Like a Companion for Your Lonely Soul
Those placing the needle on The Beach Boys’ Sunflower upon its release in 1970 might have been taken aback by the sheer drive of its opening track. The lusty “Slip on Through” – co-written, produced, and primarily sung by Dennis Wilson – rocked harder than just about anything else in the band’s discography to that point. The song announced that Sunflower was not just The Beach Boys’ first album on a new label but the beginning of a new chapter altogether. That chapter is explored in thrilling depth on Capitol, Brother, and UMe’s new 5CD box set Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971 (and its various smaller formats). If one would have thought that the band’s vaults had long been emptied of anything truly revelatory…well, think again.
By now, the story of The Beach Boys in the first half of the 1970s has been well told. Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Alan Jardine, and Bruce Johnston go to a new label and visionary leader Brian recedes to allow his brothers to blossom as both songwriters and producers. The sense of experimentalism and artistic freedom that pervades Sunflower and 1971’s Surf’s Up leads the band in a more rock-oriented direction, and the same listeners who had written them off at the end of the 1960s were embracing them at hip venues such as The Fillmore East. Upon Johnston’s departure in 1972, South African artists Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar are brought into the band and this rekindled golden age of creativity continues until the phenomenal success of 1974’s Endless Summer finds the Boys reinventing themselves again, this time as a nostalgia act. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but it’s the story told on Feel Flows (or the first part of it, anyway). The story isn’t new, but the telling of it is. Compilation co-producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd have expertly curated the 133 tracks comprising Feel Flows with remastered (and significantly, not remixed) versions of Sunflower and Surf’s Up plus numerous outtakes, live recordings, alternate versions, backing tracks, session fragments, and even some never-bootlegged, previously unheard songs totaling 108 previously unreleased cuts.
The first CD of the box is built around the remastered Sunflower. It’s difficult to believe that it was the band’s lowest-charting album to that point, so strong is its eclectic material. Though cobbled together from various studios and sessions (most in 1969-1970 but one dating back to 1967), it feels less like a patchwork quilt and more like the flowering of disparate talents in service of a common cause. Sunflower brought out the best in the individual members as songwriters, producers, and singers, bringing the Boys’ patented harmonies into new, vibrant settings for a new decade.
In addition to “Slip on Through,” Dennis co-wrote the even more carnal “Got to Know the Woman” and hauntingly lovely “Forever” (all with Gregg Jakobson). Carl took the lead and co-produced Brian’s exquisite ode to “This Whole World” while showcasing his softer side on “Our Sweet Love,” co-written with Al Jardine and Brian. Every Beach Boy had at least one production credit on Sunflower other than Mike Love who made his mark co-writing the warm yet anthemic “Add Some Music to Your Day” with Joe Knott and Brian, co-writing and singing the entrancing “All I Wanna Do,” and sharing leads on the SMiLE-era “Cool, Cool Water” and urgent “It’s About Time.” Bruce Johnston shined as singer, songwriter, and producer with the baroque “Tears in the Morning” and romantic “Deirdre.”
Sunflower is joined on the first disc by a radio spot, a clutch of live performances (spanning 1971-1988) including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Riot in Cell Block 9” which would inspire a song on Surf’s Up, and eight bonus tracks including the original 1969 single version of the all-too-unheralded classic “Break Away” (co-written by Brian and his father Murry Wilson), a new stereo mix of the 1970 single “Cotton Fields,” additional new mixes of deep cuts familiar to BBs fans such as “Good Time” (released by American Spring in 1972 and The Beach Boys in 1977), “Susie Cincinnati” (which wouldn’t appear on an album until 1976) and “San Miguel” (first heard on an album in 1981), and the official debut of the 1969 mix of the quirky “Loop De Loop.”
A listen to Sunflower should be immediately followed by the disc of session material (actually the third CD of the box) highlighting backing tracks, background vocal mixes, and a brace of a cappella tracks. Far from being the kind of bonus tracks which warrant one play, these are chockablock with rich details that will be new to even the longest-serving Beach Boys fan, whether the otherworldly vocal arrangement of an extended “This Whole World” or the falsetto vocals by Brian on the tag of “Our Sweet Love.” The simultaneously earthy and ethereal “Cool, Cool, Water” gains an extra minute-plus, too, of its luxuriant harmonies.
