What Is Surf
Part I: Historical Perspective
the 50s, during rock's infancy, rock was a dance / pop love song oriented genre. A generic
song was a two-to-three minute AABA number with a sax carrying The B part. This was despite
the progenitors Bo Diddley & Chuck Berry's focus on the guitar. The Texas
swing mongers like Bill Haley defined the mainstream sound. Rock instrumental music in the
mainstream arena was likewise was sax based. There were a few notable exceptions, of course.
The exceptions to this tended to be the early Rockabilly artists, who did not use a sax very
often, substituting guitar for the B parts.
Link Wray probably understood sustain and ominous tones better than anyone. He used Bo
Diddley's trick of slitting the speaker cones with his pocket knife to get a ragged-edged
distortion. He wrote for the guitar, and created that all too familiar growl we've all grown
to love. His tunes were simple, and relied on minor changes to hold interest, like The gradual
increase in vibrato toward the end of Jack The Ripper. Link didn't use a sax, but rather
arranged all parts for guitar.
Duane Eddy's basic string-of-single-notes
melodies focused on the guitar in a voice developed mostly by Al Casey. Duane reversed
the standard rock AABA (GGSG) arrangement, using his lead guitar in the A parts, with Steve
Douglas' sax lines relegated to the B parts.
The Fireballs were a 2 guitar-bass-drums unit recorded by the legendary Norman Petty at
his Clovis, New Mexico studio. Their carefully balanced lead-rhythm interplay would clear the
way for many to follow, most notably Paul Johnson's Belairs.
The Gamblers were a studio amalgam of Derry Weaver, Sandy Nelson, Leon
Russell, and other LA studio musos who issued an influential single called Moondawg c/w LSD
25. Moondawg was re-recorded a million times over the years, even by Paul Revere & The
Raiders, attesting to it's power.
The Ventures also paved the highway with a 2 guitar-bass-drums lineup. Their versions
of other peoples songs & hits were a staple in the surf band diet, not as a part of the
genre, but as a foundation. During their "surf" period, they did not even play the
musically correct instruments for the surf sound, still using their Mosrite guitars
and reverbs. The shallowness of their surf stuff is due in part to this omission of authenticity,
and to their generally laid back playing style. They contributed accidentally after Nokie
Edwards joined with several strong tunes like Sputnik which became Surf Rider when
the Lively Ones covered it, and later with the surf-arranged Diamond Head, filtered
through their "me too" surf approach.
Link Wray, Duane
Eddy, Derry Weaver, Nokie Edwards, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, And Fireball
George Tomsco were early models for many a surf guitar player.
There were some startlingly wonderful guitar dominated releases coming out of normally sax
or keyboard based bands.
Johnny & The Hurricanes used cheap organ or sax leads mostly (Johnny Paris was
the sax player & leader), but on wonderful occasions focused more on Dave Yorko's
grand guitar lines, such as in the magnificent Sheba or Sandstorm. The sense
of melody rather than simple progressions was really well developed here.
Jody Reynolds' stuff was strongly guitar oriented.
His band The Storms were very good on their own. Their instrumental Thunder was
an Al Casey - Duane Eddy styled instro commonly credited as an inspiration by early
The rockabilly and garage band source bed was loaded with riff oriented guitar indie singles.
Thousands of them issued between 1956 and 1960. Most were just progressions with nowhere to
go, but some notable exceptions were brilliant. Typhoid by the Northern Lights,
a 1960 staccato double picked rant later reissued as Bust Out by the Busters to
capitalize on the surf sound, could arguably be the first surf styled tune recorded, much closer
to the eventual defined genre than Dick Dale's Let's Go Trippin' or the Belairs' Mr.
Moto, and a year earlier in release. It's main shortfall is its lack of reverb and a surf
title, but, neither Let's Go Trippin' or Mr. Moto had reverb or a surf title
for that matter. Ghost Train by the Millionaires is another really cool instro.
The Frogmen's Underwater also falls into this pre-surf instrumental bag that
often gets confused with The genre. It was, after all, pre-Belairs & Dick Dale.
Surf Music Invented Paul Johnson and Eddie Bertrand met in 1960 on the
school bus in their childhood Southern California community. After discovering a mutual interest
in instrumentals and guitars, they formed what would be The nucleus the Belairs. They
idolized the Storms, Duane Eddy, Link Wray, The Fireballs, The Ventures, and Johnny & The
Hurricanes. They soon had a band with Richard Delvy on drums, Chas Stuart on
sax, and Jim Roberts on piano sometimes. In May of 1961, They recorded Mr.
