Surf’s Up? Isn’t that a Beach Boys album? Well sure, it’s the middle of January and as I look out my window there is snow on the ground. But as far as I’m concerned any time of year is a good time to talk about the lads from Hawthorne, California.
By the time of this album’s release in August 1971, the salad days of the Beach Boys seemed like a distant memory. Brian Wilson, the main creative force behind the group since its founding 10 years prior, had fallen deeper into into drug use and depression. Younger brother Carl has assumed his place of prominence within the Beach Boys.
After releasing a series of commercially disappointing records (including the excellent Sunflower in 1970) the Beach Boys hired DJ Jack Rieley as their new manager. Rieley set about to reverse the band’s fortunes, and two of his changes were to put Carl in creative control and to restore the group’s relevance by having them compose more socially aware lyrics. No more songs about girls, cars, or surfing. This new world-conscious Beach Boys attitude is duly reflected in the choice of album art for Surf’s Up.
This most un-Beach Boys of covers is a painting based on the sculpture End of the Trail, by James Earle Fraser. Fraser is probably best known as the designer of the famous Buffalo nickel. He had witnessed the increasingly futile resistance by Native Americans against the expansionist white man, and created End of the Trail as his way to honor their struggle. Fraser’s 18-foot plaster sculpture debuted at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. It now resides at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
It would be really easy to suppose that this image of an exhausted warrior whose people is on the brink of extinction was chosen as an analogy to the Beach Boys’ commercial and artistic plight. I’ve certainly read others make that comparison, and it could be accurate. Or it could have just been chosen because it’s a really excellent work of art.