The Beach Boys: 1971
The Beach Boys performing at Central Park, 1971 | Photo: By Brother Records via Wikipedia (public domain)

How the Beach Boys Went Political in the Early ’70s

For a brief period in the early ’70s, the Beach Boys went political and gained relevance in the tumult of the “Me Decade”. If only it had lasted.

Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf's Up Sessions 1969–1971
The Beach Boys
27 August 2021

“They’re actually profound and committed and hip,” wrote Tom Smucker, contemplating their new image in the pages of Creem. “They’ve got long hair, they jammed with the Dead, Bob Dylan likes them, they played at Mayday and a benefit for the Barrigans…

That group? The Beach Boys – brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and friends Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston – born anew in the early ’70s. This incarnation of the group, rediscovered recently in Capitol Records’ compilation album Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions, reminds us that the Beach Boys did not always embody fun in the sun. They adapted to their times, molding their image and sound to the tastes of their audiences.

As we listen to this new release, we ought to remember how the band reinvented itself in the early ’70s. The history that results is a fascinating tale of popular music’s ability to politically inspire, to transform artists and audiences into activists for social change. 

The Beach Boys’ early ’70s incarnation was a far cry from any that came before or after. These Beach Boys were not the Apollonian teens of a California Eden, nor the aging, nostalgic baby boomers the band performs as today. Appearing on stage in slick jackets and sporting long, gnarly beards, the band exuded maturity. They were no longer Beach Boys – they were Beach Men.

In keeping with this image, the band embraced left-wing politics and social consciousness. On the tracks of their 1971 Surf’s Up album, they critiqued pollution and police brutality and channeled deep feelings of discontent. Their live performances surged with political purpose. In 1971, they performed at the May Day Protests in Washington held against the war in Vietnam, which would result in the largest mass arrest in US history. The year 1974 saw the Beach Boys perform alongside Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Phil Ochs at “An Evening with Salvador Allende“, a benefit concert held in honor of the former socialist president of Chile who was overthrown in a US-backed coup. 

Not quite the Beach Boys of “Surfin’ USA” fame. 

How did the Beach Boys get to this point? In the early ’60s, they had risen to fame through their musical embrace of an idyllic, postwar California. Through the mid-’60s, they continued to thrive by crafting records that aligned with the tastes of the emergent counterculture. In 1966, the band issued a musical one-two punch: their stellar Pet Sounds LP and the chart-topping single “Good Vibrations“.

However, the band’s ’60s success came to an end following the collapse of their much-hyped Smile album in 1967. The project’s collapse cost the Beach Boys their creative reputation, as well as their leader, Brian Wilson, who gradually retreated from the group following Smile’s failure. The band’s prospects continued to plummet, as their late ’60s albums dropped down the charts for want of musical direction and cohesive branding.

A new LP, 1970’s Sunflower, was a turning point for its level of sonic quality, reflected in its positive critical reception. However, the album still sold poorly, the lowest-charting LP released by the band to that point. 

The Beach Boys needed major change. Thankfully, it lay right around the corner in the form of a DJ named Jack Rieley. Shortly before the release of Sunflower, he approached the group, pitching to them his ability to update their image for a wider audience. “Rieley came on board and began the makeover,” Mike recounts in his 2016 memoir. “We began a promotional campaign that said, ‘It’s okay to listen to the Beach Boys.’ Another said: ‘the Beach Boys – They’ve changed more than you have!’”

As the band’s manager, Rieley reinvented the band’s image, steering their music and performance toward left-wing politics and social consciousness. “The Beach Boys are freaks now, with really long hair and bushy beards, singing at anti-war rallies for free,” praised the countercultural newspaper, Ann Arbor Sun. “That’s just another indication of how widespread the change in this generation has reached.” 

Surf’s Up, released in 1971, represented the culmination of the band’s new aesthetic. Subverting the band’s sunny early ’60s image, the LP features a dingy, depressing album sleeve and contains equally sorrowful music. Its centerpiece is “Surf’s Up“, an abstract song originally intended for Smile. Lured in by the myth of the lost album, listeners were exposed to the band’s new brand of left-wing politics. Sonically, the Beach Boys were at the top of their game, but their new lyrics also packed a political punch.

