Always click on the LEGENDARY SURFERS icon to return to this homepage. LEGENDARY SURFERS
A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  29 February 2008
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Surf Music

Joann at Refugio - artwork courtesy of Tom Dewalt
(Image Courtesy of Tom Dewalt)

Aloha! And welcome to this chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS.

We break stride a little bit, to focus not on a surfing legend, but on a cultural phenomenon that united surfing with music in the beginning 1960s. It has been said that surfing is the only sport with its own particular genre of music. While many people think that it came and went, it is important to note that surf music continues to present day. To learn more about the present state of surf music, do a websearch. And, if you get a chance, listen to some of the compositions mentioned in this chapter.

Enjoy, spread the stoke, and -- if you have the time -- let me know how I'm doing.


Surf Music

n.  1) A sound representational of the ocean landscape, associated with the late 1950s and early 1960s and created by two main branches of musicians:  The Orange County Sound (Dick Dale, etc.), who generally used more reverb, and The South Bay Sound of musicians (The Bel Airs, etc.) who used less reverb;  2) Rock 'n Roll music from California in the early 1960s, characterized by close treble harmonies and with lyrics that celebrated the exhilaration of surfing and the beach life (Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, etc.);  3)  Any music you can surf to (Jimi Hendrix, etc.).

"Surf music is a definite style of heavy staccato picking with the flowing sound of a reverb unit to take away the flat tones on the guitar and make the notes seem endless.  Very heavy guitar strings are used to elongate the sound from the vibration of the strings, not the feedback qualities of an amplifier.  It becomes a very in-depth combination of things that, when put together, spells out true surf music."
-- Dick Dale

Roots of Surf Music

"Surf music" emerged on the scene around 1961.  Almost without exception, it was introduced by musicians who had no physical contact with the ocean, themselves.  Although this would change quickly, Southern California surfers, as a group, were quick to adopt the musical sound as their own.  The adoption would spread throughout the surfing world, but mostly on the U.S. Mainland.  The musical genre was an extension of Rockabilly and 1950s Rhythm and Blues compositions.   Beginning with instrumental compositions, surf music later incorporated vocal harmonies.  As the definition of surf music illustrates, surf music, today, is known as much for its vocals as its instrumentation.  Purists, however, who well remember how the genre began, will disagree strongly with any emphasis on vocal harmonies as defining the surf sound.

During rock 'n roll music's infancy in the 1950s, "a basic song was a two-to-three minute AABA number, with a saxophone carrying the B part," wrote Phil Dirt, a surf music DJ who was around in the golden days of surf music and still continues to do a weekly program of surf music.  Despite such artists as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry's accent on the guitar, most rock 'n roll tunes were sax based, including instrumentals.  Texas swing musician Bill Haley defined the mainstream sound.  The only exceptions to the basic sound, besides Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry's work, were those of the early Rockabilly artists who substituted guitar in the B parts.

Link Wray, an early Rockabilly musician, used Bo Diddley's trick of slitting speaker cones with a knife to get a ragged-edge distortion.  He wrote for the guitar and developed a sound with a distinctive growl.  His compositions "were simple and relied on minor changes to hold interest," Phil Dirt told me, "like the gradual increase in vibrato toward the end of his piece 'Jack The Ripper'."

"Duane Eddy's  basic string-of-single-notes melodies focused on the guitar in a voice developed  mostly by Al Casey," wrote Phil Dirt.  "Duane reversed  the standard AABA (GGSG) arrangement, using his lead guitar in the A parts,  with Steve Douglas' sax lines relegated to the B parts."

Early guitarists who provided inspiration to surf music's beginnings included Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Derry Weaver, Nokie Edwards, Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Fireball George Tomsco.   Bill Dogget was also influential.

Early groups that influenced the initial surf music strain include:

The Fireballs.  They were a two guitar-bass-drums unit recorded by Norman Petty, in Clovis, New Mexico.  Their carefully balanced lead-rhythm interplay particularly influenced Paul Johnson of the surf band The Bel Airs.

