Brian Wilson Michele Hush - Essay

Michele Hush

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most people seem to love [Surf's Up]. They say the harmonies, production and instrumentation are perfect; they like the way it flows, its smoothness and sweetness. Surf's Up does possess all of these characteristics—it is made of ball-bearings, silicone and glycerine, with the friction kept down to a minimum. In essence, it is spun sugar, and that is precisely why I don't like it.

Consider the following hypothetical situation: the Vienna Boys' Choir, under the direction of Henry Mancini, records arrangements lifted from the California "cool jazz" school; the libretto is topical—lots of ecology, revolution, nostalgia and romanticism. Given a couple of years to play around in a well-equipped studio, and there is reason to believe they'd sound a lot like the Beach Boys.

This album is the safest thing I've heard in years, almost calculatedly inoffensive—something your mother could love. Consequently, its gut content is zero. People insist upon associating the word "genius" with Brian Wilson—perhaps an aftershock of "Good Vibrations"—but so far I can't see why. Genius leads a person to take chances, to experiment; craftsmanship, on the other hand, leads one to perfect a given trade—vocal arrangement, for example. And, while Brian Wilson may well be a master craftsman, thus far a genius he is not.

The Beach Boys are basically a contemporary version of a barber shop quartet. They are outstanding because they are extraordinarily concordant—their voices sound custommade for each other's company. On Surf's Up, they manage to tune their instruments to their vocal chords, and the result is one big super-harmony. If that's what you're into Surf's Up may be just what you've always wanted. But be forewarned—like cotton candy, it is pretty and very sweet, but it lacks substance. (p. 27)

Michele Hush, in Rock (reprinted by permission of Countrywide Publications, Inc. and Rock Magazine), October 11, 1971.