December 3, 2021

Mike & Dean’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll City’: The Curious Story of the Two Surf Music Icons and, Um, Radio Shack

If you were in a mall in 1983 and wandered into a Radio Shack consumer electronics store, you might have encountered an intriguing artifact of the times: a cassette with early sixties pop and rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Association and Paul Revere & the Raiders performing songs made famous by other artists. And either above or behind it, you might have seen a banner or some other display with two surf music icons — Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean — silently entreating you to buy the cassette and, while you’re at it, maybe pick up a new stereo receiver.

Rock ‘n’ Roll City, all of which was newly recorded in the early 1980s, was a fascinating collection: mostly a showcase for Love and Torrence — both together, under the moniker Mike & Dean, and as solo performers — but with contributions from each of the other acts sprinkled throughout.

Fittingly, the cassette was bookended by Mike & Dean tracks. It opened with a take on the 1965 Lou Christie song “Lightning Strikes” and closed with a gender-swap rewrite of the 1963 Angels hit “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Spread across the rest of the cassette, Love turned in updated versions of “The Letter” (the Box Tops; 1967), “The Locomotion” (Little Eva; 1962), “Sugar Shack” (Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs; 1963) and “Da Doo Ron Ron” (the Crystals; 1963) while Torrence revisited “Baby Talk” (Jan & Dean; 1959) and ably tackled “Wild Thing” (the Troggs; 1966). All of these were produced by longtime Beach Boys associate Daryl Dragon, better known, perhaps, as the “Captain” half of the 1970s pop duo Captain & Tennille.

Rounding out the album were covers of “Walk Away Renee” (Left Banke; 1966) by sunshine pop group the Association, “96 Tears” (? and the Mysterians; 1966) by garage rock band Paul Revere & the Raiders, and “Sealed with a Kiss” (Brian Hyland; 1962) by Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher of the Rip Chords. Finally, the Beach Boys appeared with a cover of “California Dreamin’” (the Mamas and the Papas; 1965), their first newly recorded release in three years.

It was all a bit of a hodgepodge. But for fans of both the artists and the songs they covered, it might well have worth plunking down $4.95 to check it out. Hear for yourself.

Mixing Rock & Roll and the Corporate World

How the album came about is a fascinating example of what once was considered an unholy marriage of rock & roll and corporate interests. The story begins in early 1982, when Love and Torrence launched a minitour of college areas in Florida and Texas sponsored by beer giant Budweiser. Torrence had recently wrapped up a difficult Jan & Dean reunion and Love was enjoying a break from Beach Boys activity. The two had always been friends, so the decision to embark on a brief tour together playing songs they both loved was an easy one to make.

It’s worth pausing here to look at the duo’s relationship with Budweiser — in more ways than one, the relationship led directly to the partnership with Radio Shack. In a November 1982 article in the El Paso Times, Torrence, who often showed a keen business acumen in interviews during the Mike & Dean years, outlined the advantages of touring with the support of the corporate behemoth.

“It’s not as hectic as working with a different promoter every night,” he said. “In those situations, the promoter only cares about that single performance. After that, he’s not worried about what happens to you. With Budweiser, we’re seeing much better promotion. When you work with a national sponsor, you find they love to spend money.

“Another plus is that they’re not in the business of making money off entertainment. They’re interested in pushing their product. So the ticket prices are very reasonable. In today’s economy, it’s great to be able to give the consumer a break. It makes everybody happy.”

And the tour wasn’t the only piece of the puzzle. The partnership with Budweiser also extended to Mike & Dean recording a single for the beer company: “Be True to Your Bud,” a rewrite of the 1963 Beach Boys hit “Be True to Your School” presented here as the “Budweiser Fight Song.”

For some, “Be True to Your Bud” might have been a step too far, but Torrence was unapologetic about working with Budweiser. “We’re mixing rock ‘n’ roll with the corporate world, and why not?” he said in a 1983 interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Certainly, Budweiser knows how to sell product, how to market it and distribute it. They’re on top of it, and they understand the importance of music. They know how to get the consumers’ attention with music. So it’s a nice situation for them, too.”

Cutting Out the Middlemen

One afternoon in 1982, before a show at Padre Island, Torrence was at a local mall signing autographs when a young woman approached him with a Beach Boys / Jan & Dean compilation album. He had never seen or heard of a compilation with both groups on it. Curious about its provenance, he found there was an unlikely “label” behind it: the consumer electronics chain Radio Shack.

Intrigued, Torrence and Love decided to dig a little deeper. “Michael got on the phone, called them up and found out they had sold 100,000 units in less than a year,” the former said in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview. “And in my way of thinking, selling 100,000 units is pretty heavy. I mean, there was no advertising, no point-of-purchase stuff. You had to be looking for solder to find it.”

Especially in the early 1980s, when few artists could count on labels for any meaningful promotional support — “I have lost all faith in most record companies,” Torrence told a writer for Gannett Westchester Newspapers — this alternative, potentially lucrative approach to selling albums was wildly appealing.

The two singers started exploring the possibility of working directly with retail outlets in distributing and marketing new releases, essentially cutting out the many middlemen in the record business. After considerable test marketing, they approached three companies about potential partnerships: K-Tel, a Canadian record label that specialized in licensing songs from the majors for compilation albums that it often promoted on TV; discount store giant K-Mart; and Tandy, parent corporation of Radio Shack.

“Radio Shack moved 100,000 copies without even trying,” Torrence said in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram article. “There are major artists who can’t sell 100,000 copies with a lot of advertising, hype and a lot of other things. Now, what would happen if just a little bit bigger deal was made about the records Radio Shack carries? They could have some sort of display or banner on the wall. With a little fanfare, we might sell 200,000 units, or 300,000. They have 2,500 stores across the U.S. That’s bigger than any record chain I know of.”

In the end, Love and Torrence not only benefited from the distribution network of Radio Shack stores, but they were also able to hitch themselves to the corporation’s broader advertising budget. In addition to any print ads or in-store materials promoting Rock ‘n’ Roll City, the two would feature in ads for a broad swath of the chain’s bread-and-butter products, essentially doubling as Radio Shack pitchmen. Customers looking for a new digital receiver, for example, might find a smiling Torrence and Love – in Hawaiian shirt and “Radio Shack” baseball cap, respectively – singing the praises of a particular model. Over the eleven months of their partnership with the store, the pair would appear in millions of Radio Shack brochures and catalogs.

Love broke it down in an April 1983 article in Orange Coast magazine. (Torrence appears to have done most of the promotion for the album, but Love emerged at least for this one interview.) “Radio Shack is co-oping advertising,” he said. “I mean, the budget on a cassette at $4.95 is a few cents a cassette. But the advertising budget on a $300 receiver or component or whatever they are going to sell is many, many dollars, and our pictures will be on all of that.”

To promote the release further, Love and Torrence with the Endless Summer Beach Band embarked on another “Spring Break” minitour, once again sponsored by Budweiser. The trek took them from Padre Island to Daytona Beach and back to the Gulf Coast, playing to a new generation of college students with songs like “I Get Around,” Dead Man’s Curve,” “In My Room” and “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll City doesn’t seem to have set the world on fire commercially. Sales figures for the cassette aren’t readily available and, in an August 1983 article in the Courier Post of South Jersey, Torrence coyly explained it was too early to say how well it was selling. In any event, the cassette would be only the first in a series of releases from Love and Torrence and others in the Rock ‘n’ Roll City camp. I’ll return to these in a future post.

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