By 1969, the Beach Boys were in a rough place commercially. The brilliant Pet Sounds, years away from gaining the cult following it would eventually accrue, was a commercial dud. Radio had moved on to heavier rock and soul. The Summer of Love and Monterey Pop came and went without the participation of the band who gave the world “Good Vibrations.” Woodstock was happening as these thirtysomethings were figuring out the next move.
Their dilemma was embodied in the single they put out that year: the A side, a Brian Wilson song called “Break Away,” harkened back to “Surfin USA”-era Beach Boys. The B side was Dennis Wilson’s seriously odd “Celebrate the News,” something almost nobody was doing in 1969. That record didn’t exactly change their fortunes, so the Beach Boys did something brilliant: They huddled up in Brian Wilson’s Bel-Air home, six songwriters in search of an exit, and started making exactly the music they wanted to make.
The results were Sunflower and Surf’s Up, which were released in back-to-back Augusts in 1970 and 1971, and according to the liner notes for the remarkable new Feel Flows – The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971, they had the time of their lives. Feel Flows assembles both albums in sterling remasters along with 135 (108 previously unreleased) alternate takes, a cappella versions that highlight the Beach Boys’ always-sterling harmonies, some outtakes, and a few jaw-droppingly great lost songs that fans will thrill to hear and some live cuts spread over several decades (including two Carl Wilson-sung instant classics: his 1973 take on “Surf’s Up” and his own “Long Promised Road,” from ‘72).
Sunflower and its attendant sessions begin the set. Dennis Wilson’s opener “Slip on Through” sets the tone (an earlier, fuzzier version sounds like it leapt off an Elephant 6 record, as does the spacey “All I Want to Do,” here in both final and a capella versions). Dennis was on a roll: His “Forever” is also a stunning ballad, and we hear more of his burgeoning genius on the remarkable “Behold the Night,” which deserved its own single, let alone be included on an album. Let’s also hear it for “It’s About Time,” a bit of a throwaway that has aged into a solid pysch-pop burner.
Surf’s Up, a surprise hit for the Boys in 1971, is a fascinating record. Its cover painting of an exhausted Native American man at the edge of the Pacific Ocean (based on James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture “End of the Trail”) is as much a coda for the 1960s as any other record of its time. This is the sound of Beach Men thinking about the world they will leave for their kids (“Don’t Go Near the Water”; the trippy “A Day in the Life of a Tree”) and the world outside Brian’s window (the obvious Beatles goof “Student Demonstration Time”; Al Jardine’s savvy unemployment lament “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)”).
The centerpiece is, of course, the legendary title track, a Brian Wilson-Van Dyke Parks joint, first played in 1967 on television, included here in a 1973 live version, a remixed 2019 version, an a capella version, and a 1971 version with a 1966 Brian vocal, all of which reveal new facets of the song’s remarkable craft and power, easily up there with any of their classics. The set also shows us new stunners, from Mike Love’s “Big Sur,” one of the best odes to California you haven’t heard, to “I’m Going Your Way,” an underknown Dennis tune that sounds like a Band or Grateful Dead tribute.
Feel Flows lets everyone else hear what their fellow musicians have known for decades: When nobody was looking, the Beach Boys made extraordinary music, complex sounds all their own that made for California albums up there with Love’s Forever Changes, the Doors’ L.A. Woman and X’s Los Angeles. This stuff was made for these times, whatever those times might be.