Song of the Week 54: Surf’s Up (Wilson/Parks) – The Beach Boys

Smile - The Beach Boys (LP cover)


“We heard about Smile being made at the time in the 60’s, and we were so excited we were waiting for it. Rumours were it was great. But we never heard anything. And it was coming out and we were waiting for it, but it never happened. We waited in vain.”

George Martin (Beatles producer)

Feels a bit like writing this song of the “week” sometimes. I started this one three weeks ago. But where do you start when writing about the Smile project, and where do you finish?

“When I was a baby, I used to listen to Rhapsody in Blue, that’s when it (music) first started coming in my soul was Rhapsody in Blue.”

Brian Wilson

BrianWilson in the studio

Today I’m going to go through one of the great rock n roll lost album stories with one more of its lost souls. “Brian’s back” once again in the land of the living after spending a decade or two in bed after retreating from the public eye. Back surfing if you will, although he never surfed in the first place.

The term genius is bandied about a lot, and there is also much bandying about of the fact that it is bandied about, but for me genius in art is the ability to express oneself freely and to communicate what you feel inside without compromise. Or something like that. Hell, I don’t know.

“We were on such a creative run I almost got dizzy.” Brian

The dictionary says: “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.” Yep, that fits. This guy is a genius.

“I’m not a genius, I’m just a hardworking guy.”

Okay then Brian, well maybe not then. But everyone else seems to disagree

I think you’ve got to prove it. No use being a genius who sits on a couch. Although he did plenty of that later on. The psychiatrist’s couch for one.

“One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius” Simone de Beauvoir

Here I go dancing about architecture once again. I could do with some music right about now…

Goodbye surfing, hello God.

Brian described Smile as a “teenager’s symphony to God”. The album was in part a spiritual journey. He wanted to write songs that people would pray to. The first song on the album Smile would have been the a cappella harmony Our Prayer, was just that. Pure unadulterated heartbreaking beauty.

… which is a good place to start. For the album I mean. I’ve already started. You may have noticed.

In SOTW24 I talked about my favourite song Strawberry Fields Forever and I mentioned the great unfinished album Smile by The Beach Boys, about how stay-at-home songwriter Brian Wilson pulled over his car on hearing the song and more or less decided to abandon the ambitious project he was working on under pressure from his record company, and some of his bandmates. One in particular.

Today’s Song of the Week and the other songs that would have been on the unfinished album Smile were a great inspiration for me personally, as they were for subsequent generations of songwriters, especially when bootlegs started to appear in the 80s and 90s. Because the album was never released, it was an underground type of thing, a hidden treasure just waiting to be discovered.

Van Dyke Parks: “On Surf’s Up, what were you feeling when you wrote the music? Do you know?”

Brian Wilson: “I was feeling some love; a little bit of love, and I felt you, you were there. And eh… I just felt some love. I felt a whole lot of love.”

VDP: “Well, it shows. It’s just very romantic music.

BW: “There was just a whole lot of love going on at that time.”

In my early 20s I tried to piece songs and snippets together to make my own version of the album. I listened to all the later albums containing reworked tracks, and lined them up with the versions of Smile period songs, Surf’s Up, Cool Cool Water, Cabinessence, Heroes and Villains, Wind Chimes, Wonderful, Vegetables and all the others. Plenty of other “music nerds” did the same thing. It was like a musical jigsaw puzzle, with a couple of pieces missing. 

The fact that the album was never finished was almost as inspiring for me as it was to hear Revolver, Sgt Peppers and The White Album. Like Strawberry Fields Forever, the essence of which, for Lennon, was never captured, Smile inhabits that space in the mind for what’s possible with music.

It’s like the Daedalus and Icarus myth of aiming for perfection, and getting burned, but still, just aiming for the skies points the way up there for others to follow. And you’ll be happy to know, Daedalus, that we made it to the moon, and back. Icarus didn’t get much of a say, but he was a willing astronaut. Something of a “dumb angel” you might say. Next time how about creating those wings out of fireproof material? And this time, go yourself unless you have another son to spare. But nobody’s quite made it to where Brian Wilson was heading in my opinion. He built the wings and flew. He didn’t have time to check if they were fire-proof. And on the subject of Fire… we’ll come back to that.

I ate up all the morsels of Smile, the crazy playful lyrics, the way the songs segued into each other, the musical snippets reappearing, sounding like classical music, the sheer ambition of the project and the fact that he was so close, why did he just give up? For one thing, he didn’t have the support of those around him.

The fact that the released version wasn’t quite what I had in my mind means it’s still possible as an idea at least. It sets the mind a reeling. To quote Patti Smith (who I’ll return to one of these days): “Out there is a sea of possibilities… Seize the possibilities.”

