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A Discussion of the Origins of Surf Rock Instrumentals
Views from Two Different Perspectives
By Dick Stewart, The Lance Monthly
(more articles from this author)
2003-08-12
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Being a member of a surf-web ring, I recently read a post by a newby to the board who was seeking a right-on definition of "Surf Rock." Although this has been asked a number of times in the past, I decided to throw my two-cents in from a "first waver’s" point of view. (A "first waver" is a surf-guitar instrumentalist who performed during the time when the genre was still in its infancy.) My perspective was solely from what I was familiar with on a mainstream-radio basis (what was being played a lot nationally), which limited my knowledge on the one-hit wonders and the artists that made a name for themselves regionally during the early ‘60s. To me, all that really mattered were The Ventures and the Fireballs, because mainstream radio made them the leaders of the genre from 1959 to 1963.

On the other hand, 34-year-old Ivan Pongracic, who was never biased by the early ‘60s mainstream-radio airplays (he wasn’t born yet), responded with a great deal of knowledge about the lesser known surf bands of the early ‘60s, because of his ardent passion for the music genre itself. Says Pongracic, "I judged groups solely on how much I liked their music, not on their popularity, so I ended up being interested in many obscure bands. I grew up listening to the Shadows in former Yugoslavia, discovered surf music in the eighties and early nineties, formed the Space Cossacks in '96, fulfilling a long-held fantasy, and releasing two critically-acclaimed CDs (1998's Interstellar Stomp and 2000's Tsar Wars). [I] formed the Troubadours, a Shadows’ tribute band, with my father in 2000, fulfilling an even longer-held fantasy." Ivan Pongracic is an economics professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsday, Michigan. Space Cossacks (not updated)

[Dick Stewart] I'll take a shot at it from a first waver's point of view:

The Fireballs, from my great state of New Mexico, under the engineering of Norman Petty from Clovis, dazzled the world with a new and exciting style of instrumental guitar rock. Shortly thereafter, The Ventures became the supreme leaders in this genre (wasn't labeled surf then) and were successful in severely weakening the dominance of the vocal artists during the very early '60s. Dick Dale became famous for his double-picking instrumental technique, which was featured in a series of early '60s beach movies that contained the sport of surfing. Although it still wasn't called surf music then, Dale's style is, without a doubt, the principal ingredient that defined the surf rock instro genre.

"Surf" is a modern title and today it is used to point in the direction of the founding fathers and definers of that instrumental genre. It's also a reference to the modern surf groups, as their efforts are heavily influenced by those who originally introduced the-then unnamed genre. Now when I say that the surf title didn't exist in reference to the late '50s and early '60s rock-guitar-instro efforts, it certainly did for The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Back then when one spoke of "surf," one thought of the Beach Boys first and Jan and Dean second.

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Ivan Pongracic I appreciate Dick's account of [the] history of the genre, but I believe he's a bit off on this point: "Now when I say that the surf title didn't exist in reference to the late '50s and early '60s rock guitar instro efforts, it did for The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Back then when one spoke of ‘surf,’ one thought of the Beach Boys first and Jan and Dean second.”

While I'm absolutely sure he's right about this when we're talking about kids in most of the country, I don’t think this is right when it came to the birthplace of surf music: Southern California. From everything I have read, I think we can safely say that the surf music label, just like the “rock'n'roll music” label, was applied to both vocal and instrumental music. The term was first used in late ’61, and it started receiving a lot of prominence in ‘62 when three albums came out within a few weeks of each other: Dick Dale's Surfers' Choice, the Challengers’ Surfbeat, and the Beach Boys' Surfin' Safari. All three were big-sellers (in fact, I think that the Challengers album may have sold the most initially).

When you look at the names of the songs ("Pipeline," "Wipe Out," "Surf Beat," "Banzai Washout," "Toes on the Nose," "Bombora," "Surf Rider," "Bustin’ Surfboards," etc.) and, maybe even more importantly, the albums (Surf Drums, Surf Beat, Surfin’ with . . . , Surf Fever, Surfer’s Choice, Summer Surf, etc.) that instro bands were releasing from ’62 through '64, it's clear that at least in California, instrumental music was considered as much surf music as the music by the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. Since instro surf records almost all come from California, it makes sense that the more recent instrumental bands inspired by the likes of Dick Dale, the Chantays, the Surfaris, Eddie & the Showmen, the Lively Ones, etc. would call their music "surf" in the '60s California tradition. The bottom line: surf music was definitely not just a label for vocal music.

