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A Window Into an Underappreciated Era: The Beach Boys’ ‘Feel Flows — The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions’ Box Set (Bruce Johnston/Mike Love/Al Jardine Reflect)
1966’s Pet Sounds is rightfully championed as the zenith of The Beach Boys’ body of work and routinely selected in music magazines as among the top albums ever released by anybody.
Flash forward a few years later to Sunflower and Surf’s Up, arriving in record shops at a time when the band was perceived by the underground rock cognoscenti as passé and their once mighty commercial standing had dropped precipitously. It was a tragedy, as besides hardcore Beach Boys fans, the two albums — now considered among the band’s most impressive work — originally slipped through the cracks.
Decades later, that injustice has been beautifully rectified with the magnificent new Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971 box set. Lovingly compiled and overseen by noted Beach Boys archivists Alan Boyd, Mark Linett and Howie Edelson, the multi-disc collection shines a long overdue spotlight on one of the most creatively robust periods in the band’s history.
With resident genius “big daddy” Brian Wilson’s role decreasing, the other Beach Boys in nearly equal measure collectively stepped up to the table, marshaling a mind-blowing reservoir of forward-thinking creativity, songwriting magic and production grandeur displayed brilliantly on Sunflower and Surf’s Up.
Alongside the two studio albums presented with a pristine sonic upgrade, the sumptuous Feel Flows set is packed with a bounty of unreleased material, outtakes and revelatory live material. Manna from the heavens for Beach Boys fans.
Join us for a conversation with Beach Boys‘ members Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston — with a little help from Brian Wilson –offering a window into a critically underrated and unheralded artistic period in The Beach Boys’ history.
Rock Cellar: Bruce, in 1970, you spoke about the problem of how the public perceived the band as “Surfing Doris Days.” The music you were creating during this period stands among the band’s most artistic and forward-thinking. How did you work to counterattack that problem?
Bruce Johnston: We didn’t have anyone adjusting our image and perception. That was just who we were. People didn’t know image wise that we were anti-war at the time I said that. I still thought more about music than image. How can I expect Brian Wilson to win a gold record in the Olympics every year of his life? He was the leader of the band for so long in the studio and he did beautifully in those first five or six years.
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But I think we started getting wimpy and watered down. Then when you mix in how angry the young part of our nation was in fighting a war that we inherited from the French, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon. We were so angry that we let that slip into the imagery of where we were at. Our music was so “Doris Day,” and I mean that as a compliment. But it was very unhip and uncool. We kept it light.
All of a sudden being this band that kept it light for so many years, we weren’t cool or relevant. Yet we did make some great music.
Rock Cellar: Mike, the music you created during this period stands among the Beach Boys’ best, both from an artistic point of view and with its ambition.
Mike Love: When the Vietnam War was heating up in the late ‘60s and everybody was concerned about their draft status — Carl received a draft notice and he became a conscientious objector and that led to us playing a lot of prisons and hospitals as part of his community service — Capitol Records would be promoting us at the No. 1 surfing group in the U.S.A. That’s what Bruce meant by that remark — it was irrelevant.
At the same time, we’d done “Good Vibrations,” which is one of the more avant-garde classic psychedelic songs. It was both avant-garde and commercially successful, mystical and poetic. I dictated the words to my then wife Suzanne on the way to the session. I didn’t say “Don’t fuck with the formula.” I like to be creative and artistic but I also like to be successful, and that’s the beauty of “Good Vibrations.”
It was as avant-garde as you could ever hope to be. It was a classic arrangement, so unique and so brilliant musically but also because it was so unique and such a departure musically, I thought that this was gonna be challenging for some of the fans in mid America but I know that everybody can relate to boy and girl so I wrote (recites), “I’m picking up good vibrations, she’s giving me the excitations.”
For Capitol to say that we were the No. 1 surfing group in the U.S.A. was a bit passé at that point, and that didn’t help how the pubic perceived us. It didn’t reflect the evolution and progression musically, lyrically or conceptually of what we were into starting with Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile and onward. But I wouldn’t place the blame fully on the label.