When you’re a young writer, it feels like anything is possible, and sometimes it is. The imagination doesn’t have limitations. If you can conceive of something, you can do it. “All the young dudes carry the news.”  like Bowie said. There’s a rebelliousness, a refusal to follow the rules. The envelope isn’t just pushed. It’s torn open. And Brian Wilson was doing that.

Beethoven didn’t have to put up with the kind of shit Brian had to put up with. Although he was deaf in both ears, Brian still had one good ear. The Beatles had each other to fall back on. They had George Martin and Brian Epstein to protect them from the money men who didn’t have a clue, who would have preferred to keep them singing “Love me Do” and “I wanna hold your hand”.

Over on the West Coast of America, Brian was running the show, it was all in his head. And he was doing it. He was succeeding, but then one day, the circus performers all quit, and the ringleader decided enough was enough. The tent got taken down and the circus left town. And there was actually a tent. I’ll come back to that too.

40 years after abandoning the album, with a lot of help and support from Darian Sahanaja, The Wondermints and Van Dyke Parks, Brian finally premiered a version of Smile in a series of concerts in the Royal Festival Hall in London, and inspired by that decided to record the album. Two of my friends from the band I was in at the time, The Lights, booked our flights to London to attend it. After the concert, scores of strangers were singing the most obscure lyrics you could imagine in the halls, and everyone knew them off by heart. It was like a Music Nerd Elysium. 🙂 All Greek myths today folks. An example of some of those esoteric lyrics…

“The diamond necklace played the pawn,

Hand in hand some drummed along, oh

To a handsome mannered baton

A blind class aristocracy

Back through the opera glass you’ll see

The pit and the pendulum drawn

Columnated ruins domino”

Come again?

All Greek to me. The show was wonderful, grown men were literally crying in the aisles hearing this long lost album for the first time, and the resulting album by Brian Wilson was wonderful to hear. It wasn’t necessarily what Smile would have been like had it appeared in the 60’s, and Brian’s voice wasn’t what it was, but it was Smile, albeit a new version, but there it was all together. Wow.

Still I yearned for the quality of the originals when Brian was at his peak. And production methods these days are not quite what they were in the 60s in spite of the limited technology they could use. Less is sometimes more. Nothing ever quite matches the imagination anyway, but he came damn close.

In late 2011, The Beach Boys released a box set of The Smile Sessions, and hearing the songs recorded in studio quality for the first time was a revelation. There is still other stuff that isn’t on that box set. There are little gems on youtube, on bootlegs. I recommend doing a bit of a youtube Odyssey to find out what’s out there. God bless the Information Age.

Brian Wilson is all music. He eats, sleeps and breathes music. I don’t think he’s half as comfortable with words. Or with people he doesn’t know. He isn’t the easiest to interview for one thing. Often giving monosyllabic answers. It’s interesting that the original title for Smile was “Dumb Angel”. But who needs words when you can write such beautiful music. We’ll get to the words later.

The early Beach Boys music was all surfing, cars, girls; all the things fun loving young guys in California got off on. Mike Love was writing most of the lyrics back then and they served a purpose, they sold records. When people think of The Beach Boys, this early stuff is generally what they think of. There are some great songs in the early period, and hints of what would come. Brian’s input lyrically was often on the melancholic side. Surfer Girl, The Warmth of the Sun, In My Room, Don’t Worry Baby. It wasn’t gonna sell records. Mike Love put a more upbeat slant on things and wrote some great lyrics here and there, but as Brian’s music became more complex, he felt the need to work with other lyric-smiths.

The first radical departure from the Beach Boys sound came on Pet Sounds. There had been hints of what would come on the previous two albums; the symphonic opening of California Girls for one, which incidentally came from when Brian first started smoking pot and taking LSD. As with The Beatles, the influence of those drugs changed his mindset. The Beatles mostly did not write or record under the influence, although drugs did influence their music, Likewise, after taking LSD for the first time, there was a sea-change in Brian’s world view. A whole new world of possibilities opened up.

Brian ran up to his bedroom after taking LSD for the first time put his head under the pillow and shouted “I’m afraid of my mom, I’m afraid of my dad!” No surprise there, it’s rumoured that his dad (the original manager of the Beach Boys) had hit him so hard at a child that he went deaf in one ear.

As for the other ear, Bob Dylan famously exclaimed “Brian Wilson… that ear… Jesus, he’s got to will that to The Smithsonian.”

Sometime later, Wilson sat at the piano still under the influence of the drug and started to play the B F# G# F# bass pattern over and over for about a half an hour until the whole rest of the song came to him.

“I believe that that trip changed everything in Brian’s life, and it did not make him crazy and he began to write all the best songs in his career from that point. Good Vibrations, Pet Sounds. All it just emerged from there.”

