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The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets

‘Surf’s Up’: The Socially Aware Album That Made The Beach Boys Cool Again

The group’s landmark 1971 album ‘Surf’s Up’ was both socially relevant and evocative of their initial glory.

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Beach Boys 'Surf's Up' artwork.- Courtesy: UMG
Beach Boys 'Surf's Up' artwork - Courtesy: UMG

By the turn of the 1970s, the world was a very different place from the utopian image of endless Californian surfing, cars and girls, as represented by the Beach Boys. But once again, the group rose magnificently to the challenge of making music that was both socially relevant and evocative of their initial glory. In 1971, they unveiled their new surfing sound of the 70s with the classic album Surf’s Up.

One of the great landmarks in the Beach Boys’ canon, the record was released on August 30 that year, at a point when their commercial fortunes had been at a low ebb. Their album of 12 months earlier, Sunflower, had only reached No.151 in a meagre four-week run on the American charts, and the group hadn’t had a top 20 single in the US since “Do It Again” (which topped the British bestsellers) hit No.20 in 1968.

The new project, produced by the band themselves for their Brother label, got the Beach Boys’ ship moving in the right direction again. They were now working with a new manager, Jack Rieley, and with his encouragement, they became a multi-faceted songwriting force.

The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
Surf's Up (Remastered 2009)

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Surf’s Up is rightly remembered for Brian Wilson’s brilliant double-header that closes the album, “’Til I Die” and the title track collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, filled with its enigmatic lyrics and stirring harmonies. But just as remarkably, the album showcased a group with multiple writing teams, all bringing excellent work to the table.

Mike Love and Al Jardine contributed an opening song with an anti-pollution lyric that was really ahead of its time, “Don’t Go Near The Water.” Carl Wilson and Rieley completed “Long Promised Road” and Carl’s sweet voice led his own “Feel Flows.” Al and Gary Winfrey added the short, equally relevant “Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” the pair working with Brian on “Take A Load Off Your Feet.”

Disney Girls (1957) (Remastered 2009)

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Bruce Johnston’s writing contribution was the magnificent “Disney Girls (1957),” while Brian and Rieley composed the plaintive “A Day In The Life Of A Tree,” on which the group’s manager also sang. There was even room for Love to sing his adaptation of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Riot In Cell Block No.9,” renamed “Student Demonstration Time” for the social situation of the day.

Dennis Wilson’s reduced role on the project was partly because he was working on solo material and the film Two Lane Blacktop, and partly that the songs he contributed were omitted to avoid in-fighting within the group, and the album being dominated by only Wilson brothers compositions.

‘Back in fashionable favor’

Surf’s Up, newly celebrated for its 50th anniversary as part of the Feel Flows box set, was perhaps the Beach Boys’ most ecologically prescient work, and the press voiced their approval. “‘Don’t Go Near The Water’ is probably the best song yet to emerge from rock’s current ecology kick,” wrote Time magazine. Richard Williams added in Melody Maker that “suddenly, the Beach Boys are back in fashionable favor and they’ve produced an album that fully backs up all that’s been recently written and said about them.”

Listen to the best of the Beach Boys on Apple Music and Spotify.

After charting on September 11, the album climbed to No.29 in the US, their best showing since 1967’s Wild Honey, and No.15 in the UK. It’s since won its rightful place in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time. Even if not all of the Beach Boys themselves regard it as a true classic, the album moved the Time reviewer to say that Brian’s music for it “has a high, soaring, quasi-religious vocal and instrumental character that even the Beatles of Abbey Road could envy.”

Buy or stream Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971.



  1. roger tanner

    August 30, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    One of the groups ever

  2. Bill.

    August 30, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Loved it, still love it. The first album I ever bought, followed a play of Surf’s Up on the Old Grey Whistle Test. Brought my kids up with it; we’re now all big fans of the Boys.

  3. Gabriel

    August 31, 2014 at 5:14 am

    This is an amazing album. One of the true classic of the Wilson Brothers. The period from 66 to 73 was one of the best periods of any band of all time. The albums on it are fantastic, with high artistic creation, talents flows up without the monopolist command of Brian, and it shows up, what a real group The Beach Boys were. So good you make an article about it. It’s an amazing album, like Sunflower or Holland, Carl and The Passions, etc. Wonderful band.

  4. Mick DeLeon

    September 1, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    Among BB/BW afficionados, historians, and critics, Surf’s Up would’ve been even more awesome had they replaced “Student Demonstration Time” with Dennis’ “Fourth Of July”, and released SDT as a stand-alone single. It’s a great, incendiary track, and doesn’t fit the laid-back vibe of the rest of the album. Dennis’ “Fourth Of July” is a Vietnam lament — very relevant at that time — that didn’t come out until 1993’s box set. I also wish Dennis had taken the vocal on “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” instead of their manager.

  5. Joe

    August 15, 2017 at 6:33 pm

    “Surf’s Up” and “Holland”, two of the Beach Boy’s best

  6. Sky Daniels

    January 7, 2022 at 1:33 am

    Tremendous review of the most underrated effort from The Beach Boys. I still love the scene from “Love & Mercy’ showing Mike Love’s scornful comment “Columnated Ruins Domino?” If you’re a fan of this, look up the Vince Gill/David Crosby/Jimmy Webb live version from the Tribute to Brian’

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The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
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