The Song that Was Abandoned for 5 Years: The Story Behind “Surf’s Up” by The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys were in a precarious position as the rest of the world seemed to have moved on without them. The striped shirts and surfboard image seemed irrelevant when music was moving away from songs about surfing and cars. “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Good Vibrations” had all topped the charts. Still, as Brian Wilson shifted his attention to more introverted subjects and experimented with drugs, the chart success started to disappear. Wilson was less concerned with making hit singles than creating art that would stand up over time.

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As he worked on the follow-up to Pet Sounds, Wilson had sand delivered to his house and dumped in the dining room to place his piano. The problems came when grains of sand caused trouble in the instrument, and his dogs began using the sandbox as a bathroom. Lyricist Van Dyke Parks wrote with Wilson during this time, and he understood what the head Beach Boy was going through. They wouldn’t release the album they were working on for years, and some of the songs would surface in various forms on different albums. One of the songs, five years later, would nearly break up the band. Let’s take a look at the story behind “Surf’s Up” by The Beach Boys.

A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand in hand, some drummed along, oh
To a handsome man and baton
A blind class aristocracy
Back through the opera glass, you see
The pit and the pendulum drawn
Columinated ruins domino
Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping?


Wilson and Parks wrote the song in 1966 as they sat in the sandbox, apparently on drugs. Later, Wilson revealed he came up with melody lines, and Parks inserted lyrics on the spot.

In his 2016 memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, he wrote, “The sandbox is sort of a famous thing. I wanted to have a different way of writing, so I brought a sandbox into the living room and set it up around the piano. In a way, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It was an environment that helped bring in ideas.”

Hung velvet overtaken me
Dim chandelier awaken me
To a song dissolved in the dawn
The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter swan
Columinated ruins domino
Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping, Brother John?

The Recording

Wilson recorded different sections of the song over more than a dozen sessions beginning in October 1966. He abandoned the project after the final session on April 10, 1967. He picked it back up four years later when the band and manager Jack Rieley encouraged Wilson to revisit the song. “Surf’s Up” existed in three separate sections, and they spliced the tapes together. Certain sections of lyrics seemed to be missing, and Wilson and Parks had parted ways. Wilson wasn’t sure how to complete the song. Band members questioned the lyrical content.

Wilson wrote, “People say they’re too complicated, or they don’t mean anything, but that’s the thing about poetry. It’s ideas, and it makes you have ideas when you listen to it. For those kinds of lyrics, I never asked Van Dyke what they meant. I sang their meaning the way it seemed to me.”

Dove nested towers the hour was
Strike the street quicksilver moon
Carriage across the fog
Two step to lamp lights cellar tune
The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne

“The Beach Ain’t Bad”

Parks suggested the song’s title, “Surf’s Up,” even though the lyrics don’t exactly address the subject. The album had the working title of Landlocked but was retitled Surf’s Up. Parks could see how the band was uneasy with their “striped shirt/Kingston Trio” image and he told Rolling Stone magazine in October 1971, “If they call that album Surf’s Up, we can pre-sell a hundred and fifty thousand copies. And Brian can keep his house on Bellagio. They’ve been trying to get away from the beach, you know? They don’t like their image. Even when I first ran into ’em, I could never figure out why. What’s wrong with it? Get ’em down to the beach. Put ’em into the trunks. The beach ain’t bad. The ocean is the repository of the entire human condition—the pollution, the solution.”

The glass was raised, the fired rose
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting
While at port adieu or die
A choke of grief heart hardened I
Beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry

It Nearly Broke Up the Band

Carl Wilson was trying to help get the song together, but Brian was not happy with it, wanting nothing to do with the sessions. Dennis Wilson continually yelled at his brother Brian, urging him to finish the song. Brian’s vocals were replaced by Carl’s and after several days, Brian got involved again. Mike Love was confused by the lyrics and told Uncut magazine in March 2008, “I asked Van Dyke what a particular set of lyrics meant, and he said, ‘I haven’t a clue, Mike.’ I termed some of his lyrical contributions ‘acid alliteration.’ Some of the stuff was phenomenal, but I looked at things from an objective commercial point of view. Whether it’s a strength or weakness. I said, ‘Is it going to relate to the public to the degree that they can identify with the message and the lyrics?'”

Surf’s up
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children’s song

“It’s Got Stupid Range”

“Surf’s Up” is considered a classic today, yet it failed to chart when it was released as a single. In 2000, Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb, and David Crosby performed the song as part of the All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson at Radio City Music Hall. Gill accepted the invitation without realizing the depth of the song. He told musician Joe Chambers in 2021, “My eyes got really big. I said, ‘This is like a classical piece. This is deep. This is all the way over my head. I can’t even touch the bottom here. … I don’t know if I can cut this. It’s got stupid range.’ … I walked off stage doing it that night … and Brian was on the side of the stage, and I walked by him, and he shook my hand and goes, ‘That was really beautiful. We never did that song live because it was too hard.’ I said, ‘Thanks a lot!'”

Child, child, child, child, child
A child is the father of the man
Child, child, child, child, child
A child is the father of the man
A children’s song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is Love
And the children know the way
That’s why the child is the father to the man
Child, child, child, child, child
Child, child, child, child, child
Na na na na na na na na
Child, child, child, child, child
That’s why the child is the father to the man
Child, child, child, child, child

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Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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