California Dreaming: Dead Man’s Curve

Dead Man’s Curve was possibly Jan and Dean’s most prescient song.

Jan and Dean were always ones to follow the trends, especially trends that the Beach Boys started, so when the Beach Boys put out the album Little Deuce Coupe, which was a near-concept album themed around car songs, with the single exception of the song Be True To Your School (which got in because it had a couple of lines about cruisin’ round with a decal in back), Jan and Dean immediately started recording Drag City. This album was based around their hit single of the same name, a Surf City soundalike written by Jan Berry, Brian Wilson, and Roger Christian, and consisted entirely of car songs, with the single exception of the song Popsicle Truck, which was about popsicles but got in because it briefly mentioned the truck after which it was titled.

And the Beach Boys had included A Young Man Is Gone, a dreadful maudlin song (a cover of a Four Freshmen song with new lyrics by Mike Love) about the death of James Dean in a car crash. Coincidentally, perhaps, Jan and Dean also included a song about a car crash on their album.

The team that wrote the song was Berry, Wilson, Artie Kornfeld (a record executive who co-wrote a huge number of hits), and Roger Christian. Christian was a DJ who Wilson had started working with after he criticised the lyrics to 409 on the radio, because he thought the car wasn’t good enough for a song like that, and who ended up writing the lyrics to almost every car hit not only for the Beach Boys, but for Jan and Dean, as well as collaborating with Gary Usher on innumerable studio band knockoffs and beach party film soundtracks.

The song is structured, musically, very similarly to their previous two hits — a verse based around simple I, IV and V chords, followed by a chorus with a chanted vocal (“dead man’s curve, it’s no place to play”) a low bass vocal stating the song title, and wordless falsetto vocal rising over it, leading to a hook at the end of the chorus. Those vocals, though, were thicker than before — Jan and Dean had often used extra backing vocalists, and here they were joined by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri (who had their own hits as The Fantastic Baggies, and wrote several songs for Jan and Dean), as well as Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, singing “Slippin’ and a-slidin’, driftin’ and broadslidin’” under the second verse. In fact, so many vocalists are on the track that Dean Torrence is inaudible, if he’s even present.

But the influence of Be My Baby on Brian Wilson’s songwriting was already starting to show. The tempo and feel are very close, and the chord sequence for the chorus is identical up to the hook line (allowing for the difference in keys). This might be a car song, but it was a car song with more of Phil Spector than Chuck Berry about it. And as befitted the subject matter, the song was far more of an epic than most of Jan and Dean’s records to that point, featuring a portentous horn section playing a three-note riff, and an extended spoken section (“Well, the last thing I remember, doc, I started to swerve…”) that led into the repeated message “won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve!” — even though, of course, the protagonist of the song did come back from his car crash, since he’s in hospital telling the doctor what had happened, although it’s implied that the driver of the inferior British car he was racing was not so lucky.

The song as recorded is very much a throwback to hits of a few years earlier, particularly the 1960 hit single Tell Laura I Love Her, with its tale of a car crash victim’s last words. But by late 1963 that style of song had gone out of fashion, and so when Dead Man’s Curve was released as a single (in a slightly revised version, with more horns, car crash effects, and a rerecorded lead vocal) in February 1964, it was like nothing else on the radio — especially since between the time it was recorded and the time it was released, a minor British band called the Beatles had released a couple of singles. When Dead Man’s Curve entered the US top twenty, the rest of the top twenty included six Beatles songs (including numbers one and two on the charts), three songs by other British bands (two by the Dave Clark Five and one by The Searchers), and the Kingsmen’s cover version of Barret Strong’s Money, charting off the exposure the song had got from the Beatles’ version. The music scene was completely different from that of December 1963, when the track had been recorded.

Astonishingly, then, this already-dated throwback managed to see Jan and Dean slightly ahead of the curve, as they started a small wave of car-crash songs — the two defining songs of the genre, Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las and Terry by Twinkle, both came out in its wake. Somehow, against all reason, Jan and Dean had managed for the first time to start a bandwagon, rather than jump on one that was already rolling.

The song made a very respectable number eight in the US charts, and showed that the British Invasion hadn’t completely killed off the surf and hot rod pop stars of 1963. But would any of them be able to survive much longer?

Dead Man’s Curve

Composers: Brian Wilson, Artie Kornfeld, Roger Christian, and Jan Berry

Line-up: Jan Berry (vocals), Dean Torrence (vocals?), Brian Wilson (vocals, possible piano), Gary Usher (vocals), P.F. Sloan (vocals), Steve Barri (vocals). I don’t have a copy of the AFM session sheets to say for sure, though I intend to track them down before the release of the book version of this (they’re in the public domain), but almost certainly the instrumentalists included Billy Strange (guitar), Ray Pohlman (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), Earl Palmer (drums), plus horns probably including Steve Douglas.

Original release: Dead Man’s Curve/The New Girl In School, Jan & Dean, Liberty Records single #55672 (the earlier album version, a different mix with different lead vocals, was first released on the Drag City album, Liberty Records LRP-3339 (mono)/LST-7339 (stereo))

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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2 Responses to California Dreaming: Dead Man’s Curve

  1. CS says:

    Really like this project, looking forward to adding the book to my little collection.

    (think the end notes for this song are mis-titled, though)

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