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History of Surf Rock Music
by Alex Cosper (12/15/12)

Surf rock music clearly came from early experimental rock bands influenced by West Coast beaches of California and the Pacific Northwest. The first bands to be considered "surf rock" were Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and the Ventures. The latter made the bigger national splash in the summer of 1960 with their instrumental cover of "Walk, Don't Run." The song, although previously recorded by Chet Atkins, was made well known by the Ventures and many music historians cite the hit as altering the course of rock and roll.

It was the first time a rock and roll hit broke away from specific chord patterns, venturing into a new musical direction that put a heavy emphasis on lead guitar melodies that went beyond short familiar riffs. While Chuck Berry laid the groundwork for all rock that followed, the Ventures were the bridge between 50s rock and roll and the more diverse sounds of 60s rock.

The Ventures came from Seattle, where many musical revolutions are born. Jimi Hendrix also came from Seattle and wound up on tours playing guitar for the Beach Boys, who began having pop hits in the fall of 1962, starting with "Surfin' Safari." While the Beach Boys painted ocean themes in their lyrics set to Chuck Berry-styled riffs, the Ventures painted mental images of the coast strictly with instrumentals.

The top ten success of "Walk, Don't Run" might be explained by the fact that the melody was simply "far out" compared to most rock and roll hits. Instead of the E-A-B chord progression that had become common in rock music, the Ventures used a more folk-leaning progression of A-G-F-E with a melody that challenged to push the orange pylon further, hitting high notes that extended the dynamics of rock. It was kind of like how a surfer takes on the challenge of riding a big wave.

The song "Walk, Don't Run" was actually a cover of a tune written by jazz artist Johnny Smith six years earlier. While the versions by Smith and Atkins had a tranquil flavor, the Venutures' version was energized by a heavy drum track. Clearly, it had a big influence on later surf instrumentals such as "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris, which was big in 1963, then again re-issued three years later. "Walk, Don't Run" was also a hit twice with two different versions, with the second in 1964 using more effects.

"Perfidia" was an even more melodicly unique follow-up for the Ventures, offering a sweeter more reflective sound, yet still maintained an original vibe, although it was also a cover. The song was originally written by Alberto Dominguez in the late thirties and was made popular by Latin artist Xavier Cugat in 1940. Two years later it was featured in the movie Casablanca, but again, it was the Ventures who turned it into a surf classic in 1960.

As the Beach Boys became popular in 1963, they inspired other surf artists such as Jan and Dean, who sang songs about cars, pretty girls and beaches. The Beach Boys hits of that era included "Surfin' USA," "Surfer Girl" and the double-sided hit "Be True To Your School"/"In My Room." Meanwhile, Jan & Dean, who first started having national pop hits in 1958 about ordinary topics, shifted their focus to surf imagery in 1963, capitalizing with the number one hit "Surf City."

Instrumental surf rock also gained more popularity in the spring of 1963 with the Chantays hit "Pipeline." What made this standout so different was its emphasis on bass, organ and rhythm guitar in the foreground, while drums and lead guitar were set lower in the mix. The interesting contrast is how the melancholy lead guitar is overpowered by the more energetic yet subdued bass line and sweet organ sounds.

Many surf bands were inspired by hits like "Walk, Don't Run," "Wipe Out" and "Pipeline." By 1964 the British Invasion, folk and Motown were beginning to take over the spotlight, but surf artists still managed to appear on the charts. Jan & Dean continued to chart with "Ride the Wild Surf" and "Sidewalk Surfin'" while the Beach Boys racked up more hits, leaning more toward cruising songs such as "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "I Get Around."

They still captured the imagery of the West Coast with "California Girls" in 1965 and "Good Vibrations" in 1966. The T-Bones scored an instrumental surf hit in late 1965 with "No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach's In)." The last big surf hit of what is known as the 60s surf era was the theme to the TV series "Hawaii Five-O" by the Ventures in 1969.

Many people think surf rock died after that period because it fell off the charts, but surf bands continue to record as regional acts and every now and then hints of the surf sound resurface in the pop scene. The Beach Boys, for example, had a comeback hit with "Surfin' USA" in 1974 when they released their compiliation album Endless Summer. They also sang backup on the 1975 Chicago hit "Wishing You Were Here" with beautifully haunting harmonies that triggered visions of a ghost on the beach.

In 1987 the Beach Boys sang backup on a surf/rap tribute by the Fatboys called "Wipe Out." Then the following year the Beach Boys were back at the top of the charts with their tropical island song "Kokomo." Another great ocean song of that period was "Ghost On The Beach" by The Insiders, but it didn't chart high.

Since that time many lesser known bands such as the Mermen have picked up where 60s surf music left off. Even the Ventures kept on touring through the new century. Dick Dale continued to tour in the 2000s until his death in 2019. He was even considered a modern rock artist at festivals presented by alternative rock San Francisco station Live 105 in the 1990s.

Dale's 1962 version of "Misirlou" is considered a surf rock classic and the key to how the cover became well known in America. The song made its greatest impact when it was featured in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Some historians cite Dale as the first "guitar shredder" due to his fast playing on "Misirlou" and other early surf recordings. Shredding also appeared on the Surfaris' follow-up hit to "Wipe Out" called "Point Panic" in 1963. These challenging new sounds led to the Ventures updating "Walk, Don't Run" for 1964.

The reason surf music lives on in the underground sense is that it is usually upbeat adventurous music that triggers fun memories of the sixties and coastal imagery. While many surf bands imitate the simple melodic guitar riffs of sixties hits, the true spirit of the style is blending traditional ideas with new ideas, creating sounds of a new wave.

SUNSETRIP - There Will Always Be Surf

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