This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
“Sliding a wave removes our brains out of the ordinary and slips us into the extra ordinary of being there now. No more worries about mortgages or strife of being poor or rich. When you enter the domain of an ocean cylinder, that moment, those split seconds belong to the Zen part of just being. Period.”
— Bill Hamilton, Surfer
Life is all waves: push and pull, highs and lows, tension and release. What’s new becomes old and then new again. What appears ominous in the distance can dissipate harmlessly in front of us just as easily as the unseen can crash violently over our heads without warning.
Surfers figured this out before the rest of us. They dance inside the eye of the hurricane, finding a rhythm in the waves, a freedom and harmony in the endless roar around them.
It was guitarist Dick Dale (one of the few surf musicians who actually surfed) who first tried to recreate this feeling sonically, later calling it “surf music”. It may have been a loose interpretation, but it worked: So-Cal surfers adopted the sound as their own, and the rest of the world was soon to follow.
In 1961, Southern California seemed like the center of the universe, and surf music rode high on that wave. It peaked in 1963, cresting on white frothy tips before crashing back into darkness the next year. Where did the wave come from? Where did it go? And would it ever rise up again?
It’s easy to connect the dots from 1950s rockabilly and rhythm & blues instrumentals to the origins of surf music. Undertones of Duane Eddy’s deep twang, the raucous grit of Link Wray and Chuck Berry’s blues boogie can each be found in any random sampling of early 60s surf tunes.
Legendary surf DJ Phil Dirt explains that in the early to mid 50s, “a basic song was a two-to-three minute AABA number, with a saxophone carrying the B part.” Bill Haley and His Comets set the standard here, until some rockabilly artists began substituting guitar for sax, and eventually, “Duane (Eddy) reversed the standard AABA (GGSG) arrangement, using his lead guitar in the A parts, with Steve Douglas’ sax lines relegated to the B parts.”
A guitar could now be the lead “voice” in a song, often replacing vocals altogether. Early surf pioneers like The Storms, The Northern Lights, and Johnny & The Hurricanes used variations on this approach, but few were as memorable as guitarist Link Wray.
Wray pulled a trick from Bo Diddley’s playbook by slitting speaker cones with a knife to get a raw distortion sound that matched his raw aggression on the instrument. Listen to a tune like “Jack the Ripper” blind, and it could easily pass as a surf tune. All that’s missing are the context of California waves and sun and a few technological advancements. Who knew that an East-coaster would help provide both?
THE KING OF THE SURF GUITAR
“I remember making the trek to the Rendezvous in the summer of ’61 to see what all the fuss was about over Dick Dale. It was a powerful experience; his music was incredibly dynamic, louder and more sophisticated than The Bel-Airs, and the energy between The Del-Tones and all of those surfers stomping on the hardwood floor in their sandals was extremely intense. The tone of Dale’s guitar was bigger than any I had ever heard, and his blazing technique was something to behold.”
-Paul Johnson, guitarist of The Bel-Airs
Dick Dale was born Richard Anthony Monsour, to a Lebanese-American family, in Boston, Massachusetts – hardly a match for the blond-haired, blue-eyed California beach bums his music would come to represent. But if Dale didn’t invent the genre outright, he was certainly its most aggressive innovator and is still its greatest ambassador.
In 1954, a 17-year old Dale and his family moved to Orange County, California. Dale rented a guitar from a high school classmate weekly for some pocket change, hoping to mimic his idle Hank Williams. But despite his country leanings (DJ T. Texas Tiny even gave him the name “Dick Dale” because he thought it would be a good country singer’s name), Dale credits much of his singular playing style to his early exposure to Middle-Eastern music and instruments:
“My uncle taught me how to play the tarabaki, and I watched him play the oud. We used to play at the Maharjan (a Lebanese nightspot in Boston) while my relatives belly-danced. It’s the pulsation…that drumming beat I learned by playing the tarabaki.”
His style evolved from both nature and nurture. Dale wanted to combine the feeling of freedom and pulse-pounding action he got while surfing with friends under the California sun with those Middle-Eastern influences from his uncle, and incorporated non-Western scales and traditional tarabaki rhythms into his playing. His most ubiquitous hit, “Misirlou”, is a traditional belly-dancing song. He added it to his repertoire on a challenge from a young fan who asked if he could play a song all on one string like an oudist.
