Rock Album Review: The Beach Boys, “Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions, 1969-1971”

By Jason M. Rubin

It’s quite clear that the fickle record-buying public really screwed up in the early ’70s; the Beach Boys were on top of their game.

Cover art for The Beach Boys, Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971.

In the early years of the Beach Boys (1962-1965), leader Brian Wilson was a reliable hitmaker, writing, arranging, and producing almost all the band’s material. That included, as was common in the day, some “filler,” random instrumentals and odd spoken-word bits that filled out the tracklist to album-length.

Brian and the band reached their collective apex with 1966’s Pet Sounds, a work of genius that left its creator psychologically frayed yet artistically even more adventurous. His magnum opus was to have been an album called Smile that would have dethroned the Beatles, who were working on Sgt. Pepper at the same time. That project collapsed, however, and the Beach Boys, with little help from their frail leader, picked up the pieces and rushed out a scissors-and-tape record called Smiley Smile. At the time, even though it included “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes & Villains,” their two most recent singles, the platter was deemed too strange and too far below expectations to be of interest.

Though it appeared that the Beach Boys could not recover, that album actually set the tone for a creative reincarnation just three years later. In the interim, the Beach Boys put out an easy-to-make R&B-influenced album called Wild Honey later in 1967, then a mellow but delightful album called Friends in 1968 that showed Brian still had plenty of gas in the tank. But then the well ran dry. Also released in 1968 was the highly unnecessary Best of the Beach Boys, Volume 3 and an album called Stack-O-Tracks, which featured only the instrumental tracks for an assortment of hits — an odd choice for a band most distinguished by their vocal harmonies.

In 1969, the Beach Boys released 20/20 (it being their 20th official album release in only seven years). That disc was what we would call today a contractual-obligation album. It was the group’s last for Capitol, which had been an unhappy home for the band since the Smile fiasco. It largely comprised an assortment of tracks recorded (and shelved) previously. With Brian at half-strength on a good day, this became a modus operandi that helped the band reach a new level of artistic accomplishment on their next two albums — 1970’s Sunflower and 1971’s Surf’s Up —which were recorded for Warner Bros./Reprise. Those albums are the focus of a richly sprawling five-CD set called Feel Flows that includes more than 100 previously unreleased tracks, including live recordings, a capella versions, and songs that didn’t make the cut.

Of the songs that didn’t make the cut, many appeared on later Beach Boys and Brian Wilson solo albums, continuing the example set on 20/20. For example, Al Jardine’s “Susie Cincinnati,” and Brian’s “Back Home,” recorded during the Sunflower sessions, ended up on 1976’s 15 Big Ones, while Brian’s “Good Time” appeared on 1977’s Beach Boys Love You. The deeply moody Brian track “My Solution,” recorded during the Surf’s Up sessions, re-emerged many years later in a different arrangement as “Happy Days” on Brian’s 1998 solo album, Imagination. In addition, there are so many Dennis songs that were never used he could have assembled a fine solo album that would have preceded his own 1977 cult classic, Pacific Ocean Blue.

Other than the overall quality of the records, two things are notable about Sunflower and Surf’s Up. One is that, in the partial vacuum caused by Brian’s debilitation (the contract with Warners insisted that Brian produce a certain percentage of songs on each album), the rest of the band — particularly his brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson — picked up the slack and created some amazing tracks. With four great (and mostly very funky) songs to his credit, Dennis was the MVP of Sunflower, while Carl came up with a pair on Surf’s Up (including the boxed set’s title track) that stand with anything else produced in that remarkable musical year of 1971 — so well documented by The Arts Fuse.

The other notable thing is that each album ends with an epic track rescued from the ashes of Smile’s collapse. On Sunflower, the track is “Cool Cool Water,” a proggy tune with sound effects and gently interweaving vocal parts. On Surf’s Up, it is the title track, which in this writer’s opinion is the greatest composition Brian ever wrote. It was intended to be one of the centerpieces of Smile, and was lauded at the time by no less an authority than Leonard Bernstein on national television. The song is in three parts: the first is sung by Carl; the second features Brian’s original vocal from 1967; and the third is a joyous coda that is a vocal masterpiece involving the whole group.

Unfortunately, Sunflower tanked, the worst-performing Beach Boys album on Billboard up to that point in the band’s history. Surf’s Up, buttressed by press coverage of the legendary title track, did considerably better but still nothing like the band’s pre-Pet Sounds albums. Feel Flows is a chance to set the record straight, so to speak. It’s no wonder that so many songs from this era found homes on future Beach Boys albums. They may not have made the initial cut due to space limitations, but they were unquestionably good enough to be heard. (Even at less than full strength, Brian has always been extraordinarily prolific; there has never been a dearth of material from which to choose.)

It’s quite clear that the fickle record-buying public really screwed up in the early ’70s; the Beach Boys were on top of their game. Yes, this boxed set is not cheap (about $150), but there’s so much great music on these five CDs — one overlooks the fact that the Beach Boys have always been a top-notch live act — and the rich selection of tracks without the lead vocals shows just how complex and fascinating their background vocal arrangements were — that it will provide pleasant surprises and listening experiences for a very long time. There are many fans who prefer these two albums to Pet Sounds. I can’t go that far, but they stand in close proximity to that remarkable achievement.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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