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A Firsthand Account of the Origin of the Term, 'Surf Music'
By Paul Johnson, The Lance Monthly
(more articles from this author)
2000-11-14
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My band, the Belairs, recorded "Mr. Moto" in April of '61 -- well before anyone even thought of labeling such sounds as surf music. Dick Dale recorded "Let's Go Trippin'" shortly thereafter, and I guarantee that contrary to the popular myth, he had no more "surf" connotation in mind than we did. As for the Belairs, we were developing our own music based on what we had learned from our '50s ROCK INSTRUMENTAL heroes-- Duane Eddy, Link Wray, the Fireballs and Johnny & the Hurricanes (names that still move me to swoons of reverie). At that time, it was all about the MUSIC, with no secondary themes or images attached.

Then in the summer of '61, we and Dale both began playing in the beach area (we in Redondo and he in Balboa). And because of geography and the serendipity of timing (that was the summer when the new surf scene first hit California), it just so happened that all the new young surfers showed up at our dances.

A cultural explosion ensued. To illustrate the essence of what happened, I recall my vivid memory of the night one of these local surfers (as I recall, it was Lance Carson) came up to me and said, "Wow, man--your music sounds just like it feels out there on a wave! It's like, SURF music, man!" And I recall thinking, "Hmm, an interesting idea--never thought of that . . ." and I was mildly amused (but not overwhelmed) by the concept.

As the summer progressed, Dale and the Belairs both developed huge followings among the surfers, and yes, we were stoked. It was an incredible time. We heard more and more comments like the one quoted above (another one I remember was, "you guys oughta make a record and call it the 'Surfer Stomp!'") and I'm sure Dale was getting a lot of the same kind of feedback too . . .

But even as both of our records rose up the local charts in early '62 (thanks to the support of these fans) the name "surf music" was only beginning to stick. No band was yet grabbing onto it in a self-conscious way, because (and this is the important part) it was still all about the MUSIC (not the image), and the rush at that time was all about ENJOYING the phenomenon, not LABELING it! It may be hard to comprehend in today's sophisticated world, but the thing that gave the music the quality to birth a movement was its innocence and lack of pretense. (And I'm happy to say that these are still the best qualities of the modern movement, though they are under siege.) Mind you, there were only a handful of young bands at that time, and the whole idea of kids having bands was brand new. There were no maps--there was no self-conscious sense of ourselves or of the "importance" of what we were doing, or of a need to name it. This was brand-new territory, and the beauty of what was happening was its spontaneity -- NOBODY fully understood it, and thus nobody manipulated it or controlled it. It was much too real for that.

And again, contrary to the popular myth, nobody INVENTED it! If anybody should get the credit for "inventing" surf music, it should be those surfers, who chose to embrace our music and call it their own. Accordingly, I take pride in my identity as a "surf" musician to this day not because I chose it, but rather because "it" chose me.

When the Beach Boys' "Surfin'" came out at about the same time (early '62), their attempt to create a pop image out of this unbridled phenomenon was met mostly with puzzlement, and sometimes outright scorn, among the local surfers. I remember some of them threatening to go beat up these "gremmies" for what they perceived as a "candy-coating" of the image of the new surfers, who by now had fully embraced the music of the Deltones, the Belairs, the Rhythm Rockers and a few others as "their own." And that music was much more R&B influenced--much tougher sounding--than what it came to be later. But it is fair to say that at this point in early '62, the surfers knew full well what "surf music" meant to them, and it wasn't the Beach Boys.

And it wasn't reverb either. Believe it or not, all of the above happened BEFORE the Fender reverb even came on the scene! THAT happened a little later in '62; then the Surfmen came out with "Paradise Cove," the Sentinals had "Latinia" and the Tornados hit with "Bustin' Surfboards." This marked the point where that next wave of bands began to make a self-conscious thematic identification with the now-established idea that our regional style of rock-instrumental music had been adopted as the "official" music of the new surf culture, and the wet sound of the reverb just naturally fit in. When Dale added the reverb to his already powerhouse tone, that settled it: THIS WAS SURF MUSIC in full flower!

I could go on; I could tell of how it was only after the Beach Boys STOPPED singing about surfing that they became fully OK with the surfers; I could talk of how by the summer of '63, authentic surf music thrived DESPITE the commercial parody of it that Hollywood was churning out; and how by then the hybridization process was already fully under way, and the lines of the pure genre's distinction were already getting blurred. And how we never got to see how it would have ultimately played out, because it all became instantly irrelevant from the moment the Beatles hit in '64 . . .

