American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/28/74: Beach Boys, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”

Two iconic hits from the first decade of the rock era each spent a single week on AT40 in 74. Back on Memorial Day weekend, “Rock Around the Clock” snuck in at #39, and here, four months later, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” is planting its flag at #36. Maybe, just maybe, this 10-year-old  noticed an uptick in hearing Bill Haley on the radio back then, but the resurgence of the Beach Boys’ remodeling of “Sweet Little Sixteen” passed me by. But I’ve gotten to wondering: what led to these re-chartings?

The short answer, in both cases, seems to be American Graffiti, released in August 73. The movie is set in 62, the year that the Beach Boys first charted; two of their earliest songs, “Surfin’ Safari” and “All Summer Long,” were featured on the soundtrack. According to a piece at the end of this article about Beach Boys singles of the early 70s, the ensuing wave of nostalgia led Capitol to compile and release Endless Summer, a two-disk retrospective of music from their first three years. (I remember well Brian, Mike, and Al peering out at me through the cover’s foliage on many a record store visit in the mid-70s).  What exactly led to re-releasing “Surfin’ U.S.A.” as a single isn’t clear to me, but it worked to the tune of nine more weeks on the Hot 100.

(I also decided to look back at my father’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue cassettes, to see how he ranked Beach Boys songs. He sprinkled seven across his first two tapes: in order, it’s “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Good Vibrations,” and “I Get Around.” Their early hits always make me think of him. As for me, I favor the stuff from a little later: I also go for “Good Vibrations,” but would take “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” over the beach-and-hot-rods tunes.)

As for “Rock Around the Clock,” well, the connection to American Graffiti is both more convoluted and more direct. The common link is Ron Howard, one of the leads in Graffiti.  The movie’s success led ABC to pick up a series starring Howard whose pilot had been originally been broadcast on an episode of Love, American Style, one set even farther in the past (if I ever knew how Happy Days had gotten its start, I’d long forgotten). I also tend to overlook that the Pratt and McClain #5 hit from spring 76 wasn’t Happy Days’ original theme song; “Rock Around the Clock” was played at the opening for its first two seasons. The first episode of Happy Days was in mid-January 74, and the rock era’s first #1 song was back on the charts two months later.

As it happens, American Graffiti gets a shout-out from Casey on this very show. Wolfman Jack had a small but important role playing a DJ in the movie, a fact mentioned in the intro to the Guess Who’s “Clap for the Wolfman,” sitting at #7.

When I was very young, I preferred “Surfin’ Safari” to “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. The opening seconds of both are utterly fantastic, though.

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