Fellow surfers bestowed the nickname “King of the Surf Guitar” upon Dale, and hundreds of them flocked to the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa to see him and his “Del-tones” during their two-year residency from 1959 – 1961 shattering attendance records for the venue. But the volume and visceral power Dale brought wouldn’t have been possible without a few literal technological trials by fire.
49 AMPS LATER
“Leo [Fender] and Freddie [Tavares]… never gave up as I blew up and destroyed countless amplifiers and speakers… Leo would always say to Freddie, ‘If it can withstand Dick Dale’s barrage of punishment, it is ready for human consumption.’ It was fun.”
– Dick Dale
It’s said that the first meeting between Dick Dale and guitar-maker Leo Fender was punctuated by Fender’s laughter as Dale took the standard right-handed guitar Fender handed him, flipped it the wrong way around, and began playing it seamlessly upside down and backwards, which was Dale’s normal style. It was the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship: Fender continually giving Dale guitars and amps, asking him to “beat them to death”, and Dale happily obliging in hopes that they would ‘fail forward’ into better equipment and ultimately, a better sound.
By Dale’s account, he blew up 49 different speakers, some of them catching on fire, before Fender and right-hand man Freddy Tavares caught a concert of Dale’s at the Rendezvous in front of thousands of screaming fans, and finally understood not only Dale’s want, but his need to play at punishing volumes.
Fender and Tavares designed a special 85-watt output transformer that peaked at 100 watts when Dale would pump up the volume of his amp. They went to the JBL speaker company, and they explained that they wanted a fifteen-inch speaker built to their specifications. That speaker would soon be known as the 15” JBL -D130 speaker, and it would be at the heart of the revolutionary Fender Showman Amp, the first amp that could truly handle the ‘Dick Dale Sound’. A few more iterations would follow, as together, Dale, Tavares, and Fender brought amplification to previously unknown levels.
But they weren’t through with their contributions to music history: In 1962, Fender introduced the outboard Fender Reverb unit, designed for use on vocals. Dale, of course immediately put one on his guitar, creating a sound that would become the standard for surf records, as Bel-Airs guitarist Paul Johnson recalls:
“…Lots of lead guitars took on the big, hollow, tubular tone of the reverb. The Fender reverb gave the guitar a slippery, ‘wet’ sort of tone, which naturally served to solidify the music’s identification as ‘the sound of surfing.’ Some of the most memorable surf sounds were literally drenched in reverb.”
IN THE PIPELINE
It was in 1961 that the idea of “surf music” began to take hold and artists like Dale began pro-actively referring to their music as such. (Dale’s 1962 album “Surfer’s Choice” features a picture of him surfing on the cover.) Dale all but dropped vocals from his songs, and one of his first without, 1961’s “Let’s Go Trippin’”, is considered one of the first true surf songs.
He also had company at sea. At roughly the same time that Dale released “Let’s Go Trippin’”, the Bel-Airs were pioneering the “South Bay Sound”, a style more nuanced and melodic than Dale’s, with their hit “Mr. Moto”. Surf bands began popping up all over the country –even in land-locked regions – with hits of their own, and a now standard arsenal of Fender guitars, Showman amps, and spring reverb units.
By 1963, popular music was riddled with legitimate surf hits by the likes of the Chantays (“Pipeline”), The Ventures (“Walk, Don’t Run”), The Pyramids (“Pentetration”), The Surfaris (“Wipe Out”), The Bel-Airs (“Mr. Moto”), and of course a host from Dale.
Surf had also branched into pop territory, and vocal groups like The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean became top-sellers in their own right by adding lyrical content related to surfing. Some, however, would cite these crossovers as the beginning of the end of true surf music.
“…then you’ll never hear surf music again.”
– Jimi Hendrix, “3rd Stone From the Sun”
When examining the causes behind the early death of surf music, it isn’t a smoking gun we find, so much as a whole firing squad.
It seems unlikely to think that a genre in its prime in 1963 would be all but gone just two short years later, but just ask a hair-metal musician at the dawn of the 90s. Much as the grumbling rawness of grunge obliterated the glitzed-out hedonism of hair-metal’s place on the charts, almost thirty years earlier, surf music was being silenced by the likes of the Beatles, The Kinks, and Rolling Stones.
