California Dreaming: Surf City

“Two girls for every boy…”

The Beach Boys came along at the perfect time for Jan and Dean.

In August 1962, the Beach Boys were the exciting new kids on the scene. They’d just had their first top twenty hit, and had only just signed to Capitol Records. Meanwhile, Jan and Dean had some claim to being elder statesmen. Their latest album, in fact, was called Jan and Dean’s Golden Hits. Never mind that most of the hits weren’t theirs.

But, as the title might suggest, Jan and Dean’s career was looking like it might be over. Since their big hit with Heart and Soul, fifteen months earlier, they’d released five singles, and none had charted higher than number 69.

But they were still big enough that they could be the headline act at the Reseda Jubilee, with the Beach Boys as their support act and backing band. The young band played their own limited set, then backed Jan and Dean on a run-through of their own hits, before (in an act of desperation due to a lack of material) performing Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari again, with Jan and Dean joining in.

The experience was an invigorating one for Berry and Torrence, partly because the two enjoyed hearing fuller harmonies behind themselves — while they’d thickened their sound with overdubs in the studio, they really wanted to be in a vocal group, and they had their wish that night.

The two groups struck up a friendship, and played a couple more gigs together in the next few months, during which time Jan & Dean also managed to score another top thirty hit with Linda, a song originally written in 1946, about the then one-year-old Linda Eastman (later better known as Linda McCartney).

Jan Berry noticed Brian Wilson’s songwriting talent and asked him to play some of the songs he was working on. The first thing Wilson played for them, a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with lyrics about what it would be like “if everybody had an ocean across the USA”, he insisted on keeping for his own band, but he had another song, with the working title Goody Connie Won’t You Please Come Home?, which he was very glad to offer to the duo to work on.

Various people — Dean Torrence, Don Altfeld, and Roger Christian among them — have been named at times as having contributed to the finished song, which turned into a paean to bisexual polyamory [FOOTNOTE: Well, maybe that’s stretching it slightly. But after all, “two girls for every boy” is just another way of saying “a boy and a girl for every girl”…], but the eventual writing credit went to Jan Berry and Brian Wilson.

On March 7, the Beach Boys went into the studio to back Jan and Dean, vocally and instrumentally, on the duo’s cover versions of Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari. A few weeks later, Brian Wilson was back in the studio with them to record the newly titled Surf City and another song on which they had collaborated, Gonna Hustle You (later issued under the name The New Girl In School).

Surf City, in its finished version, is clearly the product of the same songwriter who wrote those first two Beach Boys singles. The structure is identical to them — start with a vocal hook, then go into a verse sung by a nasal tenor lead, before a chorus where that lead drops down and sings a boogie bassline while block harmonies sing the title, have the chorus end with the intro hook, and repeat a couple of times.

But this is a far more sophisticated take on the idea than any of the earlier versions Wilson had created. The opening “two girls for every boy” at first sounds simple enough — it sounds like we’re hearing a I-IV-V song in B…at least until we hit the word “boy”, which is on a chord, E-flat, which makes no sense at all in that context — it’s the V of vi, about as far tonally from what’s been set up as one can get.

But the next chord, the start of the verse, makes it make sense — it resolves nicely into A-flat for “I got a thirty Ford wagon”, and we’ve got a nice, safe, tonal centre. We’re in A-flat, not B, and for the first two lines of the verse it’s straightforward shuffling between I and vi.

For the bridge into the chorus (“it ain’t got a back seat”) we move up to the IV, and have a brief stab at doo-wop changes in that key (we hear D-flat – B-flat minor – G-flat, which is either a I-vi-IV in D-flat or IV-ii-VII in A-flat, depending on how you want to look at it), but then rather than go to the A-flat that would resolve that we jump up to the E-flat that we last heard leading into the verse.

This is very clever, because it means that while we’ve had a fairly stable tonal centre for the whole verse, and the chorus is in the same key of A-flat, it feels like a key change.

