Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dean Torrence: garage doo-wop with Jan, football with Elvis and living in Surf City USA

photo by Jillian A. Torrence
Jillian with her custom painted surfboard.
Photo by Dean Torrence in Surf City USA.
Speaking with Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean fame is a real treat.  You quickly pick up on how laid back and funny he is.  We laughed and joked about the "nut-jobs" that want to find the most obscure memorabilia out there as well as saying his daughter Jillian gives permission to use the picture she took of him or else "she won't get her allowance."  If you've been a fan of Jan & Dean over the years, you know how key the sense of humor and tongue-in-cheek elements play in to what they did.  Bottom line is they had fun and it was impossible to not have fun while listening.  They were masterful at creating a brand.  Dean still stresses the importance of branding and has used his training in advertising and design to drive that point home.  Dean speaks his mind but also seems at peace with who he is and what he's accomplished.  From his early doo-wop recordings with Jan to the previously unreleased Carnival Of Sound seeing an official release, there was a lot to talk about.

I spoke with Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys a few weeks back.  He went to the same University High School in Los Angeles with you and Jan Berry.  What music were you listening to in high school?
Probably doo-wop.  Yeah, I think Bruce was a fan of doo-wop.  Jan certainly was.  Bruce was a little younger and a neighbor of Jan’s.  He probably liked anything that Jan liked.

You and Jan were in a group at that time called The Barons.  Was this primarily doo-wop?
early publicity shot
Yeah, I think that’s about all we knew.  We probably did hear some of Elvis’ stuff but we considered that kind of country.  We appreciated it but it wasn’t what we particularly liked.  We liked vocal groups and that was a single artist.  Single artists weren’t quite as interesting to us as vocal groups.

Do you remember what you liked later that was not in that style?
No we were totally focused on doo-wop in the beginning.  It probably wasn’t until many years later that we started to look for our own identity. 

You mentioned Elvis earlier.  Many people have musical connections with Elvis but you and Jan connected with him on the football field!
We were just sports friends.  We didn’t hang out musically at all.  When we were around him we talked sports…never mentioned music.  He was more or less a neighbor.  He lived about 10 minutes from my house and about 10-15 minutes from Jan.  He liked to go to a park that was up Beverly Glen.  I think it was called Beverly Glen Canyon Park.  It was an odd little park.  It wasn’t huge but it was big enough to lay out a football field more or less.  Teams would meet there starting in summer and then into fall and winter.  A lot of the guys that played on these weekend teams were guys that were playing college ball.  They were already practicing and stuff through spring and summer and just wanted to play more. 
Sundays at Beverly Glen Canyon Park was  kind of open to anyone that showed up.  Most had their own teams.  It wasn’t pick-up kind of stuff.  Elvis obviously had his own team.  He wasn’t about to put together some team of people he didn’t know and didn’t know their abilities.  He had ringers.  Jan & I also had a team called the Bel Air Bandits.  We had a bunch of ringers too.  Rick Nelson had a team.  Of course he had ringers (laughs).  We were a pretty damn good team with real college athletes.  The games got pretty competitive.  There was only room for one game at a time.  People would show up and informally sign up to be next.  Basically you’d play a game and the first team to score 2 touchdowns was the winner.  They’d stay on the field and the next in line would come on the field and play their game.  Games weren’t all that long.  There usually were a bunch of people that wanted to play.  Everybody wanted to play against Elvis or Rick or somebody…mostly against Elvis because his team never lost.  I don’t remember ever seeing them lose.  We knew if we went to play there we would probably be on long enough to score a touchdown and Elvis’ team would score 2 and then you were done.  You could re-sign back up but you’d have to wait another hour.  It wasn’t that we went there that often.  It was kind of a last resort thing.  If you didn’t have anything better to do and didn’t have enough to divide into 2 teams then we would opt to go to Elvis’ game and at least get in some playing.  It was fun.  He was a good guy and very athletic.  He didn’t expect to be treated any differently than anybody else.  We would go out of our way to make sure we didn’t coddle him and we did bump him around.  He didn’t mind at all.  The rest of team didn’t come after you to protect him.  He was just on his own.  I thought that was pretty cool.