The Gamblers were "a studio amalgam" of Derry Weaver, Sandy Nelson, Leon Russell and other Los Angeles studio musicians.  The Gamblers issued an influential single called "Moondawg" (c/w "LSD 25").  "Moondawg" was re-recorded by many artists, including Paul Revere & The Raiders.

Johnny & The Hurricanes.  They used cheap organ or sax leads for the most part.  Johnny Paris was the saxophone player and leader.  Occasionally, the group let dominante guitarist Dave Yorko's rifts like those illustrated in "Sheba" and "Sandstorm".  The sense of melody rather than simple progressions were further developed by Johnny & The Hurricanes.

The Storms were heavily oriented around guitarist Jody Reynolds.  Their piece "Thunder" was an Al Casey/Duane Eddy styled instrumental that was a direct inspiration to early surf bands.

The Ventures had a two guitar-bass-drums lineup and were the most mainstream of all the bands that influenced the early surf sound.  The Ventures versions of other people's songs became a staple in the surf band diet, not as a part of the genre, but more like a foundation.  Their popularity amongst surf musicians was despite the fact that during their 'surf' period, the Ventures didn't even play the right instruments for an authentic surf sound.  They preferred to use Mosrite guitars and reverbs.  The lack of depth in their surf stuff is due in part to their equipment, but also to a generally laid back playing style.  The Ventures contributed a surf music classic, "Sputnik", after Nokie Edwards joined the group.  "Sputnik" later became "Surf Rider" when the surf band The Lively Ones covered it.  The Ventures' "Diamond Head" became another famous surf tune.

The rockabilly and garage band music between 1956 and 1960 generated thousands of independent 45rpm singles.  Most of them are best forgotten by time.  However, there were also some great exceptions like "Ghost Train" by The Millionaires, "Underwater" by The Frogmen, and "Typhoid" by The Northern Lights.  "Typhoid" was recorded in 1960; a "staccato double picked rant" that was later reissued as "Bust Out" by The Busters.  This tune is arguably the first surf style tune recorded.  It's main shortfall is a lack of reverb and a surf title, but then again, some of surf music's most notable early tunes both lacked reverb and surf titles (i.e. "Let's Go Trippin'" by Dick Dale and "Mr. Moto" by The Bel Airs).

Surf Music "was greatly influenced by the then quickly changing moods of rockabilly and rhythm and blues," wrote Leonard Lueras in Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure .  "Transition artists such as Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and the inventive oldtimer, Les Paul, had long been experimenting with tremolos, echolettes and other such techno music toys, but these gimmicks were usually utlized for the odd temporary effect.  Not until [Dick] Dale began promoting himself as a surf guitarist and calling such sustained electro riffs 'surf music,' was this pecular sound given a popular or proper generic name."

The Bel Airs & the South Bay Sound

The first true surf band is generally considered to be The Bel Airs.  Paul Johnson and Eddie Bertrand met in 1960 and formed the nucleus of the band.  They idolized The Storms, Duane Eddy, Link Wray, The Fireballs, The Ventures, and Johnny & The Hurricanes.  The Bel Airs formed when Richard Delvy on drums, Chas Stuart on sax and Jim Roberts on piano (sometimes) joined with Johnson and Bertrand.

In May of 1961, The Bel Airs recorded "Mr. Moto", a mutual composition by Paul Johnson and Richard Delvy, along with several other tunes.  Arvee Records released the single that summer, making "Mr. Moto" the first surf tune recorded by a surf band.  Paul Johnson went on to write a number of classic surf tunes, including "Squad Car", "Scouse", and "Chifflado".  Johnson's distinctive style became known as the "South Bay Sound," spawning and inspiring many other bands in the region including The Challengers and Thom Starr & The Galaxies.

Dick Dale & the Orange County Sound

Playing at this time, also, was Dick Dale.  More than any one person, Dick Dale was the man most responsible for the explosion of surf music on the scene in the Summer of 1961.

Born in Boston, Massachussetts, Dale started his musical career by collecting empty soda bottles to come up with the five bucks for a plastic ukelele.  It didn't take long for the uke to break and Dale progressed on to  a beat up guitar he scored from a high school classmate for 50 cents down and 25 cents a week.

