Surf's Up (song)

"Surf's Up" is the title of a song written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. 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 reworked and used as the title track for the twenty-second official album by The Beach Boys, Surf's Up released in 1971. SMiLE including the original version of 'Surf's Up' was finally completed and released by Brian Wilson and his band in 2004.

1966-67 recording

"Surf's Up" was written in a single night at Brian Wilson's piano in his sandbox. Brian believes
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.

In Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, 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.

The song was certainly fully composed by November 1966, when Brian Wilson was filmed performing the song on piano for a CBS News special on popular music, hosted by Leonard Bernstein. 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" on the album Smiley Smile, (which was in fact subtitled "Woody Woodpecker Symphony").

The original studio recording of the song was never completed. A fully finished (or near-complete) backing track for the first section was recorded in late 1966 and early 1967 under the production of Brian Wilson, and other vocal and instrumental segments were also recorded, but a final edit was apparently never made. Wilson also recorded a complete 'demo' solo performance of the song in late 1966, accompanying himself on piano; this was apparently made for a CBS television special on pop music hosted by composer Leonard Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein expressed his admiration for the song during the television special:

There is a new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today's pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today's most important musicians, sings his own 'Surf's Up.' 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.

Although the second section of the song features the demo version of the song from 1966-67, with Brian Wilson on lead vocals, the entire demo version remained unreleased until it was released on the Beach Boys 1993 box set release Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys. The demo version of the song obviously does not feature any additional vocal or instrumental overdubs, and at the conclusion of the song, Brian can be heard singing the original ending to the "Surf's Up" song without the "Child is Father of the Man" vocal overdubs. (citation needed)

1971 recording

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 1967 backing track; the second section ("Dove nested towers"...) featured mainly Brian's vocal and piano from the demo recording plus new vocal and instrumental overdubs; the third section combined the closing section of Brian's demo with newly-recorded vocals and other additions, and possibly also some of the 1967 vocal fragment from the SMiLE-era song called "The Child is the Father to The Man". 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".

Evidently referring to the solo 'demo' version, Brian stated:

The vocal on that [Surf's Up] was a little bit limited. It's not my favourite vocal I ever did, but it did have heart. Nevertheless, it'll be out there again with this reissue, and I'll be naked to the world!
In fact, on the original Surf's Up release, Brian Wilson did sing and overdub new parts, such as the lead vocal tag at the end; however, he was unwilling to work on the song for the most part. Also noticeable is that his voice was already torn apart from heavy cocaine and cigarette use, and that he was possibly unable to sing Surf's Up at all from that point: According to the book "Catch a Wave," Brian Wilson's voice had gotten dramatically lower and Carl Wilson overdubbed his voice onto Brian Wilson's solo to help correct the limitations in the vocal.

2004 version

On Brian Wilson's 2004 recording of SMiLE, the musical arrangement is very similar to the 1971 release, but with the clarity of modern recording technology. The vocal arrangement is slightly altered for the highest parts (the cryptic but memorable lyric, "Columnated ruins domino"). 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 Wilson was then 62, with a naturally reduced vocal range, the part was rearranged for harmonies, with additional voices blending in smoothly, allowing Wilson to sing a lower part. In the concert performances, this approach was used many other times during the SMiLE material, with his younger 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.

Performers: SMiLE Version:

  • Brian Wilson - Lead Vocals, and keyboards
  • Scott Bennett - vocals, keyboards, xylophone
  • Nelson Bragg - vocals, percussion
  • Jeffery Foskett - vocals, percussion
  • Probyn Gregory - trumpet, french horn
  • Jim Hines - drums
  • Bob Lizik - bass
  • Paul Mertons - flute, harmonica
  • Taylor Mills - vocals
  • Darian Sahanaja - vocals, keyboards
  • Nick Walusko - vocals, guitar
  • Stockholm Strings 'N' Horns

Other releases

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.

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.

A bootleg version of the song which syncs Brian's original unaccompanied vocal demo with the original 1967 backing track has circulated in internet SMiLE circles.

See also

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