Surf's Up (song)
|Single by The Beach Boys|
|from the album Surf's Up|
|B-side||"Don't Go Near the Water"|
|Released||November 29, 1971|
|Recorded||November 4, 1966–January 23, 1967 ; June 18–July 1971|
|Studio||Sunset Sound Recorders, United Western Recorders, and Brian Wilson's home studio, Los Angeles|
|Producer(s)||The Beach Boys|
|The Beach Boys singles chronology|
"Surf's Up" is a song written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for American rock band the Beach Boys. Its title is an ironic nod to the group's earlier associations with surf music; nothing in the song is about surfing. Through its stream of consciousness lyric, the song details a man who experiences a spiritual awakening, resigns himself to God and the joy of enlightenment, and prophesies an optimistic hope for those who can capture the innocence of youth.
From 1966 to 1967, "Surf's Up" was partially recorded for the group's unfinished studio album Smile before being shelved indefinitely. After Wilson was filmed performing the song for Inside Pop, a 1967 television documentary covering the 1960s rock revolution, the composition acquired relative mystique. In 1971, the original studio recording was completed and served as the title track for the group's 17th studio album. It was also released as a single, serving as the A-side to "Don't Go Near the Water", which did not chart.
In 2016, "Surf's Up" was ranked number 122 on Pitchfork's list of the 200 best songs of the 1970s. In 2011, MOJO staff members voted it the greatest Beach Boys song. In 1967 it was acknowledged by clarinetist David Oppenheim, who called it "too complex to get the first time around...'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." Musicologist Philip Lambert named the song "the soul of Smile" for being the "sum total of its creators' most profound artistic visions" with its "perfect marriage of an eloquent lyric with music of commensurate power and depth."
Wilson has said: "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." 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."
Most of the composition was written during the summer of 1966, but it remained untitled until later in the fall. While the duo worked on the song, which still needed additional verses, Dennis Wilson showed up to a session and described how the Beach Boys had been humiliated during a recent performance in Britain, with the crowd pointing and laughing at the group's uniformed striped shirts. This incident inspired Parks to pen the lines: "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". The title of "Surf's Up" was a double entendre suggesting that The Beach Boys' earlier, simpler surfing-related material was spent. Brian was taken aback at the title "Surf's Up" because the song had absolutely nothing to do with the sport, but supported the idea. Band publicist Derek Taylor reported that both Brian and Dennis truly disdained the surf image that the Beach Boys had acquired over the years. In the 1967 article "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!", Jules Siegel wrote of Wilson's account of the song's lyrics:
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, from life. Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn The music begins to take over. Columnated ruins domino. Empires, ideas, lives, institutions; everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes. He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything. The music hall a costly bow. Then even the music is gone, turned into a trumpeter swan, into what the music really is. Canvas the town and brush the backdrop. He's off in his vision, on a trip. Reality is gone; he's creating it like a dream.
Dove-nested towers. Europe, a long time ago. The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne. The poor people in the cellar taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing. Then there's the parties, the drinking, trying to forget the wars, the battles at sea. While at port a do or die. Ships in the harbor, battling it out. A kind of Roman empire thing. 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! … Come about hard and join the once and often spring you gave. Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood. 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 the love from us, but always letting us find it 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 lyrics quote two lines from the French traditional "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 "Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs 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. Musical flourishes played on muted trumpet in the verses of "Surf's Up" are almost identical to the laugh of cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, a musical reference which later recurs within the instrumental piece "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)" on the album Smiley Smile (1967).
In 1975, Mike Love voiced appreciation of its musical form and content, which he believed goes beyond what is normally expected of commercial pop music. 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." 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."
1966–67 instrumental track
A near-complete backing track for the first (2:20) section was recorded and mixed in November 1966 under the production of Brian Wilson, 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, thus a final edit of the song was never completed. 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. However, a few rehearsals of vocal and instrumental segments were recorded.