Dale idolized country musician Hank Williams.  He was a left handed musician with a right handed guitar which he played upside down without re-stringing.  "The guitar is designed to be played with the right hand plucking the string while the left hand depresses the proper notes," explained disc jockey Jim Pewter.  "The strings of the guitar are designed to allow easy fingering positions for all chords and progressions.  If a young guitarist wishes to pluck with the left hand instead, he is told to take the strings off and replace them in reverse order.  To play the hands reversed position without reversing the strings should exceed the limits of mortal dexterity, but that is how Dale plays it."

Dick Dale played at local country bars where he met 400 pound DJ T. Texas Tiny, who gave him what he thought was a good name for a country singer:  Dick Dale.  Famed LA disc jockey Art Laboe booked Dale with Johnny Otis and Sonny Knight at the El Monte Legion Stadium.  His first singles were recorded on his father's Deltone label and all tunes were of the vocal pop type.  In early 1961, Dale and his cousin and future Del-Tones Ray Samra and Billy Barber jammed with Nick O'Malley, who played folk songs at The Rinky Dink coffee house in Balboa.  Dale's style was still very country.  Nick showed him how to set his tone switch in between positions, which gave him an important element of his trademark sound.

Dick Dale and the Del-Tones "were the house band at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa from late 1959 until late 1961," wrote John Blair in his authoritative Illustrated Discography of Surf Music.  "His popularity grew immensely during this time until hundreds of teenagers were regularly converging on the Rendezvous every weekend by the fall of 1961.  During 1961, and into 1962, he was probably the most popular performer in Southern California."

"The 23 year old sensation," touted a Capitol Records promotional piece in early 1963, "first appeared in the famed Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa in 1960.  Until his arrival, the ballroom could look forward to only two or three hundred patrons on a weekend night.  Dick Dale came in, and something amazing began.  Crowds of teen-agers filled the huge ballroom.  In only a few weeks, it hit capacity... 3500 to 4000 every weekend night... Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  And in the winter months, normally a heavy dropoff period, attendance actually increased.  This fantastic box office pull continued for the entire two year period of Dick Dale's booking at the Rendezvous.  Then, in January of 1962, he moved to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.  There he broke every existing record by drawing capacity crowds of over three thousand every weekend night for the entire month of January!  (And in Balboa, box office at the Rendezvous plummeted from 4000 to 200.)  The overflow crowds in Pasadena refused to be turned away, insisting upon dancing in the outer lobbies, on the steps, and in the streets outside the Pasadena Civic.  At times, there were 3000 inside the house, and 4000 waiting outside!  In staid, conservative Pasadena, the phenomenon was unbelievable."

Dale's Rendezvous Ballroom gig began a near half-decade run of -- for those times -- massive dance gatherings.  "For a time," wrote Jim Pewter, "The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Duane Eddy, and The Riteous Brothers all had turns as second and third on bills which headlined Dick Dale... He... had the number one song in such faraway lands as New Zealand, Australia, England and Japan.  At one time, he owned five of the top ten records in California, including all of the top four.  The Los Angeles Sports Arena holds 15,000.  For his 1961 concert there, 21,000 screaming fans showed up."

"The title 'King Of The Surf Guitar,'" wrote Dale, "was first given to me by friends who surfed with me and came to dance to the music that I was trying to create.  The picking style I created was a heavy, fast machine gun staccato attack.  This provided a fat, full non-stop sound and was  achieved with the help of a heavy duty sideman plastic pick.  A precise perfection of meter  is a must all the way through to the end of the song.  The guitar, the gauge of strings, the placement of the pickups, the amps and speakers, and the style of playing all together made up the Dick Dale sound."

It was in the Summer of 1961 that Dick Dale first used the term "surfing sound" to describe both the sound and style of his guitar playing.  By the end of the summer, he had cut four records -- all of them vocal.  He lived near the beach and surfed a little.  With his music, he "attempted to musically reproduce the feeling he had while surfing," wrote Blair, "and the result of this somewhat nebulous and certainly subjective approach was the surfing music genre.  The feeling was one of vibration and pulsification, which he produced by a heavy staccato sound on the low-key strings of his guitar accompanied by a heavy thunder-like beat."

