Beach Boys’ Archivists on the ‘Feel Flows’ Boxed Set, and How the Group Was Peaking — Again — While the World Wasn’t Looking

feel flows sunflower surf's up box boxed set brian wilson

It may feel odd to think of the Beach Boys’ recordings that went down as the odometer on the ’60s was turning over into the ’70s as “mid-period,” given that the group was just then entering the second decade of what still hasn’t come to an end after six decades. But the albums that coincided with the counterculture era mark a still-fascinating transitional era, when they were still soldiering on, largely forgotten by Top 40 radio and hepsters alike, making some of the best records of their career while awaiting a rediscovery shortly to come.

Two of the best albums from that period, “Sunflower” and “Surf’s Up,” are anthologized in a new 50th anniversary boxed set, “Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971,” which includes 108 previously unreleased tracks alongside remastered versions of the original releases. The Beatles’ “Let It Be” package may be the year’s marquee boxed set, but for rock ‘n’ roll fans, “Feel Flows” merits that same kind of attention, even if these records weren’t quite the same cultural signifiers at the time.

Variety spoke with the two archivists largely responsible for the set, Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, whose work with the Beach Boys’ catalog includes one of the great, most essential boxed sets of all time, 2013’s “Smile Sessions,” and in Linett’s case, goes back to 1993’s still definitive full-career overview, “Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys.” In this Q&A (edited for length and clarity), they discuss why this period was a particularly unique and fertile one for the group, what the future holds for archival releases, and why “‘Til I Die” — to borrow a great Brian Wilson song title from the period — is the answer to how long they’ll still love being immersed in these tracks.

Alan Boyd: Something I’ve noticed over the years is that the Beach Boys did so many kinds of music so well that they’ve managed to create multiple divergent and at times completely incompatible fan bases. And I think it just speaks to kind of what a rich and diverse catalog they have. Speaking of “Sunflower” and “Surf’s Up,” I’ve given copies of those albums to a lot of friends, from the ‘70s going up to the present day. And these are folks who have no idea that the Beach Boys were anything other than “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Barbara Ann,” and they all find themselves falling in love with this music.

I’ve done lectures at colleges and universities about the Boys over the years. And I always like to quiz the students first about what they know. And usually, 95%, it’s “Full House,” Uncle Jesse, “Kokomo” and “Surf City,” and maybe half of them saw a Beach Boys show at the county fair with their aunt and uncle. So if I play something like “Surfin’ Safari” and follow it up with “’Til I Die” or “Feel Flows,” they’re blown away. I’ve heard from students much later that it inspired them to check out the whole catalog, and it kind of blows their minds. So that’s what I’m hoping is going to happen with “Feel Flows,” that a lot of people who are kind of vaguely aware of the Beach Boys might have an opportunity to dig in and the group will develop an even newer and bigger fan base.

VARIETY: What was your personal experience of these records and the Beach Boys’ image around this period?

Mark Linett: It’s always been such a rich period in the group’s canon — and obviously important in that they overcame their striped-shirt image and became extremely relevant again. I know this personally, because I was of that generation that bought all the Beach Boys records when they came out. But I didn’t really pay much attention to them after 1967, because by then, I’m not buying singles. I’m buying albums, and their albums didn’t fit with the Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane records I was buying. In retrospect, I was a snob. Maybe because I knew the band from before so well, I associated them with Jan and Dean and the Rivieras and things like that. I wasn’t enough of a musicologist to see the difference. But Alan has a different view, because he’s 10 years younger and had the advantage of coming to it without all that baggage.

Boyd: Well, I was a fanatical Beach Boys obsessive nerd fan by the time I was 6. I had an older brother, just about Mark’s age, and exactly what he describes happened with my brother and his friends: The Beach Boys weren’t cool anymore. But there was a great advantage to it in that they all gave me all their old Beach Boys records. So by the time “Sunflower” came out, which I bought the weekend it came out in 1970, I’m sure I was the only 8-year-old kid on my block who got it.

Linett: You were the only kid that got it, period.

Boyd: Then when “Surf’s Up” came out in 1971, they’d had a major change in their image and presentation, just in that year between “Sunflower” and “Surf’s Up.” A lot of my brother’s friends came up to me and said, “You know, I got that ‘Surf’s Up’ album and I saw them in concert, and yeah, they’re pretty cool.” But I held out. I wouldn’t give them back their old Beach Boy records.

Linett: We like to say, this is not your grandpa’s Beach Boys. Even in today’s context, these two records seem much more contemporary than the older stuff.

