[21 November 2008]
A funny thing happened to Jan & Dean on the way to obscurity: they discovered falsetto and surfing, and suddenly these purveyors of cute-and-goofy teenage love songs revived their sagging career. In fact, only the Beach Boys would mine more chart hits out of the surfer motif. But as The Complete Liberty Singles proves, while Jan & Dean’s second act was every bit as fun as (and considerably more lucrative than) the first, it was equally short-lived. One image overhaul caught lightning in a bottle, but subsequent attempts to adapt to changing times just left Jan & Dean looking ever more out of touch.
Liberty Singles begins at the tail end of Jan & Dean’s first phase: clean-cut, preppy proprietors of innocuous bomp-bomp-bomp, dip-dip-dip 45’s. “A Sunday Kind of Love” and “Tennessee” are jumpy little larks, but Jan & Dean are already seeming bored and repetitive. Their ballads are yawns (ballads will be an Achilles’ heel throughout), and their self-referential B-sides—-the boastful “We Put the Bomp”, the sequel “She’s Still Talking Baby Talk”—-are silly eye-rollers. By 1963, Jan & Dean sound as though they’re going through the motions, eager for something new.
Enter “Linda”, a single that sounds nothing like the tracks before it: a seamless, falsetto-happy cover of a 1946 Tin Pan Alley tune written for Linda Eastman nee McCartney. It’s an exhilarating record that, in the era of the Four Seasons, sounds of its time rather than three years behind. But it was another iconic American vocal group that would inspire J&D’s most enduring music. The Beach Boys’ California dreams of catchin’ waves and racin’ cars and cruisin’ girls would become the template for the tunes most people associate with Jan & Dean—-“Surf City”, “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena)”, “Dead Man’s Curve”. Less famous singles “Honolulu Lulu” and “Drag City” have not aged particularly well, and while there’s nothing particularly deep or poignant about this music, it’s tough not to get swept up in these sand-soaked fantasies.
The thrills of good-time music can often be cheap and fleeting, and the same can be said for Jan & Dean’s success. The second disc begins in 1964, as America’s early-60’s hit machines struggled to stay afloat against the British Invasion’s high tide. Disc two contains only one top twenty hit, and is not consistent in quality, but it is nevertheless fascinating, a sporadically amusing, often bewildering document of a band attempting to cling to its eluding fame. What are their strategies? Lush kitchen-sink productions (“The Anaheim, Asuza & Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association”), piggybacking covers (“Norwegian Wood”), revivals of old material (“Popsicle”), even cynical attacks on the trends wiping them off the map (“Folk City”). Yet not much of it is particularly memorable, or even pleasant; that some of these singles (especially the sodden ballads) even dented the charts attests more to J&D’s vestigial fandom rather than the records’ strengths. Only “A Beginning From an End”, a heartfelt paean to a mother who perishes during childbirth, and the infant who outlives her, makes any strides towards artistic maturity. Throughout the mid-sixties, Jan & Dean languish in the very states of perpetual adolescence their music seems to encourage, until their career was abruptly halted when Jan Berry was near-fatally injured in the kind of grisly car wreck “Dead Man’s Curve” predicted.
Over the twenty-one A-sides and twenty-one B-sides compiled here, Jan & Dean prove themselves the goofballs of surf-rock, very adept goofballs for sure, but goofballs all the same. Like putting together the souped-up automobiles of which they sing, most of their songs are assembled from no more than seven distinct parts: add this melody line here, throw in this vocal part there. That they got as much mileage as they did out of such spare parts is a credit to their talents. For this, they can thank not only their luscious harmonies and insistent hooks, but crack sessioners, specifically the riveting drumwork of Hal Blaine and the recently departed Earl Palmer.
Part of the appeal is that Jan & Dean seldom took their subject matter all that seriously; their jestful clowning helps even weaker records inspire grins. Their double entendres betray the filthy horndogs beneath the well-groomed facade. “Popsicle” is gleeful in its oral sex implications, and “Freeway Flyer” warns that “Big John Law don’t take no lip/ Unless you are a chick and you’re really hip”. It almost makes you reconsider the meaning of “woody” in “Surf City”. However, they cannot turn their humor into satire: “Folk City” sounds more resentful than incisive, and “The Universal Coward”, a Berry solo cut, features sentiments so jingoistic they’d make Barry Sadler squirm. Paradoxically, with its Byrdsian twelve-string, “Coward” sounds more forward-thinking than most of their 1965 output.
In its ignorance of album tracks, and its one-label-only approach, Liberty Singles suffers from not being comprehensive, shortchanging the band’s earlier and later periods. The liner notes make a case for Jan & Dean that the music cannot, touting them as innovators and groundbreakers rather than just a solid, good-humored vocal group. Ed Osborne’s suggestion that “Anaheim, Asuza & Cucamonga” helped raise the bar for Pet Sounds is preposterous, as “Anaheim” is a chaotic mess. For all his ambitions, Jan Berry could never turn himself into Brian Wilson, let alone Phil Spector. Truth be told, Jan & Dean never amounted to much more than three-trick ponies. But their tricks were tremendously entertaining, and they knew how to milk them. And any time “Surf City” busts out of a jukebox, that’s really all that matters.