Tim Finn Listens to The Beach Boys Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf's Up Sessions 1969-1971

Tim Finn Listens to The Beach Boys Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf's Up Sessions 1969-1971

Posted by Timothy Finn (For over 20 years Tim was the Music Editor for the Kansas City Star and currently contributes to In Kansas City magazine and 90.9 the Bridge.) on 7th Sep 2021

THE BEACH BOYS || Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf's Up Sessions, 1969-1971

As the end of the 1960s approached, the Beach Boys were adrift, mired in a few dilemmas: Leader/director Brian Wilson was in the throes of a breakdown precipitated in part by the derailment of “Smile,” his ambitious attempt to top his career-defining “Pet Sounds.”

Concurrently and not so coincidentally, the group was at odds with its label, Capitol Records, which was dubious about the band's prospects for a few reasons: Wilson's emotional health; the fact that the Boys were no longer surf-culture boys but were instead grown men with families; and the general, widespread upheaval in American culture at the time (drugs, war, civil rights, etc). The environment around the Beach Boys was changing radically, and they were scrambling to find their place in it.

They responded with two of their more curious and commercially disappointing albums, both released in 1967: “Smiley Smile,” a stripped-down, homespun re-do of the “Smile” concept; and the even more stripped-down and hyper-chill “Wild Honey,” an odd but earnest odyssey into American soul music.

This five-disc collection chronicles extensively what happened next with the recordings of two albums: “Sunflower: (1970) and “Surf's Up” (1971). Its 135 tracks – 108 of them released for the first time – showcase a band transitioning from the autocracy and mentorship of Brian Wilson into a more democratic regime. “Sunflower” features songwriting and lead-vocal credits from all six members; “Surf's Up” is primarily everyone's work, but Brian is credited with only the final three tracks. Most conspicuously, his siblings, Carl and Brian Wilson, emerge as gifted singers and songwriters in their own ways.

Like other deep-dive retrospective sets, “Feel Flows” is gluttonous and extravagant, one for the true devotees and explorers of details and minutia. It includes new mixes, backing tracks, a cappella tracks and other curios. Some of the unreleased tracks deserved a better fate than decades of obscurity (like “Big Sur”); a few others are mere novelties that deserve little more than one listen.

Ultimately “Feel Flow” succeeds in bringing warranted attention to a fruitful period in the Beach Boys' history that has been unduly overshadowed and ignored. If these two albums were the group's final, legitimate stand in the world of pop music, it was by all measures a success, artistically if not commercially.