“He described waving staffs of music through the air like Walt Disney, with notes on the staff.” Loren Daro,Brian’s friend

“Yeah, I used to see notes, I used to visualize notes on paper, with my mind, and then after I’d visualize them, I write it down verbatim as I saw it in my mind.” Brian

Some, like Bill Tobelman believe that the Smile album would have contained coded references to his experiments with cannabis, lysergic acid diethylamide and the barbituate desbutal. The track Love to Say Dada, allegedly used the LSD acronym before Lennon allegedly used it on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, allegedly. 🙂 Tobelman also claims that interest in Zen riddles and absurd humour inspired the comedic aspects to liberate awareness from the mind, and that Smile as a whole can be interpreted as a Zen Koan.

“I had what is called a “toehold.” I got that from a book called A Toehold on Zen [published 1962]. I learned from that book and from people who had a toehold on… say somebody had a grasp on life, a good grasp—they ought to be able to transfer that over to another thing.” Brian in 1988 asked whether his music was religiously influenced.

Although he had claimed he was trying to make a new “white spiritual sound” with music that people could pray to, he denied it was overly religiously influenced in 2004.

More recent interviews show Wilson was an avid follower of the psychedelic movement of the time and that he anticipated that Smile would be the major Pop Art statement on psychedelia of the time, something along the lines of the cultural and musical impact the Sgt Peppers album ended up having. Hence his reaction to hearing Strawberry Fields Forever for the first time.

Brian also believed that psychotropics were very closely linked with spirituality, and he held his own experiences under those substances to be “very religious”. He said that psychedelc movement would cover the world and colour the music scene in 1966, and that turned out to be prophetic.

“Brian was soaking it up, learning, talking. He’d wanna know why, how, just endlessly curious. Like any great mind, it’s all just curiosity.” Loren Daro

We’ll come back to to Smile in a bit. First, a bit more on Pet Sounds.

“I smoked some marijuana and listened to Rubber Soul, and Norwegian Wood and Michelle and all these songs, and it just blew my mind. It just totally took my mind away. I thought to myself, they’re so good I feel competitive about this. I said I wanna do something good like Rubber Soul.” Brian

Pet Sounds came next, with lyric writer Tony Asher on board, which was a major departure from the old surf music template (a cover with the Beach Boys feeding Llamas should tell you that if nothing else), the other Beach Boys didn’t like the music at first. For Brian it was “a notch up in creativity.” Mike Love in particular was worried about excluding their fan base. The record company were confused, and didn’t market the album.

“Record Companies never want to take risks, they want to repeat the formula. And good artists don’t do that. Good artists look for something new every time, and try and build on what they had before. So you don’t listen to record companies and you don’t listen to frightened members of the band.” George Martin

Good Vibrations came next, the groups first million seller. Brian spent 6 months and spent a small fortune making the “perfect record”. He was experimenting with the recording process working with members of The Wrecking Crew, session musicians who played on many of the great records of the 60’s.

The phrase “pocket symphony” was coined for that song, which was recorded in pieces and stuck together in his new modular method of recording and writing.

Brian blew even The Beatles out of the water with that record, scored a number 1 hit, and the success of that single gave Brian confidence and a license from the record company to continue moving in the same experimental direction.

“If Pet Sounds was his ‘blue period’, Smile would have been his ‘cubist period’. It would have been that radical a move from one form of art to another, and would have influenced I think music at that time as much as Picasso’s cubist period influenced art.” David Anderle, friend of Brian’s and record producer

Smile was to be the summation of Brian’s intellectual leanings and his interest in self awareness, nature, exercise, American history, psychedelia. It was to be his cubist period, but he needed help to tie it all together. And if you want to make modern art music, it makes sense to have a modern art lyric writer.


“I met him at Terry Melcher’s house in 1965. He and I talked for a couple of hours, and I said you know I’ve never met anyone like you who’s so good with words… I said, by any chance do you have a lyrical ability?” Brian Wilson

“I was startled that he suggested I write lyrics for him. I have no idea why I had that opportunity, but I think it was just Brian’s instinct.” Van Dyke Parks

The first thing they did together was Heroes and Villains, which was to be one of the centerpieces of the album. The words and the music just flowed out and they wrote the song in minutes.

Sometimes when two musicians or collaborators get together the combination results in a third thing, a new sound, that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Something seemingly outside the two takes over. Brian felt his hands were being controlled by Van Dyke’s lyrics. Van Dyke said he never felt more out of control, but they both got pulled along by the stream of consciousness wave. For me the best music just flows. It shapes itself.

“It was simple, straight forward, uncomplicated, collaborative heaven… heaven on earth.” Van Dyke Parks

Brian was the golden child of his generation in America. Everybody was waiting to see what he’d do next. Serious music critics had been bowled over by Pet Sounds, and the noises coming from those who had listened to the sessions for Smile  were that this was a whole other level.

