WHAT IS SURF MUSIC?
The 1960s saw several important changes in popular music, especially rock.
In the early 60s, rock spawned several subgenres, beginning with surf. Surf was an instrumental guitar genre characterized by a distorted sound, associated with the Southern California surfing youth culture. Inspired by the lyrical focus of surf, The Beach Boys began recording in 1961 with an elaborate, pop-friendly and harmonic sound. As their fame grew, The Beach Boys’ songwriter Brian Wilson experimented with new studio techniques and became associated with the counterculture. The counterculture was a movement that embraced political activism, and was closely connected to the hippie subculture. The hippies were associated with folk rock, country folk rock, country rock, and psychedelic rock. Folk and country rock were associated with the rise of politicized folk music, led by Pete Seeger and others, especially at the Greenwich Village music scene in New York. Folk rock entered the mainstream in the middle of the 1960s, when the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan began his career. All Music Editor Stephen Thomas Erewine attributes The Beatles’ shift toward introspective songwriting in the mid-1960s to Bob Dylan’s influence at the time. He was followed by a number of country-rock bands and soft, folksy singer-songwriters. Psychedelic rock was a hard-driving kind of guitar-based rock, closely associated with the city of San Francisco. Though Jefferson Airplane was the only local band to have a major national hit, the Grateful Dead, a country and bluegrass-flavored jam band, became an iconic part of the psychedelic counterculture, associated with hippies, LSD and other symbols of that era. Some say that the Grateful Dead were truly the most American patriotic rock band to have ever existed; forming and molding a culture that defines Americans today.
Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture, particularly as found in Orange County and other areas of Southern California. It was especially popular from 1961 to 1966, has subsequently been revived and was highly influential on subsequent rock music. It has two major forms: largely instrumental surf rock, with an electronic guitar or saxophone playing the main melody, largely pioneered by the Del-Tones, and vocal surf pop, including both surf ballads and dance music, often with strong harmonies that are most associated with the Beach Boys. The surf music sound was dominated by electric guitars played through spring reverb and using the vibrato arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward. Surf music was one of the early adopters of the electric bass. Surf music often used an electric organ or an electronic piano featured as backing harmony.
Many notable surf bands have been equally noted for both surf instrumental and surf pop music, so surf music is generally considered as a single genre despite the variety of these styles. During the later stages of the surf music craze, many groups started to leave surfing behind and write songs about cars and girls; this was later known as hot rod rock. Surf music is often referred to as simply surf rock, even though the genre has many forms.
Surf music began in the early 1960s as instrumental dance music, almost always in straight 4/4 time, with a medium to fast tempo. The sound was dominated by electric guitars which were particularly characterized by the extensive use of the “wet” spring reverb that was incorporated into Fender amplifiers from 1961, which is thought to emulate the sound of the waves. Guitarists also made use of the vibrato arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward, electronic tremolo effects and rapid (alternating) tremolo picking. Guitar models favored included those made by Fender, Mosrite, Teisco, or Danelectro, usually with single coil pickups. Surf music was one of the first genres to universally adopt the electric bass, particularly the Fender Precision Bass. Classic surf drum kits tended to be Rogers, Ludwig, Gretsch or Slingerland. Some popular songs also incorporated a tenor or baritone saxophone, as on “Surf Rider” and “Comanche”.
Rock and Roll had been pioneered successfully by performers such as Link Wray, The Ventures and Duane Eddy. This trend was developed by Dick Dale, who added Middle Eastern and Mexican influences, the distinctive reverb (giving the guitar a “wet” sound), and the rapid alternate picking characteristic of the genre (influenced by Arabic music, which Dale learned from his Lebanese uncle). His performances at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Ca during the summer of 1961, and his regional hit “Let’s Go Trippin” later that year launched the surf music craze, which he followed up with hits like “Misirloui” (1962).
Like Dale and his Del-Tones, most early surf bands were formed in Southern California, with Orange County in particular having a strong surf culture, and the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa hosted many surf-styled acts. Groups such as The Bel-Airs (whose hit “Mr. Moto”, influenced by Dale’s earlier live performances, was released slightly before “Let’s Go Trippin'”), The Challengers (with their album Surf beat) and then Eddie & the Showmen followed Dale to regional success. In late 1961, the Beach Boys had their first chart hit, “Surfin”, which managed to reach number 75 on the Hot 100. In mid-1962, the group released their major-label debut, “Surfin’ Safari”. The song hit number 14 and helped launch the surf rock craze into a national phenomenon.