But no one was paying attention at the end of the ‘60s.

Boyd: The problem with “Sunflower,” and I noticed this when I was a kid, it was absolutely brilliant, but nobody knew it. I mean, it hit 151 on the Billboard charts in 1970, which was probably the lowest charting album they’d had up to that point, apart from maybe “Stack-o-Tracks” (a 1968 compilation of instrumental tracks) or something like that. … Rolling Stone did a review back in 1970 in which they basically raved about the album and said, “This is a wonderful album. It’s brilliant. But does that even matter?” Because their image seemed so antiquated.

[The actual Rolling Stone review from the time, written by critic Jim Miller and available online, reads in part: “I mean, good Christ, it’s 1970 and here we have a new, excellent Beach Boys’ epic, and isn’t that irrelevant?… As a whole, ‘Sunflower is without doubt the best Beach Boys album in recent memory, a stylistically coherent tour de force. It makes one wonder though whether anyone still listens to their music, or could give a shit about it. This album will probably have the fate of being taken as a decadent piece of fluff at a time when we could use more Liberation Music Orchestras. It is decadent fluff — but brilliant fluff.”]

And then they became somewhat cool again with the “Surf’s Up” album.

Boyd: There was this wonderful quote by Van Dyke Parks, I think in a Rolling Stone article on the band back in 1971 — which was kind of another big part of their resurgence, to be featured on the cover — and he said something to the effect of, “I told Warner Bros. if they titled the album ‘Surf’s Up,’ they’d pre-sell 250,000 copies.” And he was probably right. And especially because it takes on an ironic cast with that title, paired with that very dark “End of the Trail” (painting) on the cover of the “Surf’s Up” album.

When I was 9, my folks took me to see the Beach Boys at Winterland in San Francisco, when they were touring in support of “Surf’s Up.” The show was brilliant, and they were doing all this great stuff from the album and great songs from that album and “Sunflower” too. But it’s funny — when they dusted off “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun Fun Fun” and a bunch of (oldies) for the encore, the place went utterly nuts. We’re sitting in the front row of the balcony and my mom was scared to death that it was gonna collapse, because the Beach Boys were playing these songs hard and fast and it just tapped into something, and all of the hippies in the crowd just went bonkers. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since, in terms of just balls-out, bonkers audience response.

What’s happening with the dynamics of the group creatively at this point? After the “Smile” project fell apart, there were four subsequent albums before getting to “Sunflower” in which things are becoming more equal and Brian is still involved but no longer acting as the maestro.

Linett: I think you could see the development or the full flowering of what starts with “Wild Honey,” where it is more of a group effort. That record, some people would say, is sort of like their “Music From Big Pink,” where they’re really woodshedding, just the band, with a more basic sound. Then as you get into “Friends” and “20/20,” it seems very much like “Sunflower,” where everybody is starting to get quite good at producing or co-producing and writing, with input from everybody else. It’s less and less Brian-centric, although Brian is still participating, and particularly with “Friends,” is participating to a huge degree.

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The Beach Boys Courtesy Iconic Artists Group LLC/Brother Records Inc.

Boyd: “Friends” has always seemed to us kind of like it’s sort of the last real Brian Wilson-produced album. He’s really calling the shots on that. But in that period of time between “Friends” and “20/20,” for whatever reason, Brian really stepped back. And to complete “20/20,” the rest of the Beach Boys really needed to get much more involved in the creation of the tracks. That’s probably the most democratic album up to that point, and “Sunflower” has always seemed to be a refined step, continuing where “20/20” leaves off. Brian’s all over the record, but the other guys — and particularly Carl when it comes to production and mixing and all that kind of stuff — are really stepping up to the plate, and in a lot of cases finishing music that Brian started.

For whatever reason Brian seemed to be happiest working very spontaneously, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he did so well back in the early ‘60s when you didn’t have a lot of choices, as far as tracks and so forth. You kind of had to get it all in the moment. The amount of overdubbing is minuscule on records like “Summer Days” and “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” — besides the vocals, of course. And I don’t think he was inspired by the more layered, step-at-a-time approach to recording that you start to get with the advent of the 8- and 16-track. And so in particular Carl would come in and make sure that everything got finished, while Brian would have this burst of inspiration, lay down all the chords for something like “Our Sweet Love,” and then he’s gone. Then Carl and Alan (Jardine) and Bruce (Johnston) pretty much came in and added everything to get those songs over the goal line.