Do you remember the first Jan & Dean song that not only you were excited to hear on the air but that your friends gave you good feedback on it as well?
Drag City- 1963
That’s an interesting question that sounds like it would have an obvious answer.  One of the most exciting was of course hearing your record on the air for the very first time.  That was your own personal excitement.  Then from there it may branch out to be curious as to what others think of it as well.  A very interesting dynamic was our doo-wop records.  We were still considered teen idols and not doo-wop musicians.  Especially the white kids…they were in a teen idol category.  We wouldn’t get played alongside the real doo-wop artists…you know, the black guys who weren’t teen idols.  Consequently, for better or for worse, we thought we were competing with doo-wop artists and selling to the same people.  But that wasn’t true.  Our audience quickly became teenage girls who weren’t necessarily listening to The Coasters, The Drifters, or any of those groups.  They might be listening to Elvis, Frankie Avalon and people like that.  So the bottom line is we were making records for 12-16 year olds…17 maybe.  So quite honestly my friends who were 19, 20 and 21 didn’t think we shouldn’t be doing that.  They thought we should be making hipper records that maybe would even fall into the folk category or something.  Most of the guys my age were listening to Peter, Paul & Mary and just becoming aware of Bob Dylan.  They just thought we were selling out.  I didn’t get a lot of feedback from my immediate friends so the subject never came up(laughs).  Once we found our way into the California culture records…surfing, beach and cars…then it was perfectly acceptable and were at least mainstream to our friends.

Was taking that next step to California culture records on purpose?
designed by Dean Torrence/Kittyhawk Graphics
No.  Quite honestly we ran out of subject material to sing about.  If you’re singing to girls, you’re singing about boy-girl situation songs.  We just kind of ran out of stuff to sing about because we didn’t know much about boy-girl relationships except puppy love.  Once we found a whole new category to sing about and actually had as much passion for, we did it.  I don’t think we were sitting there thinking what our fan base was particularly.  It was just something we enjoyed and something we could tunesmith stuff about.  I’d like to say we figured it out and then executed it but we just did it because we enjoyed it and then it worked out.

Sometimes not planning and letting it happen naturally is the way to go.
Nothing really ever goes the way you plan anyway.  I guess that’s what you learn as you age.

I was watching the Deadman’s Curve movie from 1978 and my 11 year old son had a question.  Did you record the skateboard sound for “Sidewalk Surfin’” while holding a tape recorder as portrayed in the movie?
We may have fudged a little bit with that.  We had an engineer do it with the tape equipment because he knew how to use the tape machine.  It wasn’t our machine and he probably didn’t want us using it.  We wanted to skateboard anyway.  We didn’t care if we took the machine around.  Other than Jan wasn’t carrying the machine, we did it right outside the studio on the sidewalk.  We have always loved using sound effects records.  We were very familiar with the library that had all the sound effects in it.  We kind of went through the sound effects library looking for a skateboard sound but we were pretty sure there wasn’t one.  Of course there wasn’t one.  It was too new for anyone to think about for sound effects records so we had to do our own.

I love the simplicity of that.
It was pretty primitive.

Speaking of the Deadman’s Curve movie, were you surprised by the response?
Yeah.  I was very surprised with the net result.  It obviously did mean if we chose to give it another try we didn’t have to start from ground zero.  I still didn’t trust that the afterglow of the 1st airing of Deadman’s Curve would last.  I waited until it was shown a 2nd time and then the numbers held up.  As a matter of fact, the numbers even got better the 2nd time.  And then combined with Mike Love (Beach Boys) calling me every other day saying I’d be stupid if I didn’t try to take advantage of the newfound publicity we were getting.  That was mainly because he was in the film so he was getting a lot of people’s reaction to him directly.  I wasn’t quite as accessible because I was in the graphics business.  A few people did figure out the name of my company and connected the dots and called my company to find me, butMike was out on the road along with the other guys and talking to people every day.  He kept calling me and saying “you really need to rethink this whole thing and come out and try it one more time”.  He finally invited me to go on the road with them so I didn’t have to put together a band right away and  could see for myself.  Besides, they had their own airplane and that kind of sounded like fun.  I thought,”oh if you put it that way.” (laughs).  Once we saw it for ourselves, we really did feel the energy.  Especially when I calculated that I could make more in one night then I was making in a month doing graphics.  I love graphics but trying to get paid was really difficult.  People enjoyed what you did for them but when it was time to write a check, graphic artists were always the last to get paid.  I guess it’s more important to keep the lights on.  “Ah, it’s just graphics…if this guy get’s pissed off at me I can just find another one.  There are plenty of them out there” (laughs).