The backing tracks of “Deirdre” and “Tears in the Morning” put Bruce’s contributions in sharp focus; both show his mastery of orchestrated pop in the Pet Sounds tradition. The shimmering “Deirdre” in particular, is delightful from start to finish. Its woozy brass, swirling woodwinds, lush strings arranged by French composer-conductor Michel Colombier, (tack?) piano played by Larry Knechtel, and effortless bounce create a joyous aural picture of love in bloom, even without lyrics. The percolating “It’s About Time,” a rare Carl/Dennis/Al collaboration (with Bob Burchman), is as aggressive as “Deirdre” is gentle, packing a powerful punch. “When Girls Get Together” sat on the shelf until 1980 but the unadorned track to the Wilson/Love collaboration sounds positively regal. (A new mix with vocals is included with the Surf’s Up bonus material, too.) Among the other highlights are Dennis’ untamed lead on “Got to Know the Woman” and some of Mike’s most truly soulful singing on “All I Wanna Do.”
Engulfs All the Senses
If Sunflower was the light, Surf’s Up was the darkness. All that one needed to know was on the respective albums’ covers: the former a photograph by the late Ricci Martin of the all-grown Beach Boys surrounded by their children, the latter a painting based on the sculpture End of the Trail depicting a Native American wearily astride his equally exhausted horse. The grandly ironic title juxtaposed with that striking art made it clear that this was no sequel to Surfin’ Safari or Surfin’ USA. The opening song was even called “Don’t Go Near the Water.” The Beach Boys’ transition to adulthood was complete.
Much of this image transformation was down to the clever management of Jack Rieley. He engineered a change in their appearance – goodbye matching onstage attire, hello long beards and street clothes – and got them booked onto the lucrative college circuit. He also supported Carl Wilson as Brian’s modest little brother took an even more prominent role in the group’s writing and productions. Wilson and Rieley co-wrote two of the most stunning items on an album practically overflowing with them: the rocking “Long Promised Road” (recently revived by Brian as the title track to a new documentary film) and the psychedelic “Feel Flows” featuring the cosmic flute of jazz legend Charles Lloyd. The former, for all its enigmatic lyrics, is a moving declaration of strength and freedom: “I hit hard at the battle that’s confronting me, yeah/Knock down all the roadblocks a-stumbling me/Throw off all the shackles that are binding me down.” No wonder brother Brian found such solace in the song so many decades later after triumphing over his own personal battles and roadblocks. (And if there’s any doubt of Carl Wilson as one of rock’s finest and most persuasive singers, one listen to the a cappella mix should instantly dispel them.) “Feel Flows” is even more impressionistic, a hypnotic journey of word-association and lysergic yet gorgeous melody that only got its full due when Cameron Crowe chose it to close his film Almost Famous in 2000.
Though Dennis Wilson was conspicuously absent from the writing and production of the final album (something this set remedies via the many bonus tracks), the remaining Beach Boys all brought their A-games as well. Mike Love and Al Jardine’s “Don’t Go Near the Water” earnestly lamented ecological pollution. In the wake of the Kent State Shootings in which four unarmed college students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a protest, Love adapted the Leiber and Stoller oldie “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” as “Student Demonstration Time.” He plead directly to the college students in front of whom the band was performing: “I know we’re all fed up with useless wars and racial strife/But next time there’s a riot, well, you best stay out of sight. Stay away when there’s a riot going on…” (Trivia: “Student Demonstration Time” marked Blondie Chaplin’s first Beach Boys recording session.) The social conscience extended to Jardine and Gary Winfrey’s “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” in which Al takes on the voice of a worker facing unemployment: “Now Bess and me were feeling bad/And all the good jobs, they were had/I had to take to sweeping up some floors/Well, I don’t mind that so much/Or the changing of my luck/But you know, I could be doing so much more.” Jardine was always a fan of folk songs, and “Lookin’ at Tomorrow” is a latter-day entry worthy of that tradition.
Bruce Johnston only penned one track on Surf’s Up, but it turned out to be one of his most beloved compositions. “Disney Girls (1957)” was his heartfelt response to the turmoil of 1971, a sentimental, autobiographical look back at his own teenaged years invoking Patti Page, Tootsie Rolls, and Disney’s fantasy worlds. If it’s doubtful many kids identified at the time with Johnston’s exultant bridge (“Get up! Guess what? I’m in love with a girl I found! She’s really swell, ’cause she likes church, bingo chances, and old-time dances…”) there was no doubting Johnston’s sincerity on this beautiful evocation of the era.
