, The Beatles had actually listened to some “Smile” tracks during their recording of “Sgt. Pepper,” a fact which also reportedly devastated Brian. Despite Paul McCartney’s repeated suggestions that Brian was the primary influence on The Beatles’ newest masterpiece, work was never to progress on “Smile.”

In 2004, Brian recorded a version of the album with his current solo band, but no full-length final version of the album exists.

According to Wikipedia, “A full-length version of “Surf’s Up” was eventually assembled by Carl Wilson and released on the 1971 Beach Boys album “Surf’s Up.” The 1971 track was edited together from the two major basic tracks – Carl and the group recorded new vocals over the original 1966 “Part 1″ backing track, which was edited together with the 1966 studio demo of Brian performing the second half solo on a piano, with new group vocals and additional instrumental overdubs in the closing section.”

The embedded version on top is that 1971 version. The one below is from the original session in 1966. BOTH are worth listening to. A lot.

The Great Songs Series so far:

The Great Songs: Big Star – Thirteen

The Great Songs: The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

The Great Songs: The Jayhawks – Blue

The Great Songs: Pavement – Summer Babe

The Great Songs: The Zombies – Care of Cell 44

The Great Songs: The O’Jays – Back Stabbers

The Great Songs: Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure

The Great Songs: George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

The Great Songs: Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

The Great Songs: KISS – Deuce

The Great Songs: The Flying Burrito Brothers – Hot Burrito #1

The Great Songs: The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??

The Great Songs: Pink Floyd – Astronomy Domine

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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