DJ Phil Dirt believes the soft-edged cannibalization of surf by The Beach Boys and their ilk also contributed to its downfall:
“Had the Beach Boys not softened the genre with the vocal thing, or had they provided the raw Midwest vocal approach, the raw power of surf music would have been able to hold its own against the roughness of the British R & B of the formative Rolling Stones, Animals & Pretty Things…Among the reasons I believe this to be true is the number of surf guitarists that evolved intro really gutsy garage punk and psychedelic players later…”
Finally, there was the U.S.’s escalating involvement in the Vietnam War, with troop totals tripling in 1961 and tripling again in 1962, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 – events that signaled the death of whatever utopian innocence was left from the 50s.
The times they were a changin’, and surf’s own hedonism of girls, cars, waves, and sun, seemed out of place. The Stones and harder-edged R&B acts from the UK could handle that message better, as could the socially-conscious rock and folk that was gaining steam in US.
The Surf wave had finally crashed. Even the King, Dick Dale, went dark and ceased putting out original music after 1964. He would not re-enter the mainstream zeitgeist till some 30 years later.
A Return or just Fiction?
For a few ardent supporters and practitioners, surf music will never die. Bands like San Francisco’s The Mermen and Alabama’s Man or Astro-man? represent surf’s last hope of further innovation, while acts like The Ventures and Dale still tour on the strength of hits they had over 50 years ago. But as we’ve detailed in Scientist before, the days of popular instrumental music are long over, and surf music is not likely to ever regain the prominence it once had.
Its best and most-recent flirtation with mainstream culture came in the form of the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s landmark 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The explosion of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” over the opening credits after Amanda Plummer’s profanity-ridden tirade has become one of the most memorable opening scenes in recent film history. Although he returned to record making and won a Grammy in 1986, it was this moment that single-handedly relaunched Dale’s career in earnest. An entirely new generation of fans were introduced to his music, along with groups like The Lively Ones (“Surf Rider”), The Tornadoes (“Bustin’ Surfboards”), The Marketts (“Out of Limits”), and even a little Link Wray for good measure (“Rumble”).
But despite Pulp Fiction’s massive popularity and influence, it never did birth any hackneyed surf music revival. Instead, surf music’s modern legacy mirrors its beginnings, and the genre stands as a mild mutation of what came before it. Much like surf re-contextualized the twangy guitar lines of rockabilly, the New Wave (no pun intended?) of the 80s re-appropriated those same lines for synthesizers and kept some of the melodic sensibilities to boot. Meanwhile the Shoegaze of the late 80s and early 90s brought back the guitar lines and turned them up to deafening volumes that would make Mr. Dale smile.
More recently, surf music is infiltrating vocal-driven indie pop in ways that echo both its lo-fi beginnings and its sugary Jan & Dean days. Seattle bands like Seapony (on Sub Pop’s Hardly Art imprint) and VICE favorites Orca Team are unabashed surf-pop, infusing upbeat pop tunes with the fluid, reverb-drenched guitar lines of yesteryear. Brooklyn bands The Drums and Beach Fossils, along with California’s Craft Spells are surf via New Wave, their thin, reverb-heavy guitar-driven tunes occasionally augmented by a synth or an electronic rhythm.
Many of these musicians were in the middle of their adolescence, or just entering it, as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was revolutionizing film and reintroducing surf-music as an appropriate soundtrack to cooler-than-cool crime noir. But it would be dismissive to simply call Pulp Fiction the big bang of whatever hold surf music currently has on the modern popular consciousness.
It’s more likely that music– and culture – are bound by the same laws of nature as the surfer’s ocean. Genres comes in waves, rising in popularity, then receding in favor of what’s next. The link between surf music, New Wave, and the rising surf undertones in today’s indie-pop may not fit the timeline of a 20-Year cultural cycle perfectly, but it does fit the narrative.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the musicians of 2030 still scour the internet for Fender Reverb units and Showman amps, three-quarters of a century old, to put their guitars, virtual synths, and drum machines through. Nor would I even be surprised if Dick Dale (currently touring at age 75) still shreds “Misirlou” through them.