When you think summer, especially the music of the summer, you might think of a reggae act, like Bob Marley. He transcends the generations with his classic songs like “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Three Little Birds”, which fill the senses with summer even in the coldest months. You may also think of a country act, like Jimmy Buffett. His catalogue of fun novelties like “Cheeseburger In Paradise” and “Margaritaville” could make anyone want to join the nation of Parrotheads in their eternal poolside party. However, at least for me, the act most synonymous with the summertime is The Beach Boys, those five guys from Hawthorne, California who crowded the radio and the beaches with their hot mix of surf pop and psychedelic sounds beginning in the 1960’s. Today, we reach a milestone for one of their first big hits, a rocking and rolling boogie on a boogie board down the coast of the Golden State.
On this date back in 1963, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” reached its highest peak on the Hot 100, climbing a notch to #3, ultimately blocked out by Little Peggy March‘s “I Will Follow Him” (#2) and “If You Wanna Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul (#1). At the time, it was the group’s biggest single to date, having just hit the top 40 the previous year for the first time with “Surfin’ Safari” (#14). “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was the only song from the parent album of the same name to hit the Billboard charts, while the album itself did one spot better with a #2 peak on the Billboard 200.
If you’re a fan of music from the 50’s, you know that this classic is based around the melody of the Chuck Berry hit titled “Sweet Little Sixteen”. It went to #2 in 1958. The song was published under the same company that Berry used, Arc Music, except the only songwriter listed was member Brian Wilson. Wilson states, “I started humming the melody to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and I got fascinated with the fact of doing it, and I thought to myself, ‘God! What about trying to put surf lyrics to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’s melody? The concept was about, ‘They are doing this in this city, and they’re doing that in that city.'” Several years later, the song’s writing credits were updated to include Berry. Arc still holds the copyright to the song. (Berry also says that he likes it.)
So, why is it the quintessential summer song? Look at any list of the definitive songs of the season and you’ll find this tune on it. It’s the energetic guitar line. It’s Mike Love’s vocal. It’s the “inside, outside, U.S.A.” chants by the other members on background. It’s all those hip hangouts they namecheck. It’s the high harmonies at the end of the chorus. It’s Carl Wilson’s guitar solo. It’s the kind of song that will leave you “pickin’ out a route” to feel the warmth of the sun and all of summer’s positivity. Even if you didn’t grow up in California or didn’t know how to surf, the song made you want to. If you were a young boy back in those days, you know you wanted to impress the girl you had a crush on by hanging on the most waves. Admit it. Yes, there were other popular songs about surfing: “Surf City” by Jan & Dean (co-written by Brian Wilson), “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen, etc., but “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was the one that popularized the genre and led to all the other hit songs ranking highly on the charts during that year. In fact, in 1963 alone, ten titles to the Hot 100 contained the word “surf” or a variant, up from three the year before. It was a phenomenon and a youth anthem all in one.
Even though it achieved its greatest fame in 1963, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” charted several other times, including cover versions. The song was re-released in the summer of 1974 to promote the compilation Endless Summer, a twenty-song effort of the group’s biggest hits and then some. It included a new b-side. The album was #1 for a week on the album chart while the single itself managed a #36 peak in its second go-around. A cover by then-teen singer Leif Garrett became his first top 40 hit in 1977, rising as high as #20. It’s been covered a number of times since then and on most of The Beach Boys tours ever since the song came out. I mean, it’s hard to overlook a song that started a top ten streak for them and remains popular fifty years after the song peaked out.
It may have missed the #1 spot by a few positions, but you know you wanna wax down your board and run to the crystal blue water when you hear it. Happy 50th anniversary, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, and keep serving up those tasty waves on the airwaves.