Graded on a Curve:
The Beach Boys,
Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969–1971

The saga of The Beach Boys is a long, complicated tale of family, music, the ’60s and the California dream. Their early surf, girls, cars, and pop sound and mythic Pet Sounds/Smile period may be their most celebrated and chronicled, but they were for years also a great live act. While the group’s sound is often pegged as purely a ’60s phenomenon, the group made some excellent recordings post-Pet Sounds, well into the 1970s, that sounded great when they were released and hold up well even today.

A new reissue, Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971 (Universal/Brother/Reprise), fleshes out a period of the group’s early-’70s history that was highly productive, saw the group collegially collaborating amongst themselves, and working hard to transition from its ’60s glory days into the ’70s. The reissue is available as a 2-CD, 2-LP, 4-LP, or 5-CD configuration. The release of Feel Flows was highly anticipated and held up several times due to inter-band differences and circumstances related to the virus.

The 5-CD set includes 207 tracks. Of the 207, 108 are previously unreleased. The previously unreleased tracks include alternate versions, alternate mixes, outtakes, instrumental and a cappella versions, along with radio promo spots. Some of the previously unreleased tracks were part of what was supposed to be a Dennis Wilson solo album entitled either Poops or Hubba Hubba. In spite of the silly album titles, this material as presented here is quite strong, focusing on the excellence of Wilson’s songwriting and vocals at this time.

The Beach Boys released their masterwork Pet Sounds in 1966. The four albums released post-Pet SoundsSmiley Smile and Wild Honey in 1967 and Friends and 20/20 in 1968—are a mixed bag of music and came out during a period when Brian Wilson was half out of the group and half in and struggling with drug and mental problems. These would be the group’s last four albums for Capitol Records, there one and only album recording label since 1962.

Smiley Smile was an attempt to salvage the ill-fated Smile sessions. Wild Honey was a bold and somewhat successful attempt to strike out, mostly without Brian, and make a straight-up soul/R&B album, that would be far removed from the experimental psychedelia of Smile. Friends is an album that is totally different, with mellow sounds that would prefigure ’70s California soft-rock. 20/20 is a collection of outtakes of older studio sessions.

There are bright spots on all these albums, but the group was clearly trying to forge a new direction and identity, as the 60s were winding down and Brian’s days as the group’s resident genius, primary songwriter and producer appeared over. The group had even considered changing its name to The Beach—a name more apropos of their age and the late ’60s musical and cultural scene.

Although still somewhat enthralled with the Brian Wilson influence and leftover material, including some of their surf music cliches, the group moved to Warner Brothers in 1970 and released its first album Sunflower on its own Brother record label, through Reprise. While the album sold poorly and the group’s prowess as studio wizards was perceived to have long since faded, in retrospect, the album is quite strong and highlights the varied talents within the band beyond Brian.

Sunflower was still in some ways a transitional release. As much as other members of the group were stepping up and taking a bigger role in the group, Brian Wilson was very much involved in Sunflower and in fact much of the album was recorded at his home studio on Bellagio Road in Bel Air. It would take five years before Brian was as involved in another Beach Boys studio album.

Songs like “Add Some Music To Your Day” and “Cool Cool Water” became instant classics and have proved to be durable chestnuts of the group’s past. Other tracks either struck out in new territory or afforded members of the group, other than Brian and Mike, to put their songs out front and in most cases, to take the lead or co-lead vocal spot. While Carl and Al had always had their fair share of lead vocal turns, Sunflower showcased the full flowering of drumming brother Dennis. His lead vocals shine on four tracks: the two opening numbers “Slip on Through” and “This Whole World” (written by Brian and inspired by Carole King) and “Got to Know the Woman” and “Forever,” which is Dennis Wilson’s strongest song on the album.

Of course, it’s those peerless harmonies that shine when all five vocalists—Mike, Carl, Al, Brian, and Bruce—join together as on “Add Some Music to Your Day.” It’s interesting listening to “Tears in the Morning,” with its delicate baroque retro feel, sung by Bruce Johnston, which is almost a warmup for his song “Disney Girls,” which would appear on the next album Surf’s Up. The music on this album still recalled the myths and dreams of the California lifestyle, but it also reflected the mellow and straight rock of the early ’70s vibe.

The original album begins disc one of the five CD set, but there is a lot more music on the CD. The original album is followed by six live tracks from various years (1988, 1993, 1971, 1970, and two from 1976), with the 1970 performance taken from the Big Sur Festival and the 1971 performance from the Fillmore East, in New York. All the live tracks sound good, reflective of the decades of quality road work by the band through many lineup changes. The highlight is the rocking “Suzie Cincinnati.” As for the bonus studio tracks, check out “Break Away,” dating back to 1969 and a song co-written by Brian and dad Murray, as well the cover of Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields,” showing the often overlooked folk roots of the group.

As good as Sunflower was, Surf’s Up is a gem, one of the group’s most underrated albums and one of the best American albums of 1971. The album sets the tone with “Don’t Go Near the Water,” a song that addresses what at the time was referred to as ecology and now falls under the umbrella of climate change and the environment. The song is a co-write between Al Jardine and Mike Love, with Al, Carl Wilson, and Daryl Dragon of the Captain and Tennille producing.

