The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson progressed significantly between the release of their first album, Surfin' Safari and their second, Surfin' USA. While Nick Venet is credited as the producer of Surfin' USA, Brian Wilson had begun to assert himself in the studio. In addition Brian Wilson was maturing as a writer, and was beginning to polish his musical vision of what would become the unique Beach Boys sound.
The single, “Surfin’ USA,” remains one of the Beach Boys signature songs. Brian Wilson took a Chuck Berry classic, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” substituted his surfing lyrics and layered the vocals behind Mike Love’s nasal lead. From the opening guitar run, “Surfin’ USA,” would become an instantly recognizable song and be honored by The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as one of the 500 most influential rock songs in history. “Surfin’ USA” would become a top five national hit and the album would spend a year and a half on the pop charts. The Beach Boys would achieve superstar status and take a giant step toward becoming one of the great bands in American rock & roll history.
One interesting aspect of Surfin' USA was the inclusion of five instrumental songs. Most surf groups at the time were basically instrumental artists. The Beach Boys took that California surf sound and built their vocals on top. They were pioneers of the surf vocals. Here, however, whether intentionally or not, they pay homage to their surf roots. And if you are going to play instrumental surf music you need to start with Dick Dale. “Misirlou” and "Let’s Go Trippin’" are classic Dick Dale songs. They give Carl Wilson a chance to shine as a guitarist. “Let’s Go Trippin’” would remain a Beach Boys concert staple for years. Likewise Carl Wilson’s own song, “Surf Jam,” shows that he was improving as the lead guitarist of the group. I have always thought it would be interesting to have a Beach Boys album of just their instrumental pieces.
Brian Wilson contributes three classic vocals on this album. First he sings is own “Farmers Daughter” with his high solo voice floating counterpoint to the simple vocal harmonies of the other group members. “The Lonely Sea” is my second favorite song on Surfin' USA. It is the first of what I call the sensitive feeling type of ballads that Brian Wilson would produce over the next few years. Co-authored by Gary Usher, “The Lonely Sea” comes across as a wistful song that paints a picture of a person standing on the shore as the waves roll in. Finally, while “Lana” may not have the sophistication of the first two Brian Wilson vocals, sometimes simple is enough.
“Shut Down” would be a lesser single hit for the Beach Boys and would appear in different forms and places over the next year or so. While not having the beat of a classic Beach Boys hit, it would feature Mike Love on the saxophone. As the years passed Mike Love would abandon this instrument and I have regretted this fact.
Surfin' USA was a wonderful second step for the Beach Boys. It may not be of the caliber of some of their mid-sixties releases but given its place in time, Surfin' USA was a remarkable achievement.