Other critics have nailed Surf’s Up in two words:
1. “Democracy sucks”
2. “Flawed greatness”
—Pitchfork‘s Dominique Leone.
George Starostin ranks “Don’t Go Near the Water” as the second worst song here, citing “a nursery rhyme melody and primitive, trashy ecological lyrics.” I disagree; the falsetto launch of “Beginning with me, beginning with you-HOO!!!” is my favorite moment on the album—maybe even the Beach Boys’ entire discography, recapturing their funnest (sp) moments of the 60’s on an album that tries desperately hard to place them as serious artists as suggested by newly hired manager Jack Rieley—dark cover and all. Yes, the coda is a complete waste of time that does not do anything (in my initial few runtimes of the album, I had always assumed it was the throwaway intro to the next song), obviously tacked onto the song after Mike Love heard “Surf’s Up”’s coda, but Mike Love could sacrifice a herd of virgin lambs on an altar to appease the dark deities and he still wouldn’t inherit Brian Wilson’s genius.
On the other hand, I do agree with George Starostin (and every other reviewer worth a damn), who devotes an entire paragraph to rip “Student Demonstration Time” apart. The chorus is vaguely catchy, but I can’t attribute that to Mike Love, since it’s a cover of Leiber & Stoller’s “Riot In Cell Block #9.” My main issue is twofold: firstly, it’s unconvincing—it sounds like the Beach Boys covering the Beatles’ “Revolution” (which I was never convinced by in the first place). In the words of Starostin, “Mike Love (nor any other Beach Boy, for that matter) couldn’t write a decent heavy rock song to save his life.” Secondly, Mike Love strips away the original’s lyrics and replaces it with multiple references to recent, local events which means that if a listener approached it forty years later, they wouldn’t be able to relate to it at all. Comparatively, “Surf’s Up” has lyrics that tried to mimic the tensions in America about the Vietnam War, but a) they’re too abstract to really signify that, and as a result are significantly more relatable, and b) the music itself is gorgeous. “Student Demonstration Time” is just ugly, the worst Beach Boys track there ever was; at least the shit on Surfin’ Safari were stupid for the sake of being stupid, instead of stupidity pretending to be smart.
Second worst contributor is Al Jardine. The second half of the 2-minute long “Looking At Tomorrow” is one of those psychedelic-for-the-sake-of-being-psychedelic songs, waving in and out nauseatingly to give people who have never been on psychedelics something to talk about. Meanwhile, “Take A Load Off Your Feet” has significantly worse lyrics than “Don’t Go Near the Water,” the rather disgusting documentation of Jardine’s foot fetish, “I do them when I’m down in the tub / With avocado cream, they’ll take a rub / They wrinkle like a-raisins if I stay too long / I wouldn’t want to do it wrong” and the nonsensical rhyme for rhyming’s sake of the title, “Take good care of your feet, Pete / You better watch out what you eat, Pete” (which will inspire the chorus of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” a decade later). But it gets saved by the tiny details, like the beep’s after the feet put you “in the driver’s seat” or the finger plucks after the individual lines of the chorus.
The rest is much less offensive, though I must say I’m not too impressed with either Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls (1957)” or Carl Wilson’s “Feel Flows” (great title), mostly because they take the longest times on an album full of short tracks. “Disney Girls (1957)” has a vocal melody that’s hard to argue with, but “Feel Flows” incorporates a guitar solo that makes me think that Carl Wilson (wrongly) believes he could’ve been a full-fledged rockstar in another life. His other contribution, “Long Promised Road,” is significantly better, self-deemed to be his first real song. To defer to Starostin again, “[‘Long Promised Road’] is an uprising and deeply emotional tune that could have easily been written by Brian – I guess Brian would have added a few extra key changes to the vocal melodies, but then again, maybe not.” Notice the slightest of crescendos that help transition the soft verses and loud choruses or the oscillating keyboards underneath the bridge that genuinely feel like waves.
Oh, and there’s Brian Wilson’s three-song suite. I’ve already briefly talked about “Surf’s Up,” unearthed from the Smile sessions for your listening pleasure, but I’ll say that the falsettoed, “Are you sleeping” is another classic moment in the Beach Boys’ discography. “A Day in the Life of a Tree” is my least favorite of the three, maybe because it’s about a fucking tree. Once you get past the organ tone and Jack Rieley’s vocals (really, the only useful thing he does for the band on Surf’s Up; putting lyrics in the liner notes for the first time in the Beach Boys’ discography was a terrible idea for an album with such schmaltzy lyrics), there’s not much going for it (this was Brian Wilson’s answer to “A Day in the Life?”). But “’Til I Die” is the last classic in the Beach Boys’ discography (that didn’t come from the Smile sessions), in the same style as the songs in Pet Sounds; depressing lyrics set to optimistic music. Listen especially to how the title’s words float above the rest of the lyrics in the song’s final minute.