“There’s a continuum that goes George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson.” Elvis Costello

“I didn’t think there were any limits to what he could do. I thought he was going to make the first true pop symphony.” David Anderle

“Canvass the town and brush the backdrop, are you sleeping Brother John?”

“Brian was dealing in very cosmic thought processes. I’ve never been able to really put it into words, but he thought in a very large canvas, and it didn’t have any rules, and it didn’t have any specific dimensions… It was very much a universe the way he would think about things. He would just go…” David Anderle

He had big ideas. And he was painting with the studio, with the combination of instruments. That’s what it means to be a visionary. Think big goddammit! As big as you like. The bigger the better. I once had a dream of a giant dragon made of cloud being held up on a string like a balloon. If any of you are psychiatrists, I would be interested to know what it means. Ha ha. Seriously though…

The song wants you to write it. The ideas swell up. They inhabit a space in your mind and they deserve the grand treatment. Each one is its own little world. Brian knew how to achieve that, and he had the wherewithal to do it, the musicians to help him fulfill that dream. Building sandcastles in the sky. It’s a beautiful thing. Songs come out of nothing. Out of the ether. But if you breathe in too much of that ether, you may become lightheaded. I could probably fit at least one more metaphor in there, but I’ll leave it. 🙂

“Hung velvet overtaken me
Dim chandelier awaken me
To a song dissolved in the dawn…”

The album was called Smile, and having a sense of humour was very important to Brian. He wanted people to laugh, because he felt that we can’t control ourselves when they laugh and forget our problems. He wanted to wake people up to their true nature. It can be something of a spiritual moment when you laugh, because the ego isn’t running the show. It’s a little bit like the Zen Buddhist riddles that momentarily confuse the listener, or the ego, so that they forget themselves for an instant and just exist in the now.

The track Heroes and Villains was to be full of musical jokes and comic interludes. For the track Farmyard he convinced his friends to do animal noises. Vegetables famously had Paul McCartney popping by to say hello and then munching on aor a stick of celery for percussion. Very talented is Paul. Multi-instrumentalist.

As he had done with Good Vibrations, Brian started to use the studio as an instrument. Taking his lead from his musical hero Phil Spector, Brian combined instruments to create a third sound innovative techniques for percussion, but he was a level up in complexity from Spector. There was a sophistication to his harmonies and chord progressions. He was making it up as he went along, but he knew exactly what he wanted, and what he didn’t want.

Years of coming up with harmonies for his brothers Dennis and Carl and his cousin Mike, years of dissecting The Four Freshmen’s harmonies and early rock and roll. He was boundlessly enthusiastic about music.

He said when Spector invited him to his Wall of Sound studio, and was showing him how he got this sound, but Wilson was already way ahead of him. He’d figured it all out by listening to the records. His one good ear was like a radar for sound. On this he was a step up from The Beatles. John and Paul had each other to bounce ideas off, and George Martin to put them into practice. Brian was doing everything himself, which later “floored” George Martin. He had just turned 24. However bearing all that creative burden on his own would come back to haunt him.

As with Pet Sounds, Brian hired the very best musicians in the business to work for him.

The sophisticated music that Brian was writing necessitated the use of session musicians schooled in jazz and classical music who could keep up with him, and play with the required dexterity and quality his music deserved. These musicians had worked with Phil Spector and recorded many of the great hits of the 60s. They were sought after all over town, working for Quincy Jones, Gary Usher, Phil Spector, but they loved working on Beach Boys sessions. “There was something special about him, that’s what we noticed.” Carol Kaye, bassist of The Wrecking Crew

Brian had a great energy at that time, and believed anything was possible. He was a natural. The other musicians thrived off it. This wasn’t just any other job. This kid was on fire musically and his enthusiasm was infectious.

“He’d go to the studio with an idea of what he wanted to do. He would explain to the guys what he was looking for. If they were having a problem with it, no matter what the instrument is, he would pick the instrument up and he’d play. He’d show them what he was thinking. Then he would do the board. Brian was a total music maker.” David Anderle

He was writing, arranging, performing, and producing. For many on the scene he was the most “plugged in musician” around.

“He went in there trying to get emotion out of them. And I think a lot of them were shocked, cause they were just used to playing the notes correctly, and he’d go in there and say, no I want you to lean on the notes more. Make it sound like crying… He talked in a different way to them.” Danny Hutton Three Dog Night

Bernstein conducting

Brian was also making waves in the classical music world. Namely the most important American maestro Leonard Bernstein who also had his own TV show on CBS.

“For a long time now I’ve been fascinated by this strange and compelling scene called Pop Music… I think this music has something terribly important to tell us adults, and we would be wise not to behave like ostriches about it. Besides, as I said, I like it. Of course, what I like is maybe five percent of the whole output… but that good five percent is so exciting and vital and may I say significant that it claims the attention of every thinking person.”

