“You’ll never hear surf music again.” - Jimi Hendrix
“It just seems like rock n roll Ennio Morricone music, rock n roll Spaghetti Western music.” - Quentin Tarantino
“Papa Oom Mau Mau.” - The Trashmen
In 1959, the United States of America inducted it’s 50th state in the nation, Hawaii. Polynesian mania hit America’s mainland middle class like a tidal wave. Backyard luaus were an excuse to show off your new tiki hut. Tiki Lounges were erected from coast to coast, letting patrons have a chance to sip cold, exotic drinks like The Scorpion and the The Blue Hawaii, while tropical birds shrieked and squawked in a glass cages behind the bar. Lounge lizards Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Les Baxter provided the soundtrack to America’s latest trend: inviting you to close your eyes, hear the waves, and maybe feel the grass skirts of the Hula Girls softly tickle you while you drank your lunch. America’s restless youth latched on to something else Hawaii’s inclusion brought: surf culture. And every youth culture has to have it’s own soundtrack.
If rockabilly was the werewolf who crawled out of rock and roll’s backwoods, then surf rock was the wet and dripping Creature from the Black Lagoon who slinked out of its seas. With the rallying cry of Dick Dale and the Del Tones’ “Let’s Go Trippin,” surf rock became the music de rigueur for So. Cal’s beach parties. A little over two minutes, “Let’s Go Trippin” set the template for the surf rock instrumental. With standard four-on-the-floor beat, a rapidly picked guitar drenched in reverb (as a kid I would always imagine water plinking off the strings), a little boogie-woogie piano thrown in for good measure, a searing sax lead in lieu of vocals, and background shouts of “yeah!” and “c’mon now!” Dale’s particular brand of staccato guitar playing stems from his Lebanese uncle teaching him how to play the tarabaki and the oud. The drumming beat he learned from the tarabaki would directly influence his pulsating, picking guitar style. The Middle Eastern influence on his playing roars from Dale’s, and arguably surf rock’s biggest hit, “Misirlou.” What went on to become the no. 1 standard and cover song of any surf band worth their Fender guitars and tremolo effects, Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” is the audio equivalent of a goofy-footer shooting out of a rip curl,and barreling out until he hits the chop. The iconic track started out as Greek folk song from 1927, and has gone through klezmer, belly dancing, and yes, Denny/Lyman/Baxter exotica versions. Dale cranked up the tempo, added some Baja flavor by way of a soaring mariachi trumpet, and with its double-harmonic scale played with machine-gun staccato, Gremmies and Grommets from all around lapped it up and danced the Surfer's Stomp.
The Ventures, a Washington outfit best known for the surf rock classics “Walk, Don’t Run” and the “Hawaii 5-0 Theme,” are an instrumental combo and “The Band that Launched a Thousand Bands.” Starting off playing beer bashes, school dances and Elks Lodge gigs, The Ventures would form the blueprint for a countless number of surf rock bands. “Walk, Don’t Run” started out as a easy breezy tune by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith in 1954, and six years later The Ventures added the right amount of reverb and Dale-style guitar picking to it, ensuring it’s place as a surf rock landmark, next to “Misirlou”, The Surfaris' “Wipeout” and my personal favorite, The Chantays’ “Pipeline.” The Ventures remain the best selling instrumental rock group of all time, with over 110 million albums sold. Surf rock bands like The Astronauts, The Shadows, The Rumblers, The Ramblers, The Lively Ones, The Marketts and a plethora of others all came out of The Ventures’ wake and all had varying degrees of success.
Surf rock was by no means limited to instrumental groups, and there were plenty of others who went beyond the shouts of “alright!” and “surf’s up!” The majority of the lyrics may have been such stock subjects as packing your Woody with beach party gear, the status of your Barracuda’s carburetor, and whether or not if all the girls will be there in bikinis to help you wax your board, but The Beach Boys -- before they were reluctantly forced to grow up anyways -- were the cream of the white-capped crop. Singing tales in beautiful harmonies about "California Girls," "Little Deuce Coupes," "409’s," "Surfin’ in the USA" (or in "Safaris"), and if the "Surf" was indeed "Up," you can almost forget that with the exception of the late drummer Dennis Wilson, none of the boys actually breached the water and were probably called kooks by the authentic locals. Brian Wilson lent out his wunder-talent to So. Cal pretty boys Jan and Dean, penning the hit “Surf City” for them. Riding high on the wave off the hits “Drag City” and “Dead Mans Curve,” the boys, well Jan anyways, suddenly crashed near the real Dead Man's Curve, giving their hit two years earlier a particular sense of bad juju. After partial paralysis and brain damage, Jan recovered, but the duo were never able to recover their past fame.
