Mind of Brian 4: Surfer Girl

by Greg Panfile


Little surfer, little one, make my heart come all undone, and she does. The quintessential surf ballad, built on the Phil Spector tradition but extended by Brian Wilson into new musical and harmonic territory. Difficult to play and sing, but touching in an extremely special way.

The Intro

This is one of Brian's favorite little bits, this special little intro, and it's easy to see why. Most of this song is based on fairly standard ballad material, with its 6/8 waltz tempo (a Lennon favorite tempowise) and use of the I vi IV V progression, the basis for much of doowop and Girl Group music. One way Brian gets extra mileage out of this cliche-based song is to start off with something new and different, accompanied by gorgeous scat vocals and harmonies:

D                         Dmaj7  Bm F#m     G                A
  Ooooohooohooooh aaaaaaah ohhhhhh ahhhhhh.....
In short, we have a variant on the standard progression (D Bm G A) that is to come, but with a sneaky little chromatic descent from the root chord D that adds something plaintive and subtle. The scat vocal enters just a bit after the first chord... so in a very short time we have a subtle building and entry of elements. The lovely Four Freshmen stack is unmistakably Beach Boys and Brian, again quintessential. And don't think the choice of ooh for the first, ahh for the second, oh (as in long O) for the third, and ahhh for the fourth phrase is accidental: try some variants and see if yours sound as good... and note that the first note is a B over D, a sixth.

Verses 1 and 2

As you've gathered by now, we're in the key of D and working in the standard ballad form of 6/8 tempo with the good old 1645 chord progression. Thus we know what's happening in the beginning of the verses:

D       Bm      G     A
Little surfer, little one
No surprise here, and thought the harmonies are nice, this snippet could be anyone. Not the continuation though; where you would expect the above to repeat there is instead:

F#m           D                   G        Gm
Make my heart come all undone
Goodbye Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley, hello America's Mozart. We should have been warned by the intro, but nonetheless there is an impact here that can't be understated. By establishing the generic pattern Brian has set up a wonderful opportunity to break it. The major/minor shift is a descent, while behind it all the melody climbs upward in a way very characteristic of Brian's work and his whole approach to melody. The harmony gets more sophisticated here too, the melody working its way out of the chord triads and into accentuating and passing sixths and ninths.

And we return to the basic chord pattern for the remainder of the verse and the transition between the two. Most noteworthy is the little Ah-ah on the falsetto that comes in on the Bm during the transitional pattern:

D            Bm           G            A         D               Bm        G
Do you love me, do you surfer girl                   Ah ah,               ah
girl my little surfer girl)
The second verse repeats what we've seen so far since the intro. This is a nice lyric, though:

I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the ocean's roar
Do you love me, do you surfer 
Well, it almost repeats. Instead of the transition pattern that the falsetto came with, we have another, different transition to set up the break. Again, working with a cliche and being an innovator, Brian has to keep coming up with at least semi-new stuff, so there is a very typical turnaround before the break:

D                 G                D
girl  surfer girl surfer girl   ooh ooh oooh ooh ooh oooh


Looking at the vocal arrangement, it's interesting to take note of what we've seen so far. The intro had the falsetto sitting atop the stack, doing a slightly different rhythmic set of notes than the backing singers. For the verse matter the lead and backing voices come together, singing different notes but all at the same time and on the same words. In the transition between the verses they separate again as in the intro and pursue different agendas, the backers to maintain continuity and the falsetto/lead to make an abstract emotional statement. In this next transition, the backers stop and the lead vocal carries the transition. That sets up our next variation of form, in which the backers slip into a purer acappella/doowop backing mode while the lead is the only voice to sing the words:

G                 A             D
We could ride the surf together
G                 A                   D         D7
While our love would grow
G         A            D      Bm      
In my woodie I will take you
E                        A        Bb
Everywhere I go-o-o
The first three lines here are pretty straighforward middlematter for just such a ballad. The one little touch is the guitar player tickling a little C note in there on the second D, jazzing things up a bit and creating some asymmetry. It's that last line where you find a true early sophisticated Brian moment; your basic some-kid-writing-surf-ballads-has-no-business-coming-up-with-that. Under normal circumstances, you'd expect to see something like E in the minor, then the A major, and come back around to D for the next verse. But not here. The Bm, totally in key and used several times before, is used to insert an E major chord, the old II or V of V chord so much associated with the styles of both Brian and the Beatles. II or V of V is the fourth chord of Fun Fun Fun which is NOT a three chord song; and it appears in the coda to Yesterday, just as two prime examples.

Somehow that E major setting up the A is different than if you got there by means of the E minor chord you'd expect in the key of D; and sure enough, that allows a straight pull up a half step. Again, this is a pretty common trick; entire songs have been built around it, On Broadway is one good example for you Drifters fans.This is something the Beatles did only rarely, the shift at the guitar solo of And I Love her being the prime example. And as you might imagine, it's a somewhat obvious way to attempt raising the emotional pitch and get more out of a limited chord pattern. Brian's method of doing it coming out of the bridge is perhaps a signature gesture, the same thing happens during another beautiful ballad, namely Warmth of the Sun. In the latter case, the feel is of added warmth, the sun brightening; in this case, I'd venture to say that the connection to the lyrical content is that the bridge makes a commitment, one stated more explicitly in the last verse, which is the same as the first two except for the new key:

Eb   Cm           Ab      Bb    Gm  Eb                 Ab
So I say from me to you  I will make your dreams come true

Eb          Cm           Ab        Bb         (rit, that is a little
slowdown here...)
Do you love me, do you sur-fer

Eb               Cm        Ab              Bb              Eb      Cm
Ab      Bb         (etc. and fade)
Girl (surfer girl my little surfer girl)  Little one....      ah ahhh...
Little    one... ah ahhh
The pause, the little slowdown at the end of the verse, is as if he's waiting to answer. The plaintive falsetto on the "little one" line is that absolute Brian moment where the vocal soars at the end, seen in Fun Fun Fun and several other places, but nowhere to more emotional effect than here. In a way it seems the entire song was set up to make that moment happen, that pure wail of affection, a liberation of feeling. It sits on the ninth (C) of Bb, going to the fifth and third of the following Eb (Bb-G), again very much in Brian's style. In its own way it recalls the falsetto line in the intro, and the little bridge falsetto between the first two verses; or they act to make it more effective when it occurs, who is to say which....

Note on the Words

While much of what happens here lyrically is jargon and cliched emotion, there are some things that stand out and are perhaps not as obvious. On one level at least this woman is acknowledged as a peer; sure, he'll take her in his car and she's smaller than he, but she too is a surfer, and they will engage in that pursuit together. And tiny though she might be in stature, making one's heart come all undone certainly counts for something and is a power of sorts.

Lastly it's important to note things not talked about. No other guys or girls are mentioned, no other people at all. Boy, girl, beach, ocean, woodie, dreams, those are the characters, no more. No parents, bills to pay, future, death, jealousy, nothing. A pure romantic vision, unrealistic perhaps, but what Shakespeare might call a consummation devoutly to be wished, however impractical it may seem to us nowadays...

Special thanks to Roy Johnson for encouraging me to write another piece. To those who don't like these, my apologies but of course I'll keep on doing them anyway;-)

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