Get to know Jan & Dean as the Laurel & Hardy of surf music

Jan & Dean, courtesy of Endless Summer Quarterly

By David M. Beard

Jan (Berry) & Dean (Torrence) rode the crest of success from 1959-1966.

After Jan had a near-fatal car accident on April 12, 1966, in Beverly Hills, Calif., he spent the remainder of his life battling physical paralysis.

Over the years I’ve interviewed Torrence on a number of occasions, and was able to interview Berry once in 1997.

This article is a chronologically ordered Q&A with Jan & Dean spanning 1993-2009, highlighting their early success.

What do you remember about writing “Surf City” with Brian Wilson?
Jan Berry: “Surf City” was the first song that Brian and I worked on together. I went to his apartment, and we sat side by side at an upright piano. I put together the arrangements on that while Brian played along.

Once we put it together I brought in Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Glen Campbell and the rest of those guys. We cut it at United (that’s now Ocean Way Studios) and laid down the rhythm track; shortly after that, we laid down the vocals. I over-dubbed my voice on the lead microphone and had Tony Minicello (of the Matadors) and Brian singing in the background. The vocals on that were done in unison. Hal Blaine was always there — and all those other musicians, too! Brian was such a joy to work with, because he concentrated so hard when it came time to working, and he was such a nice guy to be around. I’ll never forget working with him. We had a lot of collaborations, but “Surf City” was such a great song. It’s my favorite memory!

Dean Torrence: Visually, the “Surf City” LP — at the very least — (included) a picture with a surfboard and woodie. The company who put our packages together [Studio Five] decided that the picture shouldn’t dominate the whole cover. All the songs weren’t about surfing, so on the other hand (I thought) it would be misleading to have that picture on the cover, but there weren’t that many songs written about surfing yet. We couldn’t fill up a whole album with surf songs … we didn’t have enough of them. (The) “Drag City LP” was the first time we could get out of the studio — and have pictures taken on location — about a place that you’re actually singing about … tying the visuals into actual songs, so the continuity was finally there. I felt really, really good about that. That was the breakthrough! We got the whole cover, and every song on the record was about the car industry and the California lifestyle, which was totally, totally unique. At that particular time it had not been done. That’s pretty dang neat!”

How did you and Jan utilize comedy in your act as Jan & Dean?
Dean: It just naturally seeped into our projects. Usually our comedy was on album fillers. “Dead Man’s Curve” was the first big-time recording — Top 10 record — that had the tongue firmly implanted in the cheek; it’s a musical version of Fargo. It was one of those almost Andy Kaufman-ish things. There were those who were scratching their heads and going are these guys serious? Those that knew us knew that it was dark comedy. “Dead Man’s Curve” is one of Tom Hank’s all-time favorite songs. He sent me pages out of “That Thing You Do” and said that a lot of the screenplay was based on a lot of Jan & Dean and what he read in Jan & Dean liner notes.

With “The Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association” we were going for juxtaposition. Jan used a Bach chorale with — I guess — “I Get Around.” There’s the juxtaposition of singing a “pop rock” song about a bunch of little old people in a car club. That’s bizarre. It’s a contrast of bizarreness and the juxtaposition of what it should have been and where we took it, in our minds, that’s where the humor was.

Our shtick became favorites [first], fillers [second] and then your spontaneous eclectic little bit of a left turn thing [last]. That kind of encompassed it all. Each album had really strongly produced tracks, then the more thematic songs, and your “What in the world was that?” cut.

Jan: I really enjoyed working on that album because of all those great musicians, especially Sid Sharp and the string section. I had the best musicians in the business.

What were the circumstances of your involvement on “Barbara Ann”?
Dean: We were working on one of Jan’s ballads … It might have been “You Really Know How to Hurt A Guy.” I said, “I don’t want to work on that, but I’ll help you out on the next tune.” Jan said, “I’m not ready to do the next tune.”

I said, “OK, I’ll be back in an hour.” [laughs] He said, “Don’t go to The Beach Boys’ studio.” I said, “Don’t worry. I won’t.”

Two minutes later, I’m in their studio and they’re asking me what I want to sing… We opened up a can of worms when we asked if we could be involved with the “Party” album. Our company [Liberty Records] said, “If they’ll sign a document saying what you guys will get in return (and make it a joint Jan& Dean/Beach Boys project).” Nobody wanted to sign that. We were doing it as friends, and Brian had done so much for us anyway. If you had to sit down and document what you were gonna do and all that crap… that just wasn’t gonna’ fly. Liberty said, “if you participate on that Party album without a release from us we’ll hold up royalties.” Not that they would have done it, but they said they would. Jan said, “Maybe we should have kept our mouths shut and done it without asking.” … I didn’t give a s**t! I wasn’t interested in what Jan was recording.

Two minutes later… Originally we were supposed to be in the pictures on the album (at the party). It’s just too bad we got intimidated. I still participated and still had a good time, and then it kind of became legendary because it was done ass-backwards. I was too busy farting around having a good time when Carl Wilson thanked me at the end of the song. I didn’t know until later that he had!
It does sound like a bunch of guys really having a good time and enjoying each other’s company. It’s not pretentious. It was totally spontaneous. You can tell… and that’s the charm of that record.

Why did the two of you decide to record “Batman”?
Dean: As I remember, we were kind of privy to that Screen Gems had Batman in the works. We found out what the show was going to be like. We were told that the concept was slapstick.

We recognized — even without seeing it — that it would be right up our alley. It’s something that we would have done, had Jan and I been television producers. Since we were just musicians, we thought we could at least do the musical entity of Batman since we had the feeling that no one else would do it. Knowing the music industry, they would put a soundtrack out with just the different instrumental themes.

It was — more or less — something that we were pretty sure that we were going to appreciate. It’s obviously comedy, slapstick, and it’s obviously pop-art. We could see that whole pop-art thing coming and we figured, let’s be a part of that.

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