[Dick Stewart] Well, Ivan, I guess I should have started out with my take by saying, "from a first waver's view outside the state of California." I can't dispute your statement that the genre title of "surf" did exist during the early '60s in California, in which it made as much reference to instrumental bands as to that of vocals. But outside of California and on the national mainstream level, guitar rock instrumentals were referred to as guitar rock instrumentals, period, and "surf music" was principally in reference to Beach Boy or Jan and Dean efforts.

This I'm certain of: 1) Duane Eddy popularized the vibrato; 2) The Fireballs set forth the meat-and-potatoes framework for guitar rock instrumentals; 3) The Ventures put the Fender guitar on the map and popularized the bridge tremolo; and 4) Dick Dale made double picking famous.

In addition to the unmistakable timing of surf, all these artists employed some or a lot of reverb during the birth and refinement of guitar instrumentals from 1959 through 1963.

I made mention only to these four artists because of their major sound contributions and because of their household name status. In short, they are the principal pioneers of "surf" as we know it today.

Ivan Pongracic Thank you, Dick. I think this is really helpful, and maps out the evolution of the genre really well. Duane Eddy also popularized rock 'n' roll guitar as a lead instrument, and probably started many a guitarist down that quest for TONE, which is still with us today!

The Fireballs definitely were the pioneers not only of the basic form of a surf instrumental ("Bulldog" comes to mind), but they also showed the possibilities of palm muting, Fender instruments used in the lead, and that all that is needed to play great-sounding instrumentals is a four-piece band consisting of a lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums.

The Ventures brought a bit of a more rockin' approach, as well as a bit more melody and less riffing. All of this predated true surf music, but like you point out, surf music wouldn't exist without all of these.

Now, as far as real surf instrumental music goes, what is it? Larry "Moon Dawg" White has a great discussion of this in the Cowabunga FAQ that dates back to at least '95. You can find it at: http://www.poprecords.com/cowabunga/.

In order to understand how the surf music label ended up being applied to the instro sounds, we should take a look at the evolution of the genre.

There were two strains of surf instro music: the Orange County (i.e. Dick Dale) and the South Bay (i.e. the Belairs). The Belairs were definitely influenced by The Fireballs and The Ventures in a big way, and saw themselves basically carrying on with that style and sound. It was the local surfers that latched onto The Belairs’ sound and proclaimed it their music, therefore establishing a direct link between surf music and The Fireballs and The Ventures. But The Belairs infused the genre with a slightly different slant on melody, arrangements, and songwriting. A good example is "Mr. Moto," one of the very first surf songs, which contained several new elements: the rhythm guitar playing the repeated palm-muted riff behind the lead guitar, the somewhat-exotic sound and theme, and a minor-key verse followed by a major-key bridge section. All of these elements became very influential to later surf songs, especially something like "Pipeline."

Dick Dale, on the other hand, though certainly familiar with The Fireballs and The Ventures, was much more innovative and revolutionary. In fact, he was doing his own thing as far back as '59, predating The Ventures (though I don't believe that "Miserlou" was recorded in '58 as he sometimes claims). The bottom line is that his instrumentals don't sound ANYTHING like The Ventures and The Fireballs. His technique, his tonalities, his melodies, his guitar sound, they were all totally unique. He [not] only popularized the use of double picking (which was completely his, no other band did anything [that] even approached that before him), he did much more than that: He popularized a very LOUD approach to music (as he loves to point out, he blew up quite a few Fender amps before Leo Fender designed the Showman amp for him); he made acceptable a somewhat distorted lead guitar sound (quite a contrast to The Ventures and The Fireballs); he also popularized a VERY aggressive and energetic playing style, as well as the use of Middle-Eastern and Mexican tonalities in surf music; and finally, [he employed] a very heavy dose of the Fender outboard reverb.

Dick released "Let's Go Trippin’" (his first instrumental single) in the Fall of '61, and a good case can be made that it is THE first surf song, first instance where the local surfers started saying, "this is our music." In fact, surfers were telling that to Dick probably at least since 1960 or even earlier, which is why this song had a surf-referenced title. ("Trippin" was what surfers did when they went to a surfing locale some distance away, not when they lit up a joint.) The title was Dick’s figurative embrace of his primary audience, and it identified his music with surfing ever since.

He went on to actually develop several techniques, which were intended to simulate the sound of surfing, of being inside the "tube," such as the guitar glissando, which he sometimes played on high strings to stimulate the whizzing, whooshing sound that a board or a part of a surfer’s body makes when slicing through the water; when played on the low strings it was intended to stimulate the powerful rumble of a big wave rolling below a surfer.

His use of heavy reverb was also intended to emulate the natural reverberation, as well as the pure white noise of big waves. Being a surfer enabled him to come up with music evocative of the actual experience of surfing.

