If everybody had an ocean. With these five words, the Beach Boys became the epic dreamers of American music. Nothing was too big to put out there, no dream too outlandish, no space too big.
The five words are clumsily thrown in at the beginning of a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (a move so obvious they gave Berry a songwriting credit), this could have been another fluke rock and roll hit in a presumably fleeting new genre they called “surf rock.” Instead, they signaled the beginning of the Beach Boys’ great American adventure, which played out in the ensuing decades as they chased after a sound as big and deep as the country they loved so much.
“Surfin’ USA” was the breakthrough. For the first time, the lead singers in the Beach Boys overdubbed their own voices to fatten up the sound. This made their already sophisticated vocals that much more so – earlier hits like “Surfin’ Safari” and “409” sounded sparse in comparison. For the rest of their classic period, the Beach Boys continued to use this technique to achieve their signature big and bold golden sound.
As is often pointed out, none of the main Beach Boys ever surfed – songwriter/bassist Brian Wilson, his lead singer/cousin Mike Love, and his guitarist/brother Carl Wilson – the only one who ever did at this point was Dennis Wilson, Brian and Carl’s little brother/drummer, who initially had the most peripheral role in the band. But no matter. Surfing was merely just the muse that Brian Wilson used to express his American dreams; when Brian started writing songs about girls and cars soon after, the Beach Boys felt that they were expanding their horizons.
“Surfin’ USA” is little more than a catchy idea put to a catchier tune, with just enough surfing terminology thrown in to lend the song, however inaccurately, an air of authenticity. It’s the refrains where the whole thing snaps together: building off of the idea of everybody in the United States having their own ocean, the Beach Boys call out all of the hot beaches from coast to coast with joyful earnestness. In doing so, they remake the map of America from a land of closed-off wildernesses to a coast of open beachfronts.
Over the years, dark realities would cloud the Beach Boys’ seemingly sunny world – both within the band and throughout the nation they lived in – but for the two-and-a-half minutes that “Surfin’ USA” lasted, you’d never know it was coming. Released in June, the song played all through the summer on radios all over the beaches the song named, and all was well and good and safe with the world. And then, less than six months later, on November 22, 1963, the ’60s took root, and “Surfin’ USA” suddenly became the quaint musings of a distant landscape.
[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]