Here’s a clip of Leonard Bernstein’s Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, a programme where he featured some of the music he considered important at the time. I posted a link to the full video in SOTW16 Pretty Ballerina as Bernstein also made reference to that song.

“Many of the lyrics in there oblique illusions and way out metaphors are beginning to sound like real poems…”

Bernstein waxing lyrical about Brian and Van Dyke’s writing validated what they were doing and inspired them to take their musical adventures to the next level. As if they weren’t already motivated enough.

“Now what does all this mean? I think it’s all part of the historic revolution.”

I agree with Lenny. The 60’s was a revolution in music. It had started in the 50’s when the electric guitar allowed anyone to be an entertainer, and it came from the roots of rhythm and blues and folk music in America, but by the time the late 60’s came, it was the British exporting a new version of rock n roll back to the States, with The Beatles at its helm, and according to McCartney there was only one band that they seriously considered to be their true competition. At the centre of that revolution, with the world’s eyes upon them, stood John and Paul of the Beatles (George’s best work was still to come) and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.

Bernstein loved the music of Pet Sounds, and was bowled over by what he was hearing from Smile.  He was interested in what Brian was doing, because it was so different to everything else he was hearing, and it rivalled much of what he himself was doing in the Classical World. Pushing the envelope, getting outisde the box. He was also mixing American jazz, folk and classical. Bernstein knew a good thing when he heard it. Like Brian, he a good ear. Well, unlike Brian he actually had two.

I could have written a song of the week about God Only Knows and the story of Pet Sounds (Paul McCartney’s favourite song) just as easily. Pet sounds sent shockwaves through the music world. It wasn’t marketed by the record company, so it didn’t sell as much as it could have, but Brian became the darling of music critics from that point on.

Pet Sounds laid down the marker for The Beatles and inspired and challenged them. John and Paul rang up Brian Wilson to congratulate him after hearing an acetate pressing of the album.

Paul said he always considered the main musical rival of The Beatles to be The Beach Boys, not the Rolling Stones as the press of the time had billed it. Musically The Beatles were playing catch up to The Beach Boys at time, although Brian felt the same way. As good as The Stones would become, at the beginning they were lagging a bit behind.

“If there is one person that I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson. Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened… Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.” George Martin

Brian Wilson doesn’t believe he’s a genius. He says he’s just a hard working guy. There’s that 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration adage, but I’m sorry Brian you sure do seem like one.

“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.” David Openheim, Inside Pop Revolution Show Producer

As alluded to in the beginning, the Smile Project didn’t end well. Brian had been pushing onwards and upwards. His energy was relentless at first, but he had to keep pushing. Like the song on Pet Sounds, I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times. He was a sensitive soul. When Brian wrote the lyrics for even the early Beach Boys songs, they weren’t the boundless fun of surfing, cars and girls. I read somewhere that the daydreaming mind veers towards negativity, towards melancholy, because it goes in a cycle. Brian was the Beautiful Dreamer, so he got it more than most.  The melancholy would creep into his lyrics.

I aint gonna give old Mike too much spotlight today, because he was one of the villains of this piece. Some have suggested he asked Brian to shelve the project. One way or another he’s part of the reason Smile didn’t get released. He criticised the lyric of Surf’s Up at the time and confronted Van Dyke Parks about “columnated ruins domino”. He told Uncut magazine in 2008,

“I asked Van Dyke what a particular set of lyrics meant and he said, ‘I haven’t a clue, Mike.’ I termed some of his lyrical contributions ‘acid alliteration.’ Some of the stuff was phenomenal, but I looked at things from an objective commercial point of view. Whether it’s a strength or weakness. I said, ‘Is it going to relate to the public to the degree that they can identify with the message and the lyrics?'” Mike Love

Van Dyke later said the lyrics meant something to him personally, and as a young kid just breaking into the business, he was intimidated by Love.

Brian and Van Dyke writing

Some of Brian’s behaviour seemed bizarre to outsiders, but for him it made perfect sense, he was furthering the creative process. He famously had a sandbox moved into his house and put a Steinway Grand Piano on top of it, so he could write with his feet in the sand.

He wrote Heroes and Villains, Cabinessence, Surf’s Up and Wonderful in there, so you couldn’t say it didn’t work out!

The Beach Boys in the tent

He also set up an Arabian tent in his house, so the band could have meetings. It ended up getting full up with marijuana smoke and friends and band members could hardly see each other through the smoke. The idea was a good one, but Brian could only stand being in the tent for 10 minutes that first day, and once it became obvious that it wasn’t going to work, that it was just a den for “eating sandwiches” as Brian put it, but “smoking hash” as his friends claimed. Once it became clear it wasn’t the idealistic “community centre” he’d imagined, the tent came down. Still, a good idea nonetheless. A vent in the roof may have helped!

