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Fifty Sides of The Beach Boys
The Songs that Tell Their Story
By Mark Dillon, Jennifer Hale, Jennifer Knoch
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2012 Mark Dillon
All rights reserved.
DAVID MARKS ON ... SURFIN' U.S.A.
Written by: Chuck Berry
Lead vocal: Mike Love
Produced by: Nick Venet
Recorded: January 5, 1963
Released: March 4, 1963
Chart peak: U.S. #3, U.K. #34
Appears on Surfin' U.S.A.
"Surfin' U.S.A." not only established The Beach Boys as a top American group on par with The Four Seasons, but the song's clever lyrics also helped take surfing from a Southern Californian craze to something kids all over the country could do — if they only had an ocean. Brian's early influences are all over the classic track, from Chuck Berry to The Four Freshmen, while Carl and David cop some guitar licks from pioneering rock 'n' roll instrumentalist Duane Eddy.
"That's really what made the band unique — the combination of those things," says David. "The way Carl and I married our electric guitars with Brian's jazz voicings and vocal harmonies was the key — something that blended so well and created such a unique sound." In this case, the result was a #3 smash hit in America.
David's role on "Surfin' U.S.A." — and in The Beach Boys' development in general — is sometimes reduced to a footnote, but he helped author Jon Stebbins set the record straight in the 2007 biography The Lost Beach Boy. David was part of The Beach Boys' initial wave of success, playing on their first four albums and seven top 40 singles. He believes one of the biggest misconceptions about him "is that Al Jardine and I are somehow adversaries. The fact of the matter is we were in The Beach Boys at the same time. I would say, technically, there were six Beach Boys in the beginning."
Alan has said that "Surfin' U.S.A." was in the works before he left. Brian took the melody from Chuck Berry's 1958 hit "Sweet Little Sixteen" and also used Berry's idea of rhyming off the names of cities where, in the original, all the rockin' was going on. In the commonly accepted version of the story, Brian substituted in the names of surfing hotspots like Del Mar and Doheny, drawn from a list supplied by Jimmy Bowles, brother of his then-girlfriend Judy. However, in a 1994 interview on U.S. TV newsmagazine A Current Affair, Mike claimed to have written the words, referring to himself as the group's "surf word man."
Regardless of who devised the lyrics, Brian then approached Carl and David to work out the guitar sound on their Fender Stratocasters. David gives a tip of the hat to Duane Eddy. "He was one of the people we were studying when we were starting off playing guitars," he explains. "The opening riff to 'Surfin U.S.A.' came from the Duane Eddy song 'Movin' N' Groovin,' which has in its middle part a half-step twang riff that we used in a lot of our other songs."
Although Nick Venet gets producer credit on the Surfin' Safari and Surfin' U.S.A. albums, there is little doubt Brian was already the band's main creative force and that Murry was also exerting his influence from the control room. "Surfin' U.S.A." demonstrated Brian's growing record-making skills. Despite its borrowed elements, it is far from a mere knock-off. His colorful production makes "Sweet Little Sixteen" sound downright monochromatic by comparison. It was the first song where he double-tracked the lead vocal, which was sung with newfound authority by Mike. Layering two separate performances of the vocal created a fuller sound and would become a signature Brian technique. The song also features Brian's rollicking organ segment followed by Carl's stinging solo, arguably his most memorable ever. David's fills, meanwhile, keep things marching forward. It all adds up to the group's first anthem — a clarion call for kids everywhere to catch a wave.
David likens the way he and Carl gelled instrumentally to the way the group harmonized. "It sounded usually like one guitar when we played together," he says. "We were tight and we learned from the same influences. We listened to the same records and we played together every day after school."
While the pounding drums on "Surfin' U.S.A." sound like Dennis' handiwork, according to David, Dennis was unavailable for the session after breaking his ankle while getting off a drum riser. Veteran player Frank DeVito was enlisted in his place, although some Beach Boys historians insist Dennis plays at least a portion of the final drum track. "He did a really great job," David says of DeVito. "He was trying to play like Dennis, who invented his own drum style, more or less. Dennis had his signature drum riff on 'Surfin' Safari,' so Frankie put that in at the beginning of the choruses of 'Surfin U.S.A.' It was like a high-tech version — a single-stroke buzz roll with that riff."
David rates the early Beach Boys' musicianship as "just as adequate as any other band in the area." Initially they were considered just one of several SoCal surf acts — alongside Dick Dale, The Marketts, The Bel-Airs and The Challengers — but they also had the vocal chops, Brian's writing and Murry's indomitable drive on their side. Because they were a self-contained unit, they were sometimes hired to back up performers appearing on the same bill, including, incredibly, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and bluesman Jimmy Reed.
