Jan Berry and Dean Torrence are one of the 1960s’ best kept pop secrets. Eclipsed by the stellar success of the Beach Boys – a band with which they were good friends and musical collaborators – Jan and Dean ended up as a footnote to the decade’s California sound. It’s all the more sad because they helped pioneer it, and were one of its greatest exponents. Along with their subsequent album Drag City, Ride the Wild Surf is the best way to experience the duo’s sunny, hedonistic sound.
Beach Boys fans will be interested to know that Brian Wilson co-wrote four of this album’s songs, including the title track – which could have stood on its own as one of his band’s finest early efforts. It was a powerful songwriting partnership, which also delivered Surf City for the Beach Boys. Jan Berry’s girlfriend Jill Gibson joined in too, as well as his old high school friend Don Altfeld and a number of other associates. The songs are simple and direct, with catchy Chuck Berry-influenced guitar riffs and a touching naivety to the lyrics. Most people alive today were never suntanned Californian teens in the 60s, but these songs sure give you a taste of how it must have felt to be one.
At a time when US record labels called the shots, one of the joys of Ride the Wild Surf is that Jan Berry got to produce this album in his own way. Commissioned to soundtrack the movie of the same name, you could call it an early concept album as the songs are closely themed around beach life – summer, surfing, skateboarding and girls. The playing is jaunty, the rhythms infectious and the close-knit vocal harmonies are Beach Boys quality. Factor in the pithy and often funny lyrics and the result is an uplifting album that’s as charming as it is quaint. It’s also beautifully done, and surprisingly fine sounding considering it was designed to be throwaway pop.
The title track Ride the Wild Surf was released as a single, and peaked at number 16 in the US Billboard charts in 1963, doing worse than expected. This was a portent of things to come, as the surf pop scene was already on the wane and the Beach Boys quickly moved on to car songs – then of course, the beautiful psychedelia of Pet Sounds. Indeed, this epic was arguably the last ever surf hit if you exclude The Tradewinds’ belated New York’s a Lonely Town from early 1965. The genre was pretty much over, and Jan and Dean’s career with it, soon after.
As is so often the case, for many years Ride the Wild Surf was no longer available new. Long deleted on LP, it took the enterprising hand of EMI Japan to put it out on Compact Disc in 2012 [TOCP-71306], along with the rest of the Jan and Dean Liberty record label era output. Now though, it’s available on a number of streaming services, from Amazon Music to Qobuz, in its original stereo mix. (A number of later ‘Greatest Hits’ CD packages feature an inferior modern mix, which lacks the charm of the original.) The aural equivalent of a vitamin D shot, this album makes great winter listening.
Playlist available below,