Brian in studio with fire helmet

During the recording of the musical instrumental Fire (part of the Four Elements Suite) Brian requested that the orchestral musicians wear fire helmets. Many point to behaviour like this that he was “losing it”, but the musicians didn’t mind. Everybody was having fun, and that was the reason for it.

But Brian wasn’t. With the music for Fire, he was trying to express the darker side of his psyche, his unhappiness, the “crazy, weird thoughts I was going through”, with a new experimental sound. When a local warehouse burnt down, Brian decided that maybe he was messing with the wrong kind of musical voodoo, and the Fire session was responsible for it. He requested that the tapes for that part be destroyed. Luckily, his orders weren’t followed.

He believed in the power of music, and paranoia was starting to set in. Van Dyke Parks was observing his friend and believed he was undergoing a crisis. His childhood problems were exacerbated by the LSD he ingested so he undoubtedly wasn’t the most stable mentally, but I do believe had he had the right people around him, the project would have gotten finished.

What happened next? The Beach Boys arrived back in town from a triumphant tour of England, on the back of the success of Good Vibrations, and being voted the top band in the world in a poll, and they found that the town had changed. There were a new group of people around Brian, with new ideas. Brian was already worried about how they would react to the new far out music. They hadn’t liked Pet Sounds at first after all.

“Support is really important. For Brian was critical… No to Brian was really not a good thing.” David Anderle

“He was in the habit of getting all the support and cooperation he needed. He didn’t get the support that he could have used. I think the issue isn’t what he needed or could have used, but I think the question is that he didn’t get what he should have had. And that bugged him deeply.” Van Dyke Parks

“When they said they didn’t like it, it hurt my feelings a lot… It really killed me inside.” Brian

Brian was very confident about how good the music was, and even though the other Beach Boys didn’t like it at first, he felt the Beach Boys would  come around to it after they heard the whole thing. That didn’t happen. They resisted. They half-heartedly recorded vocals, sometimes not turning up for sessions, or not participating fully when they did. Doubts began to set in for Brian as it became harder to realise his ideas.

Most the work had already been completed by then, 6 months into the project, the longest any album had taken thus far, but there was still more to be done. He needed the others to record their vocals, “that Beach Boys blend.” Brian became frustrated with the attitude of the others. It was mentally draining. Mike Love felt the new sound was too far out, it was too different from the winning Beach Boys formula. There were meetings held with discussions about how to get through this difficult music. How about changing your attitude fellas?

“Mike did not like Smile at all. He hated it.” Brian

Mike Love was a damn bully if you ask me. Have a look at The Beach Boys accepting the award for entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if you don’t believe me, and how he puts Brian off his speech, then goes on to attack Paul McCartney for not turning up to accept The Beatles entry into the Hall of Fame, Mick Jagger for not being man enough to jam with The Beach Boys, Diana Ross, and various others. Car crash stuff from the slightly drunk Peace and Love transcendental meditation advocate. I think it’s best if I leave this here. Bad vibrations…

Anyway, Van Dyke grew tired of defending his lyrics, and explaining them to Mike.

“Brian made it clear to me that he wanted to do something without restraint, or apology, or explanation to the rest of the group. And he honestly felt that I was a big enough guy to handle the door. There’s no question of that. I wasn’t a big enough guy.” Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke felt it was obvious before anyone else that Brian was heading for a breakdown. In later years, some blamed drugs for that emotional collapse, but for Van Dyke and Danny Hutton, the use of marijuana and other drugs was ‘a red herring’. Parks felt so much work had been done already that this wasn’t the deciding factor. Hutton felt they had helped him work longer hours.

“Don’t let the marijuana confuse the issue here. If you look at the amount of work that was done, and the amount of time it took to almost finish it. It’s amazing. It was a very athletic situation, very focused.” Van Dyke

Meeting such resistence from even his own family members (his father Murray had supposedly even hired a private detective to investigate the drug intake) Brian became even more paranoid and confused emotionally. He felt his phones were being tapped, that his car and house were being bugged. The love, the joy, the humour were now disappearing, and the project seemed to be falling apart.

” I kept moving forward, even though I didn’t want to… I got tired of it. I just got tired of the direction we were going in.” Brian

“I think it’s time for the proper respect given to absolute authority, and that should be given to an artist. And if there’s any artist who deserved that, in my mind, at the very point I turned tail, and walked away from the project, it was Brian Wilson. But it was not within my power to bring that to him. And that is a great regret.” Van Dyke Parks

In the end, Brian felt he might need up to a year to complete the project, in particular to sequence the pieces of music. He didn’t think he’d be given that much time. He had felt he was in a production race with The Beatles too, and now they were ready to release Sgt Peppers. Brian believed he had missed the boat. The record company Capital Records were anxious to release the album, but they didn’t want to wait a year. They were pushing to release it in January 1967.