The chorus then starts off a fairly standard twelve-bar blues progression — and here we see the final building blocks of Brian Wilson’s early style fall into place, because here for the first time, along with the boogie bass vocal and the chanted song title in block harmonies, we have a third moving part, a wordless falsetto, sung by Torrence (and apparently doubled by Wilson, though everything’s double-tracked and drenched in reverb so it’s hard to tell who’s singing what), singing a different melody from anything going on below. This is, finally, the Beach Boys’ classic sound, albeit not on a Beach Boys record.

And while the chorus starts out sounding like a twelve-bar blues, for the last four bars we have, instead of the expected V-IV-I-I change, the utterly bizarre (in context) repetition of the “two girls for every boy” intro in B, making the chorus tag in context be III-flat – VI-flat – VII-flat – V, and again giving us the sense of a key change going into the next verse, even though we’re once again going back into the home key.

This is, of course, not exactly Stockhausen — most of the changes make sense on their own terms — but when put together it gives a quite bewildering sense of constant movement in unexpected directions, even though most of the time it ends up back where it started. And just to make sure you don’t ever quite get sure of what key the song’s in, after two more repetitions of this verse-chorus structure, we end with a repetition of the final “two girls for every boy” a tone up, placing us in C, and end on a repeated C chord to fade.

That technique on its own is a cliche — the “truck-driver’s gear change” — but when combined with the tonal ambiguity of the rest of the song it makes the whole thing seem quite bewildering when compared to other music on the US pop charts in 1963.

But the performance hangs together, and has an incredible sense of excitement, thanks in large part to the contributions of several of the musicians who would later be known as the Wrecking Crew. There are many myths around the Wrecking Crew, but the term is just used to describe the couple of dozen session players who were most frequently chosen to work on rock records in LA, and so ended up playing on many hits (though nowhere near as many as some of them claim). We will be hearing much more from them later, not least on productions by Brian Wilson.

Unfortunately, production techniques in the early 1960s relied on “bouncing down” — taking two or three tracks from a multitrack tape and recording the sound from them onto a single track — in order to do the multiple overdubs that Jan Berry loved, and the build up of tape hiss from this means that the details of the track are not as audible as one might like. Even so, it’s clear that arranger Billy Strange took the sound the Beach Boys had created and tightened it up — parts like the Dick Dale style semiquaver runs on the bass strings of the guitar during the chorus show both more thought and more skill than anything that had been on a Beach Boys record to that point.

The result was an astonishing, exciting, record that, when released as a single coupled with She’s My Summer Girl (a Berry/Wilson/Altfeld collaboration) became the first number one single for either Wilson or Jan & Dean. Murry Wilson, Brian’s father, was apparently apoplectic that the song had been “given away” rather than kept in the family, and referred to Berry as a pirate — prompting Berry, allegedly, to turn up to a Beach Boys recording session in full pirate outfit.

But Brian Wilson was learning production from Berry, just as Berry was finally getting to collaborate on writing hit songs. Together, they’d found the new sound, and both men were going to make as much of it as they could, while they could.

Surf City

Composers: Brian Wilson and Jan Berry

Line-up: Jan Berry (vocals), Dean Torrence (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals), Billy Strange (guitar), Ray Pohlman (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), Earl Palmer (drums), uncredited piano (probably Berry and/or Wilson), uncredited horns

Original release: Surf City/She’s My Summer Girl, Jan & Dean, Liberty Records single #55580

Currently available on:
Surf City/Dead Man’s Curve / New Girl in School BGO Records CD, plus innumerable budget compilations. Note, however, that there are many inferior re-recordings by either Jan & Dean or Dean Torrence working under the duo name, from the last few decades.

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3 Responses to California Dreaming: Surf City

  1. Richard says:

    I have to admit “‘two girls for every boy’ is just another way of saying ‘a boy and a girl for every girl'” made me smile broadly in view of many online arguments I’ve had re the relationship of William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne. You put it so much more succinctly!

    Every installment of this series you’ve posted so far has been a winner.

  2. TAD says:

    When I hear “Two girls for every boy,” I assume it means that I’ve gone to a party, and instead of there being more guys there than girls, it’s the opposite. So if I’m at that party, there’s a real good chance I’m going to hook up. Every guy wants to go to a party like that!

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