Surf Music

The Chantays "I got a '34 wagon and we call it a Woodie..."

A twangy, transcendent hybrid of rockabilly appeared in 1961. It would embrace instrumentalists and crooners, and would peak within two years. It would be gone within four.

Surf music began as an offshoot of the different blends of rock and roll being played in the mid-to-late 1950's. In most popular genre songs of the time, a saxophone provided the main sound, while the guitar was relegated to second place; this began to change as such show-stopping guitarists as Duane Eddy and Link Wray started to gain attention for themselves. Some bands, like the Ventures, had no saxophone at all, and instead adopted a dual-guitar sound. But while the Ventures took a more relaxed, parent-friendly approach to playing the guitar, younger garage bands around the country operated under no such restraint, and many of them began attacking their instruments in a more aggressive, staccato style.

Meanwhile the young musicians were continuing to listen to their Bo Diddley and other rhythm-and-blues records for inspiration. The Bel Airs from Southern California were still a sax-and-guitar band, but they had the right influences, including such lesser-known bands as the Fireballs and Johnny and the Hurricanes. In May of 1961 they recorded "Mr. Moto," which was released as a single. This is generally considered one of the first true surf tunes, and the beginning of the South Bay Sound. The music's connection to surfing began when well-known surfers such as Lance Carson of Malibu started to identify the music with the sub-culture beginning to surround the sport. But the music had not yet achieved a sound distinctive enough to strongly separate it from its roots.

Dick Dale was born Richard Anthony Mansour on May 4, 1937. As a youngster he saved up soda bottles to buy a ukelele (which he promptly destroyed) and soon graduated to the guitar. Not having a proper instructor around, however, Dale played the instrument upside-down, leaving the strings in the right-handed fashion (and not reversing them as later lefties like Jimi Hendrix would do). He played in various bars in Southern California, mostly country; a local deejay named Texas Tiny christened young Mansour with his new name as the guitarist was beginning to gain notoriety.

Dick Dale and his backup group the Del-Tones became the house band at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California, in late 1959, and as time passed the group's popularity grew and grew among the teenaged crowd until by autumn of 1961 literally hundreds of young people were filling the place to capacity and beyond. In January of 1962 the band moved to a larger venue, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and began to break house records at their new digs - despite the traditional winter dropoff in attendance. According to a later Capitol Records promotional piece, teenagers filled the auditorium to capacity, and those who couldn't get in danced in the lobbies and in the streets outside the hall. Dale at one time commanded 5 of the top 10 singles in California music charts; 21,000 fans arrived for a Los Angeles show that could only accommodate 15,000.

Dale was a surfer (though reportedly not often, nor very well), and it was sometime in the summer of '61 that he began to refer to his musical style as the 'surfing sound.' Dale's version of surf music was strongly distinctive from the Bel Airs' more conventional sound; for one thing (although this isn't true of all of his hits, notably "Let's Go Trippin'"), he depended strongly upon reverb, an effect for vocals and guitar that creates an echoy, reverberating 'wash' that often emulates the sound of well-designed concert halls. This, coupled with Dale's way of attacking the instrument and his use of Fender guitars with heavy-gauge strings, helped him to stand out even further. Dale also made use of simple volume - often blowing out amplifiers and allowing himself to be used by the Fender company to test new equipment.

The two strains of early surf actually had very little in common. Both the Bel Airs and the Del-Tones played melodic instrumentals; but the former tended to be a bit smoother, the latter a bit rougher. Even still, the Southern California surfing community adopted the new music as its theme, but - more importantly - kids around the country were beginning to link the musical style with the sun-worshipping sport. The link became strengthened when vocal groups started writing in the musical style, adding lyrics that made direct reference to sand, ocean, and tanned teenaged girls.

Brian Douglas Wilson (born June 20, 1942) was still attending Hawthorne High School when he formed a musical group with his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love, and school chum Al Jardine. Early a gifted musician and songwriter, Brian was heavily influenced by the smooth, interweaving vocals of the Four Freshmen, but also enjoyed more raucous music like that of Check Berry. The Wilson boys were prodded by their stern father Murry, also a musician, and formed a group called the Pendletons, after the popular Pendleton shirts fashionable at the time. Meeting with little success, Dennis (the only surfer in the group) suggested they ally themselves with the sun-worshiping youth-oriented surf culture sweeping through California, and the group soon became known as the Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys - along with Los Angeles duo Jan & Dean - provided surf music with a direct lyrical connection to the ocean sport. Surfing terms were used liberally, providing kids who didn't live anywhere near the shore to speak at least some of the lingo of the wave-riders they wanted to emulate. Songs like "Surf City" promised a wonderland of sun, fun, and carefree sex (what red-blooded young man could resist the siren call of 'two girls for every boy'?). Dreamy, luxurious ballads such as "Surfer Girl" gave countless teenagers an appropriate aural background for slow-dancing and heavy petting. At the same time, tangential themes began to be associated with the culture, most notably the near-worship of the automobile, souped-up or otherwise - an ideal far more readily available to youngsters in land-locked areas than the seashores denied them by simple geography.

Dozens of surf bands were formed around the country to celebrate the youth culture; most of them featured dual guitars (Fenders, of course, like their amps) with plenty of sweeping reverb on the lead. To get their sound out, many of them formed their own tiny (often one-disc) record labels, paying the then-inexpensive fees to record a couple of sides at a local studio, then selling the discs at shows to support their incomes. Previously non-surf tunes were re-titled to take advantage of the craze: the Ventures' "Sputnik" became "Surf Rider" when recorded by the Lively Ones; "Typhoid" by the Northern Lights became "Bust Out" by the Busters. Unlike the early surf musicians, most of the bands were indeed far from the shore: the Trashmen hailed from Minneapolis; the Astronauts from Boulder, Colorado; other popular groups came from such un-Californian places as Iowa, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

Having gained national popularity in 1961, surf music began to peak by the summer of 1963, and was almost non-existent the following year. Many factors contributed to its demise. Surf music had always embraced wholesome, unaccountable fun for young people; after the assassination of President Kennedy, this attitude was widely seen as frivolous, even counter-productive. The mood of the nation darkened a bit from the event, allowing more rough-around-the-edges musical groups like the Rolling Stones to become acceptable to the larger music-buying public. After all, the Beach Boys seemed like choir boys compared to many of the newer groups emerging, particularly the British imports; the clean sweep of the reverb unit was being driven back by the hoarse growl of the fuzz-tone. The arrival of the Beatles - who were cetainly clean-cut (except for their hair) but who revered, and recycled, the more suggestive sounds of Bo Diddley and Elvis - probably hammered the final nail into the coffin.

Everyone seemed to move on with their lives. Brian Wilson steered the Beach Boys into more demanding musical directions, culminating in their masterpiece Pet Sounds. Dick Dale developed rectal cancer and retired from music for the time being. The world of popular music basically told the beach culture, "It's not you, it's me," and made a clean break. Soon Southern California began to enterain more hairy, drugged-out hippies than tanned, athletic youths, a cultural shift that focused back upon the cities after a brief flirtation with the shores. While sex still remained foremost in young men's minds, it was now jostled by mind-altering chemicals, and thoughts on how to avoid being drafted to Southeast Asia.

"And," Jimi Hendrix would promise on his first album, "you'll never hear surf music again."