In March of 1967, the Beach Boys filed a lawsuit against Capitol Records, which further complicated things. Van Dyke and others now left, frustrated by the circumstances surrounding Smile. This was like the final nail in the coffin for Brian. He couldn’t do it alone, he needed the help of his friends and collaborators, and he didn’t get it. In spite of all the publicity, the expectation from the music world, and the beautiful music that had been recorded, Brian shelved the project.

“I’ll tell you from my heart. In 1967, the reasons why I didn’t finish Smile was: Mike didn’t like it. I thought it was too experimental; I thought that the Fire tape was too scary; I thought that people wouldn’t understand where my head was at at that time.” Brian

Brian had lost the sense of control, he could no longer pursue his ideas. He gave up, checked out of The Beach Boys “Hotel California”. Brian had a nervous breakdown. It was the beginning of a couple of decades of mental problems.

“Knowing Brian, it doesn’t surprise me at all, that those pressures, and whatever other chemicals or influences that he was having to deal with, that he would shut down. It seems like the natural thing to do under those circumstances.” Lou Adler, record producer and friend

“It’s that I personally felt beaten up, because I didn’t complete it.” Brian

“The  music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter swan
Columnated ruins domino”

Speaking about the song Surf’s Up years later, Brian believed it contained in it a kind of prophesy, that it was foreshadowing its own ruin. Maybe the hints of doom in there reflected his own thought processes. Maybe there is something to that. Like Paul McCartney Wilson clearly believes in magic, and they both must be on to something, because they both seem to have a divining rod for the magical, so maybe a songwriter needs to believe in that side sometimes. Maybe, just maybe. I think so.

“It almost seems to me that Surf’s Up is like a premonition of what was going to happen to our generation and what was going to happen to our music. That some great tragedy that we could absolutely not imagine was about to befall our world. There are some really very disturbing clairvoyent images in Surf’s Up that seem to say ‘Watch out! This is not gonna last.'”  Jimmy Webb, songwriter

I’ll return to Jimmy Webb one of these days.

“At that point things were going along in such a strong direction that it never occured to me that anything would stop Smile on any level whatsoever.” 

Here’s Brian explaining the lyric of the song bit by bit.

“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.”

Okay, well then here’s Brian at the piano, singing the lyric circa Autumn 1967. It’s a thing of beauty…

The title Surf’s Up was a double entendre suggesting the end of the earlier simpler surf music. Ironically, for Brian it would go on to represent the end of the Smile project too.

The song quotes two world famous songs, two lines from the French song Frere Jacque and the title of the Scottish song Auld Lang Syne, which is sung along with the linking of arms, the clinking of glasses, and the remembering of old friends every New Years Eve. It also references the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. While at port adieu or die is a word play on “their’s not to make reply, their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die.” “Canvas the town and brush the backdrop” probably refers to expression to “paint the town red”, which originated in the story of Henry Beresford. And the beautiful “the diamond necklace played the pawn” is a reference to the French short story The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant. “Child is the Father of the Man” is a quote from William Wordsworth’s My Heart Leaps Up, and was also a popular idea in psychology at the time. Well read this Van Dyke Parks fella.

“I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children’s song”

Surf’s Up was a paean to innocent spirituality and love of youth, juxtaposed against the imperfections and failings of the adult world. There is a picture paint of upper class society in the Chatres cathedral, oblivious to what was going on outside. Van Dyke is thought to have been reflecting on his conflicted feelings of the youth protests going on in America during the time of the Vietnam War and the lack of response from the American administration.

And I’m sorry it beats “I’m getting beat drivin up and down the same old street” Mr Don’t-Fuck-with-the-Formula Love.

I’m an agnostic leaning towards atheism, but when it comes to music, and art, sometimes you have to open the floodgates and let it all come in, to believe in the possibility at least, that Scarab Beetle I mentioned in SOTW34, to be a bit more Jungian in your approach, than the more skeptically minded Freud, although I tend to side with Science in other aspects of life. It’s all part of the human make-up. Why leave some of the colours when you’re painting? Well that is unless you’re going through a blue period. Then you only need blue.

Speaking of blue. Water’s blue. It’s one of the four Elements. Here’s Brian Wilson on water:

I smoked pot and I went ‘can I please have a glass of water?’… I said ‘ I’ve never really tasted water in my life. This it the first time I’ve ever really tasted water. It tastes so fresh and clean and cold.”

Now, that doesn’t sound all that interesting with just plain old words, it’s removed from the experience that clearly blew his mind, so let’s have the music do the talking.