Guitar maker Leo Fender, owner of Fender Musical Instruments in Santa Ana, used Dale as a tester of his guitars.  Dale would "road test" equipment modifications for Fender, who preferred Dale because of his "harsh playing style," wrote Phil Dirt.

"I first met Leo Fender in the Mid-Fifties," recalled Dale, "and he gave me my first sunburst right-handed Stratocaster guitar which I held and played upside down and backwards.  Leo told me to beat it to death and to give him my thoughts on the instrument which I did with glee.  Together, we made some improvements such as a five-position switch and adjustments like repositioning pickups.

"Leo finally made a jig especially for me that he could use to reposition my controls at the bottom of my Strat to more easily accomodate my left-handed playing.  The pattern head of the Strat was then changed to allow left-handed tuning.  This caused the 60 guage E-string to extend 6 inches past the nut."

Freddie Tavares was Fender's research and development laboratory assistant from 1953 to 1964.  He told Dick Dale, "the thicker the wood, the purer the sound and the bigger the strings, the bigger the sound.  So, I continued to use the Strat," wrote Dale, "and 14, 18, 28, 38, 48 and 60 gauge regular wound Fender strings.  To obtain the most powerful, fattest, thickest, percussive, penetrating, and driving sounds, the tick wood design of the Stratocaster, together with its pickups, has not been matched by any other guitar that I know of to this date."

Dale blew up 40 Showman amplifiers before all the bugs were worked out on his combination of style and Fender guitar.  Fender also developed the JBL Speaker because of Dick's playing 60 gauge E strings in staccato style.

"Leo and Freddie," wrote Dick Dale, "... never gave up as I blew up and destroyed countless amplifiers and speakers which ultimately led to the creation of the 100 watt Dual Showman with two D-130F 15-inch JBL Lansing  speakers.  Leo would always say to Freddie, 'If it can withstand Dick Dale's barrage of punishment, it is ready for human consumption.'  It was fun.  Leo made me feel like I was his number one son and test pilot or, as his plant manager Forrest White would say, his number one guinea pig."

During this time, Dick Dale wrote his famous surf song "Let's Go Trippin'" because some kid goaded him by asking Dale if all he did was do vocals as opposed to instrumentals.  Dale's offerings, at this time, were mostly Rhythm and Blues standards ala Buster Brown and Bo Diddley.  "Let's Go Trippin'" went unnamed for a number of weeks until, at one point, he told his audience he didn't know what to call it.  Someone yelled back "Let's go trippin'" or, in other words, "shut up and play; we wanna dance."  Dale recorded the instrumental "Let's Go Trippin'" in August 1961 and then recut it for release in September 1961.  "Let's Go Trippin' (c/w "Deltone Rock" - both primarily Rockabilly instrumentals) were released on Deltone 5017, followed by "Jungle Fever" (c/w "Shake & Stomp"), on Deltone 5018, March 1962.  In April 1962, Dale released "Surfers Choice" from live tapes made by his father at the Rendezvous.  Dale's sound soon became known as the Orange County Sound.  "Jungle Fever" was the music bed for Bo Diddley's "Hush Your Mouth".  Dale "even left some of the lyrics in on the album when he called it 'Surfin' Drums'," pointed out Phil Dirt.  "It is unfortunate that Dick still takes writing credit for this song."

The two separate developments that catalyzed the guitar-oriented new sound were the new ways of playing the guitar and the new guitar technology.  The first, most obvious, development was the simultaneous and unconnected evolution of two very different guitar instrumental styles:  Paul Johnson and Eddie Bertrand's delicate lead/rhythm interplay with the Bel Airs, and Dick Dale's staccato double picked onslaught with The Del-Tones.  Both were heavily melodic, and both were adopted by the burgeoning surf culture.  The other development was technological.  Two new pieces of gear:  Leo Fender's Showman amplifier, and the defining first outboard effect, the Outboard Reverb helped to create the characteristic sounds of instrumental surf.

