Surf's Up (song)

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"Surf's Up"
Single by The Beach Boys
from the album Surf's Up
B-side "Don't Go Near the Water"
Released November 8, 1971
Format Vinyl
Recorded 1966; 1971
Genre Baroque pop, progressive rock[1]
Length 4:12
Label Brother/Reprise
Writer(s) Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks
Producer(s) The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys singles chronology
"Long Promised Road"/"'Til I Die"
"Surf's Up"
"You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone"
Surf's Up track listing

"Surf's Up" is a song written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, and recorded by a variety of artists.

The song was intended as one of the centrepieces for the aborted Beach Boys album Smile, which was begun in late 1966 but shelved in mid-1967. It was subsequently reworked and used as the title track for the twenty-second official album by The Beach Boys, Surf's Up, released in 1971, and then released again in alternate form for the 2011 The Smile Sessions box set.

It also appears as the tenth track of Brian Wilson Presents Smile released in 2004.


Brian has said that "the lyrics for 'Surf's Up' were very Van Dyke; only he could have done that – only Van Dyke could have written those lyrics. We wrote that at my Chickering piano, I think, in my sandbox and it took us about an hour at most to write the whole thing. We wrote it pretty fast; it all happened like it should."[2] When asked by Van Dyke Parks what Wilson was feeling when he wrote the music for "Surf's Up," he responded with, "I just felt some love, I felt a whole lot of love, there was a whole lot of love going on at the time." In 1966, Wilson elaborated on every lyric of the song in great detail to journalist Jules Siegel:

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.[3]

The title of "Surf's Up" was a double entendre suggesting that The Beach Boys' earlier, simpler surfing-related material was now "finished." The song is noted for quoting the two lines from the French song "Frere Jacque" and the title of the Scottish song "Auld Lang Syne". Another reference point was the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the lyric phrase "While at port adieu or die" is word play alluding to "Their’s not to make reply, / Their’s not to reason why, / Their’s but to do and die". The lyric "canvass the town and brush the backdrop" may be a reference to the term "paint the town red," originating from the story of Henry Beresford. "The diamond necklace played the pawn" is a reference to the French short story "The Necklace", published in 1884 by Guy de Maupassant. In 1971, Van Dyke Parks said of the song title:

When I was in their picture everything was whirling in a big flux. "Wilder women!" we were calling. "Madder wine!" And I came up with that title, it was so simple, in the context of the excitement it seemed obvious: "Surf's Up." I also 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.[4]


Original Smile tracks[edit]

Brian Wilson as he appeared in December 1966 performing "Surf's Up" on Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.

An apparently complete backing track for the first (2:20) section was recorded and mixed in November 1966, but vocals and other overdubs were still to be added, and work on the middle and closing sections was either never undertaken, or never finished. It is notable that the flourishes played on muted trumpet in the verses of "Surf's Up" are almost identical to the familiar 'laughing' refrain of the theme for the Woody Woodpecker cartoon series. This musical reference recurs in the instrumental piece "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)" on the album Smiley Smile.

The song was certainly fully composed by November 1966, when Brian Wilson was filmed performing a complete 'demo' solo version of the song on piano for a CBS News special on popular music. The show was hosted by Leonard Bernstein, but it was the show's producer, David Oppenheim, who expressed his admiration for the song through voice-over, describing it as "poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity. 'Surf's Up' is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future."

The original studio recording of the song was never completed. A near-complete backing track for the first section was recorded in late 1966 and early 1967 under the production of Brian Wilson. Other vocal and instrumental segments were also recorded, but a final edit was apparently never made.

Reportedly, Wilson recalled he intended the second section of the song to have string orchestrations, but it's uncertain whether they were ever recorded in 1966. It's also possible that the tapes were stolen.[5] A piano demo recorded by Wilson in December 1966 was later released in its entirety on The Beach Boys 1993 box set release Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys and again in 2011 for The Smile Sessions.

1967 solo piano version[edit]

Brian Wilson recorded another solo piano performance of the song at his home studio during sessions for the Wild Honey album. This forgotten demo was found recently by accident while searching through the contents of tape reels, specifically at the end of the multi-track for "Country Air".[citation needed] For this demo, Wilson transposed the song one semi-tone lower and played it on a specially tuned honky-tonk piano. Besides these differences, the performance is identical to other versions.

1971 overdubs for Surf's Up album[edit]

A later composite version of the song was completed by the Beach Boys under the supervision of Carl Wilson in 1971. The song was credited as being produced by The Beach Boys, though most of the production for the new instrumental sections of the song was done by Carl.

The first section featured a new lead vocal by Carl dubbed over the original 1966 backing track, as well as additional instrumentation.

The second section featured mainly Brian's double-tracked vocal and piano from the December 1966 demo recording, plus new vocal and instrumental overdubs by the other Beach Boys.

Despite refusing the lead vocal, the new ending of the 1971 version was entirely Brian's work. The third section combined the ending of Brian's demo with newly recorded vocals and other additions, with the closing lead vocal sung by Al Jardine. This new ending was based on another Smile era track, "Child Is Father of the Man". It is unknown whether the song was originally to end this way or if it was improvised by Brian. An additional line to this section, "The father's life is done, and the children carry on," was written but was removed at Brian's request.[citation needed]

The newly finished song was released as a single and also appeared on the 1971 album of the same name, Surf's Up. The B-side of the single was "Don't Go Near the Water".

