The lyrics are basically a guide to good surf locations, but the "Surfin' U.S.A." music was based on Chuck Berry's 1958 hit "Sweet Little Sixteen." The Beach Boys did it as a tribute to Berry, but didn't get his permission first - maybe because Berry was in jail for transporting a minor across state lines. When Berry threatened to sue, The Beach Boys agreed to give him most of the royalties and list him as the song's composer. The song also helped build Berry's legend while he served his time.
David Marks, who was a guitarist in The Beach Boys from 1961-1963, explains on the DVD Brian Wilson Songwriter 1962 - 1969, that he and Carl Wilson would play guitars every day after school, and one day Carl brought home the album Chuck Berry Is On Top. They loved the album and introduced Berry's sound to Brian Wilson, who loved the rhythm parts and put together "Surfin' U.S.A." based on that sound. Brian changed the lyrics and added a hook, but it is basically a rewrite of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen."
Many of the early Beach Boys' songs were about surfing. Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed, but surfing was a very popular at the time, especially with teenagers who bought records. For The Beach Boys, the surfing subculture gave them an opportunity to write songs about adventure and fun while exploring vocal harmonies and new production techniques. And while the majority of Americans didn't surf, the songs represented California, which was considered new and modern and a great place to be. Surfing, and California by extension, became more about a state of mind.
This is a very early Beach Boys song, following up their first hit "Surfin' Safari." Brian Wilson was gaining confidence as a producer, and this song marks the emergence of what would become the Beach Boys signature sound over the next few years. Wilson got the most of 1963 studio technology, and managed to create a sound with bright guitars and sophisticated background vocals - something he accomplished with double-tracking. Brian also used his falsetto vocals in the chorus to offset Mike Love's lead.
Carl Wilson came up with the guitar intro, which is reminiscent of Duane Eddy's "Moving and Grooving." Wilson explained: "On 'Surfin' U.S.A.,' Brian wanted an opening lick and I just did this Duane Eddy riff. I was worried that it had been on another record, but what the hell. That was the first time we were aware we could make a really powerful record. For the first time, we thought the group sounded good enough to be played with anything on the radio."
Leif Garrett, who was not a surfer, but a skateboarder, recorded this in 1977 and took it to #20 in the US. Garrett was a teen idol who acted in some popular movies in the '60s and '70s, including Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but got hooked on drugs and fought a heroin addiction. In 2006, after one of his arrests for heroin possession, Garrett's mother told the New York Daily News that rock stars like The Rolling Stones were a bad influence on him and led him to drugs.
Guitarist David Marks played guitar on the Beach Boys first five albums. He recalled to I Like Music laying down this track: "The energy on the Surfin' USA session was very upbeat and happy. That's where that chemistry thing kicks in again… there was a certain energy on that track that was a one-of-a-kind happening. It wasn't perfect in a technical sense, but the vibe was something special that had a lasting effect."
Comedic Canadian rock band Jason performed a spoof of this called "Bowlin' USA". The band's lead singer was Steve Smith, who later achieved fame and fortune playing his character Red Green on the cult Canadian comedy series The Red Green Show.