All subsequent surf instro music drew from this mix: Dick Dale, The Belairs, The Ventures, The Fireballs, and Duane Eddy. There is no doubt though, that for most surf instro acts, Dick Dale reigned supreme. When people talk about surf music as distinguished from rock instrumentals, they are usually referring to music that features at least some of the elements introduced by Dick Dale. He had a powerful impact on other young musicians. Even Eddie Bertrand, though a founding member of the pioneering Belairs, left the band in order to start his own band that sounded a lot like, you guessed it, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones (that would be Eddie & the Showmen, in case you didn't know).

Bands like the Surfaris, the Original Surfaris, and the Lively Ones also owed much to Dick Dale. But surf music wasn't just about copying the music of this one man. There were a lot of creative young folks playing it, and they took surf music in myriad of new directions, continuing to evolve it. They sometimes combined elements that Dick introduced with some elements of the other major instrumental acts preceding surf music, and other times came up with their own innovative contributions.

The Astronauts, for example, developed a recognizable, unique style using the contemporary surf bands (especially The Chantays and The Pyramids) as an inspiration, but then adding their own special ingredients. Their trademark consisted of the first guitarist only playing rhythmically steady, heavily reverbed root notes of the chord progression, the second guitarist strumming and arpeggiating non-reverbed chords, and the third guitarist playing heavily reverbed and muted lead lines in the upper registers.

The Sentinals are another good example, bringing in Latino and R&B/soul influences. The lines between "true" surf instrumentals and plain rock instrumentals become very blurry at this point. In fact, some self-identified surf instro bands did not use much reverb, double picking, or even Fender instruments. Jim Weller & the Deltas and Johnny Fortune are two examples. (For a guide on what is to be labeled as surf music, refer to Moon Dawg’s great discussion listed above.)

Between late 1961 and mid –1964, instro surf music went through quite a few changes and variation, and then it just stopped, frozen in time. After demonstrating all the possible directions in which it could be taken and further developed (exotic influences, R&B, space-surf, hot-rod-surf), the genre just disappeared. This is probably one of the main reasons why it’s so appealing to young musicians today: the genre has not been exhausted. As demonstrated by so many bands in the nineties, there was plenty of room left in it for self-expression and finding one’s own compelling voice. I believe that is still the case.

Where do the Shadows fit into all of this? The Shadows were a British band, and by the time surf music became big in 1963, they were one of the biggest acts in the world outside the USA. In England they rivaled the Beatles hit-for-hit until about '64, when the Beatles turned into a phenomenon with "Hard Day's Night." It should be obvious that the Shadows had no knowledge of what was going on in SoCal in ‘62 and ‘63 (a localized development by any definition), and once a few surf songs became hits, it should be understandable why they were not about to jump on some faraway trend!

The Shadows got their start in late '58 backing Cliff Richard, one of the earliest British rock’n’rollers, [and] released some relatively weak instros and vocals in '59. Then [they] exploded in the summer of 1960 (around the same time as The Ventures in the USA) with "Apache." Theirs was the first version of the song, [and] they got it directly from Jerry Lordan, the songwriter, who continued to feed them number one hits for several years afterwards, such as "Wonderful Land" and "Atlantis."

The Shadows’ influences were Duane Eddy, The Everly Brothers, Johnny & the Hurricanes, and all the early rock'n'roll and rockabilly acts. The Shadows themselves weren't sure if they should follow an instrumental or vocal path, but once "Apache" hit, it became very clear. Their vocals were for the most part good, but their instros were absolutely revolutionary. Though they owed a heavy debt to the American acts, they were determined to create their own sound, which they did. By mixing up Everly-Brothers-inspired frenetically-strummed, acoustic-rhythm guitar, jazz-influenced drumming, and the pioneering use (for Europe, anyway) of the Fender Precision bass guitar played in a very precise, melodic fashion and turned up louder in the mix than ever before, they established a unique rhythmic landscape.

What took them over the top was the lead guitar of Hank Marvin, which was unlike anything heard up to that point--ethereal and aggressive at the same time, Hank built on Duane Eddy and his reverb by incorporating into his sound a heavy dose of a new contraption, the tape echo. He was one of the first guitarists to use a stand-alone echo unit, which in those days featured several playback heads capable of creating odd, syncopated echo patterns, fully exploited by Hank. He also was the first to fully explore the possibilities of Fender Stratocaster’s tremolo system, holding it in his hand as he played and using it to phrase the notes in the middle of the line rather than just adding vibrato to the end of a note or dipping it to start it, like Duane Eddy.

