No-one could miss the irony of The Beach Boys telling people to avoid the ocean. Having been routinely trumpeted by Capitol as America’s leading surf group throughout the ’60s, they entered the new decade with a more apprehensive worldview. “Don’t Go Near The Water”, the opening track of 1971’s smartly titled Surf’s Up, sought to address the growing issue of global pollution, not least in the waters off their beloved California. “It was all about being aware of your environment,” explains co-writer and lead singer Mike Love. “Leave it in a better condition than you find it. That’s the message.”
“Don’t Go Near The Water” arrived against a wider backdrop of Vietnam and civil protest in the United States. “Society was changing so quickly,” says Bruce Johnston. “There had been terrible riots at places like Kent State University in Ohio, where people were shot, and trouble at the Chicago Democratic Convention too. We were still young guys at that time – I don’t think any of us were even 30 years old – and all of it filtered into our songwriting.”
Just as the song captured the turbulent shifts of the times, so The Beach Boys were undergoing their own difficult evolution. Songwriter Brian Wilson was still recovering from the breakdown that had followed the abandoned SMiLE project several years earlier, leaving a creative void that was gradually filled by his younger brothers Carl and Dennis, plus fellow band members Love, Johnston and Al Jardine.
Recorded at Brian Wilson’s home studio in Bel Air, “Don’t Go Near The Water” – which appears on the Feel Flows: The Sunflower And Surf’s Up Sessions 1969–1971 boxset [which also made the cut in our End Of Year polls] – was largely devised by Jardine, who burnished the song’s disarming melody with weird aquatic piano effects and a gorgeous coda featuring wordless Beach Boys harmonies, distorted banjo and muted harmonica. The effect was quietly breathtaking in its simplicity.
It also found Jardine taking a vocal bridge that earned him praise from America’s most revered weekly. “I got a write-up in Time magazine,” he recalls. “This was a big solo for me, because at the time I hadn’t done very many vocal solos. But they quoted the lyric: ‘Toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubble bath/So let’s avoid an ecological aftermath’. They thought that was terrific and wanted to shine a light on that. And it was true. You’d see pollution everywhere, suds in the lakes and streams. It’s still a pretty important song. In fact, I’d like to record it again.”