Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Surfin' USA - Where did the lyrics really come from?

The cover of the 7" single Surfin' USA released
on March 4, 1963. A very young looking band

 [minus Al Jardine] pose in their Pendleton Madras
long-sleeved woolen beach shirts.
My good friend Damion who is the ingenious driving force behind the Board Collector blog [a great regular read I highly recommend] raised a very interesting subject this week regarding the surf spots named in the lyrics on The Beach Boys famous surfing track ‘Surfin’ USA’.

Damion, an ex-Deus employee from Sydney, recently moved to California and wrote this week about how he loves discovering all the surf spots in Southern California that he became familiar with by listening to The Beach Boy’s ‘Surfin’ USA’ song when he was a 10 year old grommet.

I have to admit doing pretty much the same thing on my early visits to California as the song was indelibly impressed into my brain too as 13 year old grom from Kogarah.

Damion’s fanciful thinking imagined the creative Brian Wilson driving along the California coast in ’62 looking for lyrical inspiration and picking out surf spots to include in the smash hit song’s lyrics.

After a little CSI Surf work by me, it turns out that the stark truth of the matter is a ‘cold war’ developed between Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys. Berry claimed that the song plagiarised his song ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’. The Beach Boys song was clearly set to the same melody as ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’.

The original 1963 pressing of the record gave credit of the lyrics to Brian Wilson. But in a secret deal, struck behind the band member’s backs, Brian’s father Murray – who was manager of the The Beach Boys at the time, after a lawsuit was raised, inked a deal that relinquished the credit and some royalties to Chuck Berry. Ever since, Berry has had sole or shared credit for composing the song.

Brian Wilson subsequently claimed at the time the song was merely influenced by Chuck Berry and Chubby Checker’s similar ‘Twistin’ USA’.

And how did Brian come up with the names of all the beaches and surf spots when he was not a surfer himself? The answer is simple...

The Surfin' USA title album reached US Gold Album
status [1 million in sales] and peaked
at #2 in the
US Top Ten Album Charts in 1963.
When the song was written, Brian Wilson was dating Judy Bowles. Her little brother, Jimmy Bowles, was an avid surfer. Brian thought "what about doing surf lyrics and mentioning every surf spot in the state? They're doing it here, there, in this city and that, like Chubby Checker's 'Twistin' U.S.A.'.

According to Brian Wilson in later interviews; "I asked [Jimmy] to make a list of every surf spot he knew, and by God he didn't leave one out".

Damion also raised the question why they threw in a mention to Australia’s Narrabeen into the song specifically titled ‘Surfn’ USA’. Good question. Don’t know really. International sales maybe? Global presence? For the final logical answer, one day I guess we’d have to ask the exquisite Mr Surf Music guru, Brian Wilson his self.

In an odd twist of poetic license, the lyric for Narrabeen in the song is pronounced by The Beach Boys as Narra-BINE, and not Narra-BEEN. Definitely indicating they were not locals, or had even visited, as that would be frowned on in Sydney’s Northern beaches. The reason they enunciated BINE instead of BEEN? – simply to rhyme with the preceding second line of ‘Ventura’s County Line’.

And International sales? As a single in 1963; ‘Surfin’ USA’ only made it to Number 3 on US Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart and only to Number 9 on the Australian singles chart. A lackluster Number 34 in UK where the Brits were planning their own musical assault on the world.

Did 'Surfing' USA' ever reach No.1? – yes , would you believe in snow-covered Canada of all places. Eh - those crazy surf-loving Canuks - go figure.

Steve Core


1 comment:

  1. Actually, Jimmy was Judy's older brother... she had a twin brother, Jerry, and they were born on Halloween.
    How would I know, you might be asking yourself... I'm Jimmy's Daughter. :D
    Brian didn't really remember the different experiences he had between my dad and Jerry... he kind of lumped them into one person. But, thanks for mentioning my dad! :D He passed away 10 years ago and I'm always on the look out for when this story is mentioned.