Had we had our stuff together, we would have been able to handle it better. I was in India at the teacher’s training program with the Maharishi in February/March of 1968 and had a conversation one night with Paul McCartney on the roof of this building. He said, “Mike, you really ought to take more care with your album covers.” Here’s the mastermind of Sgt. Pepper and that brilliant album cover they did with the costumes and the various people, Gandhi and whomever, and our Pet Sounds album cover was a photograph taken of us at the San Diego petting zoo.
When he said we needed to take more care with our album covers, I said, “You’re absolutely right, but we’ve always felt what went inside the sleeve was more important,” so it was like a touché moment. It’s kind of intimidating when Sir Paul says that. He was trying to be helpful and advise us. We being the boys next door from Southern California, we weren’t as together as The Beatles were in showing the evolution of the band. If we had proper management and PR savvy, I don’t think Capitol Records and the world would have perceived us that way.
“We had an engineer build a studio in [my] house. We were able to function better and the guys knew the house so they were able to play [well].” – @BrianWilsonLive https://t.co/pqks2RV0nN pic.twitter.com/3idwvGsLvn
— The Beach Boys (@TheBeachBoys) September 9, 2021
Rock Cellar: Considering the Beach Boys’ catalog, the Sunflower album, one of the two featured albums on the new Feel Flows box set, heralds a more hands-on role by the other Beach Boys sans Brian Wilson.
Mike Love: Brian became somewhat reclusive, or retired, literally, from being as active as he once was in the studio. There was that time period when it got more democratic. Bruce would come up with a great song, or Carl would come up with some really good stuff. It was a combination … if you have a quarterback that’s Joe Namath and he can hit anybody at 70 yards away, but his knees are out and benched and he can’t do it anymore … well Brian, he shelved the SMiLE album, and of course I got blamed for it naturally, because somebody needs to have a villain, and that’s me.
But he shelved the Smile album because of various things that had been written about it, and he kinda wasn’t the dynamic producer he once was, and that left it to all of us to get involved. There wasn’t fear involved, but there were a couple of things going on during the Sunflower period. We ended our deal with Capitol and went to Reprise. We weren’t having the big hit singles but what there was with Brian’s retreat — he was experiencing some serious paranoid-schizophrenic issues, but that’s a whole saga in itself with Dr. Landy — but what that retreat allowed for was the maturity of the other guys in the band, Alan Jardine with “California Saga,” “Take Good Care of Your Feet,” Carl with “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows,” Dennis with “Forever,” Bruce with “Disney Girls.” The group became more of a democracy in a sense (laughs) where everybody had a voice, not only in terms of singing but also coming up with creative pieces.
Bruce Johnston: Brian went five, six years coming up with great stuff so rather than stepping up anyone’s game, we all had to see if we had a game and could deliver. With all those hits, Brian was their game and the voices collectively were Brian’s game. To this day people think Brian could have done it without the band, well, nobody could have done it separately. Brian needed the band and the band needed Brian.
After SMiLE, we kind of had a truce. We were like, “Let’s reboot our recording career.” We were so overwhelmed with what we had been going through we decided collectively to do something simple. Wild Honey is as close to being our rhythm and blues album as we could have done. There’s nothing to it which makes it everything. 20/20 was the 20th Beach Boys album to be delivered to Capitol and last for the label at the time. Then we changed labels and moved over to Warner. That was a lovely time to be in The Beach Boys. Everybody stepped up to the plate on Sunflower. That is a really collective production. Not all talent is equal but that album shows off the best of everybody. I love that album. To me, that’s our best album.
Everybody was beginning to get semi mature artistically. We had all learned so much from Brian. Pet Sounds may be the greatest Beach Boys album but the input is about 90% from Brian on that record and that’s wonderful. But quite accidentally we all had the input on Sunflower and that was really cool.
Rock Cellar: Carl stepped into a producer’s role with Sunflower and Surf’s Up.
Al Jardine: He really came into his own. We had to pick up the slack and he was the most capable of all of us to do that. Most of those albums were spearheaded by Carl leading the charge. Carl was a great musician and had all that talent. He was the whole package. Real easy to work with. Never tried to impose himself on anyone and was always open to everybody’s suggestions.
