In terms of commercial impact, Surf Music was a short-lived phenomenon. The vast majority of popular surf recordings were waxed between 1961 and 1965; even then, their success was often confined to an isolated region (more often than not, Southern California). Yet its influence upon the sound of the rock & roll guitar is incalculable. Felt by hundreds of artists, it continues to surface, in a much modified form, to this very day.
Between the time when the initial explosion of rock & roll died down in the late 50’s and the British Invasion, instrumental rock was more responsible for keeping alive the raunchiest and wildest aspects of the music than any other style.
It was also responsible for keeping the electric guitar at the forefront of the music, and surf music was certainly the most guitar-oriented style of instrumental rock & roll, though splashing drums and honking saxes were also prime features of the sound.
Southern California guitarist Dick Dale is acknowledged as the father of surf music. In the late 50’s he developed its trademark reverb sound. Whether intentionally or otherwise, the ‘wet’ full echo of surf guitars evoked the rides and waves of surfing, which in the early 60’s was still an emerging teenage sport that was little known outside of Southern California, Hawaii and Australia.
Ironically, Jimi Hendrix, who intoned “you’ll never hear surf music again” has been said to have been influenced by Dale, who like Hendrix played his guitar left-handed and upside-down.
On vinyl, the surf craze kicked off with Dale’s late 1961 single Let’s Go Trippin’. Although it was only a regional hit, its influence was enormous, and within months, dozens of bands – virtually all of them from Southern California – were playing surf music.
Hundreds would record surf singles and albums before the fad started to fade in the mid 60’s. Although they were not Californian, and would certainly not identify themselves as a surf group, the dark, reverberant guitars of The Ventures, then reaching their peak of massive popularity, were also formidable influences on these groups.
On a national US level, the impact of instrumental surf bands was notable, but much slighter. The Chantays (Pipeline) and The Surfaris (Wipe Out) scored huge national hits, but few others dented the Top 40, let alone the Top Ten. The Pyramids‘ early 1964 single Penetration was the last big national instrumental surf hit.
While most surf groups were based in California, the genre was not strictly isolated to this region. The Astronauts (from Colorado) and The Trashmen (from Minneapolis) were the most successful of the not inconsiderable number of landlocked bands who played surf music, or at least made a few stabs at it.
The Trashmen indeed, went on to the Top Five with Surfin’ Bird in early 1964 and only The Beatles, hitting the US with full force, kept them from the top spot. One of the very best instrumental surf groups, The Atlantics, were not even from the US, but from Australia, where they scored some massive hits in 1963 and 1964.
Surf music would achieve its most lasting influence not with instrumentals, but with vocal groups, in particular The Beach Boys. There’s no doubting that Dick Dale was a profound influence on the Hawthorne, CA group, who covered Dale’s Let’s Go Trippin’ on their second album, Surfin’ USA.
They recorded a few other surf instrumentals on their first few albums as well, but from the beginning they were primarily a vocal group, heavily influenced by Chuck Berry, The Four Freshmen, Doo Wop and other similar styles.
They were the first group to successfully sing about the surf music phenomenon, adding complex harmonies and clever lyrics to the driving guitars and chugging rhythms. In their wake, some groups like the aforementioned Astronauts and Trashmen tried to play the field with both instrumentals and vocal numbers.
Other California vocal acts were quick to jump on the bandwagon, but besides The Beach Boys, only Jan and Dean were a significant success, commercially or artistically. Jan and Dean Torrance had been a modestly successful duo for years before latching onto the surf fad, and like The Beach Boys they would soon adapt the surf sound to hot rod lyrics emphasising cars and drag racing.
Acts like Ronny & The Daytonas (G.T.O) and The Rip Chords (Hey Little Cobra) hit the Top Ten with one-shot hits in the same style, but were out of their depth when they tried to mine it for memorable follow-ups. After 1963, the Beach Boys left the subject behind for good.
They broadened their scope beyond cars and girls to create challenging, personal pop/rock on a competitive level with the British Invasion groups that sounded the death knell for surf music at the beginning of 1964.
Even Jan and Dean‘s hits were not solely limited to surf and hot rod tunes, though their career came to a skidding halt with (ironically) severe injuries suffered by Jan Berry in a car crash in 1966 on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Liberty issued a Jan and Dean album called Popsicle a few months after Jan’s accident, to cash in on a surprise hit with the title track which Dean had pulled and remixed from a previous album to keep their name alive.
Producer/writer Gary Usher was the brains behind many surf and drag-related albums for Capitol and others. He recorded these LPs with the assistance of the famed Wrecking Crew: Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Ray Pohlman, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco and Billy Strange. Their instrumental tracks were of top quality, even though they probably turned them out at a rate of three or four per hour.
Recording as The Super Stocks, Usher engaged Chuck Girard to share lead vocal duties and recorded the albums to a very set formula: half-and-half vocals and instrumentals on the early albums, with their third (School Is A Drag) being almost entirely Beach Boys-style vocals, with Hot Rod High, Saturday’s Hero and Wild One standing out and rivalling Brian Wilson’s input.
Richie Allen (aka Richie Podolor) was also involved with Usher as a session guitarist and sometimes Super Stock.
His two instrumental albums (The Rising Surf and Surfer’s Slide – both credited to Richie Allen & The Pacific Surfers) reflected many of the surf issues at the time, varying from deep Duane Eddy-inspired mid-tempo rock, through faster, surging tunes, to moody, atmospheric doses of heavy reverb.
Allen only included one vocal performance on the two LPs – The oddly titled Skeg-Along-Pete.
The Beach Boys‘ harmonies left their stamp on countless other groups. The Who‘s Keith Moon was a huge surf music fan, and the manic splashing of his drum kit owes something to the bashing rumble of surf ensembles. The Who’s own harmonies owed surprisingly large debts to The Beach Boys.
Four decades later, few groups play surf music, although Dick Dale made a surprisingly strong comeback on record and as a touring act in the 90’s. Echoes of the style live on wherever you hear a reverbed guitar or a sweet, high vocal harmony.