In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Surf City” is part of a proud tradition of songs about imaginary party utopias. It belongs in the same lineage as “Funkytown” and “Love Shack” — starry-eyed dreams about places where everyone is having fun all the time. Layering up their falsetto harmonies in a way that would soon be very familiar, Jan Berry and Dean Torrance sang about a place where there would be “two girls for every boy.” (The single’s cover art, however, clearly depicts two boys and one girl — a sad suggestion that, even in Surf City, Jan And Dean had no game.)
I probably went most of my life assuming that “Surf City” was a Beach Boys song, and it nearly was. Berry and Torrance, high school football teammates in late-’50s California, had started out singing doo-wop together after practice. (The eventual movie star James Brolin was one of their teammates and singing buddies.) By 1963, they’d already recorded a bunch of hits, and Mike Love has said that their 1959 gibberish-fueled top-10 single “Baby Talk” was an early Beach Boys influence.
But Jan And Dean didn’t hit their peak until they met Brian Wilson. The duo played a lot of early-’60s shows with the Beach Boys, with the Beach Boys even backing them up a few times. Berry, like Wilson, was a producer. He wrote Jan And Dean’s songs and produced them, and he also produced for the Angels and the Rip Chords. (He did this while both he and Torrance were college students; both of them kept studying full-time even after “Surf City” blew up.) Berry wanted to record one of Wilson’s songs. Wilson wouldn’t let them have “Surfin’ USA,” since he knew the Beach Boys were going to record that one. But he hadn’t finished the very similar “Surf City,” though he had written and demoed the first verse and chorus. So Berry finished writing the song, and it became the song that really popularized surf music — and maybe surfing in general — in America.
The proudly goofy “Surf City” lyrics are what everyone remembers, but listening to it now, what really strikes me is how tight and powerful that backing band is. Jan And Dean recorded the song with the Wrecking Crew, the group of LA session-musician murderers who played on a lot of that era’s hits, including most Phil Spector productions. (That’s future country star Glen Campbell on guitar.) There’s a tense rumble in the arrangement, and it ultimately doesn’t sound different from the wild surf-guitar instrumentals that were exploding around that time.
“Surf City” would be Jan And Dean’s only #1, but they kept recording increasingly complex surf-pop jams, often with Wilson, for the next few years (1964’s “Dead Man’s Curve” is a banger). Their career was only derailed when Berry got into a bad car accident in 1966, laying in a coma for a few months. They kept recording after he recovered, and Torrance ended up having a successful career as an album-cover designer. Meanwhile, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” only got to #3, despite coming out a few months earlier. Murry, Brian Wilson’s controlling and evil father, was pissed, but that wasn’t enough to stop Wilson from working with the duo. The Beach Boys finally got to #1 a year later, and they ended up doing pretty OK for themselves.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Ramones version of “Surf City,” from their 1993 covers album Acid Eaters: