Surf music

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Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture, particularly as found in Orange County and other areas of Southern California. It was especially popular from 1961 to 1966, has subsequently been revived and was highly influential on subsequent rock music.[7] It has two major forms: largely instrumental surf rock, with an electric guitar or saxophone playing the main melody, largely pioneered by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, and vocal surf pop, including both surf ballads and dance music, often with strong harmonies that are most associated with The Beach Boys.

The surf music sound was dominated by electric guitars played through spring reverb and using the vibrato arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward. Surf music was one of the early adopters of the electric bass. Surf music often used an electric organ or an electric piano featured as backing harmony.

Many notable surf bands have been equally noted for both surf instrumental and surf pop music, so surf music is generally considered as a single genre despite the variety of these styles.[7] During the later stages of the surf music craze, many groups started to leave surfing behind and write songs about cars and girls; this was later known as hot rod rock.[8] Surf music is often referred to as simply surf rock, even though the genre has many forms.[9]

Instrumental surf rock[edit]

1963 Performance Flyer


Surf music began in the early 1960s as instrumental dance music, almost always in straight 4/4 (or common) time, with a medium to fast tempo. The sound was dominated by electric guitars which were particularly characterized by the extensive use of the "wet" spring reverb that was incorporated into Fender amplifiers from 1961, which is thought to emulate the sound of the waves.[7] Guitarists also made use of the vibrato arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward, electronic tremolo effects and rapid (alternating) tremolo picking.[10] Guitar models favored included those made by Fender (particularly the Mustang, Jazzmaster, Jaguar and Stratocaster guitars), Mosrite, Teisco, or Danelectro, usually with single coil pickups (which had high treble in contrast to double coil humbucker pickups).[11] Surf music was one of the first genres to universally adopt the electric bass, particularly the Fender Precision Bass. Classic surf drum kits tended to be Rogers, Ludwig, Gretsch or Slingerland. Some popular songs also incorporated a tenor or baritone saxophone, as on "Surf Rider" and "Comanche".[12] Often an electric organ or an electric piano featured as backing harmony.[citation needed]


By the early 1960s, instrumental rock and roll had been pioneered successfully by performers such as Link Wray, The Ventures and Duane Eddy.[13] This trend was developed by Dick Dale, who added Middle Eastern and Mexican influences, the distinctive reverb[7] (giving the guitar a "wet" sound),[14] and the rapid alternate picking characteristic of the genre[7] (influenced by Arabic music, which Dale learnt from his Lebanese uncle).[15] His performances at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California during the summer of 1961,[16] and his regional hit "Let's Go Trippin'" later that year, launched the surf music craze, which he followed up with hits like "Misirlou" (1962).[7]

Dick Dale performing at The Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 2005
Dick Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'" (1961), which launched the surf music craze of the early 1960s.

Dick Dale's "Misirlou" (1962), a surf rock cover version of a folk song. It is often considered Dale's signature single.

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Like Dale and his Del-Tones, most early surf bands were formed in Southern California, with Orange County in particular having a strong surf culture, and the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa hosted many surf-styled acts.[16][17] Groups such as The Bel-Airs (whose hit "Mr. Moto", influenced by Dale's earlier live performances,[16] was released slightly before "Let's Go Trippin'"), The Challengers (with their album Surfbeat) and then Eddie & the Showmen followed Dale to regional success.[18] In late 1961, the Beach Boys had their first chart hit, "Surfin'", which managed to reach number 75 on the Hot 100.[19] In mid-1962, the group released their major-label debut, "Surfin' Safari". The song hit number 14 and helped launch the surf rock craze into a national phenomenon.[20]

The Chantays scored a top ten national hit with "Pipeline", reaching number 4 in May 1963. Probably the single-most famous surf tune hit was "Wipe Out" with its intro of a wicked laugh by the Surfaris; the Surfaris were also known for their cutting-edge lead guitar and drum solos, and Wipe Out reached number two on the Hot 100 in August 1963 and number 16 in October 1966. The group also had two other global hits, "Surfer Joe" and "Point Panic".[21] In March 1963, the Beach Boys released one of the best-known surf rock songs, "Surfin' U.S.A.", which incorporated surf lyrics and the melody from Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen".[22]

