As wicked as the snarl of a surf guitar sounds on an instrumental, I’ve never been able to embrace songs about surfing. My beach-going is limited to childhood summer trips to the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Even if I had grown up within commuting distance of the Pacific Ocean, though, my wussiness, fair skin and distaste for/fear of popular people ensured that surfing would not have been one of my chosen pursuits. Surfing was reserved for beautiful teenagers thousands of miles, and maybe even a few decades, away.
Of course, Brian Wilson didn’t surf either. Neither did most Beach Boys fans, I’d wager. But Wilson’s genius (well, one of his geniuses) was recognizing what surfing represented to millions of landlocked young people: endless summers, freedom from parents, girls in bikinis. The premier statement of surfing as metaphor for teenage paradise is “Surf City,” a track Wilson co-wrote with Beach Boys tourmates Jan & Dean. The lyrics detail the few things every guy could dream of: a set of wheels, a surfboard and “two girls for every boy.” This last item seems particularly necessary, as it’s repeated several times throughout the verse and chorus. That Surf City’s male-favorable ratio garners far more mentions than surfing does just proves the analogy of surfing is more important than the activity itself.
But it isn’t just the lyrical content that’s reminiscent of Wilson’s work with The Beach Boys. Jan & Dean’s falsetto vocals were supplemented with backing singers to approximate the other band’s melodically-shifting, multi-part harmonies. The resulting effect is somewhat eerie: a Beach Boys #1 before the Beach Boys actually had a #1. Yet “Surf City” also works on its own terms as the feel-good hit of the summer – even if that summer is far away from any beach. 6
Hit #1 on July 20, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
94 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.63% through the Hot 100