This Day in Music History: Jan & Dean make beach music history with “Surf City”

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While sunny days at the beach might be a few months away for most of the world, in the early 1960s, a rock ‘n’ roll subgenre developed that offered listeners ringing guitars and almost hypnotic drums, and when vocals were involved, harmonies about days at the beach, interacting with the opposite sex, and in general, having a great time. Jan & Dean, a duo from Los Angeles, captured that effervescent feeling of teenagers at the beach in 1963 with “Surf City.” The fictional (but Californian, nonetheless) city promised “two girls for every boy.” The song became the first surf song to reach No. 1.

Jan & Dean was comprised of William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby. They met as high school students in the Los Angeles area. Reportedly, the two shared a friendship that survived Jan’s catastrophic car accident that left him in a coma for two months. After he regained his ability to walk and write, and recovered from brain damage, Jan was ready to make music again.

The appeal of “Surf City” reached beyond rock charts. The song also peaked at No. 3 on the r&b charts. The song’s popularity on a range of music charts demonstrates the effectiveness of the band’s musicality, and the universal appeal of beach or surf music to a broad range of audiences.

Jan & Dean: the legacy of surf music

“Surf City” remained at No. 1 for two weeks. While the Beach Boys were the first band to chart with beach- or surf-themed rock songs, Jan & Dean also had a signature sound that allowed theme to create classics that competed with the ever-popular Beach Boys. Throughout the 1960s, “Surf City” was followed by “Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” and “Dead Man’s Curve.”

“Surf City” with its laid-back lingo, engaging harmonies and rattling drums, preps listeners for the coming years full of muscle car or drag race music. The car that the narrator is driving to the titular “Surf City” isn’t “cherry,” it is a “Woody…an oldie but a goodie.” So this station wagon with wood paneling on the sides is not likely to win any drag race, or at least not any contests involving aesthetics, but it is dependable and will get the driver and his friends to Surf City, which, the song indicates, was all that mattered.

Surf music, and “Surf City,” in particular, are a sort of Americana that seems na├»ve, and golden in a way. And, certainly all-American. It shows the fascination that Americans have with recreation, and more importantly, their relationship to vehicles. The automotive industry at the time seemed such an American institution that nearly all of American life revolved around it. And perhaps that was the appeal of “Surf City.”

In an era when the idea of “teenager” was still a bit novel, Jan & Dean made an entire world where that demographic and its standards ruled. That teenagers and anyone else who cared to listen could also dance to the music did not hurt the appeal of surf music.

There is no discussion of surf music or car music that does not involve Jan & Dean. Linked to the Beach Boys with “Surf City” as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys helped to write an early version, Jan & Dean became a sort of institution in their own right.

The duo of Jan & Dean ended when Jan passed away in 2004. The legacy he built with Dean lives on in superior harmonies and perfectly clattering drums that recall a golden age for American youth and rock ‘n’ roll.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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