The Chantays scored a top ten national hit with “Pipeline”, reaching number 4 in May 1963. Probably the single-most famous surf tune hit was “Wipe Out” with its intro of a wicked laugh by the Surfaris, the Surfaris were also known for their cutting-edge lead guitar and drum solos, and Wipe Out reached number two on the Hot 100 in August 1963 and number 16 in October 1966. The group also had two other global hits, “Surfer Joe” and “Point Panic”. In March 1963, the Beach Boys released one of the best-known surf rock songs, “Surfin’ U.S.A. “, which incorporated surf lyrics and the melody from Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen “.
The growing popularity of the genre led groups from other areas to try their hand. These included The Astronauts, from Boulder, Colorado; The Trash men, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who reached number 4 with “Surfin Bird” in 1964; and The Rivieras from South Bend, Indiana, who reached number 5 in 1964 with “California Sun”. The Atlantics, from Sydney, Australia, were not exclusively surf musicians, but made a significant contribution to the genre, the most famous example with being their hit “Bombora” (1963). Also from Sydney were The Denvermen, whose lyrical instrumental “Surfside” reached number 1 in the Australian charts. Another Australian surf band who were known outside their own country’s surf scene was The Joy Boys, backing band for singer Col Joye; their hit “Murphy the Surfie” (1963) was later covered by the Surfaris.
Around this time European bands focused more on the style played by the Shadows. A notable example of European surf instrumental is Spanish band Los Relampagos’ rendition of “Misirlou”. The Dakotas, who were the British backing band for Mersey beat singer Billy J. Kramer gained some attention as surf musicians with “Cruel Sea” (1963), which was later covered by The Ventures and eventually other instrumental surf bands, including the Challengers and the Revelairs.
Although it began as a purely instrumental form, surf music achieved its greatest commercial success as vocal music. Most associated with this movement were the Beach Boys, formed in 1961 in Southern California. Their early albums included both instrumental surf rock, including covers of music by Dick Dale, and vocal songs, drawing on rock and roll and doo wop and the close harmonies of vocal pop acts like the Four Freshmen. Other vocal surf acts followed, including one-hit wonders like Bruce and Terry with “Summer Means Fun”, The Rivieras with “California Sun”, Ronny & the Daytonas with “G.T.O.”, and the Rip Chords with “Hey Little Cobra”, all from early 1964. The latter two hits both reached the top ten, but the only other act to achieve sustained success with the formula were Jan & Dean, who had a number 1 hit with “Surf City” (co-written with Brian Wilson) in 1963.
Hot rod rock is a form of surf music that incorporates instrumental surf rock with car noises (revving engines and screeching tires). From 1963, the Beach Boys began to leave surfing behind as subject matter as Brian Wilson became their major composer and producer, moving on to the more general themes of male adolescence, including cars and girls, in songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” (1964) and “Little Deuce Coupe” (1963). “Little Deuce Coupe” has been cited as one of the earliest forms of hard rock with its series of buzzing beats. Hot rod group the Fantastic Baggys wrote many songs for Jan and Dean, but also did a few vocals for the duo.
The surf music craze, with the careers of almost all surf acts, was effectively ended by the British Invasion beginning ca. 1964. The emerging garage rock, folk rock, blues rock and later psychedelic rock genres also contributed to the decline of surf rock. Only the Beach Boys were able to sustain popularity after attempting to move away from their initial surf image beginning in late 1964, producing a string of hit singles and albums, including the sharply divergent Pet Sounds (1966). Subsequently, they became the only American rock or pop group that could arguably rival the Beatles, and would not record another hot rod or surfing-themed song until 1968’s “Do It Again” and 1976’s “.
The use of instrumental surf rock style guitar for the soundtrack of Dr. No (1962), recorded by Vic Flick with the John Barry Seven, meant that it was reused in many of the films in the James Bond series, and influenced the music of many spy films of the 1960s. Surf music also influenced a number of later rock musicians, including Keith Moon of The Who, East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys, and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago. During the mid-to late 1990s, surf rock experienced a revival with surf acts, including Dick Dale recording once more, partly due to the popularity of the movie Pulp Fiction (1994), which used Dale’s “Misirlou” and other surf rock songs in the soundtrack. New surf bands were formed, including Man or Astro-man?, The Mermen, Los Straitjackets and The New Electric Sound. In the 1980s, skateboard punk band JFA combined the Dead Kennedys’ “Police Truck” with the Chantays’ “Pipeline” to create the revved-up surf/skate homage “Pipe Truck.” In 2012, Orchestra Nova San Diego premiered “Surf”, a symphonic homage to surf music, the ocean and surfing, by classical composer Joseph Waters.
It is interesting to note that the Beach Boys are still going strong today, bringing their form of Surfing music to a new generation while retaining a longtime fan base.