Yet at the beating heart of Surf’s Up was Brian Wilson. Even as his bandmates were maturing as songwriters and Carl becoming a formidable producer in his own right, Brian’s shadow loomed large. One could argue that the (first) golden age of his songwriting ended on Surf’s Up. If “A Day in the Life of a Tree” (another Jack Rieley co-write) continued the environmental theme of “Don’t Go Near the Water,” his solo composition “‘Til I Die” was wrenchingly personal. Brian used natural imagery to express his feelings of hopelessness in the face of his mortality: “I’m a cork on the ocean/Floating over the raging sea/How deep is the ocean? How deep is the ocean? I lost my way…hey, hey, hey…” Happily, his prediction of “I’m a leaf on a windy day/Pretty soon I’ll be blown away” ultimately didn’t come to fruition, but “‘Til I Die” remains a heartbreaking snapshot of a man and artist on the brink, turning his demons into art. It’s as fatalistic as Pet Sounds‘ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is hopeful, but every bit as ravishing.
The unfinished title track, arguably Brian’s masterwork, was dusted off the SMiLE shelf at the urging of Al Jardine and completed by Carl, Al, Bruce, and engineer Stephen Desper. Carl delivered the vocal of a lifetime for the first half of the song, singing over Brian’s lush 1966 track, while the second half featured Brian’s touchingly pure, original piano and vocal. Much like “‘Til I Die,” “Surf’s Up” features a tag that draws attention to the sheer beauty of the Beach Boys’ combined vocals. The release of the majestic “Surf’s Up,” with memorably evocative lyrics by Van Dyke Parks turning the title phrase on its ear, was a triumphant conclusion to one aspect of the abortive SMiLE – even if the whole album (or some semblance thereof) wouldn’t surface for another 40 years.
How Deep Is the Valley?
The box set paints a fuller picture of the Surf’s Up era and timeline with the bonus material (presented after the album on Disc Two and on all of Disc Four). The second disc adds a radio spot, five 1971-1993 live cuts of uniformly high quality, and outtakes and alternates to the remastered Surf’s Up. The original 1970 version of Mike Love’s “Big Sur,” later re-recorded as part of the “California Saga” on Holland, is one of many tracks making its official debut here. The original turns out to be a lost classic, more pop-leaning than the later country-tinged version with a serene, lightly loping arrangement and sparkling vocals. Dennis and Jack Rieley’s elegiac album outtake “Fourth of July” ironically deployed its title in the manner of “Surf’s Up.” Reportedly inspired by government censorship of the media and stirringly sung by Carl, “Fourth of July” lamented the “promise lost/Oh, where has it gone?” of the American dream while still framing those ideals as worth fighting for.
The Boys’ 1970 cover of Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen’s “Seasons in the Sun,” co-produced by Terry Jacks and Al Jardine, is another previously bootlegged treasure appearing here in far superior quality to anything heard before. Jacks’ own rendition of the chanson would spend three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974. Brian attempted another cover, this time a piano-and-vocal take of Floyd Tucker’s “Awake” with sweet falsetto. As heard here, it could have served as a demo for American Spring’s 1972 Brian-helmed version.
Brian’s offbeat, horror-aping “My Solution” is genuinely loopy and a testament to his offbeat sense of humor. Appropriately enough, he recorded it on Halloween, 1970. A cover of Don Goldberg’s “Sweet and Bitter,” co-written and produced by Brian and persuasively sung by Mike with no background harmonies, makes its first appearance anywhere. The disc also includes both sides of Dennis Wilson and Rumbo’s rare 1970 single “Sound of Free” b/w “Lady (Fallin’ in Love),” with the latter mix making its official CD debut. An early version of the rollicking track for the former also appears here.
Dennis’ partner in Rumbo was none other than Daryl Dragon, the future Captain of Captain and Tennille, and a number of their joint compositions (some reportedly mooted for a Dennis and Daryl album which should be assembled as a Record Store Day LP and CD, post-haste!) pepper the various discs comprising Feel Flows. These run the gamut, from “Baby, Baby” (a goofball rock-and-roller which Dennis couldn’t even get through without laughing) to the terrifically muscular “It’s a New Day,” co-written by Stanley Shapiro and sung by new Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin. How this song evaded release for so long is one of Feel Flows‘ enduring mysteries. The same goes for the moody, pensive “Behold the Night.” Dennis could rock out, but he also could tap into the same well of beauty and darkness as Brian on tracks such as “Old Movie” (an early version sans lyrics of Carl & The Passions’ stately “Cuddle Up”) and the soaring “All of My Love” which leads into the buoyant track for “Ecology.” Both “Before” and “Hawaiian Dream” are also devoid of lyrics but the music is spellbinding. It’s interesting to note that even on the incomplete tracks, the integral harmonies are often present. A new mix of “Barbara” (the song was first released in 1997) stands out for its sheer tenderness.