The growing popularity of the genre led groups from other areas to try their hand. These included The Astronauts, from Boulder, Colorado; The Trashmen, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who reached number 4 with "Surfin' Bird" in 1964; and The Rivieras, from South Bend, Indiana, who reached number 5 in 1964 with "California Sun".[7] The Atlantics, from Sydney, Australia, were not exclusively surf musicians, but made a significant contribution to the genre, the most famous example being their hit "Bombora" (1963).[7] Also from Sydney were The Denvermen, whose lyrical instrumental "Surfside" reached number 1 in the Australian charts.[23] Another Australian surf band who were known outside their own country's surf scene was The Joy Boys, backing band for singer Col Joye; their hit "Murphy the Surfie" (1963) was later covered by the Surfaris.[24]

European bands around this time generally focused more on the style played by the Shadows. A notable example of European surf instrumental is Spanish band Los Relampagos' rendition of "Misirlou". The Dakotas, who were the British backing band for Merseybeat singer Billy J. Kramer, gained some attention as surf musicians with "Cruel Sea" (1963), which was later covered by The Ventures, and eventually other instrumental surf bands, including the Challengers and the Revelairs.[25]

Vocal surf pop[edit]

The Beach Boys performing in 1964

Although it began as a purely instrumental form, surf music achieved its greatest commercial success as vocal music. Most associated with this movement were the Beach Boys, formed in 1961 in Southern California. Their early albums included both instrumental surf rock, including covers of music by Dick Dale, and vocal songs, drawing on rock and roll and doo wop and the close harmonies of vocal pop acts like the Four Freshmen.[7] Other vocal surf acts followed, including one-hit wonders like Bruce and Terry with "Summer Means Fun", The Rivieras with "California Sun", Ronny & the Daytonas with "G.T.O.", and the Rip Chords with "Hey Little Cobra", all from early 1964. The latter two hits both reached the top ten, but the only other act to achieve sustained success with the formula were Jan & Dean, who had a number 1 hit with "Surf City" (co-written with Brian Wilson) in 1963.[7]

Hot rod rock[edit]

Hot rod rock is a form of surf music that incorporates instrumental surf rock with car noises (revving engines and screeching tires). From 1963, the Beach Boys began to leave surfing behind as subject matter as Brian Wilson became their major composer and producer, moving on to the more general themes of male adolescence, including cars and girls, in songs like "Don't Worry Baby" (1964) and "Little Deuce Coupe" (1963).[19] "Little Deuce Coupe" has been cited as one of the earliest forms of hard rock with its series of buzzing beats.[26] Hot rod group the Fantastic Baggys wrote many songs for Jan and Dean, but also did a few vocals for the duo.[27]


The surf music craze, with the careers of almost all surf acts, was effectively ended by the British Invasion beginning ca. 1964.[7] The emerging garage rock, folk rock, blues rock and later psychedelic rock genres also contributed to the decline of surf rock.[28] Only the Beach Boys were able to sustain popularity after attempting to move away from their initial surf image beginning in late 1964,[29] producing a string of hit singles and albums, including the sharply divergent Pet Sounds (1966). Subsequently, they became the only American rock or pop group that could arguably rival the Beatles,[19] and would not record another hot rod or surfing-themed song until 1968's "Do It Again"[30] and 1976's "It's O.K.".[citation needed]

Influence and revival[edit]