Finally, Hank played mostly in the higher registers to distinguish his playing from Eddy. Being young, creative and full of spunk, he also whacked the notes pretty hard, and, uncommonly for the time, did a lot of bending, influenced by another young American guitarist by the name of James Burton, who played in Ricky Nelson’s band. One of the most striking and most innovative early Shadows songs was "Man of Mystery." It is astonishingly aggressive. Brian May of Queen once described it as the "heaviest, most metallic-sounding thing he had ever heard." And it came out in 1960!

In addition, Hank’s early solos all had the aggressive, raw, off-the-cuff sound, full of manic bending, unusual double-stops, partial arpeggios, and energetic whammy use. Some great examples of that are the solos in "Man of Mystery," "FBI," "The Frightened City," "Gonzales," and "The Savage." Already in 1961, both the Shadows’ and Hank’s sound began to mellow out, and by 1962 they lost most of their early aggression (their subsequent chart hits being ballads and upbeat, bouncy tunes) and gained a reputation as mostly a smooth, mellow band.

The Shadows survived until 1990, continuing to rack up big hits well into the eighties, an incredible feat for an instrumental band. They obviously transcend a genre classification. Yet those early recordings, while having no direct connection to surf music, are often held in high esteem by surf music fans for the basic reason that they shared with surf music--that inimitable Fender twang immersed in waves of echo and/or reverb and played by a small group of 18-year-olds on a simple mission to rock out like there’s no tomorrow!

The Shadows were very influential in the rest of the world, which at that point was still more affected by the British culture than the American culture. Especially in Europe, where hundreds if not thousands of bands sprung up between ’61 and ’63 with dreams of sounding just like The Shadows. The Beatles obliterated all that in England and Europe, just as they killed instrumental surf music (or really all other instrumental rock except The Ventures) in the USA. [Editor’s note: Although The Ventures’ survival was due more to the groups’ strong worldwide fan base, especially in Japan, The Beatles, in fact, eliminated The Ventures from mainstream radio.] During that two or three-year period, some creative instro bands emerged (for example, the Outlaws, the Fentones, the Dakotas from England, Los Relampagos from Spain), but very few of them achieved any sort of name recognition, and not many more left much of a recorded legacy. (Certainly much less than the comparable surf music movement in SoCal did, probably due to the fact that the European record industry tended to be dominated by one--or at most a few--government-supported labels rather than multitudes of private labels, and therefore there were fewer labels altogether looking for their own hitmakers.)

But, this is a whole different topic. One exception to this pattern hailed from the unlikely location of Australia, where the culture was influenced both by Britain (being a part of the British Commonwealth) and the USA (due to the relative proximity). The most dramatic example of that cross-pollination of influences was the Atlantics. They started as Shadows disciples (their earliest recording is a cover of the Shadows’ song "The Boys"), but soon started incorporating American surf music influences into their music, such as heavy reverb, frenetic beats, and explosive energy. In the process, they landed a number one hit in 1963 with "Bombora," established Australian surf music as its own unique hybrid of the British and American styles, and inspired dozens of Australian surf bands to also give it a shot. Not bad for four twenty-year-olds.

In my opinion, the Atlantics created some of the most creative and awesome instrumental music of the sixties. It was often very fast, with insanely complex but still tribal-sounding drums; it eschewed all riffs for a melodically sophisticated approach, occasionally featuring some rather strange-sounding chord progressions and harmonies ("War of The Worlds," "Rumble and Run"); the rhythm guitar consisted of fast strumming of chords (obviously owing a greater debt to the Shadows than American surf music); the lead guitar was bathed in echo and reverb and tended to play in the higher registers like Hank, rather than on low strings like Dick; finally, it often featured over-the-top echo effects, string scraping, and crazy whammy abuse. These sound effects were usually used just as a break in the middle of a song, but on one occasion, the noises combined with a frenetic drumbeat were the ENTIRE song ("Stompede"), predating the so-called "techno" music by some 25 to 30 years.

The Atlantics were the most experimental and most unique band of the instrumental rock music of the early sixties. They were definitely a surf music band, though quite different from American surf music. The instrumental-rock music of the fifties and sixties reached its zenith with the Atlantics, a band built on the music of the giants of the genre. They covered Duane Eddy’s "Peter Gunn," Chet Atkins’ "Windy And Warm" and "Boo Boo Stick Beat," the Champs’ "Tequilla," and the Fireballs’ "Chief Woopin’ Coff," while the influences of The Ventures, The Shadows and Dick Dale could be clearly heard in their own imaginative originals.

For this reason, in my opinion, the Atlantics were the quintessential rock instrumental band of the sixties, firmly grounded in the tradition while always exploring and pushing the boundaries.


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