Surf's Up is an album title for The Beach Boys based on a song with the same title written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for the abandoned 1966–1967 Beach Boys Smile album. The song was reworked and used as the title track for the fourteenth studio album by The Beach Boys, released in 1971. Smile, including the original version of the song 'Surf's Up,' was finally completed and released by Brian Wilson and his band in 2004.
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In the fall of 1970, after the commercial failure of the Sunflower album, The Beach Boys hired Jack Rieley as their manager. Rieley, a DJ, had impressed the band with his falsified credentials (a supposed Peabody Award-winning stint as NBC bureau chief in Puerto Rico) and ideas on how to regain respect from American music fans and critics. His first initiative was to have The Beach Boys record songs with more socially aware lyrics. Rieley also insisted that the band officially appoint Carl Wilson "musical director" in recognition of the integral role he had played keeping the group together since 1967. Most importantly, he demanded the completion of "Surf's Up" for release by composer and erstwhile bandleader Brian Wilson, a song that had taken on mythical proportions in the underground press since the demise of Smile three years earlier. He also organized a guest appearance at a Grateful Dead concert in April 1971, further enhancing the Beach Boys' once-lacking hip credentials.
According to Rieley in 1996 posts to the "Smiley Smile" message board, the band had split into two camps: the artistically inclined, drug abusing, bashful Wilson brothers and the commercially-oriented, teetotalling triumvirate of Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston. In his opinion, if the group were to return to their mid-60s heights, the former group would have to fully assert itself. To this end, Rieley all but ordered Al Jardine to stop work on "Loop de Loop", an intentionally juvenile and childlike collaboration with Brian Wilson that Jardine thought would revive the band's commercial prospects.
Haunted by memories of the Smile era and likely embarrassed by his new cocaine and tobacco-ravaged baritone, Brian Wilson initially refused to work on "Surf's Up", now the eponymous track of the band's new album. Nevertheless, an undaunted Carl Wilson overdubbed a new vocal in the song's first part, a backing track dating from 1966. The second movement was composed of a 1966 solo piano demo recorded by Brian Wilson augmented with vocal and Moog bass overdubs.
To the surprise and glee of his associates, Wilson emerged near the end of the sessions to aid his brother and engineer Stephen Desper in the completion of the third movement, which combined the end of the 1966 demo with the "Child Is Father Of The Man" vocal tag and a final lyrical couplet possibly written by Rieley. The newly recorded lead vocals - sung by Al Jardine over a choral backdrop featuring all the Beach Boys - were sped up by Desper for continuity purposes in an attempt to make Wilson sound more like he did in 1966.
The album also included "'Til I Die". The brooding song was dismissed by Mike Love as being "too depressing" and was not considered for the group's 1969 and 1970 albums until the other Beach Boys reluctantly acquiesced, most likely at the insistence of Rieley. Wilson spent weeks arranging the song, crafting a harmony-driven, vibraphone and organ-laden background that closely resembled the halcyon-era sonic tapestries of Pet Sounds.
"Long Promised Road" and "Feel Flows" were Carl Wilson's first significant solo compositions; both songs were almost entirely recorded by him. According to co-writer Rieley, the jazzy "Feel Flows" was inspired by their mutual use of cocaine. "Student Demonstration Time" (essentially the R&B classic "Riot In Cell Block #9") and "Don't Go Near the Water" found Love and Jardine eagerly embracing the group's new topical-oriented direction. "A Day in the Life of a Tree" was Brian Wilson's sole new contribution. Although it is often dismissed by fans as a throwaway effort, several attempts at recording the song were made before the pump organ-led arrangement was nailed. The slightly off-key lead vocal from Rieley (at Wilson's insistence) and equally jarring background vocals from Van Dyke Parks could be interpreted as perfectly befitting the song's weary tone or a joke on the part of the composer. Bruce Johnston's "Disney Girls (1957)" was hailed as a masterpiece by Brian Wilson and has been covered by Art Garfunkel and Mama Cass Elliot.
The Dennis Wilson songs "4th of July", "Fallin' In Love" (also known as Lady), and "Wouldn't It Be Nice To Live Again" were excised from the final running order shortly before release. Although "4th of July"'s elagaic tone and lyrical relevance made it a logical thematic choice, Rieley has claimed that it was met with a reception of "glaring envy" by Wilson's bandmates. The song was duly replaced with Jardine's "Take A Load Off Your Feet", a novelty in the vein of "Loop De Loop". In the case of "Wouldn't It Be Nice To Live Again", a disagreement between the middle and younger Wilson brothers resulted in the song being left off the album. Dennis wanted the song to be the final track on the album, segueing out of "'Til I Die", while Carl felt "Surf's Up" should have that place. As a consequence, Dennis took the song out of the album's final running order. "Fallin' In Love" was released in late 1970 as the B-side of a solo single. It should be noted that Wilson (in collaboration with Beach Boys touring keyboardist Daryl Dragon) had been stockpiling songs for a potential solo album throughout the era and left the band on a provisional basis for a brief time in early 1971. Dennis's work during this period ultimately produced two songs for the next album, the solo single, "Lady," and the solo album itself finally came out in 1977 as Pacific Ocean Blue.
Surf's Up was released that August to more public anticipation than The Beach Boys had had for several years. It outperformed Sunflower commercially, reaching #29 in the US (their first Top 40 album since Wild Honey) and #15 in the UK. Like Sunflower, Surf's Up was released on EMI's Stateside label internationally.
The cover art is a painting based on the sculpture End of The Trail by James Earle Fraser (1876 – 1953).
This lone figure on his weary horse is one of the most recognized symbols of the American West. The title Surf's Up juxtaposed with what appears to be an exhausted and thirsty warrior adds an ironic quality to a title that only ten years before would have carried no hint of irony whatsoever.