When the reverb unit came out in 1961, it did not take "The King of the Surf Guitar" long to adopt it to his use beyond the vocals it was originally intended for.  "His amplified sound was augmented by an electronic device called a reverberation unit, commonly known as a 'reverb,' wrote Blair.  "This was his surfing sound, and he allowed it to take an instrumental form."

In 1962, the archetypal surf instrumental "Pipeline" by The Chantays hit the airwaves and continues to be the standard for surf reverb.

"Contrary to some accounts," Dick Dale clarified, "the Fender Reverb had nothing to do with the Dick Dale surf sound.  My first album, Surfer's Choice, was the first surf album in music history.  The Fender Reverb had not been invented at the time the record was made.  The reverb was actually created to enhance my singing voice and its use with the guitar was secondary.  By the time the Fender Reverb and guitar were combined, Surfer's Choice had already sold over 80,000 copies."

"With the introduction of the 'reverb' unit by guitar maker Leo Fender in 1962,"  wrote Paul Johnson, "lots of lead guitars took on the big, hollow, tubular tone of the reverb.  The Fender reverb gave the guitar a slippery, 'wet' sort of tone, which naturally served to solidify the music's identification as 'the sound of surfing.'  Some of the most memorable surf sounds (such as the Chantays' 'Pipeline', the Surfaris' 'Wipe Out', the Pyramids' 'Penetration', and Dick Dale's 'Miserlou') were literally drenched in reverb."

At the beginning of surf music's emergence, it was not at all about surfing, per se.  It was more about the adoption of instrumentals that were extensions of late 1950s Rockabilly and R & B.  In a general way of looking at it, anything instrumental was surf music.  "That may or may not give surfers the right to redefine it at their convenience," underscored Phil Dirt.  However, the definition quickly narrowed at the same time it incorporated the Orange County Sound (ala Dick Dale) and the South Bay Sound (ala The Bel Airs), with the Orange County Sound having the upper hand.

The new musical sound that emerged from Southern California in the Summer of 1961 did not take long to be connected with "going to the beach, surfing, girls and cars," wrote John Blair.  "It was white, danceable, and non-threatening.  Kids all over America picked up on it very quickly despite the lack of beaches and surfboards in areas outside of California.  It was a musical phenomenon..."

Posers & Wannabees

It did not take long for it to be apparent that the best surf music writers and players were not even surfers; many of them living nowhere near a coast.  Although Dick Dale proudly refers to his surfing, Thom Starr's remembrance is that Dale had a hell of a time getting up on the board for the photo shoot for the cover of "Surfer's Choice".  Worse, the cover shot for "King Of The Surf Guitar" is rumored to be a photo taken in a pool.   He did surf, however, as testified by his friend Gary Martel:

"For what it's worth," wrote Martel in an email message to me in 1996, "I used to surf occasionally with Dick Dale in the '60s (Dana Cove before the harbor).  Yes, Dick could really surf (although, as I recall, his real talent was in the parking lot, hustling girls and cigarettes)."

"Dick Dale," wrote Leonard Lueras, "who since early 1961 had been the reigning 'King of the Surf Guitar,' pranced and posed as a surfer, but his swarthy, jelly roll looks were, ironically, more pomade than peroxide.  Dale, a native of Boston, was a mutation showcast somewhere between Frank Zappa, Fabian and the glitter-shirted regulars who frequented car club dances at the El Monte Legion Stadium (where cats and chicks were invited to 'meet old friends and make new friends, but no jeans or capris, please').  His was a strange evolution, but whatever his anthropomorphic or social bent, Dale and his Del Tones packed Southern California ballrooms and armories weekend after weekend during more than three years of exciting surf music nights.  Throughout those early Sixties times, when the now nearly institutionalized Beach Boys were still lip-synching to 45 rpm records at summer YMCA 'sock hops,' King Dale was playing to audiences of at least 3,000 to 4,000-plus, three and four nights a week."

Interestingly, also, surf music became a sound that appealed more to non-surfer musicians than to surfer musicians.  The only exception to this was Southern California (i.e. Ron Wilson of The Surfaris) and Hawai‘i, where, even so, much of the stuff was made by musicians who didn't surf.  Noted early surf bands comprised of non-surfers include:  The Ventures (Seattle), Eddie & The Showmen, The Trashmen (Minneapolis, Minnesota), The Surfaris, The Original Surfaris, The Bel Airs, The Sentinals, The Astronauts (Boulder, Colorado), and The Royal Flairs (Council Bluffs, Iowa).