The Surf’s Up Sessions, like the Sunflower counterpart disc, is filled with revealing moments. A listen to the backing track and background vocals on “Don’t Go Near the Water” emphasizes the SMILE-like delicacy in its instrumentation and truly breathtaking vocals. “Student Demonstration Time” is even more forceful in this primarily instrumental mix, all swagger and fury. In Howie Edelson’s liner notes, Mike Love opines of Charles Lloyd’s flute solo on “Feel Flows” that “there’s no way anybody could replicate it. It’s Charles Lloyd supreme.” It’s even more spellbinding out front in the instrumental mix. An extended version of “Til I Die” offers a couple of alternate lines and even more rapturous harmonies. The 2013 Made in California box set premiered Dennis Wilson and Stanley Shapiro’s never-bootlegged “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice To) Live Again,” a downbeat riff on brother Brian’s famously optimistic song from Pet Sounds. Here, this moving slice of melancholia which concludes in a loose, jazz-inspired jam gains another couple of minutes to savor.
Let My Song Take You for a Ride
A “bonus disc” draws on both Sunflower– and Surf’s Up-era material and premieres the lion’s share of the never-before-released songs including much of the Dennis Wilson/Daryl Dragon repertoire. But the tracks on this potpourri shouldn’t be considered inferior to the “core” bonuses, something the compilers make abundantly clear by its opening, one-two punch of “This Whole World” with extra harmonies and a cold ending (rather than a fade) and “Add Some Music to Your Day” with different lyrics. “Don’t Go Near the Water” is presented with a bizarre opening verse and “Til I Die” in raw piano form. Brian has spoken of his “feels” – the groundwork of his composing – and those feels are on full display with “Til I Die,” free of lyrics and even the vocal line but still conveying a depth of emotion. A lost Brian/Mike collaboration – Brian produces, Mike sings – on David Sandler’s pretty “It’s Natural” sounds unfinished, but what’s there is choice.
A rare misstep is a marriage of Brian’s original 1966 vocal for Part One of “Surf’s Up” with the 1971 re-recording. While interesting to hear, it doesn’t quite gel as the backing track seems in competition with the lead. Another disappointment is the editing of “Carnival (Over the Waves/Sobra Las Olas”). Brian’s adaptation of Juventino Rosas’ 1888 waltz (if you heard it, you’d recognize it!) was released in 2019 on a digital EP with a running time of 2:43. On Feel Flows, however, it’s been sliced down to 1:34 and the longer version removed from streaming/download services. The minute isn’t a great loss as the track is rather repetitive, but it’s a surprising letdown for completists and collectors nonetheless.
The treasures far outweigh the odd misfire. The family patriarch Murry Wilson can be heard boasting “The best song you guys have sung in five years!” of “Won’t You Tell Me,” an attractive ballad he co-wrote with Brian. The song is heard twice here – once in Brian’s rough demo and in a more fully-produced version featuring Brian and Carl; a version by The Sunrays’ Rick Henn with Dennis Wilson contributing was issued by Sundazed in 2014.
Feel Flows has been expertly mixed and mastered by Mark Linett, co-producer/curator with Alan Boyd. The producers and longtime stewards of the Beach Boys’ discography have given due credit to original session engineer Stephen Desper, innovative builder of the studio in Brian Wilson’s Bellagio Road home where most of the tracks were originally recorded. Desper’s original mixes of Sunflower and Surf’s Up still brim with vivacity today.
The six discs are housed within a 48-page hardcover book featuring an essay by Howie Edelson and notes from both producers. Edelson’s essay is entertaining and edifying, with quotes from the key personnel, but it’s printed in a large font size more typical of a children’s book. The choice of the large type is more surprising because so much information is absent. While there’s a listing of additional musicians and singers, there are no individual credits (where available) for each track. Similarly, the lack of track-by-track liner notes leaves many of the stories behind the songs still untold. Other than composers and lead vocalists, the only information on each track annotation is the recording date. The dates, along with the venues, are missing from the live cuts which only indicate the year of recording. A number of photos as well as the front covers of Sunflower and Surf’s Up round out the book.
Smaller formats are also available including a 2CD highlights edition, and 2LP and 4LP editions. The vinyl versions mystifyingly interrupt the original sequences of Sunflower and Surf’s Up to include bonus tracks; needless to say, this isn’t the ideal way to experience these albums.
The Beach Boys never sounded more like a self-contained band than in the era of Sunflower and Surf’s Up (and continuing to Carl and the Passions – So Tough and Holland, hopefully the subjects of the next box set). With the release of Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971, this fertile period of ambition and experimentation finally has a definitive chronicle. “It’s About Time,” indeed.
Feel Flows is available now at the following links:
5CD (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
4LP – Black Vinyl (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
4LP – Translucent Blue & Translucent Gold (The Beach Boys Shop)
2LP (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
2CD (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)