Why The Beach Boys Almost Abandoned Completely “Surf’s Up”

Why The Beach Boys Almost Abandoned Completely “Surf’s Up” | I Love Classic Rock Videos

The Beach Boys performs “Barbara Ann” Live - danbanrock1 / YouTube

The Beach Boys were facing a challenging situation as the world seemed to have moved on without them. The striped shirts and surfboard image no longer resonated when music was evolving away from songs about surfing and cars. Despite previous chart-topping hits like “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Good Vibrations,” Brian Wilson shifted his focus to more introspective subjects and experimentation with drugs, leading to a decline in chart success. Wilson prioritized creating art that would stand the test of time over churning out hit singles.

The Sandbox Experiment and Initial Creation of “Surf’s Up”

While working on the follow-up to Pet Sounds, Wilson decided to create a unique environment to inspire his songwriting. He had a sandbox delivered to his house and dumped in the dining room, using it as a place to position his piano. However, this unconventional choice brought unexpected challenges, as sand grains caused issues with the instrument, and his dogs ended up using the sandbox as a bathroom. During this period, Wilson collaborated with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who understood the struggles Wilson was going through. The album they were working on wouldn’t be released for years, with some of the songs appearing in different forms on various albums. One specific song, even five years later, almost led to the band’s breakup. Let’s delve into the story behind “Surf’s Up” by The Beach Boys.

Wilson and Parks wrote the song in 1966 while sitting in the sandbox, reportedly under the influence of drugs. Wilson came up with the melodies, with Parks improvising the lyrics on the spot. In his memoir, Wilson revealed, “The sandbox is sort of a famous thing. I wanted to have a different way of writing, so I brought a sandbox into the living room and set it up around the piano. In a way, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It was an environment that helped bring in ideas.”

Recording sessions for “Surf’s Up” took place over more than a dozen sessions starting in October 1966, but the project was eventually abandoned after the final session on April 10, 1967. It wasn’t until four years later that Wilson and the band’s manager convinced him to revisit the song. With missing lyrics and the departure of Parks, completing the song became a challenge. Band members were skeptical about its lyrical content.

Wilson explained, “People say they’re too complicated, or they don’t mean anything, but that’s the thing about poetry. It’s ideas, and it makes you have ideas when you listen to it. For those kinds of lyrics, I never asked Van Dyke what they meant. I sang their meaning the way it seemed to me.”


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The Transformation of “Surf’s Up” and Its Enduring Appreciation

Parks suggested the title “Surf’s Up” for the album, even though the lyrics didn’t explicitly reference surfing. He believed that renaming the album would help the band distance themselves from their striped shirt and surf-themed image. Parks stated, “If they call that album Surf’s Up, we can pre-sell a hundred and fifty thousand copies. And Brian can keep his house on Bellagio. They’ve been trying to get away from the beach, you know? They don’t like their image. Even when I first ran into ’em, I could never figure out why. What’s wrong with it? Get ’em down to the beach. Put ’em into the trunks. The beach ain’t bad. The ocean is the repository of the entire human condition – the pollution, the solution.”

The band faced considerable difficulty in completing “Surf’s Up.” Brian Wilson initially wanted nothing to do with it, causing tension with his brother Carl, who took over the vocals. However, Brian eventually re-engaged with the song after several days. Mike Love expressed confusion about the lyrics and their connection with the public. Love shared, “I asked Van Dyke what a particular set of lyrics meant, and he said, ‘I haven’t a clue, Mike.’ Some of his lyrical contributions were ‘acid alliteration’. Some of the stuff was phenomenal, but I looked at things from an objective commercial point of view. Whether it’s a strength or weakness. I said, ‘Is it going to relate to the public to the degree that they can identify with the message and the lyrics?'”

Despite initially failing to chart as a single, “Surf’s Up” is now widely regarded as a classic. In 2000, a tribute concert was held in honor of Brian Wilson, where Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb, and David Crosby performed the song. Gill, initially overwhelmed by its complexity, received praise from Wilson himself. Gill recollected, “‘Surf’s Up’ is like a classical piece. This is deep. This is all the way over my head. I can’t even touch the bottom here… I don’t know if I can cut this. It’s got stupid range.’ … Brian was on the side of the stage, and I walked by him, and he shook my hand and goes, ‘That was really beautiful. We never did that song live because it was too hard.’ I said, ‘Thanks a lot!'”

“Surf’s Up” is a captivating and introspective song that exemplifies Brian Wilson’s artistic aspirations and his desire to create music with deeper meaning. Its complexity and depth have ensured its enduring appreciation among audiences.