Linett: When Brian became more reclusive, they tried putting him with the old gang (the Wrecking Crew) in the old studio, thinking that that would encourage him to create. And it was kind of backwards, because Brian needed to want to do that first and then you could have assembled the mob. … But it’s not like Brian had anything to prove, whether he did produce a record or not. And the new way of making records suited Carl in a way that the earlier form didn’t. I think all the rest of the guys, Dennis especially, were much more comfortable making records the way they’re basically made to this day, where you do it in pieces, as opposed to trying to assemble the mob and figure it all out once and for all and you can’t go back.

Boyd: It really helped too that they installed a fully functional studio in Brian’s house right below the bedroom. There was a quote from Bruce or Al years ago saying, “Well, Brian stopped coming to the studio, so we kind of moved the mountain to Muhammad.” There are these wonderful stories about they’ll be in the middle of working on something, and Brian, who’s obviously been listening from upstairs, comes flying down in his bathrobe, suddenly hit with inspiration, and dishes out a bunch of parts. They lay something down really quickly. “Okay. Carl, you sing this. Mike, you sing that. Let’s play this.” And almost as quickly as he came up with the idea, it’s done and he’s gone.

Carl Wilson very much embraced that new mode. I think on “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows,” he’s playing almost all the parts by himself. He brought in a percussionist and Charles Lloyd for sax and flute. But everything else on there is very methodically one part at a time, getting it all down. And he seemed to really thrive and very much enjoy that kind of sort of methodical process that was just about the complete opposite of what Brian had been doing for so long. When you listen to the backing vocals, you can also hear Marilyn Wilson very prominently on that one, because she came in and sang some parts on it. She called me up out of the blue yesterday because she was so happy to hear the isolated-vocals (mix), and it brought back very happy memories for her of the session.

Was the song “Feel Flows” always a fan favorite or did it get a turbo charge from being over the end credits of “Almost Famous”?

Boyd: Oh, it definitely got a turbo charge from Cameron Crowe putting in the movie. Definitely. But it was a fan favorite for a long time. I remember seeing the Boys playing in late 1977 and it was part of the set list. It’s interesting, because that’s a favorite of all the members of the group. Mike and Bruce are out touring with the Beach Boys now, and it’s being billed as the Feel Flows Tour, and they’re doing “Feel Flows” live, along with “It’s about time” and some other tracks from the album. It’s really kind of cool. Mike Love told me once that he really loves that song, and he also said it’s one of his daughter’s all-time favorite Beach Boy tracks.

Let’s talk about a few of the songs in this box, starting with an outtake. A lot of the material from that period is pretty straightforward, but then there are surprises. In the middle of disc 5, we suddenly come across a Brian track, “My Solution,” and it’s like, here is some of the loopier Brian that we know and love, too.

Linett: It’s just having the studio in the house, and deciding, “Let’s do a Halloween-inspired, clubhouse kind of event.” I don’t know that it was ever intended to be released.

Boyd: There are photos of the session. It was a session they held at the house on Halloween, and some of the guys were in costume, and Brian’s got this green sort of Frankenstein makeup all over. And that one’s been floating around in wretched bootleg quality for years, and we were finally able to put it out, pristine and clear. Looking at some of the fan boards, a lot of people were actually blown away by the backing track, which is a really interesting, cool Brian Wilson production. I’m just glad we finally got that out there.

“This Whole World” is one of their masterpieces — in under two minutes, it covers what seems more like this complex 10-minute suite, and still ends up feeling like a pop song… barely. It fades out on record, leaving you wanting so much more. but on this box, you have a version that has an ending to it — not a great ending, but an ending.

Boyd: Well, the alternate ending was actually something that they constructed because the song was featured in a major commercial for Eastern Airlines. The Beach Boys even appeared briefly in the commercial. Bruce Johnston says something about “we like the feeling of being free”; otherwise the song plays underneath Orson Welles’ narration. They constructed a new tag for the song because they could give it a clean finish for the end of the commercial. We years ago acquired from somebody the 16-track master of that version. We also found an alternate lead vocal from Brian for the bridge, and another vocal pass from Carl, so we were able to construct this alternate version. But God, I love that song, too. I believe it’s Dennis Dragon playing the drums on that; that’s Daryl’s brother (of the Captain and Tennille fame). He was quite an extreme character who later had this great band called the Surf Punks. The song is so exuberant and joyous.