Moto, a mutual composition of Paul Johnson and Richard Delvy, along with
several other tunes. They hawked them around LA until Arvee Records agreed to
release a single that summer. Paul also wrote many surf classics like Squad Car, Scouse,
and Chifflado. Paul's sound became known as the South Bay Sound, spawning and
inspiring many other bands in the region like the Challengers & Thom Starr & The
Dick Dale idolized Hank Williams and that sad country music. He was a left handed
player with a right handed guitar, upside down without re-stringing. He played at local country
bars where he met 400 pound DJ T. Texas Tiny, who dubbed him Dick Dale, a good
name for a country singer. Art Laboe booked him with Johnny Otis and Sonny
Knight at the El Monte Legion Stadium. His first releases were on his father's Deltone label,
and were all vocal pop songs. In early '61, Dick & his cousin & future Del-Tone Ray
Samra sat in with Nick O'Malley, who played folk songs at The Rinky Dink coffee
house in Balboa. Future Del-Tone Billy Barber came
by and jammed too. Dick's style was still very country, but the surf kids liked him. Nick showed
Dick how to set tone switch in between positions, which gave him an element of his big sound.
Dick opened Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa on July 1st, 1961 to a handful of surfers. Leo
Fender used Dick as a test player because of his harsh playing style. Dick blew up 40 Showman amps
before the bugs were worked out. Leo also developed The JBL Speaker because of Dick's
playing those 60 gage E strings in that staccato style. Let's Go Trippin' was written
because some kid said something like "why do you do only vocals, can you play any instrumentals?" Dick
set at the time was mostly rhythm & blues standards (Buster Brown, Bo Diddley,
etc.). Let's Go Trippin' went unnamed for some weeks until he said to his audience that
he didn't know what to call it, and they yelled back "Let's Go Trippin'" (shut up & play,
we wanna dance - ed.). It was recorded in August 1961, but then re-cut for release in September
1961 on Deltone 5017 Let's Go Trippin' c/w Deltone Rock (both primarily rockabilly
instrumentals), followed by Deltone 5018 Jungle Fever c/W Shake & Stomp in
March '62. In April of 1962,
he released Surfers Choice from live tapes made by his father at the Rendezvous. Dick's
sound would become known as the Orange County Sound. Jungle Fever was the music
bed for Bo Diddley's Hush Your Mouth. Dick even left some of the lyrics in on
the album when he called it Surfin' Drums. It is unfortunate that Dick still takes writing
credit for this song.
In the beginning, surf music was not about surfing, it was simply the adoption by surfers of
instrumentals. Anything instrumental was surf music in their minds. That may or may not give
surfers the right to redefine it at their convenience. More about that later. The definition
narrowed quickly to include only the Orange County Sound and the South Bay Sound,
and in hindsight, primarily the Orange County Sound.
Very quickly, it became apparent that the best players & writers were not surfers, many
not living anywhere near a coast. Thom Starr's remembrance is that Dick Dale was barely able
to get up for the photo on the cover of Surfer's Choice, and the shot on the cover of King
Of The Surf Guitar is rumored to be in a pool. Surf Music became a sound, and
appealed to non-surfers more than surfers. The only exception to this was Southern California
and Hawaii, but even there, though many of the surfers won't think so, the best stuff often
came from the non-surfers. Bands like Eddie & The Showmen, The Trashmen, The Surfaris,
The Original Surfaris, The Belairs, The Sentinals, and the Astronauts were all primarily
non-surfing bands playing and creating killer surf instrumental music loved by millions of
non-surfing fans. Hell, the Astronauts were from Boulder Colorado, and the Trashmen were
from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Royal Flairs were from Council Bluffs,
The spoiler came with the Beach Boys, and the
entire mass market pop vocal thing they spawned. Doo-Wop styled syrupy harmonized songs
with sappy lyrics about surfing bearing little or no resemblance instrumentally to actual surf
music. This was mostly what the national scene heard and came to know as surf music. It is
more correctly labeled California Sound or Surf Pop. This was both an embarrassment
to the genre, as well as the very reason that the British Invasion could so easily kill
Had the BB's 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, and even against the pop sensibilities of the Beatles & their ilk. Among
the reasons I believe this to be true is the number of surf guitarist that evolved into really
gutsy garage punk & psychedelic players later, like the incredible Randy Holden and Dave
Myers, and the fact that the only band the Rolling Stones ever had to be subservient
to on the bill in the U. S. was Minneapolis surf legends the Trashmen!
With an average genre lasting 8 to 10 years, 2 to be born, another couple to coalesce, 2 for
adolescence and break out of the narrowness of the birth channel definition, and then 4 or
5 to explode multi-directionally until new seeds are sown and other new genre are born. This
familiar pattern is ever-present in music. Surf was cut down in it's infancy by its own childish
sappy vocals and the raw edge of the British Invasion.
The Surf Revival of the 80s (actually started in 79) was primarily a nostalgia thing,
with some updating via 80s energy. It wasn't until the last couple of years that bands started
challenging the limits, some successfully, some not. On the verge of its experimental explosion,
the envelope is being pushed to its limits by artists like the Mermen who have evolved
steadily over 5 or 6 years from raging covers of surf classics and obscuros to a heady blend
of surf & Hawkwind influenced space to incredibly artful image evoking works.