I’m in Central and Eastern Europe for a few days, so the blog is on a bit of an intermission but we’ll soon start looking at the third movement of SMiLE. Meanwhile, in the spirit of where I am, here is a 1969 performance of one of my favorite songs in Prague.
It is appropriate to (re)post my Surf’s Up write-up on Easter Sunday – and a time when we all need “a children’s song.”
Surf’s Up is the centerpiece of SMiLE in many ways- close to the middle of the album and lyrically, the richest track on the album. Indeed there is so much going on lyrically that one could write a dissertation on it. Van Dykes Parks word-play reaches a new level here (“The music-hall – A costly bow/holocaust”) and the very title turns the Beach Boys early surfing roots on its’ head. We’re not playing some superficial ocean sport now, we’re diving into the very reality of human existence.
I believe this is one of the songs that lends itself to individual interpretation but the overall sense to me is someone who has lost their humanity in a superficially opulent situation (represented by the grand opera house), gets close to a breakdown (always been moved by lyrics “a broken man too tough to cry”) and then finds redemption in children and simplicity (“a children’s song”).
Brian’s music makes the song, and there is a spiritual quality to the many soaring musical phrases, and you can really sense the “teenage symphony to God” that Brian said he was trying to put together in this album. There is certainly a religious sense of redemption even although the lyric isn’t specifically spiritual, and musically this is marked by the change as we get to the “Surf’s Up” chorus with the almost wordless sense of wonder and change.
And so, the second movement of SMiLE ends in a sense of wonder, rebirth and astonishment at the cycles of life. What a ride!
This is a piece of music that can simply be described as beautiful. Child Is The Father Of The Man is the most classical-sounding piece on the album. Of course, it was known to many as the coda to Surf’s Up and some instrumental versions of the stand-alone song existed “unofficially”, but once again, it makes much more sense in the completed version. The brief lyrics have a postive message that fits in well with what ultimately meant to be an uplifting album.
Known to pre-February 2004 collectors as Look (and other titles), this was then an instrumental which didn’t seem to fit in with anything else on what was thought to be part of SMiLE. There was therefore a sense of an obscure looking jigsaw piece being found and fitting in beautifully, when this (officially titled as Song For Children) was played as part of the second movement of SMiLE in that famous premiere. The melody evokes possibly a children’s funfair, while the lyrics refer back to Wonderful, parenthood and childhood, giving a real sense that this was all part of a masterplan back in 1966/67. And even if it wasn’t all thought of then, it remains one of 2004, and all time’s, great creations.
The second movement of SMiLE was one of those “aha” moments when four known pieces of music fitted together in a seamless sequence. Wonderful can describe the entire movement, but it is also the title of the first part- a song that was originally on the Smiley Smile album in somewhat different form. The lyrics talk to innocence, loss of innocence, birth, rebirth, childhood and parenthood -themes that repeat throughout that second movement, and that resonate with me even more strongly now with recent events in my life. The sense that SMiLE was meant as a “teenage symphony to God” also comes through strongest in this movement with references to God, believers and rebirth.
Musically, the second movement can be described as the “beautiful” movement with an emphasis on melody and classic instrumentation. Wonderful is a prime example of this -at it’s heart, it is a classic pop ballad that sticks in your head. In the wider context of all that SMiLE was and is, it becomes one of Brian Wilson’s most resonant pieces of music, and an all-time classic.
This is the track that inspired a website..this one! Cabin Essence is a vast expanse of a song, ranging from the intimacy of the log cabin to the vastness of the Grand Coulee Dam and the truck driver travelling over a vast expanse. Again, we are looking at the growth in America; the expansion west and the industrialisation of the country. As in Heroes And Villians, there is a dichotomy between the benefits of progress and the possible lost innocence of a changing country.
As with much of Van Dykes Parks works, the lyrics work on a level of a feeling created, rather than every line making sense, and this created the famous altercation where Mike Love dismissed the line about the “crow cries uncover the cornfield” as nonsense. However, in the wider context of the song, and particularly the completed album, one can see again the sense of contrast and wide expanses being created,
Musically, the song switches between the intimate “fire mellow” section, with it’s intricate and homely melody, and the vast “who ran the iron horse?” section. It’s a powerful musical statement and a fitting close to the first section of SMiLE.
Another brief track in our quick sweep of Americana, and this time it is the great American songbook that Brian glides through, as we are treated to a brief instumental rendition of Old Master Painter and then a chorus of You Are My Sunshine. The song is sung in the past tense (you were my sunshine) and the overall effect is somewhat mournful; something in the past being lost?
After the expansive and thought-provoking Roll Plymouth Rock, the album lightens up as we go to the country and explore an animal Barnyard. In the Americana context, the importance of the farms is probably the link here. It’s possible that the animal noises that the band had to make may have put them off SMiLE, but in the released version and shows, Brian’s band seem to enjoy the humor in making the animal sounds.
While Chuck Berry was certainly a rock and roll survivor, his recent passing reminds us that nothing is forever, and that the roots of rock and roll are now a number of generations away. It is also fair to say that without him, there may well not have been the Beatles, Beach Boys or even Dylan in form that gave him worldwide acclaim. The Beatles covered his songs; Brian Wilson used on one of his melodies as a basis for the hit that set the Beach Boys off. While others may have made rock and roll into art, Chuck Berry gave it the original backbeat. And for that, we say thank you and goodbye to the one of the main pioneers.