The Titans and The Treasures were also from Minneapolis.  Jim Waller and The Deltas were from Fresno, California.  The Clashmen were from Tucson, Arizona.  The Fender Four came from Berkeley, California.  The Venturas hailed from Chicago.  The Citations were from Milwaukee and The Royal Flairs from Council Bluffs, Iowa."

"Dale's sound and popularity," wrote Blair, "formed an example for aspiring teenage musicians; it was a shot in the arm for rudimentary rock and roll on a local level.  Almost overnight there was a demand for surf bands who could, rather easily and with a minimum of musical invention, play in the style.  Huncreds of bands emerged in Southern California, and for several years nearly every suburban area had a large number of garage bands, usually centered around the high schools."

"Most of the great tracks from the golden years of Surf Beat were recorded by bands of teenagers.  The people (kids in this case) had taken the music back.  Band names were mostly innocent period handles like Dave & The Customs, The Pyramids, The Gladtones, The Blue Boys, The Lively Ones, and Dave Myers & The Surftones."

Themes of sex and social deviance were also prevalent, along with the beach and surf themes.  Songs like The Blazers' "Beaver Patrol" were actually banned from their local airwaves due to their "indecent" titles.  There were also ominous songs in the tradition of "Rumble" like "Rumble On The Docks" and "Ray Bay".

The bands often could not play in clubs because the band members were under age and were not signed by any labels.  Instead, they rented halls and released their own records to sell at their own shows/dances.

"Outside, in the parking lot," wrote Leonard Lueras in Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure , "woodies and Nomads were stuffed full of surfboards and sleeping bags; inside, seminal surf groups -- such as the Chantays, Surfaris and Dick Dale and the Del Tones -- let their tremolos and reverbs run wild.  Pendleton wools, bleeding Madras cottons, white Levis, surf shop T-shirts... huarache sandals and black Converse All-Star tennis shoes rose and stomped through anthems such as 'Pipeline', 'Wipeout', 'Miserlou' and 'Let's Go Trippin'."

The Beach Boys

Where Dick Dale and other primarily-instrumental surf bands tried to recreate the feel of surfing through the music, there arose vocal bands whose forte was to sing about the surfing lifestyle of Southern California.   Foremost of this group was the Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys, a harmonious quintet from the South Bay town of Hawthorne, and a loosely-related second duet named Jan and Dean combined vocals with music to add yet another element into surf music.  "Their contribution was mixed harmonies and documentary (some say poetic) lyrical treatments," wrote Lueras.  "Unlike Dale and guitar-slashing others who initiated the sounds and feelings of surfing instrumentally, the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean communicated what they felt about surfing -- and Southern California's youth culture -- by singing about it in lilting two, three or four part harmony.  Their choral stuff was simple, a la the Four Freshmen, but pretty, catchy and, most important, relevant to the times.  Cars, waves, and girls were 'happening' in Southern California then, and these two groups interpreted that adolescent era perfectly."   An example is found in the Beach Boys' first surfing hit:

I got up this morning, turned on the radio, I was checkin' out the surfin' scene to see if I would go. And when the deejay tells me that the surfin' is fine, That's when I know my baby and I will have a good time. I'm goin' surfin'...

"Indeed," Lueras continued, "when the Beach Boys advised us that everybody was 'goin' surfin', surfin' U.S.A.,' and Jan (Berry) and Dean (Torrance) assured us that in Surf City there would be 'two girls for every boy,' we believed their every word.  We 'War Babies' were more than ready.  We waxed down our surfboards, couldn't wait till June, and from San Onofre to Sunset we prepared to cruise Colorado Boulevard in little deuce coupes and 409s.  Fast cars -- and tasty waves -- were there for the taking -- if we stayed away from 'Dead Man's Curve'."