One of the things the album makes abundantly clear is how important Carl Wilson had become in the group at that point. While Brian was the group’s titular leader, primary songwriter, and producer, and Mike Love was the group’s de-facto front man and also an important songwriter in the group, Carl Wilson’s role, while essential, often took a back-seat to Brian and Mike and, in terms of the group’s image, to brother Dennis on drums.

It is Carl’s Chuck Berry-styled guitar that propelled the group’s early surf and pop hits and it’s his wonderful harmony vocals that were the heart of the unique group vocals of the Beach Boys. His “Long Promised Road,” which he produced and co-wrote with Jack Rieley (the group’s new manager at the time and a former journalist), is a classic Beach Boys track of that period and the song Carl claims was the first song he ever wrote. Wilson and Rieley also wrote “Feel Flows” (with an unforgettable flute solo by Charles Lloyd) from which this box set derives its title and which is a tune that stays in one’s head long after hearing it. It’s a bit of a throwback in some ways, but it also has echoes of the sound of the group Chicago of that period.

The other members of the group to emerge on Surf’s Up is Bruce Johnson. Johnson joined the group many years ago to fill in for Brian Wilson on the road, and on this album he came up with the classic “Disney Girls,” a song full of longing and nostalgia, that would be evocatively covered by Art Garfunkel on his second solo album Breakaway in 1975.

As much as the other Beach Boys shine on this album, Brian Wilson is still very much integral to the album. He wrote, sang, and co-produced with Carl the magnificent “‘Til I Die,” produced and co-wrote with Jack Rieley “A Day in the Life of a Tree,” and the magnificent title cut he co-wrote with Van Dyke Parks, co-produced it with Carl, Al, and Bruce and shares lead vocals with Carl. The title cut was from the Smile sessions and it was Al Jardine’s idea to go back to the aborted album, with its plethora of unused material.

Another track that shows the group being more topical is “Student Demonstration Time.” Using the classic “There’s a Riot In Cell Block Number Nine,” which was a hit for The Coasters as its musical base, the song addresses the campus unrest of the era, with some clever and biting words from Mike Love. It’s amazing how much Love embraced TM, ecology, and the anti-war movement back then, but is now considered by most to embrace right wing Republican politics. Surf’s Up is also significant in that Blondie Chaplin joined the group as did his bandmate in The Flames’ Ricky Fataar, who would sometime later. Fataar would much later join The Rutles.

Like disc one, disc two begins with the original album, in this case Surf’s Up. It is then followed by five live tracks, again, like the live tracks on the first disc, from different years (1993, 1972, 1982, 1972, 1971), with two performances from Carnegie Hall, from 1971 and 1972 respectively. Like disc one, all the live tracks, even though they are from different periods in the band’s career, are strong. As for bonus tracks on this disc, the original version of “Big Sur,” which would turn up on Holland, is included and was written by Mike Love on an acoustic guitar while he spent time at Big Sur.

“Sound of Free” is a co-write between Dennis Wilson and Mike Love and was originally released as a single in Europe billed as Dennis Wilson and Rumbo, with the Rumbo referring to Daryl Dragon. Brian Wilson’s cover of Floyd Tucker’s “Awake” is one of the unreleased gems on this disc. There’s also a wonderful and unexpected cover of the Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen “Seasons in the Sun,” that would become a big hit for Terry Jacks in 1974. For pure strangeness, check out “My Solution,” which sounds like an outtake from a ’60s horror beach movie soundtrack album.

If those two discs aren’t enough, there are three more discs full of rare tracks. Disc three includes what is called the “Sunflower Sessions” of previously unreleased material and a cappella versions of tracks from 1969 and 1970. Disc four is made up of tracks from the Surf’s Up sessions of previously unreleased tracks, previously unreleased a cappella versions, and bonus tracks.

Disc five is a bonus disc of 29 previously unreleased tracks. Highlights include the Dennis Wilson tracks “Old Movie (Cuddle Up)” and “Back Home,” that would make it into the Carl and The Passions—So Tough collection in 1972, further proof of how prolific and inspired Dennis was in that period. “Behold the Night,” “Hawaiian Dream,” and two versions of “Won’t You Tell Me” are highlights of the disc and the disc ends with “Marcella.” There’s even a snippet of “You Never Give Me Your Money from Abbey Road by The Beatles.

There is so much previously unreleased material here and studio chatter, that it will require repeated listenings of this entire box to digest the enormity of this must-have reissue. This beautiful and historic set was lovingly compiled by producers Marek Linett and Alan Boyd. It is important to note that the original engineer on the sessions was Stephen Desper, who was integral to the superb sound. The oversized, hardcover book-styled box includes a 48-page book with period photos, liner notes, track annotation and, along with a note from the producers, a detailed, informative and insightful essay by Howie Edelson.

If all that isn’t enough, planned reissues around the Carl and The Passions—So Tough collection and Holland album are forthcoming, making this one of the most fruitful reissue periods of the group’s history, also including the 1967 – Sunshine Tomorrow reissue project released in 2017.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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