Man or Astro-man? performing live in 2010

The use of instrumental surf rock style guitar for the soundtrack of Dr. No (1962), recorded by Vic Flick with the John Barry Seven, meant that it was reused in many of the films in the James Bond series, and influenced the music of many spy films of the 1960s.[31] Surf music also influenced a number of later rock musicians, including Keith Moon of The Who,[7] East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys, and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago.[32] During the mid-to late 1990s, surf rock experienced a revival with surf acts, including Dick Dale recording once more, partly due to the popularity of the movie Pulp Fiction (1994), which used Dale's "Misirlou" and other surf rock songs in the soundtrack.[7] New surf bands were formed, including Man or Astro-man?, The Mermen, Los Straitjackets and The New Electric Sound. In the 1980s, skateboard punk band JFA combined the Dead Kennedys' "Police Truck" with the Chantays' "Pipeline" to create the revved-up surf/skate homage "Pipe Truck."[33] In 2012, Orchestra Nova San Diego premiered "Surf", a symphonic homage to surf music, the ocean and surfing, by classical composer Joseph Waters.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ R. Sabin, Punk rock: so what? : the cultural legacy of punk (Routledge, 1999), p. 159.
  2. ^ Marcel Danesi, "Forever young: the teen-aging of modern culture" (University of Toronto Press, 2003), ISBN 0-8020-8620-9, p. 83.
  3. ^ Besssman (1993), p. 16; Marcus (1979), p. 114; Simpson (2003), p. 72; McNeil (1997), p. 206.
  4. ^ Bovey, Seth (2006). "Don't Tread on Me: The Ethos of '60s Garage Punk". Popular Music & Society (Routledge) 29 (4): 451–459. doi:10.1080/03007760600787515. 
  5. ^ Sabin, Roger (1999). Punk Rock, So What?: The Cultural Legacy of Punk. Routledge. p. 99. ISBN 0-415-17029-X. 
  6. ^ Huey, Steve. "Dick Dale". AllMusic. Retrieved 25 July 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m V. Bogdanov, C. Woodstra and S. T. Erlewine, AllMusic guide to rock: the definitive guide to rock, pop, and soul (Backbeat Books, 3rd edn., 2002), pp. 1313-4.
  8. ^ "Hot rod rock". Allmusic. Retrieved 23 April 2011. .
  9. ^ "Surf music". Allmusic. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  10. ^ A. J. Millard, The Electric Guitar (JHU Press, 2004), p. 129.
  11. ^ T. Wheeler, The Stratocaster chronicles: Fender : celebrating 50 years of the Fender Strat (Hal Leonard, 2004), p. 117.
  12. ^ R. Unterberger, S. Hicks and J. Dempsey, Music USA: the rough guide (Rough Guides, 1999), p. 382.
  13. ^ Sabin, Roger, Punk Rock: So What?: The Cultural Legacy of Punk (Routledge books, July 1999), ISBN 0415170303, p. 158.
  14. ^ "Dick Dale – Discover music, videos, concerts, stats, & pictures at". 2009-02-11. Retrieved 2012-03-03. 
  15. ^ Holgate, Steve (14 September 2006). "Guitarist Dick Dale Brought Arabic Folk Song to Surf Music". The Washington File. Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 29 August 2010. 
  16. ^ a b c "Rendezvous Ballroom". Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum. Archived from the original on 2011-07-19. Retrieved 13 February 2011. 
  17. ^ Roger Sabin, Punk rock: so what?: the cultural legacy of punk (Routledge, 1999), p. 158.
  18. ^ J. Blair, The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965 (Pierian Press, 2nd edn., 1985), p. 2.
  19. ^ a b c V. Bogdanov, C. Woodstra and S. T. Erlewine, All music guide to rock: the definitive guide to rock, pop, and soul (Backbeat Books, 3rd edn., 2002), pp. 71-2.
  20. ^ J. Bush. "The Beach Boys". Allmusic. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  21. ^ J. Blair, The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965 (Pierian Press, 2nd edn., 1985), p. 75.
  22. ^ Ben Marcus and Jeff Divine, Surfing USA!: An Illustrated History of the Coolest Sport of All Time (MVP Books, 2005), ISBN 0896586901, p. 95.
  23. ^ "The Denvermen, Sydney, 1961-65", MILESAGO: Australasian Music and Popular Culture 1964-1975, retrieved 18 May 2010.
  24. ^ M. Warshaw, The Encyclopedia of Surfing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), pp. 776-7.
  25. ^ J. Blair, The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965 (Pierian Press, 2nd edn., 1985), p. 126.
  26. ^ J. Milward, The Beach Boys Silver Anniversary (Doubleday, 1985), ISBN 0-385-19650-4, p. 48.
  27. ^ "The Fantastic Baggys". Allmusic. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  28. ^ J. Blair, The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965 (Pierian Press, 1985), ISBN 0-87650-174-9, p. 9.
  29. ^ Welch, C. (November 14, 1964). "Beach Boys Brought Their Own Vegetables - So Audiences Beware!". Melody Maker: 10. 
  30. ^ Badman, Keith (2004). The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America's Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio. p. 221. 
  31. ^ K. Spencer, Film and television scores, 1950-1979: a critical survey by genre (McFarland, 2008), pp. 61-70.
  32. ^ M. Vorhees and J. Spelman, Lonely Planet Boston (Lonely Planet, 3rd edn., 2007). pp. 6 and 34.
  33. ^ "Interview with Brian Brannon of JFA". TX Punk. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  34. ^ ""Surf" — Swarmius Takes Orchestra Nova To The Beach". San Diego Reader. Retrieved 10 June 2012.