Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vocal Surf Pop

Surf Music: Part 2
Although surf music started out as a purely instrumental form, it was vocal music that found the greatest commercial success in the genre. Always and forever, the first band that comes to mind in this category are the Southern Californian group, The Beach Boys, who formed in 1961. Made up of three brothers (Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson), their cousin (Mike Love), and a friend (Al Jardine), these Hawthorne High boys combined the sounds of instrumental surf rock with rock 'n' roll and doo wop, topped off with their close vocal harmonies, making them major pop stars with sixteen hit singles from 1962 to 1965. However, with the arrival of the British Invasion in 1964, especially Beatlemania, the surf craze and its soundtrack was almost completely wiped out. On the other hand, The Beach Boys continued their success as they became more inventive in the recording studio, producing fantastic hit albums (Pet Sounds in 1966) and singles ("Good Vibrations," featured on my post here). In fact, they were probably the only rock or pop group in America that could revival The Beatles. As a good portion of my childhood was spend with my family down at the beach, The Beach Boys were pretty much the first band I adored and related to as a kid (I mean, at about age 7, I thought "Surfer Girl" was written for me). Anyway, here are The Beach Boys giving a live performance of "I Get Around" and "When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)" (complete with false start) for the first time in the UK.

The only other vocal surf pop act to achieve success was a rock 'n' roll singing duo from Los Angeles, Jan and Dean, who had a #1 hit with "Surf City" in 1963 (co-written with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was significant in their initial success). Unlike most rock 'n' roll acts of the time, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence did not give music their full attention as they were also serious college students. In 1964, the guys performed and hosted The T.A.M.I. Show, which was the first multi-act Rock 'n' Roll show edited into a motion picture, a groundbreaking feat as it was basically the first rock video. After this event, the duo became one of the major faces in 1960's music until Jan's serious car accident in 1966, from which he traveled a long but successful recovery from brain damage and partial paralysis. However, the team did return to the recording studios and Jan enjoyed the reputation as being one of the best record producers on the West Coast.

And now for a total off-the-wall song from this era, it's the 1963 (odd) hit, "Surfin' Bird," by The Trashmen from Minneapolis, Minnesota. The song is a combination of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons: "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's the Word," with a surf rock/garage rock sound. Although they did have a few other minor hits, The Trashmen are generally considered a one-hit wonder with "Surfin' Bird," which has had many covers, as well as appearances in many TV shows and movies over the decades. I did find a funny video of the group's drummer and vocalist, Steve Wahrer, performing this song live with an accurate introduction by a young Dick Clark, describing it as one of the strangest songs of that year, however, YouTube won't allowed me to post it (although if you're really curious, here's the YouTube link).

And finally, I'll leave you with one of the last hit songs on the Billboard chart before the British Invasion hit. Considered a cross between surf rock and garage rock, The Rivieras, from South Bend, Indiana, are best known for their hit "California Sun" in 1964. Made up of teenagers from South Bend Central High, the group was originally named The Playmates, but because there was already a band with that name, they renamed themselves The Rivieras after the car, the Buick Riviera. Because of personnel changes (two members joined the Marines after this hit), personal reasons, and drastic changes in the pop music, the group split in 1966. However, this tune remains an enduring classic on "oldies" radio stations today.


Well, looks like I need to call it a day, but if you're still interested in a few more vocal surf tunes, click on the links to hear other one-hit wonders like Ronny & the Daytonas' "G.T.O." and The Rip Chords' "Hey Little Cobra". Still to come this week will be a post about the surf rock sound in TV shows themes and movies of the 1960's!


  1. Leah, Love your Blog. FYI I got to see Jan and Dean in concert in LA about 1973. They Lip Sync the song so they got booed by most of the crowd.

  2. Oh man, they lip-synced the show?! Bummer. Maybe that has something to do with why they haven't been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

  3. My sister got Jan&Dean's 'Popsicle' single in the summer of '66. She thought it was "cute, not like those stupid surfin' & car songs". My brother & I liked surfin' & hotrods and thought it was a dumb record, until I looked at the B side- Norwegian Wood??!!!! Oh no!!! We played it and fell down laughing. Big sister was horrified, she adored the Beatles, hated the Beach Boys etc. She wanted to throw it away but I kept it, still got it. You should hear it, it's a hoot. They did different versions of it, this one was a big production like Phil Spector, and not the one Jan wanted to release. Like your blog, the '60s rocked!
    Terry from the Okanagan

    1. Great story, Terry! That is too funny. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to check out this Jan & Dean version of Norwegian Wood, and yes, it's a crack-up! I like the fuzz guitar imitating the sitar sound. I totally appreciate suggestions like this. There's so much music from this awesome decade! Satellite Radio really should have a show that plays nothing but B-sides from the '60s (or does this already exist?). Anyway, thanks again for the tip, and thanks so much for reading!