Rock Cellar: Besides his gifts as a singer/musicians/writer, is it safe to say Carl’s role in the band was that of a mediator and the glue that kept it all together?
Al Jardine: Carl was the voice and the glue that held it all together. Carl brought integrity to the band. He was our truth. He was like pure consciousness. Carl was a perfectionist and he fought for total honesty and integrity in music. Sometimes we’d have disagreements how to get to the end but we always got there with respect for each other.
Rock Cellar: Bruce, you co-wrote “Deirdre” with Brian for that album.
Bruce Johnston: I wrote all the music for the song and started writing the lyrics with Brian although that’s not his strong point, even though we must remember that Brian wrote all the lyrics for songs like “Surfer Girl” and “’Til I Die.” So “Deidre” was kind of my song and I split it 50/50 with him. It’s really about 99% my baby.
Rock Cellar: Dennis really emerged with some stellar contributions to Sunflower. Did his blossoming as an exceptional writer take you by surprise?
Bruce Johnston: No, and I’ll tell you why. Think of the Bee Gees, they’re all drawing from the same gene pool of music. The Wilsons have that same kind of creative gene pool. They voice chords a little upside down, which Elton [John] loves. I figured out Dennis’ talents early because we had so much down time in Japan in 1966. There was always a piano backstage and Dennis would say, “Show me some chords!” Dennis started to get really heavily into the piano and writing stuff.
Probably for me, “Forever” from Sunflower is his great song. It’s simple, it’s wonderful and I never get tired of listening to the recording of it.
“Angel Come Home” is another great one of Dennis’. “Baby Blue” was a great vignette hooked together. Dennis was cursed with being somebody that all girls wanted to be with and that was very distracting for him. He also got distracted by the stimulants, and that took away focus for him. Have you seen this new photo book by Bill Yerkes called The Beach Boys on Tour 1966: Surfboards, Stratocasters, Striped Shirts? In that book, you see pictures of Dennis, who was very young and handsome, sitting backstage at the piano. There’d be girls back there and he’d play the piano for them and start making stuff up and singing. He started a lot of songs that way for dating purposes (laughs). He’d play some pretty cool things and would revisit some of them later and finish them.
Rock Cellar: Sunflower is cited by many, next to Pet Sounds, as the band’s greatest achievement.
Al Jardine: We started to take over the production. Brian simply wouldn’t come down from his tower anymore. We had to finish a lot of work. “It’s About Time” was Carl, Dennis and I. That’s a good one, I like that production. That was mostly Dennis and I just helped with the lyrics. Dennis and Carl did the track. It was a very powerful track, it was very well done.
“Our Sweet Love” was one we finished with Brian, he just didn’t want to finish it. So we kind of helped. We became completers of ideas. We all worked on his songs from time to time and then we’d put them on the shelf. You start a song and put it away, start a song and put it away. It is a very good album. Again, we had some sonic problems but on that album I think we overcame some of the sonic problems. That album was a smattering of different studios, that’s probably why it had an interesting texture.
We were basically Brian’s pillars. He was holding us up for all those years and now we were basically holding him up. We were forced to go into a creative hyperspeed because Brian was retreating in the opposite direction as we were accelerating. We were recording right underneath his bedroom and he’d be holed up there sometimes for days. He’d call down every once in a while and say, “Hey, that sounds great!” (laughs) and pop in occasionally and do something or give us ideas.
Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker from Warner Brothers Records were so impressed with what we were doing. They were blown away by “Cool, Cool Water” from Sunflower and told us we were onto something. We started to take over the production. Brian simply wouldn’t come down from his tower anymore. But Brian taught me everything. People teach by deeds. You can talk all about schooling and technical expertise and book learning but if you are lucky enough to be around someone who does things, you can learn so much by simply watching and listening. If I can impart any wisdom from this conversation, it just rubbed off. I mean you just start learning stuff.
His greatest talent as a producer was his lack of fear. He’d just go for it. He’d say, “Put fourteen violins on that.” (laughs). “Add harmonica and trombone.” I just wasn’t afraid to do anything after that. When I saw with a little courage and some ambition you can do it. You just do it.
Rock Cellar: Mike, you’ve always cited Chuck Berry as a pivotal influence on your lyric writing but with a song like “Add Some Music to Your Day” from Sunflower you’re on taking off from that style of writing.
Mike Love: My appreciation for lyrics goes back to grade school. I wasn’t interested in mathematics but I was very much interested in literature. I was the most well-read child in grade school, junior high and high school. In junior high I had crushes on a few different girls and wrote very romantic poems about them of unrequited love. (laughs) I’ve always had a fondness for lyrics, prose and poetry of various kinds. I would read Olde English going back to Chaucer and Coleridge and American stuff like Emerson so all that rubbed off on me when writing lyrics like “Warmth of the Sun,” that wasn’t Chuck Berry. (laughs) Chuck was so incredibly and beautifully descriptive with the little vignettes, word pictures that came alive and resonated so amazingly well with the masses. That’s what I always admired about that style of writing and always tried to emulate.
Rock Cellar: You’ve always been a very commercial lyricist but you seldom get the credit for your lyrics that go a bit deeper.
Mike Love: Are you familiar with the song “All I Wanna Do”? It has a very poetic nature. “All I Wanna Do” is far more subtle than the hit songs like “Barbara Ann” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But “All I Wanna Do” is totally poetic and quite heartfelt. Funnily enough, I didn’t even remember the verse of “All I Wanna Do” when we rehearsed it recently. (recites lyrics) “Let these little words of love become the lamps that light your way … ” We were in rehearsals and the lyrics were written out but they weren’t right and I was struggling with it.
Alan Boyd, who’s forensic with us, leaned in and said “Let these little words of love become the lamps that light your way … ” And I said, “Isn’t that something when our forensic archivist who’s cataloged everything by the Beach Boys tells the song’s author what its words are?” (laughs) It was humorous and hilarious, but also right on. I didn’t remember that line, which I think is a great lyric. But I couldn’t remember it even when listening to the song as closely as we could. Other people would say what they think was the lyrics and it wasn’t completely accurate. Well, that was the case with the printout I had of the lyrics for “All I Wanna Do”; everything else was right but not that.
Rock Cellar: The band’s output at that time with Surf’s Up and Sunflower is rightfully acclaimed as some of the group’s best work. But the albums were not being accepted on a major commercial scale. You were playing great shows but to a much smaller audience. How did you deal with that?
Al Jardine: It was just another element of the change, the metamorphosis. We were always up long hours. I just remember never getting any sleep (laughs). It was a pretty busy experience.
Rock Cellar: Do you view the Surf’s Up/Sunflower period as a watershed of creativity for the band?
Al Jardine: Yes. We were forced to go into a creative hyperspeed because Brian was retreating in the opposite direction as fast as we were [going] in the other direction. Carl and I had to piece together “Cool, Cool Water.” That song was a forty-eight hour mix down. I saw two sunrises on that.
Bruce and I were just delirious and desperate. We were all just walking around like zombies. So weird. How could anything take so long? And we had to reconstruct Surf’s Up because we couldn’t get Brian to finish it. So Carl ended up singing half of it and we kept Brian’s original verses. And I think Carl sang the middle parts. It was like reconstructing the SMiLE album in a way, that’s what that period kind of represented.
Rock Cellar: So Brian was retreating as a writer?
Al Jardine: Yeah, he was retreating as we were accelerating. We were in this opposite mode. He’d stay up in his room for hours or days. He’d call down and tell us a few ideas. It was like we were in different blocks or different countries.
Rock Cellar: The Surf’s Up album carries an ecological and environmental theme. “Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” may be one of the best songs you’ve ever written.
Al Jardine: Aw, thanks. It’s actually an old folk song. It came from the archives of folk music. I just rewrote the lyrics to reflect the times that I felt were particularly rough for Americans that were out of work and still are. It’s kind of timeless. I remember reading something about Bessie Smith, this blues singer from the thirties, and I just kind of imagined her as being the figure in this tragedy, being down and out and then finding success at the end of her life and being able to look at tomorrow without looking back.