The Beach Boys introduced mass market pop vocals to surf music.  The "Doo-Wop styled syrupy harmonized songs with sappy lyrics about surfing" bore little to no instrumental resemblance to actual surf music.  Even though it became nationally synonymous with surf music, the type of music the Beach Boys performed can more correctly be labelled Beach Music or Surf Pop.  Not a small number of surf music officiados consider the Beach Boys an embarrassment to the genre.

Reclusive Beach Boy Brian Wilson wrote many of the most memorable lyrics for both the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.  As such, he became very influential in surf music in the mid-1960s.  From his room in the Wilson home on the corner of Hawthorne Boulevard and 119th Street, Brian Wilson composed some of surfing's most successful songs.

A story is told of Wilson and his composition, "Surfin' U.S.A."  "It was about 1960 that Brian... then a student at Hawthorne High School, began composing the tunes that were to make the group famous... Then, however, his music was not universally popular.  Fred Morgan, the high school band director, recalled flunking Brian in music composition for writing 'a song with a bunch of chords in it' rather than the sonata he'd requested.  'I gave him an F on a composition that later became known as 'Surfin' U.S.A.' Morgan said."

Early '60s Youth Culture

"The lifestyle," wrote Blair, "that formed the basis of, and a casual relationship with, surf music had been developing since the 1950s and was, in retrospect, a sociological and cultural phenomenon somewhat exclusive to Southern California.  The combination of mobility and recreation played a large role in this cultural lifestyle.  There was, and still is, a psychological necessity for a car in the mind of the teenager (in some cases, an economical necessity as well).  It was through the use of his car that the teenager sought his identity.  If the car was the means, then recreation was the end of that means."

Surf music not only emphasized the teenage beach lifestyle, but represented it as well -- including attire and language.  "The surf vernacular was extensive," noted Blair, "using cute little slang words as a private language to further support the identity of the youth culture.  A number of these words or phrases were often used as titles for recordings or as part of the liner notes on some record albums in a 'surfing dictionary' section of the back cover."

"Since there wasn't any real nightclub activity in Hollywood or Los Angeles at the time," continued Blair, "the early surf bands performed at high schools, civic auditoriums, National Guard Armories, and practically any large meeting hall sanctioned for dances by the controlling organization.  Many of these often-used locales were in Orange County (such as the Retail Clerk's Union Hall and the Harmony Park Ballroom)."

Vocal groups like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean attempted to capture the essence of being a teenager and living in Southern California with its surf and culture that emphasized mobility.  Their recordings achieved national and international exposure.  In this way, surfing was able to be vicariously shared with people in other parts of the country and oversees who neither lived near a beach or ever touched a surfboard.  As the music became popular, so did surfing, itself, become even more so.

In this spreading out of the genre, of special note is Australia.  Slightly behind developments in the U.S., surf music hit the Land Down Under in 1962.  The genre took hold in Australia in the form of The Stomp.   Although there were uniquely Australian elements to the surf music movement within that country, the developments, themselves, wrote Blair, "paralleled the California scene in nearly every way."

Surf Music Industry

The typical composition of the average surf band involved five instruments:  two guitars, a bass, saxophone and drums.  Most bands used a reverb on the lead guitar and Fender amplifiers (particularly the Showman and Bandmaster models) and reverb units were standard accessories.  The Fender Jaguar, Jazzmaster and Stratocaster guitar models became the "accepted" choice for surf music officiados.

"Scores of small, independent record labels sprang up," wrote John Blair, the foremost authority on surf music pressings during the golden age of Surf Beat.  "Some of them issued several different recordings concerned with surfing.  The majority, however, were single release efforts.  All that was needed was a little money to pay for a recording studio (in those days, an inexpensive two or three-track studio might have cost $10 to $15 per hour!), print some labels, and press a couple of hundred copies of the record.  Although there were a number of bands across the country who released surfing records, the majority of recordings were issued by local Southern California groups.  The movement, for the most part, was restricted to this relatively small geographic area."

"Virtually no one made any money from the sale of records," continued Blair.  "The intention was to keep the fans and audiences supplied with recordings by their favorite bands, to build that audience for personal appearances, or to generate interest in the group by a major record company.  Most surf records were issued in very limited quantities (500 to 1000 copies in many cases) and saw only regional distribution.  If the record drew the attention of a major label, it was likely to be re-released on that label for national distribution."

