Head to ‘Drag City’ 45 years later with Jan and Dean

By  David M. Beard

Dean Torrence (left) and Jan Berry (right) caught in a moment of silliness. Courtesy David M. Beard Collection.

Dean Torrence (left) and Jan Berry (right) caught in a moment of silliness. Courtesy David M. Beard Collection.
In late 1963, Jan & Dean’s Drag City album tapped into a complete feel unlike any other of its time. As the album opened and the title track revved its way into pure machismo car bliss, you were literally taken to the drag strip with Jan & Dean. But, how they got there was a pretty story.

The success of Jan (Berry) & Dean (Torrence) in the early 1960s isn’t that unusual, or for that matter, that difficult to understand or figure out. They had created a successful following with their doo-wop material, and as they continued to record, they continued to improve.

By the time fate would pair them up with The Beach Boys they were an established act. But, still, their predominant demographic was teenage girls. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with that; it was working for them, but in spite of their success, they found themselves wondering what would be their next musical direction/sound. 

They had yet to make the next logical step. This was — in part — because they weren’t sure which way they should turn. Why make the change? Simple. The duo had enjoyed only modest success as a doo-wop act, with their material being overtly banal and somewhat bland. Once they signed with Liberty Records, the future began to look a little brighter, because they had a bigger budget. But, due to their contract obligations with Aldon Music, they were limited to mostly substandard recordings for single releases.
After the initial release of Golden Hits Volume 1 (which contained doo-wop crossover pop tunes like “Barbara Ann”), they were slowly finding their niche with the modest success of “Linda.” By this point, Jan & Dean had met The Beach Boys; a friendship was born.

“Once we felt comfortable with the tunes we were doing, and our partnership with Lou Adler, we started feeling really confident about [what] we were doing and the direction we were going,” relates Torrence, “Once we met Brian Wilson and had the songs to work with … we knew we had the technology; now we were getting the songs. The songs were something we were very comfortable doing. We kind of knew that we were finally in a place that was totally and uniquely ours. Jan & Dean Take Linda Surfin’ was released and included two Beach Boys covers: “Surfin’,” and “Surfin’ Safari.”

Both tracks included some of The Beach Boys on backing vocals. The Take Linda Surfin’ LP cover featured Jan & Dean with a blonde model in front of a woodie (the car) with surfboard in hand. The image was forming, but the album’s visual packaging was contrived at best.

Dean recalls, “When we met up with Brian we started thinking about doing more masculine subject matter. At that particular point, we were in full bloom (in terms of) knowing what our California imagery was supposed to be.”

It was clear that they were better, much better. Berry continued to thrive in the studio as a part of the creative team that he helped build with Adler. Now, Jan was a part of the Artie Kornfeld and Brian Wilson team. Now that they figured out what they were “supposed to be,” the next logical step would fall on their proverbial laps.

Two Girls For Every Boy

Recording at a fast and furious pace, they were hungry for bigger and better. The beach photo shoot with the woodie would provide the perfect visual for their next single, the #1 hit, “Surf City.”

At the time, it captured the California lifestyle as well as any other musical act around… including The Beach Boys. As it turned out, “Surf City” was co-authored by none other than Beach Boys helmsman Brian Wilson.

Initially, Jan & Dean were actually more interested in a different song than the one Wilson was working on — namely, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Brian wasn’t willing to hand that track over, however he had a second song that he played the duo at his piano. The song was initially titled “Two Girls For Every Boy,” but once Jan (along with Dean) tweaked it and finished it up, it became “Surf City.” Thus was a born a songwriting partnership between Berry and Wilson.

In 1997, Berry remembered, “‘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 … I overdubbed my voice on the lead microphone and had Tony Minichiello (of The Matadors) and Brian singing in the background. The vocals on that were done in unison… but Brian was such a joy to work with, because he concentrated so hard when it came time to work, and he was such a nice guy to be around.” Wilson recalled, “I remember Jan as being a really funny guy with a lot of talent. He had a great attitude. We picked up things from one another (in the studio). ‘Surf City’ took a little bit longer, probably because it was the first time we worked together.”

It wouldn’t be the last.

The success of “Surf City” prompted a follow-up recording, “Honolulu Lulu.” Then, hastily, Liberty Records released Jan & Dean — Surf City and Other Swingin’ Cities with a total of two — that’s two — surf-related tracks, “Surf City” and “Honolulu Lulu.” Stranger still, the B-sides — “She’s My Summer Girl” and “Someday (You’ll Go Walking By)” — were left off the LP.

When the Surf City LP was released the concept was lost on Torrence.

“Surf City — 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. I don’t know why,” says Dean. “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. I rationalized that, but at least we got the photo session done and a little picture of us with the woodie and a surfboard.”

Surf City did mark a concept of sorts, but “Honolulu Lulu” was not a “swingin’ city.” Had the “suits” thought a little harder they could have included “Surfin’,” and “Surfin’ Safari” from Jan & Dean Take Linda Surfin’ to add some oomph to the duo’s image. It wasn’t to be. But it wouldn’t matter, because the next step would prove to be their best.