Bruce Johnston: One of the songs I really like of Al’s that he sings is “Lookin’ at Tomorrow.” Between Sunflower and Surf’s Up we were at a great place with the band and probably were the best that the band could be during that period.
Rock Cellar: Did you always have a great love for the environment?
Al Jardine: Oh God yeah, that’s why I moved to Big Sur. I wanted to get away from all the traffic and the pollution in L.A. It was always so congested there. My house looked out at all the smog, all I could see was the smog. I mean the Pacific Ocean was obscured by this brown haze. It really bummed me out to look at the air. It didn’t take too long to figure out we were breathing it, of course, so we scurried up north where the air gets cold and it’s kind of pretty and clear. Big Sur is gorgeous, it’s so beautiful.
Rock Cellar: Were there certain books about the environment that you enjoyed?
Al Jardine: Yeah, Robinson Jeffers was a poet that was pretty much the leader of the pack as far as the environment was concerned in the central coast of Big Sur. Really a powerful writer, very deep and very moody. I think he wrote some incredible opera in the Forties as well that made a big impact on Broadway, “Orpheus” or something.
There was a book called Steinbeck Country with beautiful colorful panoramic pictures of the coast, it was pictures by Cole Weston. John Steinbeck, of course, being the writer of all those great books, lived in that area, the Monterey Peninsula. That’s kind of where the song “California Saga” came from, just feeling the impression of the coast is so great. The Jeffers stuff is a little ponderous. I should have tried to do the whole thing. It broke down musically because I didn’t have any more music left for the lyrics so we just repeated the last stanza and I should have just stopped.
Rock Cellar: Brian, where did your unique approach to using a different bass note against a chord, which you employ on a song like “Surf’s Up,” come from?
Brian Wilson: That came from listening to Burt Bacharach. On songs like “Walk On By” and “This Guy’s in Love with You” he inspired me chordally and taught me how to use different bass notes against chords to come up with a different color of sound. He inspired me to go in that direction. He was into going from a minor seventh to another minor seventh. Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector and Chuck Berry, those are the three people who really inspired me. Bacharach inspired my approach with chords, Motown inspired the bass notes, Phil Spector inspired the harmony and echo on the drums. He taught me a lot about how to make use of instruments. I knew about guitars and pianos and organs and bass and drums and he taught me to blend things together so you could have leakage. Chuck Berry inspired the rhythm and the lyrical thoughts.
Rock Cellar: Al, “Take A Load Off Your Feet” is a fun song.
Al Jardine: I never expected that to be on the album. That’s just ridiculous. I don’t know how that ever wound up on there. I invited Brian to come down. Again, a lot of this stuff was to get Brian in the mood to come down and have some fun. So I thought “boy, this is really nutty, let’s just do something stupid.” I said, “Brian, do you want to help me?” ‘Sure’. Anything to get everybody motivated. It’s cute, but come on, you’ve heard “Loop De Loop” and things like that, that’s as minimalistic and sappy as you can get. But for some reason Jack Rieley liked it too and said “it’s got to be on the album, that’s definitely an ecology song.” “Ecology? A song about your feet?” It’s personal ecology.
It was about taking care of your feet, and oddly enough my feet are in the worst shape they’ve ever been. And I haven’t been wearing my Birkenstocks.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned Jack Rieley, the band’s then manager. On the Surf’s Up album, he sings part of “A Day In The Life Of A Tree,” how did that come about?
Al Jardine: Isn’t that odd? He was a great manipulator. He could sell ice boxes to Eskimos. He was one of those guys who worked his way into your brain and into your life and into your recording sessions and onto your songs. And there’s still people around like that (laughs).
Rock Cellar: Some of Jack’s lyrics were good on songs like “Long Promised Road” …
Al Jardine: Yeah, they were very interesting. Van Dyke [Parks]’ lyrics were a little bit more colorful, I thought. Even though they were equally misunderstood. I think it was just one of those periods that we went through where someone attached themselves to Brian and our music and put their own stamp of identity on it. There was nothing wrong about it, it was just hard to understand. If you listen to “Sail On Sailor” it’s a little bit difficult to pierce the meaning of the lyrics. They’re tortured lyrics. There’s a lot of torture there (laughs). Maybe that’s kind of contradictory to what people wanted from the Beach Boys. Van Dyke wasn’t tortured. There’s a lot of depression in Jack’s lyrics.