There was some crossover mixing between surf music and hot rod and car songs.  This cross-pollination can be heard in some of the songs put out by the likes of Dick Dale, the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.

Surf Music's Demise

The year 1963 was the nadir of surf music.  "America's seemingly invincible youth were swept up in an exciting 'free' era punctuated by drugs, sex, rock 'n roll and politics," wrote Leonard Lueras.  "Socially, most young people were sitting on a strange cusp -- somewhere between a frat-rat/jock alcohol-based consciousness and the first stirrings of psychedelia, hippie-ness and what law enforcement officials liked to call 'a false sense of euphoria.'  All the above predated an unpopular war in Vietnam... In 1963, petrol cost 19 to 29 cents a gallon at the neighborhood U-Save, so for five dollars split four ways you could check out every surf spot along a good 100 mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway."

"Surf music reached its peak during the summer of 1963," wrote surf discographer John Blair, "as evidenced by release dates, chart action, and media attention.  Local Los Angeles television dance shows hosted by Sam Riddle and Lloyd Thaxton featured surf bands weekly throughout that summer, and surf music was inescapable on the radio stations.  The greatest percentage of surf-styled record releases, most of them instrumental, were issued between June and September that year."

Some Surf Music authorities, like Phil Dirt, claim that the reason why Surf Music was so easily killed-off, following the influx of British music by groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones (the second "British Invasion"), in 1964, was because it had degraded to the Beach Boys style rather than continuing to rely on instrumentals with reverb.

"Had the Beach Boys not softened the genre with the vocal thing," wrote Dirt, "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 and their ilk.  Among the reasons I believe this to be true is the number of surf guitarists that evolved intro really gutsy garage punk and 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!"

The average 8-to-10 year pattern for a musical genre has been outlined as follows:  two to be born, two to coalesce, another two for adolescence and to break out of the narrowness it was initially defined under, and then four or five to bust out onto the scene.  If this is the case, then surf music was surely struck down in its infancy, possibly "by its own childish sappy vocals and the raw edge of the British Invasion."

"The effects of this stoney 'British Invasion' were so profound that once glamorous [musical] surfers soon found themselves floating quietly in a cultural backwater."

"The surf sound," repeated Trevor Cralle in his surf speak dictionary, "peaked in 1963; the advent of the Beatles in early 1964 and the 'British Invasion' marked what is generally regarded as the end of the surf music era.  Yet original surf music still has the energy, simplicity, and rawness of the setting that inspired it."

John Blair maintains that surf music's decline was due to a complex combination of factors working before its ultimate demise in 1965.  "In the summer of 1963, between the peak of the popularity of surf music and its fadeout by 1965, political, cultural, and musical events happened that certainly contributed to its decline.  Aside from the musical shift from surfing to hot rods, the genre had an ironic handicap going against it.  A strong national acceptance of the form was difficult, since it was tied in so strongly with a lifestyle and geography indigenous to Southern Califiornia.  Whatever momentum it had at the time was suddenly retarded by the assasination of President Kennedy and the ensuing changes that event caused in those of us who enjoyed, and participated in, the music.  The war in Vietnam grew into more of a social and political issue and, closer to home, the Watts riots in 1965 helped to erode more of the idealism.  After all, idealism was a very important part of the local image projected in the music."

Blair conceeded to some degree with Dirt's perspective on the British Invasion and the Motown onslaught that preceded it, admitting, "the Beatles and Motown music probably did more to change musical tastes than anything else.  Southern California's garage bands reacted by either throwing away the reverb and adding a fuzz-tone to the guitar or by trading in their Stratocaster for a Rickenbacker 12-string.  They began to play mod-influenced rock with certain protest overtones or folk-rock inspired by the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, or Bob Dylan.  The music turned away from the beaches."

Sources Used In This Chapter:

John Blair ~ Phil Dirt ~ Leonard Lueras ~ Jim Pewter ~ Paul Johnson ~ Gary Martel ~ Trevor Cralle

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