18.7.14

JAN & DEAN - Dead Man's Curve


Phew, it’s mighty hot in Southern England right. Time for some summer music but not the obvious…

Among the vinyl albums I couldn’t let go of when I had the big clear out eight years ago on moving out of London was my Jan & Dean Anthology in Liberty’s Legendary Masters Series. It’s a two-album set with liner notes by Dean Torrence and while it would be stretching things to say that all the music on both discs is top quality there’s sufficient decent material for me to have later acquired a J&D CD and put the vinyl on the ‘not to be discarded’ shelf. Another reason was the fact that the sleeve also contained a sort of table of J&D information that included a year-by-year run down of the makes of cars they drove and also – surely a unique feature – the names of their girlfriends at the time each of their singles was released, some of whom appear in both the J and D columns at the same time. Those California girls… 
         Contemporaries of the early Beach Boys upon whom they relied for much of their material, I was always fascinated by J&D and when I got to LA in 1973 set up an interview with Dean who after the duo disbanded returned to his original profession, graphic design. The reason for the disbandment was Jan Berry’s horrific car crash in 1966 from which he never really recovered. He died in 2004.
         I think some of this fascination stemmed from the fact that my life in wet and windy rural north Yorkshire was about as far removed as could be imagined from J&D’s upbringing in balmy southern California. I was always a sucker for surf music, that warmth of the sun feeling it evokes, and being as how the UK is going through this heat wave right now, I’ve dusted off a J&D appreciation I wrote for MM while I was in California towards the end of 1973. I got most of my information from Dean and the Anthology sleeve notes as there was no Wikipedia in those days, no rock encyclopaedias, just me and my notebook nosing around and asking questions.


