“The whole thing started back in ’63, with Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys and me…”
Hot on the heals of rock’n’roll and its harmonic vocal sibling doo-wop, that had only recently enriched and enlivened the American musical consciousness, a distinctly fresh and flavoursome musical form came rolling in with the surf along the beaches of California as the 60s crashed on to the West Coast shoreline.
Everyone is familiar with the vibrant sounds of the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean or even The Surfaris. Along with a host of other more obscure bands, they brought a toned and tanned, fun lovin’ presence to the US charts. Following the audio assault of rockers such as Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who had torn up the musical rule book, in stark counterpoint ‘surf’ music entertained this new audience with a flurry of short and sweet pop tunes. Revelling in a healthily outdoor lifestyle that worshipped the sun, but cooled off in the ocean by ‘catching a wave’ or ‘shooting the curl’, an aural celebration of youth-oriented beach culture burst forth like one massive soundwave breaking across the USA.
Pulling up right alongside this sunny musical genre was a complementary sub-genre of songs about cars (how else do you get to the beach, right?), or more specifically about ‘Hot Rods’. These were generally hand-me-down family cars from mom or dad that the surfing kids stripped down, customised, tuned the engine, took racing or just showed-off to other surfers. Every surfer needed a cool set of wheels in which to be seen on the street, and to ‘shut ’em down’ at the dragstrip.
All of the artists on ‘the scene’ therefore felt compelled to record their own versions of songs about cars. What’s seldom appreciated is that so specific was the terminology that even the better known bands had to draw on expert knowledge when it came to writing ‘authentic’ hot rod lyrics. Getting this terminology right was essential. And in amongst the California surf music crowd were a few key ‘motorheads’, often with their own bands, who lived the life and knew what terms like ‘chopped and channelled’ or ‘stroked and bored’ would mean.
Thus songwriters and producers such as Terry Melcher (The Rip Chords), Gary Usher (The Super Stocks), P. F. Sloan (The Fantastic Baggys) and Roger Christian (a radio DJ) were called upon to provide the automotive detail for many of the best car songs of the period. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson would work with Gary Usher on 409 and Jan Berry with Roger Christian on Drag City for example. Confusingly though, there is much disagreement about who wrote or performed what, as the scene appears to have been somewhat incestuous and the recording and release of singles and albums was driven by record labels, record producers, and songwriters rather than by artists. Consequently what went on behind closed studio doors is still the subject of much debate and legal wrangling.
I’m not going to talk too much about any of these songs, especially as accurate detail about many of them is hard to track down, and the lyrics literally speak for themselves. Suffice to say that the songs I’ve included by The Rip Chords and The Trashmen (whose releases came out on the ‘Garrett’ label) are particular favourites of mine. I am especially fond of the falsetto vocal towards the end of The Queen and the typically gruff voice on A-Bone.
Many of the same songs were covered by many different bands, some of which existed only as studio fronts for writers or session musicians. For this reason I’ve chosen some of the lesser known versions, as they offer a different take on what may otherwise be familiar tunes. Little Deuce Coupe, written by Terry Melcher is one such song that was covered by numerous bands. A particularly prolific session guitarist was Jerry Cole, who, when he wasn’t recording with people such as The Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher or later The Byrds recorded pseudonymously as The Deuce Coupes, The Knights, The Blasters and The Hot Rodders, amongst numerous others.
That surfin’ sound
As you’ll hear, a key feature of the surf sound is that many tunes were guitar-based instrumentals, simply with hot rod related titles, and often with ‘authentic’ engine sounds over-dubbed. Special mention must therefore go to Dick Dale, the self-proclaimed ‘King of the Surf Guitar’ whose playing influenced the entire West Coast scene and was even referenced as an early influence by a young Jimi Hendrix hailing from up the coast in Seattle. Both being left-handed, they each played a right-handed Fender Stratocaster guitar upside down. You’ll recognise Dick Dale’s classic Misirlou in the opening titles of Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction.
No substitute for inches
Whenever a number like 409, 413 or 427 is mentioned in a song then it’s a reference to the size of the engine ‘under the hood’. Engines were predominantly V8 configuration (twice the number of cylinders as most European cars) and their volume was always measured in (hundreds of) cubic inches. Engine sizes varied from manufacturer to manufacturer, so the number alone would identify if it was a Chevy or a Ford, say. And then it’s a simple equation – more inches equals more power.
Hot Rod Terminology
There’s a pretty comprehensive selection of hot rod terms ’translated‘ on the Wikipedia page about Hot Rods.
Terry Melcher is the son of Doris Day and he wrote the song Move over Darlin’ which she sang in the film of the same name.
Jerry Cole was the session guitarist on Nancy Sinatra’s smash hit These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.
The Trashmen are from Mineapolis, Minnesota and not from California at all, but they wrote one of the greatest surfing songs of all time, Surfin’ Bird.
If you enjoyed this collection
You’ll find more in the Internet Music Programme Archive, but you may wish to start with Pop Rock 70, a collection of guitar-driven singles by ‘rock’ bands, almost all of which were released in 1970.