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Surf City

July 20 – August 2, 1963

Jan & Dean

Surf City

California is a huge part of the American music scene, and while in this series I have discussed a lot of music that had its origin there, this is the first time that that a number one song “felt” Californian.  This ends with “Surf City”, the first “Surf Music” tune to make it to the top.  Before I get to the song in question, let’s take a detour into how we got to one of the most iconic musical genres of the 60s.  

While casual music fans often equate the surf sound to the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, the origin is exactly what the title states: music that was designed and inspired by the ocean waves.  Most of the original music were instrumentals with the electric guitar at the forefront, much of which having a spring reverb.  The belief was that sounded “wet” like crashing waves and whether you believed that or not, it was definitely unique for its time.

Groups like the Surfaris and the Chantays with have hits “Wipe Out” and “Pipeline” respectively, and the “King of the Surf Guitar” Dick Dale was inspiring young guitarists everywhere.  This may have been true surf music but without lyric, the average music fan had no idea what the music was trying to convey.  

Music historians point to the emergence of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean as the “Second Wave of Surf Music”.  Lyrically, songs about surfing emerged, with these two groups leading the pack.  In 1962 and 1963, The Beach Boys had three hits with the word “surf” in it; “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfer Girl” and even their band name conjured up images of beach activities, of which surfing was one.[1]  Musically speaking the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean were focused on harmonies and fun rhythms and they really bore little resemblance to the music of Dick Dale and company, but this did not stop them from being lumped together.  It is like saying Will Smith’s rap and Public Enemy are the same because they both rapped.  Nobody thinks that now, but in the early 60s many people did.  Subgenres in music have always existed, but music critics back then rarely discussed it.

Because of the overall success of the Beach Boys, the fact they seemingly never stopped touring and that there were multiple Greatest Hits albums, it would be an easy assumption that they would be the first “Surf” act to hit the top.  They weren’t as Jan & Dean beat them to it with “Surf City”.

The fact that Jan & Dean hit the top first did not mean that the Beach Boys, most specifically, Brian Wilson did not have his fingerprints all over it.  Wilson and the other members of the Beach Boys had become friends with Jan Berry and Dean Torrance, and they were certainly (especially Wilson) on the duo from Los Angeles.

Prior to their meeting, Jan & Dean went to high school together and like so many teens they got into music and formed a band.  As that was the late 50s, a lot of their early work was doo-wop influenced, but it appeared as if the pair, or at least the duo of Jan & Dean was over before it started.

Jan & Dean were part of a group called “The Barons”, who were little more than a cover band.  After winning a high school contest, only Jan, Dean and another member, Arnie Ginsberg remained in music.  Ginsberg wrote a song called “Jennie Lee”, that was inspired by a stripper of the same name.  The three of them polished the song, but before they could record it, Dean was drafted into the military and it was left to Jan and Arnie to record it.  They were able to sell it to Arwin Records, and it became a surprise hit, that went to number 8 and was a #4 hit on the R&B Chart.  As Dean Torrance was not part of the group, the single was credited to Jan & Arnie, but that pairing was short-lived.  After a few more singles, Dean’s six-month service was over and he replaced Arnie, who drifted off into the abyss of musical footnotes.[2]

Jan & Dean would secure minor hits in the early 60s, but they began to tour with the Beach Boys.  The groups would become friends and would begin to influence each other musically, hence where are getting to “Surf City”.

Brian Wilson was working on the song that would become “Surf City” but he hit the proverbial mental wall.  He gave that Jan Berry, who completed it and with Wilson singing back-up, “Surf City” was recorded.

This was their first foray into the surf sound, and harmonies paired with the fun lyrics was a tonic for success.  How could any young teenager not want to go to a place where it was “two girls for every boy”?[3]  This was a song to party to, you could dance to it and without being overtly sexual, that feature was there.

The British Invasion came, but Jan & Dean were able to survive.  They never had another #1 hit, but they did continue to have hits with “Drag City”, “Dead Man’s Curve” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”.  Their momentum would however come to a screeching halt on April 12, 1966.

On that day, ironically not that far from the actual Dead Man’s Curve, Jan Berry would be badly hurt in a car crash.  He suffered massive head injuries and he was need time to recover from brain damage and partial paralysis.  Needless to say, Jan & Dean’s recordings were halted and Berry would have to learn how to walk again and write with his other arm.

While the group would have a few more recordings that they had in the can, that was it for the pair in terms of staying in the contemporary eye.  They would reunite sporadically on oldies’ circuits, though again it seems so strange that they were in that category in their 30’s, especially with how music is now.  Berry would die in 2004 at the age of 64.

Jan & Dean wouldn’t manage to keep a long-running career like the Beach Boys, but their subtle aggressive attitude and rebellious nature would be cited as influence from the early Punk bands.  The Beach Boys will always correctly be remembered for the sound they created but it should never be forgotten that for a few years, Jan & Dean were right there with them.

In my opinion (and this is my anthology), this is one of the most underrated groups is Rock and Roll history.

Other Notable Songs that charted but did not go to number one in this time period: July 20, 1963 – August 2, 1963.

7/20/63: Memphis by Lonnie Mack went to #5 and reached #4 on the R&B Chart.  


[1] As some of you may know, Brian Wilson, the main songwriter for the Beach Boys would state that he hated his group being referred to as Surf Music.  I will get to more of that later as this anthology progresses.

[2] Have I mentioned how much I love footnotes?  I did?  Well, I’m doing it again.

[3] Where the hell were those places when I was a teen?  Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered.  I still would have struck out.  

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