1966 solo piano/vocal versions
Wilson was filmed at his home on December 17, 1966, performing a vocal run-through of the song on piano for a CBS News special on popular music: Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, which aired on April 25, 1967. 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. Accompanying Wilson on the program was featurettes on Los Angeles musicians Frank Zappa, Tandyn Almer, the Byrds' Jim McGuinn, members of Canned Heat, Gentle Soul, and UFO.
Referring to a different piano-vocal demo recorded in December 1966, Wilson 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." Years later he added, "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."
Wilson's performance within Inside Pop was broadcast several months later. It was the first time that a public audience would hear the song, which would not be officially released until half a decade later. The decision to keep "Surf's Up" in the vaults was reportedly, by Wilson, one that almost broke up the group.
1967 solo piano/vocal version
Wilson recorded an additional piano-vocal rehearsal at his home studio during sessions for the album Wild Honey (1967). The forgotten demo was rediscovered several decades later when Beach Boys archivists searched through the contents at the end of the multi-track for the Wild Honey track "Country Air". This version of the song starts a half step lower than all other known versions (F# minor instead of the usual G minor) and has a couple key changes that are different from all other known versions: upon reaching the second section ("Dove nested towers . . .") the key lowers yet another half step — more accurately, fails to raise a half step like other versions do — and finally the key raises a whole step at "Come about hard . . ." which returns the song to the standard key until the end. Mark Linett stated: "No explanation for why he did that and it was never taken any farther. Although I don’t think the intention was to take it any farther because it's just him singing live and playing piano."
1971 overdubs for Surf's Up album
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. In 1974, group manager Jack Rieley intimated:
We always encouraged Brian to go back into the studio more frequently. This culminated one day when I was going to Warner Bros. and I thought I would stop at Brian's house. I was going to meet [Warner boss] Mo Ostin and I said, "Brian, why don't you come with me?" Surprisingly, he said, "OK. I will. The president of Warner Bros., I don't know what I'm going to say to him." We then drove to Burbank from Bel Air. Suddenly Brian said, "Well, OK, if you're going to force me, I'll do it." I asked, "Force you to do what, Brian?" And he said, "Force me to put 'Surf's Up' on the album." I had asked him about putting 'Surf's Up' on the next album, which at that point was tentatively titled Landlocked, ... the first Beach Boys album which I was involved. I said to Brian, "Are you really going to do it?" And Brian said, "Well if you're going to force me."
At the insistence of Brian, who refused the lead vocal, 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. Although he initially "refused to work on the song" and declined lead vocal duties, as the recording process concluded, "a slightly disheveled-looking Brian, his belly hanging out of his pajamas, stormed inside... [and] announced that they needed to add something to the final movement of 'Surf's Up'"—a missing lyrical couplet and intricate vocal coda.
This 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, an addition which was recorded and double-tracked at the last minute. This new ending contains references to another Smile era track, "Child Is Father of the Man". 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. Rieley wrote that Brian "stated clearly that it was his intent all along for Child to be the tag for Surfs Up."
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. 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.
The Smile Sessions composites
|Song by The Beach Boys|
|from the album The Smile Sessions|
|Released||October 31, 2011|
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. The second version is the 1967 vocal and piano demo by Brian Wilson. Lastly is the studio-recorded 1966 solo piano/vocal demo, but remixed for stereophonic sound.
- The Beach Boys
- Al Jardine – lead, harmony and backing vocals
- Bruce Johnston – harmony and backing vocals
- Mike Love – harmony and backing vocals
- Brian Wilson – lead, harmony and backing vocals, piano
- Carl Wilson – lead, harmony and backing vocals
- Dennis Wilson – harmony and backing vocals
- Additional personnel
The Beach Boys performed the song sporadically during the early 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. It briefly returned on his 2013 tour with Jeff Beck as an instrumentalist; Beck's lead guitar replaced Wilson's vocals.. Wilson then brought the song back into his setlist in 2015 with him again taking the majority of the lead vocal. Beach Boys bandmate Al Jardine also takes the lead on the coda just as he did on the original Beach Boys release.
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