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Surf Music

Author: Robert Benson

Robert writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates ""

Also Check Out: 100 Greatest Surf Rock Songs
Collecting vinyl records blog

Surf Music
It Was More Than Just The Beach Boys

Surf rock was a short-lived music phenomenon and it is an important part of pop rock, with easily digestible songs and lyrics, yet it is very influential in terms of music history. The musical genre was an extension of rockabilly and 1950s rhythm and blues compositions. Mainly a Southern Californian genre of the early Sixties, surf rock celebrated not just catching the perfect wave, but such carefree adolescent phenomena as the sun, beach, parties, girls and hot rods.

Throngs of predominately male teenage surfers began to develop their own sub culture, dressing and speaking in a distinctive way. At high school, the bleached-blonde surfers wore Pendleton shirts and sandals. After school they jumped into their oversized station wagons with wooden sides (called woodies), which transported their polys (surfboards), drove to the beach and dashed to the ocean for some waves and fun.

Most of the popular surf music was recorded between 1961 and 1965 and was dominated by reverb-drenched guitar, simple three-chord songs and rolling instrumentation. It was often confined to an isolated region, more often than not, Southern California, but had worldwide appeal. This is not to state that all surf music came from the area of the US; on the contrary, there were some very popular groups who adopted the sound as their own from various locations in the US and the world.

Surf music has two basic subgenres, surf pop, with inventive melodies, vocals and the surf sound (more on that later) and the surf instrumentals. Most groups were one hit wonders who charted regionally, but a few were able to take the genre to the mainstream national audience such as Dick Dale, The Chantays, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Ronny and the Datonas and the Ventures, just to name a few.

However, it is Southern California guitarist Dick Dale who is often acknowledged as the 'father of surf music.' In the late 1950s, he developed the genre defining 'reverb sound' which enabled music lovers to hear the melody lines played on the low end of the strings of a Fender Stratocaster guitar which in turn gave it a wet, dripping-like sound; which was supposed to capture the feel of actually riding the waves. This innovative method was often copied and some took the method further using the whammy bar on a guitar to create a unique and distinct sound and to generate the excitement of rushing down a crashing wave. Surf music was also one of the first genres to adopt the electric bass, and the Fender Precision Bass was a standard amongst the early surf groups and was cutting edge at the time. Unlike a double bass, a simple electric bass line can be easily learned, even by the most novice musician.

Duane Eddy's instrumental "Movin' and Groovin'" is thought by many to be the first popular surf rock record, while others claim the first was Dick Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'," a 1961 hit that helped pave the way for others who loved the 'surf sound.' Dale followed with "Surfbeat," "Surfing Drums," and "Shake 'n' Stomp," and in 1962 produced the classical surf instrumental, "Miserlou." In early 1963, Capitol Records signed Dale and called him the King of the Surf Guitar.

Groups like the Del-Tones, the Sentinals and the Pyramids, though not having any chart topping hits, were a strong influence of the genre. "Wipe Out," the number two hit of 1963 by the Safaris, ranks as one of the great rock instrumentals, featuring a classic up - and - down guitar riff and a classic solo drum roll break, both of which were emulated by millions of beginning rock & rollers. In 1964, a group from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Trashman, were able to land in the top ten with the catchy cut "Surfin' Bird," but were held out of the top spot by the Beatles.

Instrumental surf music by artists like Duane Eddy, Link Wray, Santo and Johnny and the Ventures all hit the charts with impassioned surf instrumentals in the early 1960's. In fact, Link Ray pioneered a new kind of distorted amp sound and invented the power chord - Pete Townshend has said that he wouldn't have started playing guitar at all if it weren't for Link Wray. Keith Moon of the Who was a huge fan and the manic splashing of his drum kit owes a debt to the bashing rumble of the surf bands that he loved to listen to.

But the group that is synonymous and infectiously popular within the genre is the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys introduced mass market pop vocals to surf music. They were the ultimate surf band for many listeners, simply because they put the appeal of the beach and surfing into words instead of conveying it with impressionistic music. They utilized the surf template and blending in Four Freshman-style harmonies to basic surf based rhythms, created a musical dynasty that is still highly revered to this day. The Beach Boys' first three albums featured 'surfin' or 'surfer' in the title - "Surfin' Safari" (1962), "Surfin' USA" (1963) and "Surfer Girl" (1963). Songs like "Surfin' Safari" (#14 in 1962), "Surfer Girl" (#7 in 1963) along with the fun in the sun hits like "Little Deuce Coupe" (#15 in 1963), the aptly named "Fun, Fun, Fun" (#5 in 1964) and the 1964 #1 hit "I Get Around" cemented their place in the surf music arena.

Once the British invasion hit the American shores, surf music disappeared from the major charts, but has remained popular in local clubs and venues in some regions. Surf music has influenced many artists. Surf rock's influence can be heard in the music of Blondie, the Go-Go's, the Raybeats, the Reverend Horton Heat, the Cramps, just to name a few.

While known as a genre that was mainly developed on the West Coast of the US in the 1960s, in the 1990s a revival of surf music has sparked a resurgence worldwide. Man or Astro-man?, Los Straitjackets, Pollo Del Mar and many others perform on a regular basis. Other groups such as Simon and the Bar Sinisters, the Red Elvises, Southern Culture on the Skids, The Aqua Velvets, The Blue Stingrays, and The Bomboras also dabble in this genre.

These days, surf bands are often performing in conjunction with classic car shows, and the genre still gets a fair amount of airplay on Oldies and some Classic Rock radio stations. One thing is clear, from the foundations of early surf music, whether it be surf rock or the surf instrumentals of the 1960's, we can still hear the impact and musical innovations of surf music in today s rock and roll music.

Article by: Robert Benson

Rock Songs '60s
Rock Instrumentals
Cover Songs

The Beach Boys

The Surfaris Album

The Surfaris

Dick Dale

Jan & Dean

Th Ventures

The Chantays

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