Rock Cellar: Mike, you co-wrote songs with Dennis and one of them appears on the Feel Flows box, “Sound of Free.”
Mike Love: Dennis did some very beautiful and emotional things. As far as a person, he was very generous. Musically, the girls loved him. He was energetic. We had a real camaraderie in terms of “We’re gonna kick ass at this concert!”
Rock Cellar: With archival projects like these, you’re bringing the listener into sessions and hearing things warts and all. What’s your take on an artist allowing a glimpse into the recording process by offering early versions, works in progress?
Mike Love: Let me make this very simple. I look at a box set as like a textbook. The general public is not gonna sit through and listen to a box set. But the people that are truly interested in an artist will. It’s like taking a class, and your textbook is there. You can look at it as much and you like and you can analyze it. I’m not fine with the bootlegs because you’ll usually get a copy of a copy of a copy and it’s gonna sound horrible. For a box set that won’t sell a jillion copies but will appeal to that special person who really loves that artist, why not? Why not use it as a self-teaching tool?
It might inspire somebody younger that isn’t center stage at Carnegie Hall but maybe wants to get there. They can see some of the heroes of the past are actually just like them. They’re on their way up and they’re learning and you get to hear their mistakes and you get to hear the corrections.
Rock Cellar: Any final thoughts?
Mike Love: Music is blessing, whether you’re a professional or amateur, listener or performer. Music is a blessing in life. We are so blessed and so fortunate to do what we’ve done with The Beach Boys. To make what was a family pursuit become a career, a career that’s lasted for five decades now, is pretty miraculous.
SELECT FEEL FLOWS SONG SNAPSHOTS
Brian Wilson: I had a mansion in Bel Air. My dad came over to my house and we wrote that song together. I wrote it with my father. He heard Joey Bishop say on TV “We’ve gotta break away but we’ll be right back.” And he got the idea for a song called “Break Away.” He wrote some of the music but I wrote most of it and he wrote most of the lyrics. My Dad came up with most of the lyrics (recites lyrics) “time will not wait for me, time is my destiny.” I told him those were beautiful lyrics.
That’s a beautiful song. It’s one of my most underrated songs.
“This Whole World“
Brian Wilson: “This Whole World”’ was written in a about an hour and half. One night about two in the morning I got up and went to my white Baldwin organ and I was playing around and thinking about the love of this whole world and that’s what inspired me to write the song.
Mike Love: I thought that that was a great song by Brian. It’s a philosophical kind of thing. See, Brian at that point in time was capable of a song or two but he wasn’t capable of coherent thought for 10 songs. Then it became more of Carl taking over the reins, Bruce took over the reins, an outside producer took over the reins (laughs), but I always took a laissez faire attitude toward it.
“Add Some Music”
Brian Wilson: “Add Some Music” is a lyric that shows the different ways you hear music and just how vital music is to our lives, just to add a little music to your day. Mike [Love] is a great singer and he wrote great lyrics. He should be known as one of the greatest sounding singers in the whole world. His voice does it for me.
Brian Wilson: The whole song was written in one hour. “Surf’s Up” was probably the worst vocal I ever sang. I just didn’t like the vocals.
“’Til I Die”
Brian Wilson: “Til I Die” was more or less an achievement in sound. That song was recorded in 1970. After it was done I took a certain part of where I was singing and I made a mono tape loop and put my voice on the tape loop. I sent the loop into an echo chamber. I went into the echo chamber and listened to my voice in a circle and walked out of there in another world. “Til I Die” is probably one of the better songs I’ve written. The band asked me to do it. It’s a hard song for me to sing because of the emotions behind it … It’s a hard song to sing because it has to do with dying.
Mike Love: I think one of the better songs that Brian ever recorded that he wrote himself was “’Til I Die.” That’s an amazing, amazing song. It really is being in touch with your mortality and humanity, and the vulnerability of life. Really, really says it.
October 11, 2021
October 5, 2021