Other releases[edit]

A Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound version of the song was released on the Endless Harmony DVD as a bonus track. The track, along with the other 5.1 surround sound mixes, were produced and mixed by Mark Linett.

The Smile Sessions composites[edit]

"Surf's Up"
Song by The Beach Boys from the album The Smile Sessions
Released October 31, 2011
Label Capitol
Producer Brian Wilson
The Smile Sessions track listing

The Smile Sessions features three different vocal versions of "Surf's Up" among several instrumental session highlights.

The first is a digital mashup of Brian Wilson's vocal track for his 1966 piano demo interspersed with the 1966 instrumental and 1971 backing vocals. In this version, Carl Wilson's 1971 lead vocal is also used to fill in a brief call-and-response gap left by the 1966 Brian Wilson vocal. This gap was originally meant to be filled by an instrumental overdub of some kind, but it was never recorded.[citation needed] The second version is the 1967 vocal and piano demo by Brian Wilson. Lastly is the most famously known 1966 solo piano/vocal demo, but remixed for stereophonic sound.


The Beach Boys

Live performances[edit]

The Beach Boys performed the song regularly during the early to mid-1970s with Carl Wilson performing lead vocals.

The 2004 version of "Surf's Up" on Brian Wilson Presents Smile has a musical arrangement similar to the 1971 release. The vocal arrangement is slightly altered for the highest parts. This melody runs a full octave plus a minor third, sweeping up a minor sixth (five whole steps) at one point, and peaking at the second F above Middle C. As Brian was then 62, with a naturally reduced vocal range, the part was rearranged for harmonies allowing Wilson to sing a lower part. In the concert performances, this approach was used many other times during the Smile material, with his backup singers doubling many of his parts in unison (similar to the recording technique of doubletracking), blending in and taking over for the high parts that were more difficult for Wilson to reach on stage than in the studio.

The song was absent from Wilson's live sets following his Smile tour. However on his 2013 tour with Jeff Beck the song returned to the set, however it was performed as an instrumental with Beck's lead guitar replacing Wilson's vocal as Wilson is no longer able to sing the song and it's high parts.

Tributes and acknowledgements[edit]

Van Dyke Parks, who writes pretentious words, messed Brian up in 1967, particularly on the album Smiley Smile. The title track of "Surf's Up" was written by Van Dyke Parks around that period, and Brian sat on it until now... Its delicacy is close to Pet Sounds, released in 1966, especially to "You Still Believe in Me" and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" on that album. Its subtle shifts of pace and timing, and delicate harmony singing, put it in the top flight of Beach Boys' numbers.

The Guardian, October 1971[6]

On An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson (2001), a cover version was made by David Crosby, Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb. Gill sang the first part, Webb & Gill sang the second, and David Crosby sang the coda in an extended version.

In 1975 Mike Love voiced appreciation of its musical form and content, adding "it has to be listened not in the context of what's number one this week, but as an extremely unique piece of music; something which is highly individual."[7] He has said of Parks' lyrics "I appreciate them for their artistry. It's like if you were to go to a modern art museum... maybe you don't understand [the art], but you can appreciate that it's beautiful."[8]

Al Jardine stated in 2007, "'Surf’s Up' is just beyond description.…It’s just one of those extraordinary compositions that along with Van Dyke’s somewhat arcane lyrics…bring together more of a tapestry…of music and lyric that just transcend meaning. And I just find it extremely deep musically."[8]

Brian Wilson, referring to his piano demo, would comment "Surf’s Up’? Ahh... Atrocious! I’m embarrassed... totally embarrassed. That was a piece of shit. Vocally it was a piece of shit. I was the wrong singer for it in the first place."[9] Years later adding, "The vocal on that [Surf's Up] was a little bit limited. It's not my favorite vocal I ever did, but it did have heart."[10]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Brian Wilson: Beautiful Dreamer
  3. ^ Siegel, Jules (1967). Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!. 
  4. ^ Nolan, Tom (October 28, 1971). "The Beach Boys: A California Saga". Rolling Stone. 
  5. ^ Bell, Matt (October 2004). "The Resurrection of Brian Wilson's Smile". Sound on Sound. Retrieved 16 July 2013. 
  6. ^ Cannon, Geoffrey. "Feature: Out of the city". The Guardian (Guardian Media Group) (October 29, 1971): 10. 
  7. ^ Cohen, Scott (January 1975). "Beach Boys: Mike Love, Carl Wilson Hang Ten On Surfin', Cruisin' And Harmonies". Circus Raves. p. 27. 
  8. ^ a b Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine (June 26, 2007). "The Warmth of the Sun: Episode 8" (Podcast). The Beach Boys. 
  9. ^ Brian Wilson (BBC Radio 1 "Smile" special 8/13/95)
  10. ^ 2000 Sunflower/Surf’s Up liner notes

External links[edit]