Inside the exquisite, better-than-perfect The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971
When you ask most Beach Boys fans about their favorite stuff by the band, invariably you’ll get a wide-eyed reverence for the teenage majesty of Pet Sounds, the mystique and acid-tinged respect for SMiLE, or, from the die-hards, the joys of the fun and sun that the surf and cars songs bring.
But from very few will you hear about the transcendence of the Sunflower and Surf’s Up albums.
I’m about to tell you something I’ve known for the past 45 years…that these albums are the best things The Beach Boys have ever done. With the new 5 CD Feel Flows box, which includes remastered versions of the two albums and tons of bonus material, you’ll not only find this out for yourself, but you’ll see that the extra tracks (most of which-108 to be exact-are previously unreleased) reveal material which is almost as good…and yes, you read correctly, this box gets six stars! If God forbid my house was burning down, and I only had time to grab one item from my record collection, Feel Flows would be the one I’d choose, without hesitation.
Artist: The Beach Boys
Album: Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971
★★★★★★ (6/5 stars)
By the late ‘60s and into 1970, Brian Wilson had become increasingly less involved in production for The Beach Boys, and retreated for the most part to his bedroom. This forced the band to take matters into their own hands, and record Sunflower without much input from Brian. What they themselves may not have realized is that they had learned a great deal from their leader, mostly by osmosis, and the results were remarkable. Dennis Wilson had particularly come into his own, and his tracks on Sunflower, like the exuberant “Slip On Through”, the sexy, soulful “Got To Know The Woman”, and the poignant ballad “Forever” definitely stand proudly. Bruce Johnston contributes two soft pop gems in “Deirdre” and “Tears In The Morning”, Mike Love’s “All I Wanna Do”, with its gauzy, layered feel could very well have anticipated the shoegazer movement of 20 years later, and is arguably his finest moment with the band.
Brian’s songs, like the thrilling “This Whole World”, the beautiful “Our Sweet Love (co-written with Carl Wilson and Al Jardine), and the resurrected SMiLE track, “Cool, Cool Water” are also top shelf…but perhaps the most notable track on the album is “It’s About Time”, as its hippie vibes and propulsive grooves were unlike anything The Beach Boys had ever done, and probably would have propelled them into the annals of cool if it had been promoted correctly. But the main reasons Sunflower stands out are the production values, partly due to the innovative engineering of Steve Desper, and the nuances the band added to each song, which brought about a Gestalt experience that one can only get from several listens; a piano fill here, a horn touch there, lots and lots of counterpoint and vocals, etc. Glorious! The Sunflower-associated bonus tracks on Feel Flows are superlative as well. The album the band slated to be next was called Landlocked, but was rejected by Warner Brothers for not having substantial content. The label was wrong; tracks like Al Jardine’s “Loop De Loop” and “Susie Cincinnati”, and “San Miguel” are certainly solid, and Dennis Wilson’s “Sound of Free” and “Lady” are downright great (Dennis knew this, and when the tracks were turned down he released them as a now very collectible 7-inch.
As bright and carefree as was Sunflower, their next album, Surf’s Up, was just as somber and serious. Sunflower had been a commercial failure, only reaching #151 on the Billboard charts, by far the lowest the Beach Boys had ever done. Fearing a complete collapse, the band hired Jack Reilly as their manager, who convinced them to become more socially conscious and promoted the band as relevant. Tracks like “Don’t Go Near The Water” and “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” promoted/lamented earth health, “Take A Load Off Your Feet” personal health, and “Student Demonstration Time” boldly recounted all the social unrest which had been happening at various colleges. However, the best tracks on Surf’s Up were those which were the most “Beach Boys”: “Long Promised Road” was a reflection of a spiritual journey Carl had been on, and its continuing build-up and release was not unlike an aural sexual experience, his“Feel Flows”, the title track to this box, had a spacey vibe not unlike that of The Grateful Dead (who the Boys would share a legendary bill with), “’Till I Die”, Brian’s clarion call to the vastness of the universe and how we are all relatively just specs of dust boasts a magnificent arrangement with dizzying vocals, and the title track, also resurrected from the Smile daze but augmented by a new arrangement and lead vocals by Carl, may be the greatest testament to Brian’s genius. Among the standout non-album tracks recorded during that time period included herein are Love’s “Big Sur”, the precursor to the song which would wind up on their almost-as-great Holland album; many who’ve heard it feel it’s the superior version, the beautiful “Sweet and Bitter”, the ultra-weird Brian track “My Solution”, which probably reflected the voices in his head at the time, and another Dennis gem, “4th of July”, featuring a touching lead vocal by Carl.