Less exuberant and joyous: the one-two punch of “‘Til I Die” and “Surf’s Up” that ends the “Surf’s Up” album. It’s hard to think of another album that has that powerful a set of closing songs — by anybody. With “Surf’s Up,” there’d been some leftover “Smile” tracks that made it onto other albums, so how did the ultimate one get saved for this?

Boyd: That track was already legendary; I’m sure millions of people heard it when it was featured in that fairly highly rated CBS News documentary called “Inside Pop” back in early 1967. I think there may have even been a request from the record company, from Mo Ostin of Warners, to do it. It was primarily Steve and Carl, who help from Alan and Bruce, who went through and found all the parts. They made an attempt at recording a new backing track that would sync with Brian’s original piano demo vocal. And we have that bit on the box [labeled as combining a 1967 vocal with a 1971 band track]. But yeah, a beautiful, beautiful record….

Linett: Obviously they had dabbled in leftover “Smile” tracks before on previous records. This one took a lot of effort, because while Brian had recorded a track for part one, they had never done any (group) vocals, and the entire song only existed as a piano/vocal version, which fortunately Brian did seriously, so there was something to work with. Trying to construct a track around Brian’s vocal — we have that on the box, and it’s not bad, but it’s not as good … Somewhere along the line, it was decided that “Carl will sing the lead on part one” … and to use his piano vocal version for most of part two and then add parts at the end, which apparently Brian had something to do with it, at the very last moment. It’s the perfect closer for the album, and ties in with the new image and their old image.

With “‘Til I Die,” I remember first working on that heavily on maybe the ‘93 box or something like that. Only Brian could come up with something like that. I don’t know what impressed me more, Brian’s deep, soulful writings like that, or his slice-of-life writings like “I’m Busy Doing Nothing” and “I Went to Sleep.” But I think Brian was writing an awful lot about what he felt. It’d be interesting to (fully understand) how that juxtaposition worked, that the guy who would come up with “Fun Fun Fun” also wrote “Warmth of the Sun” or “‘Till I Die” and those darker things.

Boyd: I made a film about the Beach Boys many years ago and interviewed them extensively for it, and talking about that song, Brian just said, “You know, it’s all about being humble, about feeling sort of small and insignificant in the world. I was kind of feeling that maybe a lot of people could relate to that.” I’m paraphrasing, but  it’s very true. He was in a dark space at that point in 1969 when he wrote the song, and he just expressed it beautifully. I’m just so glad that we finally had an opportunity to do an a cappella mix on that one, because the way the group comes together on that one is just gorgeous.

What are your favorites of the rare or previously unreleased stuff?

Boyd: One of my absolute favorite things on this whole box set is a remix of “Cool, Cool Water” (from “Surf’s Up”) that Mark did where it’s the exact same multi-track masters that they used, but putting an emphasis on different vocal parts than were used in the version on the original album. I mean, nothing can touch the original for me  — that’s still one of my favorite sonic treats of all time. But hearing the different emphasis in some of the other vocal parts that are kind of buried on the original mix get put upfront is really cool. It’s like a favorite scene from a great movie that’s taken from a different angle.

As far as the unreleased songs, Dennis’s “All of My Love” and “Ecology.” I was blown away the first time I heard “It’s Natural,” which we only obtained because the guy who collaborated on “Sweet and Bitter” with Brian still had the original 16-track tape from that session, and that song happened to be on it. Beautiful chord progression. You know, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I love the new mix of “Susie Cincinnati” — it made me reevaluate that song all over again.

What’s been the recent history of Beach Boys 50th anniversary repackages? There was a two-CD set in 2017 of material from the 1967 “Wild Honey” period, then in 2018 there were two digital-only releases representing 1968. The opportunities for boxed sets seemed to be shrinking. Now, suddenly, we’re back to an expansive box format for 1969-71, which is great.

Linett: That pair of 1968 albums was only released digitally in 2018, primarily, I think, to some extent because everybody was concentrating on the “World Philharmonic” album, and they never want to have too much going on at the same time — talking about the record label. This one (happening) took a lot of input from management and from us. Basically it was just listening to it enough and appreciating of the music and realizing how important is was.

Some hardcore fans who love their CDs want to know if that 1968 stuff will ever come out in box form or in any kind of physical form at all.

Mark: We have proposed that a number of times in a number of ways. Write your Congressman!

Alan: We’ve lobbied for it so much that they probably get annoyed with us about it. But we’re going to keep trying. It had to come out in 2018, but we didn’t really get the green light on it until the early fall of 2018, so no matter what, they wouldn’t have been able to get a physical release for it for that year.

