(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
Like many a child of the ‘70s, my introduction to the surf-rock stylings of Jan & Dean came by way of oldies radio. In my case, it was Michael St. John’s Saturday-night show on WPEN-AM in Philadelphia, which I tuned in after Elvis Presley’s death. I picked up a few double A-sided singles of theirs from the Hatboro Music Shop and, like many of my classmates, was blown away by Deadman’s Curve, the made-for-TV biopic about them that aired on CBS on Feb. 3, 1978.
I was 12 years old. Soon enough my attention would be diverted elsewhere – but I never forgot about their music, which I found funny, sly and just plain good. A year or three later, in fact, I wound up picking up their two-LP Anthology. Not only did it collect their best work, aka their hits, but it also included their versions of two Beach Boys songs (“Surfin’ Safari” and “Little Deuce Coupe”) and two Beatles songs (“Michelle” and “You’ve Got to Hide My Love Away”).
Fast forward a few more years, to the end of 1984: I’m browsing the used and rare vinyl in Memory Lane Records in Horsham and come across Early L.A., a compilation that featured pre-fame recordings by Dino Valenti, David Crosby, the Byrds and Canned Heat… and Jan & Dean’s 1965 LP Folk ’n Roll, which found the duo trading in their surfboards for fringed jackets.
The mid-‘60s were a difficult time for established acts, remember. Times and tastes were changing at a rapid clip, and veterans were doing whatever they could to hold onto the spotlight. Folk ’n Roll is a perfect example of that. It’s not a great album, though it has a few good-great moments; and, title aside, it’s less folk-rock and more pop-folk, with a dose of attempted satire tossed into the mix.
That said, the opener – “I Found a Girl” – could’ve been released at any point in the preceding years …
I should mention that it was co-written by the legendary P.F. Sloan and partner Steve Barri, who worked with Jan Berry often in those days. (That’s Sloan’s falsetto on “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” in fact.) “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which closes the first side, is also theirs; and has more of a folk-rock feel…
“Where Were You” was a hit for the Grass Roots the following year, of course; that group was created after Sloan-Barri’s demo began receiving airplay sometime in 1965. The Jan & Dean version falls between the demo and the official Grass Roots release, I believe. I should add that its similarity to Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction” is even more pronounced here because “Eve” falls two songs earlier on this album side.
Part of what I find to be the kitschy charm of Folk ‘n Roll comes from the earnest unease that the duo have with the material. They don’t sound comfortable with the slowed folk-rock beat or ringing Rickenbacker, for example, though their harmonies remain a joy to hear…
…and, yet, the album is eminently listenable – even the one misfire, “A Beginning from an End,” about a man seeing his late wife in his daughter. That sounds sweet, and it is – up until the spoken interlude, when he recalls the wife’s death during childbirth. “I felt so all alone as they wheeled you through the doors and told me to wait….” (In some respects, that interlude conjures “Deadman’s Curve.”) The song sounds great until you listen to the lyrics, basically. And once you do? It becomes awkward. And crass. Let’s leave it there.
Well, let’s not. Here it is:
Likewise, their attempt at satire with “The Universal Coward” falls flat – the song is similar, in a sense, to “Ballad of the Yellow Beret,” the parody of Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret” that featured a young Bob Seger. (In their defense: Neither possessed crystal balls that foretold what was to come.) More funny: the back cover picture of a new “potest” movement:
And, too, the title tune – which borrows its melody from “Surf City” – is a funny delight. Unlike “Coward,” it pokes affectionate fun at the folk-rock scene.
So, in short: Not a great album (thus it’s “(un)essential designation”), but an interesting listen, all the same.
To hear the album in full (and with commercials):