Many of the songs heretofore mentioned in this review have appeared elsewhere, but the most compelling reason to purchase Feel Flows are the scads of previously unreleased tracks. Disc 3 features those from the Sunflower-era, including the whole album’s worth of tracks featuring backing vocals (save, for some reason, “Got To Know The Woman”), more of this treatment for some non-album cuts, and a cappella versions of several tracks. It’s all breathtaking, and offers a new glimpse into the nuances of these recordings Disc 4 contains the same for Surf’s Up (I’d first heard the backing track of “’Til I Die” 40 years ago on a Landlocked bootleg, and tears were streaming down my face), as well as some which didn’t make the album, including one of the best songs Dennis ever wrote, “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice To) Live Again” and another good one he wrote with future “Captain”, Daryl Dragon, “It’s A New Day”, featuring lead vocals from a new Beach Boy, Blondie Chaplin.
For virtually everyone reading this, Disc 5 will be the piece de resistance, as it’s packed with 29 previously unreleased songs, including most that this writer had never heard anywhere, which could have made up two fine albums by themselves. Standouts include “Where Is She” is a bit of a “She’s Leaving Home” re-write by Brian, “It’s Natural”, written by a friend of the band, David Sandler, and featuring a strong lead vocal by Mike Love, the country-ish “Back Home”, which became a staple of Beach Boys live sets and would end up on their 1976 album, 15 Big Ones, the lilting “Won’t You Tell Me”, co-written by Brian and dad Murry, and a less freaky take on “My Solution.”
But it’s Dennis Wilson whose talents really come to the forefront on this disc. Even though he’d been very prolific during this time period, there were no Dennis tracks on Surf’s Up, the reasons for which are up for debate; either the rest of the band didn’t think they were right for the album, or Dennis, feuding with Jack Reilly, decided to pull them. At any rate, several of these are more than worthy, including the rockin’ “I’m Goin’ Your Way”, the wrenching medley, “All Of My Love/Ecology”, the gentle “Behold The Night”, and a lovely ode to his then wife, “Barbara”.
AUDIO: The Beach Boys “All Of My Love/Ecology”
In fact, one could take all of the Dennis Wilson contributions on Feel Flows which didn’t make either album, and make a wonderful solo album of them, which is one of the greatest joys of this box. Disc 5 ends, appropriately enough, with two tracks, “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” and “Marcella”, which are alternate versions of tunes from their next album, Carl And The Passions/So Tough.
The box comes in notebook form; it certainly would have been preferable as an actual box, as Universal has done quite a bit recently for several classic album reissues, but that’s a minor carping. Liner notes by Howie Edelson, in which he interviews surviving band members, as well as Stephen Desper and others who had been on the scene, are quite informative. The booklet also features some rare photos, and commentary by producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, who have done their usual stellar job of engineering and remastering.
If you’re still not convinced of the brilliance that is Sunflower, Surf’s Up, and the tracks surrounding these albums, consider this: The Beach Boys sound has been emulated very well by many acolyte musicians, mostly from the surf/car/girls-era, Pet Sounds, and SMiLE, and some from even the somewhat unfairly disrespected late ‘70s albums, but those few who have tried to emulate the Sunflower and Surf’s Up era have failed, because that sound is impossible to imitate, because it’s so much a part of what is strictly The Beach Boys, and because it’s so much a group effort that it just can’t be focused upon properly by other artists.
Both albums are just too good. But then again, so is Feel Flows.