"Surfin' U.S.A." was released with the drag-race number "Shut Down" on the B-side. The latter song also got ample radio play, and the double-sided hit single made the boys stars. "We started getting calls from the Midwest to do tours and shows," David recalls. "When we embarked on our first tour, it really did change our lives. Carl and I had to go to a private school. It wasn't a hardship by any means. We were going with the flow and loving every second of it."
Understandably, Arc Music, Chuck Berry's publishers, pursued the matter of Brian's apparent act of creative borrowing, and in the end Arc got the publishing rights and Berry the songwriting credit. (Berry's name is the only one credited on some releases, and on others it's shared with Brian.) The duck-walking rock 'n' roll legend's alleged anger over the artistic appropriation is dramatized in the 2009 Chess Records biopic Cadillac Records.
Just as "Surfin' U.S.A." was enjoying a bitchin' ride on the charts, the group followed up with an LP of the same title. The Surfin' U.S.A. album was more than just a quick cash-in on a couple of hit singles. Tracks such as "Farmer's Daughter," "Noble Surfer," "Lana" and "Finders Keepers" exhibit a delightful innocence and show 20-year-old Brian finding his studio legs. The stark "Lonely Sea," written mostly by his friend Gary Usher, was a harbinger of the melancholy to come. Brian's arrangements do laps around his efforts on Surfin' Safari, his symbiotic relationship with the rest of the guys quickly evolving. He knew exactly who was best suited for each part, and they each had a knack for memorizing, playing and singing back those parts. And the family harmony blend is magical. Brian soars on the high end while Mike holds down the bottom and his brothers fill the middle. Brian wasn't happy with David's inconsistent vocals — he was going through puberty, after all — and limited his participation in the harmonies. David did handle the leads, however, in concert performances of covers "Louie, Louie" and "Kansas City."
The Beach Boys became famous mostly for their singing, but Surfin' U.S.A.'s five instrumentals — the most on any of their albums — are far from throwaways. It is the band's most consistently rocking platter as well as its most surf-themed: they cover two numbers by Dick Dale — "Let's Go Trippin'" and his classic take on "Misirlou" — while Brian comes up with the great original "Stoked" and Carl and David flip out playing Carl's "Surf Jam." "Carl and I were in our glory with that album," David reflects. "That's what we really loved to do at the time. We were just in love with playing guitars and all the surf music that was going on."
The group — except for Dennis — might not have actively surfed, but with the Surfin' U.S.A. LP, which reached #2 in America, they recorded the most popular surf-rock album. The Book of Rock Lists, co-written by former Creem editor Dave Marsh and Kevin Stein, ranks it the best record of 1963, ahead of such landmark releases as James Brown's Live at the Apollo and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
It would prove a banner year for the group, but by the fall David would be gone. While many fans assume it was David's departure that October that prompted Alan's return to the fold, the two actually co-existed in the band for awhile. Brian — who in addition to his Beach Boys duties had been producing other artists including The Honeys and Sharon Marie — quit touring in spring 1963. Brian's decision may have been difficult for the rest of the band to accept, but Alan, who no doubt regretted leaving in the first place, was ready to step back in.
"Brian needed the time to write songs and produce records, and the touring didn't allow him enough time to do both things. So that's when Al was reenlisted to come and take Brian's place on the road, playing bass and singing Brian's high parts. For Brian that was an ideal situation," David recollects. But Murry didn't see it that way. He was incensed that Brian wasn't onstage for the fans, and so the Beach Boys leader reluctantly returned to the road later that summer, leaving Alan odd man out again.
And Brian wasn't the only one getting a hard ride from Murry. The Wilson patriarch chastised the whole band for what he deemed unprofessional behavior, which especially in David's case should hardly have been unexpected given his age. (Not smiling onstage was one of his transgressions.) For his part, David found Murry a relentless taskmaster, but is more understanding in retrospect. "His hard-handed discipline came when we were screwing around and not taking care of business," the guitarist says. "To me he was an authority figure — like a school teacher or a parent — and it was natural that he would yell at us for not taking business seriously."
David says his greater grievance was of an artistic nature: even though barely a teenager, he felt stifled, as Murry was dead-set on making Carl the group's unquestioned number-one guitarist. "Murry did tend to turn my guitar down and wouldn't let me play leads. It was frustrating," David says. But the cocky youngster wouldn't be held down, cutting loose with leads at live shows and sneaking in some notes on the studio tracks of "Shut Down" and "Surfin' U.S.A.," where he slips in a Dick Dale–esque downslide. "You can hear little places where Dave the 14-year-old wanted more attention," he admits. "I might have been the first punk guitar player, if you want to put it that way, because I was being aggressive with my rhythm playing." The ambitious youngster had even brought forward his composition "Kustom Kar Show" for potential inclusion on the auto-themed Little Deuce Coupe album, but, as Stebbins' book suggests, Brian rejected it under pressure from Murry.
