Oct 22 2020

Surf’s Up

My favorite time of day is my morning coffee. I am typically the first one up in my household. In the early days of the pandemic, when most everything was shut down, that meant brewing a coffee and retreating to my studio. Since things opened up a bit, it has meant taking a walk to my local Starbucks where I can order ahead, pick up my coffee, say a huge thank you to my baristas and walk out with a minimum of contact with other humans. During this walk, I have taken to listening to podcasts. This is something I never felt I had time to do up until now.

Podcasts, like everything else, are uneven in quality. Since pretty much anyone can make one, they can be awful, promise more than they deliver or suffer because often they are only as good as the guest they are interviewing.

I’ve been listening to three types of podcasts. Political ones, which I shouldn’t because they make me angry and afraid, something I don’t need any more of in my life, music productions podcasts, which are almost always bad because nerds don’t give good interviews, and general music podcasts which are usually the most enjoyable of the three. My current favorite is one called Heat Rocks.

It’s hosted by musicologist Oliver Wang and music supervisor Morgan Rhodes. Unlike many music podcasts, I feel like Oliver and Morgan actually know what they are talking about most of the time. They both seem to have pretty good taste and are typically informed about the music featured on the show. Every episode, they invite a guest to discuss a favorite album or one they feel is important in some way. Generally, the series skews urban music. Lots of hip hop and old R&B. Not a lot of rock and certainly no commercial pop. Which is not to say they don’t feature so-called, white music. They have had guests talk about Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell and Tapestry by Carole King. But it’s not the usual thing.

Which is why I was so surprised to see the most recent episode was going to feature Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys. The guest who chose the album was African American poet and critic Hanif Abdurrabqib. He appeared very sincere about his appreciation for the record and for the Beach Boys generally. Perhaps because Hanif resides in Columbus, Ohio, which seems like the type of place where the Beach Boys would draw a big crowd at a summer fair.

I imagine that our hosts don’t always love the records their guests pick, though they may only do shows if they can stomach the record. I get the impression they ask guests to pick more than one record in case the guest picks a stinker that Oliver and Morgan couldn’t support on their podcast. As respectful as the hosts tried to be with Surf’s Up, it was pretty clear that they thought they were slumming it. There was a thin veil of, this is goofy, throughout the podcast. They also dominated the conversation in a way that I hadn’t heard before, at least in the episodes I’ve listened to. One reason for that may have been Hanif’s audio wasn’t very good. This episode was recorded during the Covid pandemic so I am assuming, remotely. I’m wondering if the hosts maybe wanted to spare us, the listener, the crappy digitized sound that got worse as the episode progressed. So Hanif may have had something meaningful to say that ended up on the cutting room floor? Would love to know.

So, a long winded way to get to where I want to be which is, Surf’s Up is a great album and the title track, which was hardly addressed in the episode is one of my 2 or 3 favorite songs of all time. And I want to arrogantly insert myself into the conversation with Morgan and Oliver about the album as though I am a special guest on the episode. Because the point here isn’t to criticize Oliver and Morgan, who I think are amazing. Their enthusiasm for almost every record they talk about on the show is frankly enviable. So many people in the music industry eventually start to view music and the artist’s who create it with contempt. That’s what happens when you commodify art for too long.

I was around 4 years old when I started loving The Beach Boys. It was the harmonies that drew me to them more than their actual songs. My older brother, John was the one who introduced me to them and the big song for us was I Get Around and it’s vocally complex intro/reintro. Later on, I became enraptured by The Warmth of The Sun, Please Let Me Wonder and Don’t Worry Baby because they had beautiful harmonies and extraordinary melodies but also a sense of melancholy. That melancholy would become more and more, a big part of the Beach Boys music.

Many people are aware of The Beach Boys artistic breakthrough, which is Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds would have made an infinitely better Heat Rocks episode because of its impact on the culture and its defining of Brian Wilson as a recording genius. Most musical historians know that the next project Brian took on was the most ambitious of his career, the up to recently unreleased, Smile. Not talking about Smile in any discussion of The Beach Boys from 1967 to the mid-seventies means the story isn’t complete. The aborted Smile project hung over the Beach Boys for that whole period and is often cited as the reason for Brian’s breakdown.

Many of the songs that were part of the Smile project ended up on a record called Smiley Smile, which was released in 1967. However, the best song on Smile is the title track of the record that is our subject. The esoteric lyrics by lyricist Van Dyke Parks paint a picture that is both abstract and haunting. Musically, it is the sort of complex chord arrangement that Brian started in Pet Sounds and would inform his songwriting thereafter. There is a moment in the song that is the most transcendent thing I’ve ever heard in music. Brian sings, “I heard the word/wonderful thing/a children’s song. As he sings children song, the reverb is pushed up and gives the last word a sorrowful cry. Then comes an intricate vocal coda with sort of a round against repeats of that wonderful last line. It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing that makes the Beach Boys matter even though most people think they are a novelty act. By the time Surf’s Up was released, Brian Wilson wasn’t very involved with the group. However, two of the three best songs were his, the beautiful ’Til I Die and of course, the title track, (the other great track being Feel Flows). But ’Til I Die was never mentioned in the podcast and Surf’s Up barely.

The hosts keyed in on the so-called more socially aware tracks like Don’t Go Near The Water and Student Demonstration Time, which they both gave a full diss to. Because it is corny. In fact, much of this record is corny and much of the Beach Boys music is corny. And for some reason, Oliver decided to celebrate, Take A Load off Your Feet, I feel to send a signal his fans how dumb this record is. Because it’s also corny or the humor of it isn’t particularly sophisticated. One track that got a bit of love was Disney Girls, a Bruce Johnson track. This track embodies the kind of existential melancholy that fuels this record. The fading idea of traditional happiness, “a peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid someday.” It’s the kind of dream world that the Beach Boys surfer music lived in. The song is nostalgic for a more innocent time, a time that passed with the escalating war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement and popular arts’ obsession with those things and not with surfing and girls and cars.

One thing that reassured me of how smart the Heat Rocks hosts are is when Morgan commented on how great the album jacket was. It’s a painting based on a sculpture by James Earle Fraser called End Of The Trail. Morgan thought it symbolized getting to the end of the coast, to the water. It’s a very sad image and extremely appropriate for the music inside. I think listening to the album while holding the cover, something I used to do all the time with all the records I listened to, would make the experience of Surf’s Up better.

I’m surprised how much this record and its cover informed my own musical journey. I’ve had a life long preoccupation with the idea of Summer’s Over, (see my next blog) which would have also been a great title for Surf’s Up. Writing about this now, on a cold and rainy October day during Covid-19, gives me a feeling of dread and sadness.

I am encouraging you to check out Surf’s Up knowing that half of it is crap. But the other half is brilliant. A few times in my life, I’ve played people stuff off of this or Smiley Smile and watched their mouth drop open. These are typically people whose experience of the Beach Boys is Fun, Fun, Fun and Surfer Girl. I usually hear comments like, “I had no idea how influential they were.” Yes, there was a time when the Brian Wilson led Beach Boys were hand in hand with The Beatles, pushing the boundaries of the recording studio and pop song composition and it’s a shame more people don’t know about that. Also check out the eventually released Smile. I often wonder what the trajectory of the Beach Boys’ career would have been had they released Smile after Pet Sounds.

What eventually happened is they turned into a nostalgia act-a musical representation of White America. Singer Mike Love has dragged them into the gutter and that’s a shame. Because they should have been so much more.