I will touch on the fact that in 1980, when I jumped back in at the beginning of the revival with the Packards, all these questions under discussion today were very live issues for us. I remember having intense conversations with my partners about whether what we were doing should be labeled "surf music" (after all, wasn't that the catchall term in 1980 for anything from the Ventures to Frankie & Annette?) or should we just identify it with the original "mother form" -- rock instrumental? (Keep in mind--this was an open question in 1980.) We decided to call our first album "Pray for Surf" because although in my own mind I had returned to thinking of my music as primarily "rock instrumental," we recognized that in the mind of our audience it was much more accessible if we called it surf music. And I thought, "What the heck! I don't care what they call it--if that's the handle that they relate it to, so be it!"

All the while, I was aware (as I still am) that the handle is both an asset and a limitation. It's an asset because it's much harder to try to explain to someone that what you're doing is "short, melodic instrumental guitar tunes rooted in the classic tradition of the late '50s and early '60s, etc." People would just get this quizzical look on their face; and then if I would simply say, "y'know, SURF music," they would light up and say, "Oh, I get it!"

The problem was, at that time, they would often add, "like Frankie & Annette and the Beach Boys!" (Obviously, all the subtlety of what true surf music was had been all but lost to most people in the early '80s.) This problem (surf's "lightweight" image in the public perception) prevailed until Pulp Fiction. Then it became the opposite problem: suddenly the public perception was that it was all about violent amoral drug dealers and basement sodomists!

All of this has only reinforced my deep-seated inclination to simply identify with THE MUSIC first and foremost, and regard all the images we may associate with it as secondary. From the beginning, the attempt to categorize this music has been all about the struggle to create a myth around a "larger than myth" reality. It's like trying to gild the lily, or put fins on a Mercedes. Or catch smoke in a bottle.

Perception is often quite different from reality; yet many people today assume that their perception IS reality. Accordingly, to the degree that the public insists on perceiving anything "rock instrumental" to be "surf music," then as a matter of convenience and for the sake of communication I will call what I do (and what most of you do) surf music. But please--let's have no illusions: TRUE surf music was that specific instro music the surfers embraced in the early '60s; modern instro bands play true surf music when a tune reflects those original surf music values; but it's most accurate to say that the ultimate "mother" category for just about all the modern bands now loosely categorized as "surf" is ROCK INSTRUMENTAL (a.k.a. "INSTRO") music.

For instance, to ease the confusion we might call a band like the Mermen a modern ROCK INSTRUMENTAL band with a strong surf influence (along with some progressive elements). Then we don't have to come all unglued over whether they fit into the much smaller box we're trying to cram them into (or kick them out of). In other words, understand that the true mother form that most all these bands trace back to is the ROCK-INSTRO music of Duane, Link, The Ventures-- even the CHAMPS and Bill Doggett, doggonit! THESE are our real common ancestors! What we lovingly call "surf" was our favorite sub genre --a regional offshoot of the mother form--the one that bonded with the surf culture in 1961; we can save all this sweat about what to call "surf" if we simply call the larger body of our music what it REALLY is: rock instrumental; then we can go on (to our heart's delight) and fine-tune our description of individual bands by specifying their varying degrees of surf influence.

The term "rock-instrumental" easily includes all of it, and it's a perfect fit with no sweat or strain. And anything under this larger umbrella that also evokes echoes of authentic surf music is fully worthy of that term as well.

These terms should be used for describing, not for deriding. (The preferred term for deriding is "it sucks!"--and this should be applied to quality, not category.) So I suggest we get back to just digging all good music for what it is, recognizing and appreciating the influences we hear in it for what they are, and let it go at that.

BTW -- you'll note in my signature below how I broadly categorize my music. This does not exclude my surf music credentials -- it includes them AND it affirms where I started from (my core music values, which I still embrace). Be assured that the main thrust of my effort as an "instro" musician has always been (and will continue to be) TO KEEP PLAYING THE KIND OF MUSIC THAT FIRST GOT ALL THOSE SURFERS STOKED IN THE SUMMER OF '61, regardless of how well this fits anybody's secondary definition of "surf music." After all, whose definition should claim more authority than the one that was given at the beginning? PAUL JOHNSON rock instrumentals pmotoj@hotmail.com 4910 Via Arequipa Carlsbad, CA 92008


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