By the summer of 1963, tensions were mounting. While driving to a show in Brooklyn, Murry started tearing into David, to which the exasperated teenager responded that he quit. The rest of the band shrugged it off as an idle threat, but it's what Murry wanted, and to some extent David as well. He stayed on for another couple of months, but the last straw may have come when Murry denied David's parents Elmer and Jo Ann a managerial role with The Beach Boys and a more prominent spot for David. His final show with the band was in San Diego on October 5, 1963.
"My main reason for leaving the band at the time was to pursue my own music. I had this little band on the side," David recollects. He had hooked up with this new group through Mark Groseclose, a drummer who sat in with The Beach Boys at a few gigs after accident-prone Dennis hurt his legs when he crashed his sports car. David took over Groseclose's garage band The Jaguars, which were renamed David Marks & the Marksmen. Not only did the new outfit put his guitar chops front and center, but he would also be chief songwriter and producer as well as sing most leads, which he handled with aplomb. The band signed with fledgling A&M Records, but despite a valiant effort never got off the ground. The group's music would have been lost to time if not for David's self-released 2009 compilation The Ultimate Collector's Edition — 1963–'65, a charming document of a young band trying on several styles in search of its sound.
After the Marksmen's demise, David gigged in a few short-lived bands before hooking up with singer-songwriter Matt Moore, with whom he formed The Moon. They landed a deal with Imperial Records and were joined by drummer/producer/engineer Larry Brown and bassist Drew Bennett. The band's two LPs remain cult favorites, especially the lost 1968 flower-power debut Without Earth. The group's commercial failure is attributed to Imperial's lack of promotion.
David later joined Colours, a sister band to The Moon led by Jack Dalton and Gary Montgomery. Although similarly revered among aficionados, Colours never found major success and soon folded. Then a promising spot opened up with husband-and-wife country/R&B outfit Delaney & Bonnie, but David was supplanted when Eric Clapton entered the picture. Exhausted by the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, he packed up for Boston to study classical guitar and composition at the Berklee College of Music and then the Boston Conservatory, but quit his studies before long. He still occasionally saw the other Beach Boys, who had long since hired Bruce Johnston as its fifth road member while Brian stayed home. Mike asked David to rejoin the band in 1971, likely to bring the group closer to its roots, and although he appeared onstage at one Beach Boys show, he ultimately declined.
As the '70s unfolded, David played in local bands and jammed with his music-biz cronies while The Beach Boys experienced a major renaissance capped off by their chart-topping 1974 greatest-hits collection Endless Summer. Capitol rereleased "Surfin' U.S.A." as a single from the collection, and it reentered the charts, climbing to #36. This gave an unexpected bump to David's royalty checks, which would allow him to focus on playing and writing for the next two decades. It would also fund 20 years of drug and alcohol use.
Then, in 1997, Mike came calling again and, incredibly, 34 years after he left, David officially took the stage as a reinstated Beach Boy. It was quite a turnaround for someone who had done his best to distance himself from his history with the group. "I gained a new respect for the music, and I learned to appreciate some of the stuff that I didn't play on in the later '60s," he reflects. Although some fans perceived his return as a cynical ploy to replace one Beach Boy with another when Carl was sidelined by lung cancer treatments, David has said he was both surprised and saddened that he would not get to share the stage with his old guitar partner, who passed away on February 6, 1998.
Due to another tumble off the wagon, David's second go-round with The Beach Boys lasted only two years, and their parting seemed a mutual decision. What finally got him to give up the bottle was a diagnosis of hepatitis C, which can lead to cirrhosis and cancer of the liver, especially in heavy drinkers. By 2004 he had beaten his illness, and he has remained a spokesman for public awareness of the disease.
The new millennium saw David raise his public profile, both by embracing his past and pushing ahead. He released a pair of solo albums and the three-CD set The Lost Years, a companion piece to Stebbins' book that collects his post–Beach Boys work. He was far removed from the California surf, having settled in Westchester County, New York, with his wife, Carrie. He sat in with The Beach Boys on several occasions and toured with the Legends of Surf Music, an outfit that also featured Alan as well as Jan & Dean's Dean Torrence. Not surprisingly, their Beach Boys–heavy setlist included "Surfin' U.S.A." "It's one of the songs people think of when they hear the name 'Beach Boys,'" he says.
Longtime fans thought it was only right when, in December 2011, it was announced David would join Mike, Brian, Alan and Bruce for the group's 50th anniversary celebration reunion tour and album. David was likewise understandably enthused. "I'm really positive about it," he says. "It will be great."
Excerpted from Fifty Sides of The Beach Boys by Mark Dillon, Jennifer Hale, Jennifer Knoch. Copyright © 2012 Mark Dillon. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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