As you can see it’s from the youtube account  above, people are still sticking pieces of Smile together. Endless fun. It’s like a do-it-yourself lego album.

I often wondered what impact Smile would have had had it come out. Sgt Peppers was the one that changed everything, and The Beach Boys quickly became old hat. Jimi Hendrix called them a psychedelic barber shop quartet. The choice they made to curb Brian’s creativity meant that a lot of people took them for “squares”, representing Americana and the system, which at the time people were rallying against. They got left behind by the psychedelic movement, which they theoretically would have been at the centre of. They had to reinvent themselves. But would music and even the world as we know it be different had Smile arrived? We’ll never know, but I think so. What would an energised Brian have done next. Who knows? That’s an alternative universe.

Beach Boys Smiley Smile

Smiley Smile was hastily put together after the collapse of Smile and it was a “punt instead of a grand slam”. Talk about an anti-climax. It was the first release on the new Brother Records. It contained a few snippets from what would have been Smile, but that was the other Beach Boys trying to piece together a makeshift album, and it feels to me like a mistake, although it had its moments. The record company still intended to release Smile, but the project was shelved indefinitely.

The other Beach Boys, in particular Carl, started taking a more central role in the group, and they released some great music, and ironically went in a whole new direction, but they never really touched the heights that Brian was aiming for, and maybe that’s their own doing. The Smile project was shipwrecked and the only thing to do now was to “sail on sailor”. There were many attempts to get Brian back on board. He was asked to sing the title track on the Surf’s Up album and although he reworked the ending for them, he refused. Maybe he felt his voice couldn’t quite hit those notes anymore, or maybe he was just being generous giving his greatest ever song to Carl, as he had done with God Only Knows.

There were “Brian is back” campaigns launched during the 70’s to try and get the psychologically troubled singer back on stage, but largely fruitless. That’s not to say there aren’t some gems that turned up on later albums. Carl’s Feel Flows, Brian’s Til I Die, Darlin’ on Smiley Smile, but the Beach Boy who flew too close to the sun, never quite reached those heights again.

The concept of the Smile album was intended to be a lyrical trip across the United States, from Plymouth Rock to California, explaining what it means to be an American along the way. So, we’ve reached the water, the ocean on the Californian coast. Only one thing left then, Into the sea…

Surf’s Up.

I’ve been watching this documentary on youtube, and sourcing it. It’s helped me piece this week’s Song of the Week together. It’s got more on the story of Smile. We’d be here all day if I went into any more detail, and I don’t want to bore you. Besides, I’d be going slightly off the point. You’ve just got a little taster of Smile here today, so if you want some more, watch the video underneath. There’s joy, genius, love, hope, despair, supportive friends, fawning musicians, heroes, villains, an oppressive father for a manager, the people who got in the way, Love, record companies, confusion, inspiration, that ear, paranoia, dizziness, clarity, closure and redemption. Have a look for yourself…

And then listen to the Smile sessions that were released the year before last. You will not regret it. The song Surf’s Up was the showpiece of that album, which won Brian his first grammy award last year.


A version of the song turned up on the 1971 Beach Boys album Surf’s Up, with Carl singing lead on the original Smile track, and with a bit of tinkering, but the version with Brian singing at the piano, for me is the greatest Beach Boys recording, and one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century. Nice work Brian and Van Dyke. Quite a team those two. Can’t surf to save their lives though. Who cares?

Right, it’s that time again. I’m grabbing my board and hitting the waves.

“Surf’s Up mmm, aboard a tidal wave…”

“There is a new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterises today’s Pop Music Scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys and one of today’s most important pop musicians sings his own Surf’s Up.” Leonard Bernstein


A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand in hand some drummed along, oh
To a handsome mannered baton
A blind class aristocracy
Back through the opera glass you see
The pit and the pendulum drawn
Columnated ruins domino

Canvass 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 swan
Columnated ruins domino

Canvass 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 lights cellar tune
The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne

The glass was raised, the fired-roast
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, child, child, child, child
A child is the father of the man
Child, child, child, child, child
A child is the father of the man
A children’s song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way
That’s why the child is the father to the man
Child, child, child, child, child
Child, child, child, child, child
Na na na na na na na na
Child, child, child, child, child
That’s why the child is the father to the man
Child, child, child, child, child

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4 thoughts on “Song of the Week 54: Surf’s Up (Wilson/Parks) – The Beach Boys

  1. Good . .. really Good . U just spoke my same feelings . I think Artist like Brian wilson , Beatles , Hendrix and all of them were given by God to just give a taste, a glimmer of hope And after that to be taken away . . .. But how ironic – the memories remain .

  2. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone
    to do it for you? Plz respond as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from.
    kudos – ABC102D.

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