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Surf City: A Review
- Updated: March 19, 2017
When the topic of 1960s surf and car music arises, the Beach Boys are the first artists to come to mind of course. Although they were a distant second in terms of sales and did not have the same durable career, the duo of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, better known as Jan & Dean certainly were no slouches in this area of pop music as hits as “Sidewalk Surfing,” “Dead Man’s Curve,” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” attest. They also predated the Beach Boys on the Billboard charts.
While there have been dozens of books written about the Beach Boys (band co-founders Brian Wilson and Mike Love each released autobiographies last year) there has not been a tome dedicated to Jan & Dean until now as Dean Torrence has finally written the duo’s story from his viewpoint with an autobiography titled “Surf City” (Select Books). The title is derived from their 1963 #1 hit.
Jan Berry and Dean Torrence were classmates at University High School in ritzy Brentwood, California which was just a stone’s throw from UCLA. They didn’t know each other until they joined the school football team where each played wide receiver. They quickly discovered that they shared a love for vocalizing.
In many ways, the story of Jan & Dean’s early years mirror those of those famous singing Forest Hills High School alums, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel. Just as Simon went to Queens College with the goal of being an attorney and Garfunkel studying at Columbia to be a mathematics professor, Jan was a pre-med student at UCLA and started medical school there while Dean enrolled and eventually received a degree in architecture at USC. The difference was that Simon & Garfunkel did not begin their music careers in earnest until they finished college while Jan & Dean had to juggle their academic careers while they were popular artists.
Although the partnership was called Jan & Dean, it was clear that things weren’t equal. Dean was the junior partner because Jan was the composer, arranger, and lead vocalist. While he understood the dynamic it understandably led to some resentment.
Nonetheless it’s not everyone who gets to appear regularly with Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” and travel around the world. Dean writes in detail about the good points of the early days of rock & roll such as working with the talented LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew as well as the Beach Boys with whom they enjoyed a very friendly rivalry. He also vividly describes the low rent concert promoters who were prevalent in the business back then.
Jan & Dean’s hitmaking days came to literally and figuratively a crashing end on April 12, 1966 when Jan Berry totaled his sports car driving from an appointment with his draft board. Dean doesn’t describe what was on Jan’s mind but it’s safe to assume that he was quite worried about being shipped off to Viet Nam. Being a rock & roll star was no guarantee that you wouldn’t go to Southeast Asia to fight for Uncle Sam. Gary Lewis, who had more hits than Jan & Dean with his group, the Playboys, discovered this unfortunate fact.
There was a lot happening for Jan & Dean at the time of the accident. Music was changing and so was the duo’s sound as they were experimenting with ballads and folk music. There was also a weekly ABC TV comedy show in the works that would be similar to what was being developed for the Monkees at NBC.
Dean was able to land on his feet however and still stayed in the music industry albeit in a different capacity as he formed Kittyhawk Graphics, a company which designed album covers and logos for record labels and artists.
He thought that his performing days were behind him forever but in 1978 CBS commissioned a movie about the duo titled “Dead Man’s Curve” that starred the late Richard Hatch as Jan and Bruce Davison as Dean. Although Jan was never his old self after the accident he did recover enough to tour with Dean which was fortunate since demand for the reunion was sky high after the film.
Unfortunately Dean faced a far bigger problem with Jan than his partner’s ability to both sing and remember the lyrics. Like a lot of rock stars, Jan had developed a fondness for cocaine that nearly wrecked the revival of their partnership. Dean refused to tour with him in the early 198s until he got help which he did. The tough love worked as they performed almost up until Jan’s death in 2004.
Torrence writes in a way which fascinates the reader even if you are not knowledgeable about the music of Jan & Dean. I only wish that he would have written something about how the duo continues to be snubbed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.