Linett: As much as I’m a fan of fan of these two records (in the new boxed set), I’d love to do that even more with the “Friends” album. That and “Sunflower” are probably my favorite Beach Boy albums these days. I totally agree with Brian that “Friends” was music to cool out by — it’s such a beautiful album. I’d love to really explore that one and do something physical with all the attendant artwork and a book. But in some ways, it’s because other things keep coming first.

So there are still tapes that pop up unexpectedly, and it’s not that everything you put out in these collections is something you’ve been waiting to dole out since you started working with the archives?

Boyd: Well, a lot of this stuff we did find 15, 16 years ago and have been waiting to dole it out, so there is a certain amount of that, yeah — particularly a lot of that Dennis Wilson material. But we’ve still got tapes to go through, and things to go back and listen to more closely. We’ve got multi-tracks from later albums that we haven’t really gone through yet. I’m really looking forward to doing something on the ’76-77 “Love You” era. And, geez, we go through a song called “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together” and discover this gorgeous a cappella vocal tag that, for whatever reason, they opted not to put on the final release. So hopefully we’ll have some more cool (discoveries). You get that inexplicable “Why didn’t they use this? It was great!”

Linett: I think over 90% of the group’s recordings have been archived. But because they did so much recording at the house, or even in the studio where it wasn’t always kept track of without a second engineer, it is not uncommon for us to transfer something and find something that we never knew existed. I’m looking forward, actually, because there’s a number of tapes from the next year, from ’72-73, that we have not had a chance to transfer. After doing this project now, it’s really like, ooh, I wonder what might be hiding — talking about the tapes recorded in Holland and who knows what gems, things they might’ve worked on and then just left it behind and moved on to something. And then we have a whole slew of live tapes from ’73. For the “In Concert” album, they had their own remote truck by then, so they recorded a whole tour’s worth of shows. And then Carl, who was in charge of the album, wound up basically just using I think two or three concerts. Most of these other shows, by all appearances, were never even listened to.

Boyd: They were still in the plastic the tapes were wrapped in at the time; they’ve never been played.

So it’s safe to say you are planning on a set related to the “Holland” era next?

Boyd: Yeah. We’re looking at a project that encompasses “Holland” and “Carl and the Passions” — and we’d also like to, as part of that, present one of the complete Carnegie Hall concerts that they did in late 1972. It’s very different from the “Feel Flows” era, because they weren’t as prolific. But there’s still some amazing stuff that wasn’t released, and some really interesting parts that are buried in some of those songs, particularly from “Carl and the Passions,” that we’d kind of like to put a spotlight on. Yeah, that’s looking like that’s going to be next year’s box set.

Linett: That’s largely the reason that the “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” track and backgrounds and “Marcella” a cappella appear at the end of the box, as sort of a coming attraction, if you will. It was like, oh no, this is too good not to find a place for them on this set. The group agreed, so we were able to get those on there.

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The Beach Boys Courtesy Iconic Artists Group LLC/Brother Records Inc.

Having worked on this music for decades each, do you ever honestly get just a little tired of the Beach Boys? Do you ever have to listen to some death-metal for a palate cleanser?

Linett: It’s music that you don’t get tired of. Speaking for myself, I mean, 90% of what I listen to — more than that, probably — is records that I’ve listened to for 50-plus years. It would be surprising, I suppose, if I heard something new that made me sit up and go, “I want to go buy that.” I’m kind of stuck in my musical history. My wife gets amused sometimes that I can listen to a record that I’ve listened to a thousand times probably in her presence and and still enjoy it. it’s hard to think of another act that you could work on and work with for 34 years as I have, and not kind of feel like, “Oh, well. Again?”

Boyd: I’ve got other musical obsessions. Lately I’ve been kind of diving into punk-rock, and I’m really into Brazilian music. The thing, though, was that I always had a real strong affinity for the great American songbook. And Brian’s compositions are right up there, as far as I’m concerned, with the Gershwins and Rogers and Hart. It’s maybe because he was absorbing so much of that music when he was a little kid; there’s a depth and a musicality to his stuff that still astounds me. And that’s another reason why I love particularly the backing track and backing vocals mixes. Because the songs are still eminently hummable, but they’re really deep and complex at the same time. Like “This Whole World” — I can barely think of any kind of popular music that goes through that many key modulations.

These songs are just up there with the best of American music of the 20th century. Even when sometimes the Beach Boys world has me kind of wanting to go disappear into a shack in the desert for a while, I would actually go to that shack in the desert and I’d probably still bring the Beach Boys’ music with me.