The Beach Boys didn’t really capitalise on their initial success. Surfin’ was released in November, and they did two shows in December (one of them a two-song set in the intermission of a Dick Dale show which apparently went badly) before going into a studio in January to record a few more songs about surfing, in their newer electric style.
But then Alan Jardine left the band, deciding he’d rather concentrate on his studies and his folk group than on a pop group. His departure was perfectly amicable — he would record a single under the name Kenny & The Cadets that March with Brian and Audree Wilson (Brian’s mother) — but it left a gap in the band’s line-up.
The gap was quickly filled by David Marks, a thirteen-year-old neighbour of the Wilson family who had been learning guitar along with Carl. Marks was not the singer Jardine was, but he was an accomplished guitarist for his age, and knew the family well.
But one further big change had taken place — one which would have big results for the band over the next few years. Brian Wilson had found his first outside collaborator.
Gary Usher was three years older than Brian Wilson, and had released a single himself a couple of years earlier, an unsuccessful track called Driven Insane, a startlingly odd combination of reverbed Fender guitar, a sobbing Gene Pitney-esque vocal, and a high, almost theremin-sounding, female backing vocal. He and Wilson quickly hit it off and began collaborating on songs, both for the Beach Boys and for other side projects.
One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with Surfin’. Brian and Mike had already written another song, Surfin’ Safari, that was a virtual clone of their original hit, but which had tightened the formula. That song opened with almost unadorned vocal harmonies singing the hook, before going into a repeated twelve-bar blues pattern, over which Love sang the verse in his tenor range, and using the same pattern for a chorus, but with Love singing a bass melody while the rest of the band chanted the title before they all came together for the last line.
It’s the same basic structure as Surfin’, but tighter, and with twin electric Fender guitars providing much more drive than the single acoustic guitar of the earlier song, and with a prominent Chuck Berry influence on the guitar style.
Usher and Wilson took that same structure, and instead of writing about surfing, decided to write about the cars Usher loved so much, and in particular the Chevrolet Impala SS car Usher was desperate to buy, which had Chevrolet’s latest top-of-the-range engine, one with a 409 cubic inch capacity.
Mike Love, who has since gained a co-writing credit for this song following a lawsuit in the early 1990s, apparently added the opening “She’s real fine, my 409” hook and the “giddy-up” backing vocal idea. Love has often claimed that the reason for writing car songs along with the surf songs the band had been doing was a commercial one — that while the people on the coasts enjoyed surfing, the landlocked middle states all had cars as well — but it’s notable that while Love was Wilson’s principal collaborator, he worked on relatively few of the car songs. Usher (and Roger Christian, who later collaborated with both Wilson and Usher) clearly knew and loved cars.
This led to a rather odd situation — the song itself manages to clearly communicate its lyricist’s passion for the subject, precisely because its relatively short lyric contains the almost incomprehensible phrase “my four-speed, dual-quad, positraction 409”. Only someone who really loved cars would talk about them in such detail, and the enthusiasm is infectious even for those of us who barely know one end of a car from another.
Usher was also encouraging Wilson to stretch himself as a producer. When the band went into Western Studios with engineer Chuck Britz to record this song as a demo, along with a new version of Surfin’ Safari, Wilson and Usher’s ballad The Lonely Sea and the old Four Freshmen song Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, they took with them a tape recording, made on a reel-to-reel recorder, of the engine of Usher’s car revving up. The addition of this sound effect at crucial points in the track turned it from just a Surfin’ Safari rewrite into something more.
Brian Wilson’s father Murry was credited as the producer of the session, but Brian was calling the shots in the studio from the beginning, and the results are wildly more exciting than the rather tentative Surfin’.
Nik Venet agreed. Venet had recently moved from World Pacific Records to become Capitol Records’ head of A&R*. Venet had been in at the birth of surf music with Moon Dawg, and decided that the Beach Boys were going to be big. He bought the demos of Surfin’ Safari and 409 and released them as a single in June 1962, and Surfin’ Safari quickly rose to number 14 in the charts. 409 did less well, but still made the Hot 100 on its own merits, and by September the band were in the studio, recording five more Wilson/Usher songs and one more Wilson/Love one, along with a couple of covers of popular hits and a remake of Moon Dawg (credited to Venet rather than its composer Derry Weaver), for a quick album release to capitalise on the single’s success.
The Beach Boys were no longer one-hit wonders, and they’d already expanded from just singing about surf to cars as well. Where could they go from here?
Composers: Brian Wilson, Gary Usher, and Mike Love
Line-up: Brian Wilson (vocals, bass), Mike Love (vocals), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), David Marks (guitar), Gary Usher (sound effects, uncredited)
Original release: Capitol single 4777, as the B-side to Surfin’ Safari
Currently available on: Surfin’ Safari, plus many public domain compilations
*Artists and repertoire. An A&R man was at the time the main contact between the record company and the performer, and would sign artists, choose material for them, and produce their recordings.