Graded on a Curve:
Jan & Dean, Filet of Soul Redux: The Rejected Master Recordings

Jan Berry and Dean Torrance, professionally known as Jan & Dean, are secured a place in pop history as part of the ’60s surf wave, but their career transcends the designation. Beginning with doo wop in the ’50s, they surely hit their stride with surf-related material, though they soon chafed against label-imposed limitations. Filet of Soul Redux: The Rejected Master Recordings finds unconventionality and humor running rampant; freshly issued on CD by Omnivore, it’s more an occasionally fascinating curiosity than a great (or even very good) album, but its snidely oddball time capsule does serve to deepen this oft-underappreciated duo’s story.

More than once I’ve overheard the opinion that Jan & Dean were a flash in the pan who rode on the coattails of The Beach Boys, but that’s just wrong. Yes, “Surf City” was a Brian Wilson song given to Berry to finish, and the two groups were indeed thick as thieves, but Jan & Dean’s success in fact began in the late ’50s with “Jennie Lee.”

To be specific, the song was credited to Jan & Arnie; friend Arnie Ginsberg had brought the lyrics to Berry, who then adapted the music from the Civil War tune “Aura Lee” and arranged the harmonies. The plan was for the three to record the song in Berry’s home studio, but Torrance had to fulfil a commitment to the Army Reserve, so Jan & Arnie it was.

The success of “Jennie Lee,” which hit #8 on the pop charts in 1958, was something of an accident, with producer Joe Lubin hearing the song and offering to buy it. It was Lubin’s version with Jan & Arnie backed by a band that hit, though the tune still sounds like it was recorded in a shed. With Torrance back and Ginsburg out, a couple more smaller hits followed through a connection to Herb Alpert and Lou Adler, who got them onto the small Dore Records label.

The Jan & Dean that persists in the collective memory evolved after signing to Liberty Records; “Linda” climbed to #28 in ’63, but then “Surf City” landed at #1, and a bunch of hits followed. Pre-Liberty, Jan & Dean essentially remained in pop doo wop mode (hitting #25 in ’61 with a revamping of the Hoagy Carmichael chestnut “Heart and Soul”), but after “Surf City” they tackled surf (“Ride the Wild Surf”), beach (“Honolulu Lulu”), skateboard (“Sidewalk Surfin’”), and hot rod tunes (“Drag City” and of course “Dead Man’s Curve”) with imaginative zest and a touch of humor (“The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”).

To help grasp just how non-square a cultural property Jan & Dean were, consider that they emceed the stone classic concert film The T.A.M.I. Show. Flash forward to ’65 and they were feeling a bit boxed in, in large part due to a lack of adventurousness on the part of Liberty, and they in fact had no intention of re-signing with the label. They did own Liberty one more album however, and as Torrance relates in his enjoyable liners for this set, they “didn’t want to waste any good material” on this contractual obligation.

Let that serve as a tip-off that Filet of Soul is no lost classic…and yet it’s long-delayed emergence is a valuable addition to the Jan & Dean library, mainly because it solidifies their stature as more than just a surf group. Of course, they had to deliver Liberty something, and after the idea of a live record was rejected (as they’d recently released the still quite likeable Command Performance), Berry and Torrance concocted what is concisely assessed as a bizarre mix of a faux live record and comedy album.

The suits were not pleased, which is understandable as Filet of Soul Redux climbs high in the annals of artist vs. label smartassery, and who knows exactly what would’ve transpired had Berry not nearly died in a car accident in 1966. This career derailing event did find Liberty swooping in and piecing together the original Filet of Soul. Those familiar with that issue, which is still easy to hear, will know the mix of cover tunes and a few originals here, but rest assured, the whole is a markedly different beast.

There are similarities; for example, on both, the crowd screams piped into the mix of “Honolulu Lulu” sound like a bunch of crazed inhabitants on a rollercoaster run amok in Palisades Park. But things quickly take a turn for the weird; upon reading of this album’s aims at comedy, I’ll fess to fearing the results would be, well, corny, but “Boys Down at the Plant” is better assessed as an addled monologue on the hollowness of success, and after a run-through of “Cathy’s Clown,” the section designated as “Pigeon Joke” borders on the anarchic.

Falling between the Brit Invasion and the Summer of Love, it doesn’t really fit to call Soul Redux trippy, though that’s not to say a person couldn’t drop a tab a get lost in all this mayhem. Weaved into the record are explosions, machine gun fire, animal sounds, and screeching tires, all swiped from sound effects records, along with coughs, sneezes, band introductions (“Hal Blaine, the world’s most famous drummer…”), and amid the craziness, covers of “1-2-3,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and a “Lightnin’ Strikes” where the military sound effects really complement the snide quality in the duo’s vocal stylings.

But funny? Apart from the canned female screams following every mention of the Beatles, a gag that’s cracked me up every time so far, this Filet of Soul isn’t really a gut buster, but unlike the version Liberty originally released, which indeed registers as a contractual obligation, Redux connects like Jan & Dean delivering a grand kiss off as they amuse themselves. I’ll admit that’s cool, but it’s only so cool, meaning this one won’t get a lot of play. But it is likely to get pulled out a few times in the wee hours of a waning party, accompanied by those wonderful words “hey, have you heard this?”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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