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1971 revisited: The Beach Boys and the majesty of Surf's Up

Ian Malin

Meet the New Year. But to paraphrase The Who it’s the same as the old one. This dark lockdown is worse really than anything in 2020 but if there is one good thing about 2021 it is that it gives us an excuse to celebrate rock’s golden anniversary. The year 1971 was its annus mirabilis. In particular, the year saw the release of more truly great albums than in any year before or since. The Beatles had gone but the revolution, the one turning at thirty-three and a third, was in safe hands.

For someone who was 15-going-on-16 during the year 1971 there was, in the title of music journalist David Hepworth’s book cataloguing the 12 months, Never A Dull Moment... Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, What’s Going On, Led Zeppelin IV, Tapestry, Blue, Who’s Next, Every Picture Tells A Story, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Imagine, Pearl... the list is endless. If you could afford it (and the 15-year-old me certainly couldn’t) you could buy a classic album every week and the best of these records still sound as fresh and wonderful today.

Listen to the opening guitar chords of the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar, the version of The Temptations’ (I Know) I’m Losing You on Rod Stewart’s masterpiece and the keyboard intro to The Who’s Baba O’Riley, and a jolt of electricity still courses through the body.

Everyone everywhere seemed to be breaking new ground. You can argue forever whether Pictures At An Exhibition by Emerson, Lake and Palmer belongs in the pantheon or was just typical of the excesses of prog rock (John Peel famously said that ELP were a waste of electricity) but you can’t argue about the musicianship on this rocked-up version of Mussorgsky’s classical work.

Released in the autumn of the year, Surf’s Up was the 17th album by The Beach Boys. Their previous album, Sunflower, had not been a success. At the start of the year Washed Up might have been a more apt title. Brian Wilson, their lost genius, had spent the second half of the Sixties trying to keep up with The Beatles. Now the only thing the two groups had in common was that their members all sported beards.

The story of The Beach Boys’ lost masterpiece Smile, a work that was supposed to have been the group’s Sgt Pepper, was already beginning to be tiresome in 1971 but Surf’s Up restored some of their former glories despite the group, like The Beatles, being torn apart by internal dissent. Hepworth makes the point that Surf’s Up is in many ways the first instance of a band making a tribute album to itself because it is an elegy to a past age, a work of nostalgia just as Sgt Pepper is rooted in it.

Surf’s Up had a mixed reception at the time and in truth it is an uneven album. I preferred the Holland album, recorded in the Dutch village of Baambrugge, a couple of years later by which time Carl Wilson was the real driving force of the group. Half the tracks on Surf’s Up are copper-bottomed classics, half are ordinary but it ends on a high with two Brian Wilson songs Til I Die and the baroque title track giving it a stunning conclusion after the false starts.

The song Surf’s Up is up there with Brian Wilson’s best, Good Vibrations and God Only Knows. Leonard Bernstein, with more than a touch of hyperbole, famously called it the best piece of music he had ever heard. It is not really a Seventies song at all. There is a version of Brian Wilson singing Surf’s Up as early as 1966 and one recorded back in 1967 for the Smile album but the song then remained dormant for four years. That stripped-back version may be better, just as The Long And Winding Road would have been better if Phil Spector hadn’t got his hands on it, but what can’t be denied is the majesty of the composition.

In a review in Rolling Stone Arthur Schmidt admits that The Beach Boys often promised more than they delivered but says they are still unique despite feeling a little let down by the album. But Schmidt loves Disney Girls (1957) and he recognises the greatness of what was to have been the pièce de resistance of Smile, the song co-written with Van Dyke Parks that emerges out of a legend like the sword Excalibur.

The production of Surf’s Up with its French horns and clarinets and Brian Wilson’s soaring vocals, Schmidt believes, would have given it a run to anything on Sgt Pepper which it could have competed with had Smile seen the light of day. The words may be opaque:

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

But the music is sublime and Brian Wilson may have rightly claimed ‘Well what did I Am The Walrus mean anyway?’ His life began to unravel into a sad travesty but at least The Beach Boys have this half-brilliant masterpiece whose artistry ranks it with the best albums of half a century ago. And at least the Boys of Summer gave us something to warm the cockles in this darkest of winters.


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