You’ve had a long relationship with The Beach Boys.  In fact, you walked down the hall from a Jan & Dean session and sang on a Beach Boys session of “Barbara Ann” from their Party album.
The Beach Boys- Party 1965
I’m looking at the gold record right this second with a nice little plaque that they did for me that says “Thanks Dean for bringing Barbara Ann to our Party”.  I guess it was my idea to do “Barbara Ann” since Jan & Dean had done it maybe a year before.  I just thought with the kinds of songs they were doing it would be a fun one to do.  It was enough to record.  I suggested it and they thought it was a good idea.  It was done in about 20 minutes and then I went back to the Jan & Dean studio pretending that I didn’t really do anything.  I was told not to.

Was there a competitive nature between the 2 groups?
I don’t think it was competitive.  It was more inspirational.  We had inspired them to some degree and once they started making really special records they inspired us musically.  We didn’t really need to compete with one another.  As a matter of fact, if we just matched them and they matched us we were happy with that.  Consequently, the whole learning curve would be shortened by a bunch if we just collaborated with stuff

The Who did a cover of “Bucket T” in the mid-60’s.  How did you like their version?
I loved it.  I absolutely loved it.

Were you surprised they picked that song and maybe not one of the more obvious hits?
I never even thought about that.  I guess I liked it because it wasn’t.  I would have expected them not to just do a straight cover of something that we had some sort of national success with.  So the fact that they really looked for a gem that was lost as a filler piece on an LP was perfectly natural by creative people.  They did exactly what I thought they would have done.  There were plenty of others that were just as buried and just tongue-in-cheek but that was a good choice.

You and Jan had a lot of hits but were there any songs that you were surprised didn’t become a bigger hit?
No.  I never really blamed it on the execution or the particular song or anything.  Usually, we could backwards engineer the whole thing and it was pretty easy to blame it on the company for one reason or another.  A lot had to do with the timing with putting stuff out and having the full attention of the record company.  They had to be totally on board and focused or you’re going to lose something.  We weren’t on the best of labels.  The company we were on was certainly not a big powerhouse.  They were an independent company that was just kind of plodding along.  We could have a top 10 song and sell 2/3 of what our friends The Beach Boys were selling on a major label.  I never took it personally in terms of our creative abilities.  Some of the songs were exactly like the song we just had a top 10 with but it didn’t make sense why the next one out did nothing.  Well actually, we never had one that did nothing.  We had a ton of chart records.  But if you’re getting on the charts in the 40’s or 30’s or 20’s and the creation was just as good as the one you just had in the top 10 but it was pretty obvious to me it was the companies lack of promotion, lack of focus, lack of marketing, distribution.

Timing is key!
At the company level, you’re also losing key people and key positions.  Either they move to a different position,someone lures them away, or they quit or get fired and the whole continuity is messed up.  If you just happen to have a release coming out at that time and there’s turmoil in the company, there’s not much you can do about it.

I love the concept record you did called Save For A Rainy Day.  Can you tell me about that?
originally released 1966/re-released 1996
Most of our records were about spring and summer.  We refused to do a Christmas record.  We didn’t want to waste our time with a Christmas record.  It seemed like a cop out.  The company wanted to sell a big chunk of records during Christmas based on a certain artist doing the same old “Jingle Bells” song. That didn’t seem creative to me.  Now if you’re writing your own original songs, I kind of like that.  I thought the Beach Boys were very clever with that and not falling into the trap in the “same olds” and then writing some really good songs.  We didn’t have a lot of time to write so when we did have time to write, we really made sure it was stuff that was meaningful.  We thought instead of doing a Christmas record, maybe we should think about some off season record that doesn’t have anything to do with spring or summer.  So that was our kind of idea to sing about winter and fall going into spring.  We never really, we meaning “Jan & Dean”, never got really far with this.  Jan had his accident.  So at that particular time, I thought it was a neat concept.  I didn’t want to compete with the traditional Jan & Dean concepts so I decided tojust go ahead and work on that project and just wait and see what happened to him medically.  Since we got let go from our record company, we had fulfilled our contract with them, we were going to be moving on to our own label and be distributed by our old partner Lou Adler who had just started Dunhill Records.  So we would have been distributed by Dunhill.  We hadn’t gotten to that point yet with Jan in the hospital.  We were kind of on hold so we had no record company and no recording budget.  I had a couple of old studio musician guys who had always appreciated all the work we had thrown their way.  They said “we got this little home studio, why don’t you come over here and do it on our home studio”.  It was very low budget.  It was ok for what it was.  It wasn’t anywhere close to be as good as I’d hoped it would have been had I had a real budget to work with.  It was better than nothing I guess

