Monday, September 28, 2009

Banzai Washout!

Phil Dirt of Felton, CA defines surf-rock quite succinctly as "rhythm guitar locked into the lead single-note staccato synched with the bass and drums -- a solid bed for fiery leads."

It is claimed, among those who think about these things, that Dick Dale and the Deltones' "Let's Go Trippin," 1961, was the first surf rock single. Whatever is thought to be a first in the arts has always been preceeded by others which had the bad luck to go unnoticed and be mostly forgotten (Elvira, Jimi Hendrix, The DaVinci Code -- all were successful copies). The Tornadoes' "Bustin' Surfboards," the Belairs' "Mr. Moto," the Fireballs' "Bulldog," the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" and The Gamblers' "Moon Dawg" in 1960 - 61 were actually first, but -- except for the Ventures -- who remembers them? No disrespect to Mr. Dale (born Richard Monsour), who is not only a leader in electric music innovation, but is a great guy and one heck of a survivor (kicking Death in the rear no less than three times). The "King of the Surf Guitar"'s wonder years were confined to the brief reign of the surf genre from 1961 - 1964, but he has 15 albums to his credit and tours the West Coast to this day. He even played his inimitable version of part of Saint-Saen's "Carnival of the Animals" for the musical background of the Space Mountain rollercoaster at Disneyland.

Along with Les Paul, Sam Phillips and Leo Fender (and not-so-famous Sister Rosetta Tharp), Dick Dale is a foundation builder in electric music. One of the few real surfers in the genre, he wanted to reproduce what he called the "wet sound" that he heard while under the curl, but the weak equipment of the time couldn't cut it. He was known to grind down a pick in just one song, and used very heavy strings (16 - 58w!), which he broke anyway. This left-handed shredder, with his ever-present reverb unit, worked with Fender to produce the first 100 watt amp, the Single Showman, with a 15" JBL D130 speaker. Maybe now he wouldn't blow them up regularly!

And his signature gold Strat is as iconic as Elvis' gold lame' suit.

Just as E was a transformer, making a new and irresistable weave from diverse musical threads, Dick D brought together country twang (The early Elvis "Mystery Train" has elements presaging surf, for example), rockabilly, the sounds in his head, and Middle Eastern/Eastern European themes welded to a propulsive beat. With a Lebanese father, a Polish mother, and an uncle who played oud in belly-dance music in his background, his knowledge of non-Western scales, and a Greek/oriental melody, he came up with his version of "Miserlou," a unique instrumental which went on to be used as the theme for Pulp Fiction years later.

Despite its brief lifetime in mass popularity (other rock/pop genres were blown away by the British Invasion of 1964 too), surf-rock has a lineage of vibrant and enduring sources, and has contributed back mightily to West Coast jazz, Latin jazz, space music and psychedelia. It was self-limiting in its small but stunning stock of ideas, demographic, and instrumental-only orientation (Eliminators rhythm guitarist Preston Wilson said, "Leo Fender's the lead singer"). Where would The Dead, Phish and Eddie van Halen be without it?

They're not just golden oldies -- the Chantay's "Pipeline," the Surfaris' drummers standard "Wipeout," or the many Roger "Hot Dog" Christian compositions performed by Jan and Dean or the Beach Boys -- they're crystal-clear moments in that creative collision of ethnic musical traditions and individual genius that also birthed the blues, jazz, fusion and singer-songwriters. Righteous.

Odd bits:

"Wipeout" was a B-side to "Surfer Joe" made up on the spot in the studio, and the Surfaris never got royalties.

The "surfer's stomp" dance just evolved from people chanting and stomping at Dick Dale's shows. Thus , a 1963 group adopted the name The Surf Stompers.

Dale's band, the Del-Tones, was named after his father's record label.

Link Wray and the Raymen should be noted for their style based on minimalism and sustain. And their cool name.
The old dude above is not a surf rock legend, but he plays one on

1960's instrumental single, "Moon Dawg," by Hollywood studio players (including premiere surf drummer Sandy Nelson and future Canned Heat bassist Larry "the Mole" Taylor) calling themselves The Gamblers, not only can lay claim to be one of the very first in the genre, but had a B side tagged "LSD 25." Surf's not only an important element of later psychedelic music, but had the very first drug reference in a song title!

A revival started in 1988, with many groups in the SF Bay area (NoCal) active today. Some of the notables are The Insect Surfers, The Mermen, The Woodies and Buzzy Frets & the Surfabilly Orchestra. No gremmies or hodaddies!


  1. And "Wipeout" was a forgotten flip side, recorded by Frank Zappa. Who knew??
    Trade in the long pants for a pair of Jams.
    Cowabunga dude.

  2. Who's that lounge lizard in the photo?