In “Student Demonstration Time“, Mike bemoans the tragedy of police brutality and racial strife: “Nothing much was said about it and really next to nothing done / The pen is mightier than the sword, but no match for a gun!” The album also taps into feelings of profound discontentment fitting for the turbulent ’70s. “Long Promised Road“, co-written by Carl and Rieley, adds a cynical edge to the LP: “So hard to answer future’s riddle / When ahead is seeming so far behind / So hard to laugh a child-like giggle / When the tears start to torture my mind.” 

This drastic creative shift paid off. While jarring to those who knew the Beach Boys best for “Fun, Fun, Fun“, the album received critical acclaim for the freshness of its material and cohesion of its aesthetic. “Here is one that won’t disappoint anyone at all,” wrote Richard Williams in Melody Maker. “The Beach Boys are back in fashionable favour and they’ve produced an album that fully backs all that has recently been written and said about them.” The album did well financially, rewarding the band for its commitment to its new creative direction: Surf’s Up peaked at 29 on the Billboard charts, the band’s highest-selling album since 1967. 

The Beach Boys’ new arrangement gave them success again and would continue up until the mid-’70s with the releases of Carl and the Passions (1972), Holland (1973), and The Beach Boys in Concert (1973). However, commercial and cultural trends would launch the Beach Boys into a wholly new creative direction. Endless Summer (1974), a compilation of old hits, sold over three million copies and topped the Billboard charts.

Brian returned temporarily as the band’s leader, producing a nostalgic oldies album, 15 Big Ones, in 1976. The power dynamics of the band shifted: Mike, backed by Al and Brian, seized control of the group from Carl and Dennis in 1977 and undid its socially conscious image. The Beach Boys would once again redefine themselves along America’s prevailing cultural currents, becoming a baby boomer nostalgia act aligned with the conservatism of Ronald Reagan. This new Beach Boys, led by Mike, is the arrangement that remains today. 

We live in politically turbulent times. What with this ongoing global pandemic, worldwide calls for racial justice, and America’s retreat from Afghanistan. We would do well to remember the ’70s, another age when it felt like everything was wrong in the world. Perhaps we ought to listen to the Beach Boys, to Feel Flows, and gain a sense of perspective. To think about how much the world’s changed, and to think about how we might change it for the better. 

Works Cited 

Badman, Keith. The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio. Backbeat Books. 2004. 

Carlin, Peter Ames. Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Rodale. 2006. 

Cunningham, Amy. “Victor Jara – The Martyred Musician of Nueva Canción Chilena”. Sounds and Colors. 14 December 2011.

Fenton, David. “May Day in Washington“. Ann Arbor Sun. 7 May 1971.

Kolehmainen, Pekka M. “Reaganized Rock: The 1983 Beach Boys Ban and the U.S. Culture Wars”. Popular Music and Society vol. 43. January 2020. pp. 1-18.  

Lesgaspi, Althea. “The Beach Boys Detail Massive 1969-1971 Era Box Set, Share ‘Big Sur'”. Rolling Stone. 3 June 2021.

Lewis, Daniel. “Daniel J. Berrigan, Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism, Dies at 94″. The Washington Post. 30 April 2016.

Love, Mike with James S. Hirsch. Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy. Blue Rider Press. September 2016. 

Natanson, Hannah. “Protesters shut down D.C. traffic before. It helped end the Vietnam War — and reshaped American activism”. The Washington Post. 23 September 2019.

Preiss, Byron. The Beach Boys. 2nd ed. St. Martins Press. 1983. 

Smucker, Tom. “The Critics Kept a Knockin’ But the Stars Kept a Rockin’ and the Choppin’ Didn’t Get So Far”. Creem. 1 July 1972.

The Life of Rieley“. Record Collector. 6 September 2013.

Williams, Richard. “The Beach Boys: Surf’s Up“. Melody Maker. 1972.