I really liked it.  I liked you were doing something different.  Speaking of something different and in light of the recently released SMiLE album from the Beach Boys, you had a much talked about unreleased album that came out last year called Carnival Of Sound.  Was it cool to see it come out?
Not particularly.  I had hoped after all these years that it had actually been lost and gone away.  I wasn’t into the psychedelic crowd particularly.  I liked some of it.  The post-accident Jan was not as creative as the pre-accident Jan was.  I just felt it wasn’t as good as it should have been.  He barely sang on it at all.  I just never connected with the dang thing.  The reason why I was happy to do the packaging was I was afraid Rhino would try to make it look like a traditional Jan & Dean project, which was cars and surfing and that kind of thing.  I didn’t want it to be misleading that it was one of those.  I just thought if I controlled the packaging I could at least one way or another give the consumer an idea of what’s inside the packaging by looking at the outside of the package.  I tried to do my best to do as much of a psychedelic looking cover that I could possibly get away with.  The first couple of covers I did, they didn’t really like.  They were too psychedelic for them (laughs).  I got away with some of it.  My original stuff was even more tie-dye.  I just wish a real collection of old Jan & Dean hits catalog would come out in such a nice package.  I’m always scratching my head.  To me, almost everything is 180⁰  from where it should be.  But I’ve learned to live with that.  That’s been going on for 30-40 years.  I’m used to it now.  Why would you spend that much effort for that, when that effort could be hit for a real hits package?  We’ve never had a box set.  I’m too stubborn to go and try to force it down anyone’s throat because I’ll waste a bunch of time and it won’t happen anyway.
final album cover
early album cover concept

Did Rhino do this project because it was Warner material?
Jan had signed a 1 LP deal.  I signed off on it knowing that I probably wasn’t going to sing on anything.  I don’t think I did.  It was all Jan’s.  I think I said that in the packaging that it was my gift to him.  He was always pissed off at Save For A Rainy Day so this was his way at getting back at me…but needing my signature.  Again, the brain-damaged Jan was not even close to being pre-accident Jan.  I never held it against him.  It was all he was capable of doing.

The surf music collecting crowd is crazy about anything rare or unreleased from artists like you, The Beach Boys, Dick Dale and others.
Yeah, but those are the nut-jobs.  That’s what Rhino was shooting for.  They only made 2,500-3,500…5,000 at most.  The only difference is a Brian Wilson throwaway is better than most peoples’ 100 percent of energies put into something.  Jan’s was made for the hardcore Jan fans that would buy just about anything he would do and/or those nut-jobs that absolutely love something that’s unreleased.  Quite honestly , the reason why most things aren’t released is because it ain’t very good.  They don’t see it that way.

designed by Dean Torrence/Kittyhawk Graphics
That’s the thing about the collector mentality though…the harder and more obscure it is the more they want it.
On my website, I put some one-of-a-kind stuff in the merchandise section.  The fans are scratching their heads…the majority of the fans just just want a t-shirt, CD, a picture.  I made sure that everything in our merchandise section was one of a kind or very rare.  Nothing is under $500.  There’s a surf board for $3,500.  So you sell 1 or 2 a year, that’s fine.  Then the nut-jobs are very happy about that.  Unfortunately, the nut-jobs don’t have a lot of money (laughs).  It’s not a very good business idea.  I just like it because it’s visual and kind of fun.  Whether or not I actually sell anything is irrelevant.

Dean at his Kittyhawk offices.
Photo courtesy of Dean Torrence
Let’s talk about Kittyhawk Graphics that you started shortly after Jan’s accident.  Do you still do designs with that now?
Yeah, it seems that I do.  I probably do 4 or 5 projects a year.  It’s most old friends.  I have had people that emailed.  I’m pretty reluctant to start all over with somebody.  It’s hard enough working with my friends let alone for strangers (laughs).  Most of the time, it’s for old friends or Jan & Dean related.  The people that have Jan & Dean product have been nice enough to give me a call to do my own packaging.