Burning Up That Quarter Mile

Jan & Dean always sang about things that they either were into doing themselves or found to be interesting. Whether it was through their ever-growing persona of tongue-in-cheek humor or their basic interest in the pastimes of young men, they were becoming unique and were finding their stride.

As the concept for the next Jan & Dean LP came together — thanks in no small part to the success of The Beach Boys’ hits “409” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” respectively — Berry and Torrence made a decision. They wanted to do an entire album about the car industry. Torrence emphasizes, “(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… what a concept! Tying the visuals into actual songs, so the continuity was finally there. I felt really, really good about that. That was the breakthrough!”

Another very important element of the material that they began to compile was lyricist Roger Christian. Christian was a vital piece to the songwriting team. Of the 12 songs to appear on the Drag City LP, Christian co-wrote 10 of them, chief among them The Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe.” With Brian, Roger, Jan and Artie, the sessions commenced in September 1963 and wrapped in late November. As a new and innovative artist, Wilson was learning from Berry, and they were grooving on Christian’s entire car vibe. It worked to everyone’s benefit.

While Jan was thriving in the studio with his group of newfound collaborators, the packaging/imagery/concept of whom Jan & Dean were had yet to refine itself into a single comprehensive idea. This was where Dean began to really flourish.

A natural comedic talent, Torrence identified with all the hobbies of the day. Whether he was racing go-carts with Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson or speeding through the streets and hills of L.A. in his latest set of wheels, Dean’s amiable and friendly, “aw shucks” personality was the perfect counter-measure to Jan’s often abrasive tactical approach, but the pairing worked extremely well. Dean became Jan’s “other voice” so to speak and was always pushing for cross-marketing/packaging.

Listen to ’em
whine, whine, whine

In November 1963, the boys released the thunderous-sounding, foot-tapping “Drag City” single, with the B-side’s punch-the-clock comedic turn, “Schlock Rod (Part 1)” (led by Dean’s purposely boyish goofiness).
Like “409,” the song begins with a revved-up engine taking off down the drag strip. The single’s picture sleeve shows the boys working on their hot rod (covered in grease). They actually went to the drag strip and worked on cars, and it wasn’t bullshit; they knew what they were doing.

As for the Studio Five album art, “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!” declares Torrence.

In fact, Drag City is so coherent in its album structure that the musical lineage is (to quote a Marx Brothers film title) “A Day at the Races.” “Drag City,” “I Gotta Drive,” “Sting Ray,” “Hot Stocker” and “Drag Strip Girl” all take place at the drag strip, while “Surfin’ Hearse” [as a huge Laurel & Hardy fan, Jan incorporated T. Marvin Hatley’s “Dance of the Cuckoos” as the introduction] and “Surf Route 101” take us to the beach, and “Popsicle [Truck]” and “Dead Man’s Curve” embody the California fun-in-the-sun outdoor life attached to street racing.

As for “Schlock Rod (Part 1)” and “Schlock Rod (Part 2),” their offbeat comedy was getting noticed. All this on one album! The release marked a very definitive direction — cool and fun with a bit of comedy thrown in for good measure.

Something else (albeit, more important) happened during the recording process of the album: a formula for recording was established that would remain the duo’s modus operandi for the remainder of their Liberty music output.

Torrence explains, “Normally we worked on the better ideas first. Songs that were good from the get-go. We’d work on those first. Then there would be the marginal ones [and] then the rest. It was kind of like a treadmill. ‘Schlock Rod’ was at the end of the treadmill; it was supposed to be a song. It would have been a silly song anyway. We were tired, running out of time and because we had that comedic point of view… it was more of a function of being tired and absolutely out of time at this particular point to sing the song like we were originally going to do. So it wasn’t anything we planned; it was totally spontaneous.”

Dean continues, “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 strong produced tracks, then the more thematic songs, and your ‘What in the world was that?’ cut.”

Jan & Dean music was an integral part of California lifestyle and mythology in the early- to mid-1960s. They never pretended to be anything they weren’t. They were established and knew their audience.

In their doo-wop days it was typically teenage girls, but now they were hip. They surfed, they raced cars (whenever and wherever they wanted) and knew how to work on hot rods, etc. Jan & Dean were more than a viable music act. They truly were of the subject matter of which they performed. They were now choosing the material to use as a tool to define them. As one of the best producers of his time, Jan Berry’s capacity for understanding technical and musical arrangements was astounding!

Now, coming up on the 45th anniversary of this unique and musically dynamic album, it’s pretty easy to understand why Drag City — with the Berry-Wilson-Christian-Kornfeld team — is one of the truly great car industry albums of all time!

David M. Beard is a Beach Boys Scholar /Jan & Dean photo archivist & scholar, journalist, designer, and editor & publisher of Endless Summer Quarterly, ESQuarterly.com.

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