ABOUT ONE year ago this week Dick Clark, in his infinite wisdom, decided to host a ten-year anniversary edition of his TV rock show Shindig. He scratched his head and came up with the idea of bringing back the original hosts from the Shindig show ten years before.
         So Dean Torrence put down his artist’s pen for a day and looked up his old mate Jan Berry who was (and still is) severely handicapped from an auto accident in the fall of 1965.
         For a day they became Jan & Dean again. It was hard not to stare at Jan Berry while the show was being taped in Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The co-ordination between his arms and legs was all wrong, his head kept flopping to one side and he had difficulty remembering his lines. He laughed it off when he mixed up words and everyone kept their patience remarkably well.
         In all the ironies of rock and roll there are few stories to match that of Jan Berry. It sounds like a piece of remarkable fiction, but Jan Berry still carries the scars to prove the truth. He probably always will.
         In late 1963 the pair recorded ‘Dead Man’s Curve’, a celebration of pop devil-may-care about an unofficial auto race around Hollywood. The song ended with a mighty pile-up but it sold 790,000 copies.
         Three years later Jan Berry’s Stingray piled into a truck in Beverly Hills, killing three of his passengers. Berry crawled out alive, but only just. That was the end of Jan and Dean.
         It stopped the flow of some of the most ridiculous pop records ever released. And it roughly coincided with the time when pop stopped being fun and became culture, the time when pop was suddenly no longer the sole property of the young, the time when the Sunday Times decided to take The Beatles and their like seriously at least.
         Surf music, the music that spawned Jan and Dean and a host of others, is usually written off as the most trivial of all pop’s categories. From a purely musicial stand-point, I can go along with that, but J&D realised that it contained an essential quality necessary for the times. That quality was fun.
Jan and Dean never took themselves seriously after all. It was all a game making records, a way to finance themselves through college and an excuse to live one long party for months on end.
         They sang about the way they felt. They sang about the sun and the surf, the beach and the beauties thereon, the fast cars and the rush of excitement when school was out.
         They even created a city where there were two girls to every boy, an old lady who drove a drag car and a dubious item of apparel known as a one piece topless bathing suit.
         They didn’t believe in Summertime Blues: life was for laughs, gags and fun. They were young and they lived in Southern California where the sun always shines, so why should they worry about the cares of the world. Life was for enjoying and they did their damndest to enjoy it, an attitude that brought their songs to life and, for a while, brought pleasure to millions of their generation.
         Jan & Dean attended Emmerson Junior High School together in West Los Angeles. They played in the University football team together and discovered that the shower room created the best echo facilities in the school.
A group was instantly formed to take advantage of these facilities and when the football season ended, it was only a matter of time before Jan hooked up two tape recorders to create a similar effect and rehearsals were moved from the shower to his garage.
         Originally there were six singers in the group, now called The Barons, and a few instrumentalists besides. Bruce Johnson, later to become a Beach Boy, played piano and a guy called Sandy Nelson, a neighbour of Dean, played the drums. It was after school fun, strictly a way to pass the time.
         People came and went until just three remained Jan, Dean and Arnie Ginsberg, and one night they trotted off to watch Arnie’s girlfriend go through her strip routine at the Follies Burlesk club. Her name was Jenny Lee, and on the way home in the car ‘Jenny Lee’ was written and rehearsed.
         Four months later it was number three in the charts and Jan & Dean were on their way, even though they had to wait a year until Dean got through his national service and Arnie decided to bow out.
         ‘Jenny Lee’ was on the Arwin label, but the next five J & D singles, released between 1959 and ‘60, came out on Dore.
         They were pure pop – surf hadn’t been invented yet – and full of doo-whops, bam-bams and pom-pa-dom-doms.
         During this period Lou Adler, their future manager, and Herb Alpert entered the scene, writing and arranging, but none of the Dore singles matched the sales of their first two songs. ‘Jenny Lee’ and ‘Baby Talk’ sold 850,000 and 700,000 respectively – staggering figures by today’s standards.
         It was a move to Liberty in 1961 that heralded the beginning of their golden era. Surf music had arrived and as Jan & Dean were both active surfers it was the natural course for them to take. Liberty wanted a golden hits album so they bought the rights to the previous hits and in order to fill up the record, J&D tried ‘Barbara Ann’. It worked and, utilising the idea of a girl’s Christian name as a title, they put out a song called ‘Linda’ as a single. It was another big hit.
         Liberty was pleased and Jan & Dean were allowed to make another album. Someone suggested they take Linda surfing, so with some help from The Beach Boys they cut a remarkable version of ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and slid into a groove that was to bring them umpteen hit singles over the next two years.
‘Surf City’ was the big one. Brian Wilson wrote it with a little help from Jan and it became their first number one, eventually selling around a million and a quarter copies.
         Essentially a male-chauvinist inspired piece of codswallop-pop with lines like “Two swinging honeys for every guy, all you gotta do is wink your eye”, it created a sort of fantasy world, an incredible myth that hung in the dreams of every beach kid, and was really what Jan & Dean were all about.
         Car songs, beach songs, girl songs, drag songs, silly songs all followed in quick succession and it was unusual if their sales didn’t top the half million mark. Most were written by Brian Wilson, recorded on four track recorders and required a dozen or more overdubs. Though Jan or Dean always sang the lead, it’s a fair assumption that some, if not all, The Beach Boys are on the records somewhere.
         They were simple songs, easily remembered and equally easily forgotten. They were ideal for beach parties, ideal for dancing and ideal for the car radio.
         There was ‘Honolulu Lulu’ about the joys of surfing in Hawaii, ‘New Girl In School’ which speaks for itself and contains such lines of youthful innocence as “the chicks are jealous of the new girl in school, they put her down and they treat her so cool”. ‘Little Old Lady’ which was based on a real old lady featured in a Dodge TV commercial, and ‘Ride The Wild Surf’ about waves “30 feet high”. Play that one at top volume, close both eyes and I swear you can hear the sea.
         ‘Little Old Lady’ had a sister song with the longest title ever dreamed up. That was ‘The Anaheim and Azusa and Cucamonga Sewing Circle Book Review and Timing Association’, another ditty about fast old ladies with a chorus not a little unlike ‘I Get Around’.
         And, of course, there was ‘Dead Man’s Curve’, the ultimate death-crash warning, penned by Brian Wilson, Artie Kornfeld, Roger Christian and Jan Berry himself. Cop a listen to these tragic sentences:

I was cruising in my Stingray late one night
When an XKE pulled up on the right
He pulled down the window of his shiny new Jag
And challenged me then and there to a drag
I’ll go you one better if you got the nerve
Let’s race all the way to Dead Man’s Curve.

And the chorus:

Dead Man’s Curve is no place to play
Dead Man’s Curve, you must Keep away
Dead Man’s Curve ...
You won’t come back... from Dead Man’s Curve.
        
Screaching tyres climax the song and the singer appears to have learned his lesson once and for all.
         In real life it didn’t happen like that. Six weeks after J&D released their version of the ‘Batman’ theme, the crash came. Dean recorded a few on his own but packed it in after a year, preferring to study art and design. Jan has been undergoing treatment ever since.
         Today Dean Torrence runs a studio in Hollywood where he designs posters, album sleeves and anything else that needs an artists’ touch. His business is flourishing.
         Jan, always the leader of the pair, has made various attempts at recording again at A&M but nothing has yet come of it. He is fiercely determined to return sooner or later, with or without assistance from Dean. The least that can be said is that he is steadily improving.

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