You designed that iconic Beach Boys logo.

designed by Dean Torrence/Kittyhawk Graphics
Yes, I did.  I’ve been very pleased that they continue with that thing.  It was done for 15 Big One’s album.  I never meant it to be a logo.  It was done for that one package and it kept showing up.  It was a Warner Brother package so Capitol has never used it to my knowledge.

You helped Huntington Beach get trademarked as Surf City USA.  That has to be pretty cool.
designed by Dean Torrence/Kittyhawk Graphics
Yeah, it’s very cool.  I love that.  Every day I love that.  Every day I get in the car, I can’t go 2 blocks without seeing Surf City on something…or even on a decal on another car or license plate frames…and then businesses.  There seems to be a business on every block that has Surf City on it.  Again, I’m looking at my degree.  It’s from a school of architecture but it was in advertising design.  I just converted all the advertising design for recording artists to applying it to the city.  The city is a product as well.  We’re competing for space out there in terms of being recognized as a destination that people should want to come to.  People come to California and look on the map and want to go to the beach.  When there are 100 beach communities, how do you pick?  Well hopefully the one called Surf City.  It’s just marketing and branding.  When I first started in the mid-90’s, I was always talking about branding and they had no idea what I was talking about.  About 6-7 years ago someone put out a DVD about branding.  I finally sat a bunch of people down and played it for them.  “Ah that’s what you’re talking about.  We didn’t have any cows so we didn’t know what the hell you were talking about” (laughs).  It’s been a long, long process.  I’m already thinking 10-15 years ahead and they’re still 10 years behind.  They still have not even come close to taking full advantage of the Surf City name. 

Jan passed away in 2004.  What do you miss most about Jan?
I kind of lost Jan in 1966.  At the time of his accident, he had invited me to live in his house.  I had been in his brand new Bel Air house for about a year.  We still got along.  We were still good friends.  We based our friendship on a bunch of other things besides music early on and it continued.  We argued over music from time to time and had disagreements over concepts and things.  But we were good friends.  After the accident, it was a totally different thing.  As my wife likes to say, I lost him twice.  After his accident, he got another 30 years of still being able to go out and perform.  He was always frustrated.  He was happy in the moment at times.  But it was very frustrating for him.  In a way, I was almost relieved for him and hopefully he is in a better place.  He did get to relive some of the stuff and hoped that he appreciated it in the moment.  All in all, life for him was extremely difficult.

I am still hopeful that someday soon, you and Jan will be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.  Why do you think that hasn’t happened yet?
Dean with his Surf City Cruiser Woody Bike.
Surf City Huntington Beach Pier in background.
Photo courtesy of Dean Torrence.
Every other hall of fame is based on the numbers so just based on numbers I don’t get it.  We were outsiders and I can understand that part of it.  We never really respected the media and the other folks in the business.  We made our own decisions.  Jan was brighter than any record company president I ever knew.  And between the 2 of us, we were a hell of a lot more creative than the suits we worked for.  I don’t know if that had anything to do with it but that’s the only thing I can come up with.  We were outsiders and not kiss-assers.  And plus, we didn’t even really respect the business because how could we respect if we seemed to want to go out and get degrees and keep going to college.  That might have been a slap in the face to the music people.  I don’t know.  I don’t care at this point.  The brain-damaged Jan would have gotten a kick out of it.  He deserves it.  He made top 10 songs in his garage for God’s sake.  If that’s not hall of fame material, I don’t know what is.  At the very least, we’re guys who co-wrote most of our songs, performed them, arranged them, produced them…even did the packaging.  What else do they want you to do?  And we still went to college 5 days a week.  I’m looking at my degree right there.  The Beatles didn’t even do that.  

What do you see happening for you in 2012?
designed by Dean Torrence/Kittyhawk Graphics
Oh heck, I don’t know.  I have no idea.  None whatsoever.  I’m following all the economic stuff and all the political stuff and that will have a lot to do with it.  I can’t sit here and think about creative stuff.  There may not be any money in the economy to be able to afford creative stuff.  Who the hell knows?  Meanwhile, I just do what I can do and get creative when I need to.  Other than that, I don’t know what the future is.  It will be interesting.  It might not be a whole lot of fun but it will be interesting.

 For more info, go to

"Baby Talk"

Live medley

"Surf City"

Mike Love & Dean Torrence interview

"Vegetables" (Dean as Laughing Gravy)