Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me, now surf, surf, with me
The Pendletones weren’t a real band. They’d never even played a gig together before their first recording session.
Hite and Dorinda Morgan knew the young men who auditioned for them in August 1961. Alan Jardine had seen them several times over the previous year or so with his folk group, The Islanders. They’d been impressed enough to call him back, but not enough to commit to recording anything with him.
This time, though, he’d turned up with another familiar face. Brian Wilson was the young son of Murry Wilson, an aspiring songwriter whose material the Morgans had published. He was a good singer and a decent pianist — Dorinda Morgan had actually got him an audition for Original Sound records a few years earlier, but he’d been unsuccessful.
This time the two aspiring singers were joined by some relatives of Brian’s — his younger brothers Dennis and Carl, and his cousin Mike Love.
Opinions differ about what they performed at that August audition — it was either a song written by the Morgans’ son, Bruce, called Rio Grande, or it was a folk song that had been performed previously by the Kingston Trio.
But the Morgans knew that that song, Sloop John B, was not the kind of material these young men needed to be recording. Did they have any material of their own?
Dennis Wilson spoke up. “Brian and Mike have been writing a song about surfing.”
They hadn’t, of course, and one imagines that Brian instantly regretted having let Dennis join the group — his mother had told him he had to let his younger brother join in. But they dissembled, saying it wasn’t quite ready yet, and made arrangements to come back the next month.
Brian and Mike quickly got to work and knocked out something based on the same formula as Jan and Dean’s hits — a “bom, bom, dit-ba-dit-ba-dit” bass vocal and nasal lead, both supplied by Mike, and a certain amount of swagger as their basic three-chord song extolled the virtues of the surfing fad. This was a subject neither knew much about — Brian was scared of the ocean, and while Love did occasionally go surfing later, he was more busy looking after his wife and baby. Luckily, Dennis, who spent as much time at the beach as he possibly could, was there to help them with the slang.
The Wilsons’ parents, Murry and Audree, went away for Labor Day weekend, and left their sons some money for food while they were gone. Borrowing some extra money from Al’s mother, they rented musical instruments, rehearsed, and had a party instead.
When Murry and Audree returned to find that their money had been spent on musical instruments, they were angry right up until the point where they heard the music, after which Murry, who had always wanted a career in the music business (he’d even once written a song that Lawrence Welk had performed), decided he was going to be the new band’s manager.
The new group, calling themselves the Pendletones, auditioned again on the fifteenth of September, and impressed the Morgans that they offered Brian and Mike a publishing contract, and arranged a professional session for the boys, for Candix Records.
And they were boys. Their ages ranged between fourteen (Carl, the baby of the group) and twenty, and for all their recording session was supposedly professional, it had none of the sophistication of the youthful veterans we’ve been discussing so far. The instrumentation consisted of Carl strumming an acoustic guitar, Al plucking an upright bass, and Brian hitting either a single snare drum or a dustbin lid (reports vary).
The sound of the record had nothing to do with the “surf music” that was then being made by people like Dick Dale And The Del-Tones, which was primarily instrumental music based on heavily reverbed electric guitars. Instead, this owed more to the Kingston Trio — simple, acoustic, folky music, with strong harmonies — but with the addition of that Jan & Dean style bass vocal.
That combination — block harmonies singing one part (“Surfin’, surfin’”), while a mobile bass vocal does something different underneath (“Bom, bom, dit-ba-dit-ba-dit”), owes something to doo-wop, but more to Brian Wilson’s unique style of piano playing. Wilson has been described as having “the best left hand in the business”, and unlike most people when he plays piano he carries the melody in the bass range, while just blocking out simple chords with his right for the most part. These parts were transferred, more or less directly, to the band’s vocals.
Once Wilson got the idea to add a second mobile voice on top — his own falsetto — the band’s vocal sound would be complete, but for now the Pendletones were unformed.
But this simple song, with its basic verse-chorus alternation, clearly had potential. The only thing wrong was the name. The band had called themselves the Pendletones because Murry Wilson thought that they might be able to get sponsorship from Pendleton, the manufacturers of the shirts they planned to wear onstage. But this was clearly not the right name for the band that recorded Surfin’.
So when the Pendletones’ new record came out, Candix records had made the unilateral decision to re-christen them. The only question was what to call them. “The Surfers” was considered for a while, before Russ Regan hit on the perfect name for the band, and had it stuck on the label of Candix single 331 when it was released in November. The first the band knew about their change of name was when they opened a box of their singles.
And since the song was a big local hit, and a minor one nationally, reaching number 75, the name stuck.
The Pendletones were now the Beach Boys.