Meanwhile, The Trashmen were landlubbers from the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and they may have at first seemed like your standard surf rock fare -- that is until they hatched the incomparable “Surfin’ Bird.” With it’s garbled, trash-compactor vocals about a bird being the word and everybody knowing that this bird is the word, and the hiccuping, burbling, stuttering freakout of a breakdown launching into the best verse known to man -- the mystical, tribal mantra of “papa oom mau mau” -- “Surfin’ Bird” is the surf rock national anthem. And if I were the president of the United States, my first act would be to sign that in as the country’s national anthem, Family Guy be damned.
Surf rock’s seemingly cinematic sounds were not lost on the era’s film composers. Monty Norman may have written the “James Bond Theme,” but it was composer John Barry who cashed into the surf craze and arranged it into the classic surf/spy theme everyone knows and loves. Henry Mancini gave the theme to Experiment in Terror a stark, haunting surf riff that slank and lurched into the darkness. It was Ennio Morricone, however, that took surf music and cemented its use in cinema. Taking Duane Eddy-like (another classic surf guitarist -- think Hermosa Beach by way of the Dust Bowl) riffs and arranging them with tribal drums, whip cracks, whistling, grunts and shouts, organs, glockenspiels and kitchen sinks; Morricone gave director Sergio Leone’s legendary westerns a sound and feel that hasn’t been matched before or since, giving the dry, parched desert locales a sprinkling of reverbed out guitar wetness.
By the mid 60s, surf music’s high tide was becoming a low ebb. Folk music was gaining steam, and songs about labor unions, civil rights, and the looming war in Vietnam were taking precedence over beach party bingos. In short, the teenagers were growing up and going to war. The Beatles had come from across the pond, and with each album growing musically and lyrically, songs about cars and girls were quickly becoming passe. The Beach Boys took note and looked inside themselves, instead of to the surf and sand, and released Pet Sounds, upping the ante on musical experimentation. Jimi Hendrix was right about surf music being dead.
Enter punk rock and it’s more respectable little sister, new wave. Almost a decade and a half after the heyday of surf rock, The Ramones took the Beach Boys' formula and injected some glue sniffing East Coast attitude into it. “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” “Rockaway Beach,” and even a cover of “Surfin’ Bird” showed the world that there was still fun to be had in the sun, even if you did wear your black leather jacket to the beach. Ohio's The Cramps were no strangers to '50s and '60s tropes, with songs about B-movie monsters, atomic energy, UFOs, and again, a cover of “Surfin’ Bird” (sorry Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy, Lux and company did the better cover). The B-52’s brought surf guitar and Yoko Ono vocal histrionics to the Mutant Beach Dance Party. The Dead Kennedys' guitar hero East Bay Ray provided slinky surf and spy riffs, giving lead singer Jello Biafra a kitsch platform for his conspiratorial lyrics. So. Cal punkers Agent Orange infused Dick Dale’s tremolo into their hit single “Bloodstains,” and also covered Dale’s “Mr. Moto” and The Chantays “Pipeline.”
1994 was the year surf rock came rushing back into the pop culture lexicon. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with its use of “Misirlou” on the opening credits and various surf tracks throughout the film, perked up ears that either weren’t familiar or had dismissed the genre. It’s a hard task to listen to “Miserlou” now and not think about Amanda Plummer’s threat of extermination, or listening to The Revel’s romp “Comanche” without thinking of Marcellus Wallace getting raped over a barrel. Tarantino’s use of surf music brilliantly fit the films pop noir sensibilities, and audiences were hooked. Surf music was once again hip, and surf bands like Man or Astroman?, The Phantom Surfers, Laika and the Cosmonauts, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet and numerous others benefitted immensely from Pulp Fiction’s success. Indie labels such as Sub Pop, Merge, Touch & Go and Lookout Records all had one or two surf bands on their rosters, and it wasn’t uncommon to go to shows and and see punk bands with surf bands on the same bill.
Surf Music is still alive and kicking, and almost every city has their staple surf bands. They're the ones with the 3 older guys in Hawaiian shirts and the young punk rocker bashing the skins. Dick Dale usually has the local flavor opening up for him on tour. Dale is still out there, bringing his reverbed staccato “tribal thunder” with him from town to town. putting on a show no man his age should be capable of. The surf is still up, Hang 10 everyone, catch the wave and have an endless summer.