Brian Wilson’s haunting rendition of ‘Surf’s Up’ is just one highlight of this amazing 1967 pop doc

On April 25, 1967, CBS ran a special documentary that had been put together by David Oppenheim called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. The program was significant on a number of fronts. First, the hour-long program has been called in some quarters the first documentary about rock and roll ever made. There had certainly been ample treatment in feature films (mainly the Beatles) of the new forms of pop music that were budding in that decade as well as ample news coverage—whether Inside Pop merits this distinction I will leave for others to debate.

What is clearer is that the program represents almost certainly the first sustained effort to make a positive case for pop music to a mainstream audience on national TV. In other words, if the generational divide caused all cultural matters to be filtered through an “us” versus “them” filter, Inside Pop made no bones about debating the aesthetic and cultural merits of Herman’s Hermits, the Hollies, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, etc. from “their” perspective, from the perspective of those who had not instinctually embraced the new music.

Oppenheim’s resume up to that moment neatly illustrates the point, having made his reputation through working with figures such as Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Casals. Not long after making this program, Oppenheim was hired as Dean of NYU’s School of the Arts, which he has been credited with transforming into a first-rate cultural arts institution. (His son Jonathan Oppenheim edited the groundbreaking documentary Paris Is Burning.)

The program is divided into two halves. The first half is given almost entirely over to Leonard Bernstein, whose credibility as a cultural commentator to the mass audience at that moment can hardly be overstated. Bernstein had been music director of the New York Philharmonic for roughly a decade and had also composed the operetta Candide as well as West Side Story, and if you had asked ten moderately informed citizens in 1962 what American was best known for his work in classical music, probably all of them would have named Bernstein.

As stated, the first half of the program belongs to Bernstein—he is seated at a piano, playing snippets of songs by the Monkees, the Beatles, the Left Banke, and so on, and making observations about unexpected key changes as well as the skillful manipulation of Lydian and Mixolydian modes, whatever they might be. Bernstein goes out of his way to call 95% of pop music “trash” but nevertheless, his essential curiosity and openness to new forms would be impossible to miss. It would have been difficult indeed for such a presentation to be entirely devoid of fuddy-duddy-ism, but it’s truly an impressive performance—if only TV nowadays had similar semi-improv’d disquisitions on music by qualified commentators. Oh, and halfway through it all Bernstein brings in 15-year-old Janis Ian to sing “Society’s Child,” her hitherto blacklisted song about an interracial relationship, which incidentally soon became a hit after being heard on national television.

The second half of the program is a conventional narrated documentary focusing on the West Coast music scene with some British Invaders mixed in. Frank Zappa pops up and says a few sardonic things. Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Graham Nash of the Hollies get into an animated post-gig debate about the efficacy of pop music in bringing about societal change (Noone pessimistic, Nash optimistic). Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, still going by “Jim” at that point, materializes to tell every adult in America that “the drug revolution is just coming about and there are gonna be a lot of heads rolling from it,” which I’m sure went over like gangbusters.

The program gets a little boring around the 2/3 mark by focusing too long on Herman’s Hermits, who whatever else their virtues are don’t make a good case for groundbreaking trends in music, but hang on because Oppenheim saves the best for last, an extended in-studio rendition of “Surf’s Up” by Brian Wilson. Recorded on December 17, 1966, Wilson’s performance is made much more haunting because we have information the home audience did not, namely that Wilson was undergoing severe psychological stress at the time, that the Beach Boys nearly broke up over the Smile album (for which “Surf’s Up” was composed), and that more than three decades would pass until said album would reach the public in its final form.

Watch after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider
09:36 am
Leonard Bernstein explains the rock revolution to squares in 1967’s ‘Inside Pop’ doc


“A lot of the kids who are walking around the street with long hair.. a lot of the kids that you see from time to time—and retch over—are going to be running your government for you.”
—Frank Zappa

For a while now, tantalizing bit and pieces of Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, a 1967 CBS News special presented by the great Leonard Bernstein have popped up on YouTube but this is the best version I’ve seen.

This program marked the first time that pop music was presented as a legitimate art form, with sympathetic host Bernstein lending an intellectual gravitas to the proceedings that only he could bestow upon the “strange and compelling scene called pop music.” It’s fascinating to watch the famous composer/conductor look straight at the audience as he tries to make sense of what rock music was becoming, one would presume, for a “square” middle-aged audience. The second part of the show goes into the field and was mostly shot in 1966.

One of the ultimate time capsules of the moment when the world went from black and white to vivid color in the space of one year. This must have been riveting television in its time, because it still is.

With great bits from Frank Zappa, Graham Nash, Tim Buckley, Herman’s Hermits, Reger McQuinn and the legendary performance of Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up” that will cause your mind to explode into a million pieces if you are a Beach Boys fan. Inside Pop also includes 15-year-old Janis Ian performing “Society’s Child,” a then highly controversial song about interracial romance. It was Bernstein’s championing of the song that saw it become a hit. Before Inside Pop aired, radio programmers were still skittish about the number.

Thank you kindly, Dalton Anthony!

Posted by Richard Metzger
04:07 pm
Legendary footage of Brian Wilson performing ‘Surf’s Up,’ 1966

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks in the studio, 1966

Beach Boy Brian Wilson performing “Surf’s Up” (for my money, his single greatest song) from the then “upcoming” Smile album in 1966. If you’re a big Beach Boys fan, this clip might bring tears to your eyes.

This is an excerpt from Leonard Bernstein’s landmark CBS-TV documentary special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, which aired the following year on April 25, 1967. Bernstein’s film also featured Graham Nash and Frank Zappa and was one of the very first serious documentaries about rock music—Bernstein took the then-unusual approach of treating pop as a legitimate art form—produced for American television.

Posted by Richard Metzger
05:38 pm