Jan & Dean – “Popsicle” (1966)

September 6, 2008 at 1:59 pm (Reviews & Articles)

 

Domenic Priore is probably the second most knowledgable man on The Beach Boys after David Leaf. He put out a great book on Smile many years ago and contributed this review of Jan & Dean’s Popsicle album to the Dumb Angel website in March 2006…

 
This is as good a place to get started with Jan & Dean as any. It’s pure 1966 marketing, which in itself is an enlightened thing. The Popsicle album was released by Liberty Records that year after Jan Berry’s accident, and the “Sunshine Pop” single climbed immediately up the charts… the last real Jan & Dean hit, in sequence. But… get this… “Popsicle Truck” (as it was originally titled) had been released on the Drag City album in 1963. That’s the beauty of Popsicle; Liberty found a bunch of album tracks of ambient merit for 1966, and just pumped ’em out there. One can immediately recognize the quality of Jan & Dean’s work, that is, stuff lyin’ around on their albums that coulda been singles, or that worked in another time zone. It actually becomes a collection of their most interesting material outside of the obvious hits, and therefore a new listener can come to the group with the whole thing being a fresh experience.
These great tracks are also sequenced in a groovy manner that makes for cool and casual listening. Side two runs through a vibe so lucid, it includes a Jill Gibson song, a Brian Wilson song, a Brian Wilson song, then another Jill Gibson song… all collaborations with Jan Berry (with pals Roger Christian and Don Altfeld pitchin’ in on occasion).
Once the side kicks off with a very, very Psyhedelic Surf Pastiche Washout version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (love it when Jan Berry emulates and eventually uses sitars, like later on “Fan Tan,” “Mullholland” and others from the still-unreleased Carnival of Sound album from 1968), it goes to the Jill Gibson/Jan Berry duet “A Surfer’s Dream.” For my money, this is the most idyllic song of the whole surf shebang. Jill shows up again on the Brian Wilson/Jan Berry chillout “Surf Route 101”, this time doin’ the sexy voice of the girl who tags along for a surfari . . . Jill intones “I dig your Woody, lover, let’s disappear.” Next we cut to a brilliant, generally unheard Berry/Wilson rocker, “Surfin’ Wild,” where Jan finally figures it out; “Well I know what I want, yeh, got it all planned, gonna surf all day then sleep in the sand.” Sounds good to me.
The expansive Jill Gibson number “Waimea Bay” follows, showing Jan Berry already capable of arrangements on the level of what Brian Wilson would achieve by the time of Pet Sounds. This earlier production fits in with the 1966 feel perfectly.
Closing side two’s sequence is a nod to the fashion controversy of the decade, Rudi Gernreich’s topless bathing suit. That’s another beauty about this LP. Jan & Dean got this wired during 1964 with “One Piece Topless Bathing Suit,” which made for an even better environment on Popsicle, due to the growing promiscuity 1966 seemed to envelop. The greens and yellows so prominent in clothing and album covers that year are nothing more than a shift toward sunlight and lovers lyin’ around in the tall grass with marigolds all around them. “One Piece Topless Bathing Suit,” the grand dandy of ’em all, makes for an optimistic closer, a good vibe, a good feeling, evocative of graphic design where sunlight through her tan hair became a stock, indelible image always harking back to that very 1966.
Then you get side one, too. After the joyous vibraphone and nonsense backing vocals of “Popsicle” comes “The Restless Surfer,” kicking in the feel of wanderlust right away. This Gary Zekley tune title is what I plucked as a non-de-plume when I wrote the liner notes for those Surfer’s Mood albums way back in the early ’90s (another golden decade, for people who loathe hessians, like me). Dean’s falsetto on the end of “The Restless Surfer” may also rank among the top yearning vocal moments in rock ’n’ roll, fully encompassing desire in the heart of the protagonist.
Next up is another boss, neglected Brian Wilson/Jan Berry number “She’s My Summer Girl,” originally the flip side of “Surf City” — the first in a series of Berry/Wilson hits including “Drag City,” “Dead Man’s Curve,” “The New Girl in School” and “Ride the Wild Surf”… (which you may already have somewhere). “Down at Malibu Beach” is a casual Chuck Berry workout; guitarist Billy Strange gets to pull a few hot licks, and that’s followed by another Malibu callout on “Summer Means Fun.”
Without a doubt, this a cooler version of “Summer Means Fun” than the hit by Bruce & Terry, or the Fantastic Baggys’ fine version (which shares the same backing track as J&D). Jan Berry’s lead vocal just seems to capture the meaning of the lyric better, and in this respect, he’s in league with early Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry… again, having a real feel for rock ’n’ roll at its source. “Tennessee” closes, and at first it seems out of 1966 feel, but it’s great to go back to this 1962 track and hear Plas Johnson’s “Surfer’s Stomp”-like saxophone solo. It’s a hark back to R&B vocal times in a way similar to what the Mothers of Invention would achieve when they recorded Cruisin’ with Ruben & the Jets in 1968. Already, the psychedelic world was ready for a throwback.
The only cut that seems to be missing from this slapdash affair is Jill Gibson’s “It’s As Easy As 1, 2, 3.” But we won’t spend time second-guessing the uncredited Liberty Records employee who had the good sense to sequence this thing brilliantly otherwise. A year later, Paul Williams would write a review for The Byrds Greatest Hits in Crawdaddy! (later available in his book Outlaw Blues) describing the packaging and sequencing of this particular greatest hits package as an art form in itself. Popsicle manages that same artfullness for a collection of songs that, by Jan & Dean standards, would be their “underground” selections.
That packaging matched the gorgeous Watts Tower photographs of the 1966 Jan & Dean tour program designed by Dean Torrence — a precursor to his Kittyhawk Graphics work. In a year’s time, Dean would be designing for the Turtles and did a similar tour program for the Mamas & the Papas. Jill Gibson also wound up in the Mamas & the Papas for a while (singing on the hit “Look Through My Window,” and on plenty of the group’s second album). Popsicle, as packaging, can be seen as leaning in that direction, a sojourn both Jan and Dean would find on their own when recording the Psychedelic Surf Pastiche Washout masterworks Carnival of Sound and Save for a Rainy Day respectively. Popsicle, as music, shows that they had these expansive instincts with them during what may be considered, to some, as a more primitive juncture in their career. A time, however, that was high in both creativity and success.
If only their 1966 TV show pilot Jan and Dean on the Run would have been able to continue… a special nod here to “Time and Space” and “Capitol City” from that ready for Psych-Surf-Pastiche project. Oh well…

Domenic Priore

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