Wednesday, April 22, 2009
A Wave of Resurgence: The Surf Sound
One of the more interesting early offshoots of fifties rock and roll is "surf guitar" or the "surf sound" that emerged from Southern California between 1958 and 1962. More recently, propelled in part by Quentin Tarantino's decision to foreground the surf sound as the backdrop to his 1994 film Pulp Fiction and Dick Dale's steadfast dedication to the style he forged, this musical style has taken off in the last decade as dozens of surf ensembles are now performing and recording all over the United States and Europe.
Surf music was born at the intersection of time and space in Los Angeles where a veritable melange of musical styles and influences coalesced to create the surf sound, whose primary instrument was the electric guitar. Flamenco and Mexican guitar techniques, the Bakersfield sound from country, T Bone Walker from blues and Les Paul from jazz all contribute to in their own way to surf music, as do new innovations in amplification and the types of guitars used to produce the sound. The new surf sound proved to be a most interesting, albeit short lived interlude between the decline of rockabilly and the British Invasion. With no pretense of offering a complete picture of the surf sound, I offer a brief outline of the development of this fascinating and unique style.
Rock and roll and rockabilly styles also nourished the surf sound, and the heavy, twangy intonations of Link Wray and Duane Eddy in the mid to late fifties were the obvious forerunners to surf style guitar. Wray's heavy staccato guitar work on Mr Guitar and Run Boy Run are classic instrumental antecedents to to the surf sound, and his classic Apache captures the essence of the style. Duane Eddy also anticipates the oncoming wave in terms of guitar tone with his 1958 hit Rebel Rouser.
The definable surf sound took off from 1960 with the Northern Lights recording "Typhoid." The most popular of all surf based groups came together at the same time when the very talented guitarist Nokie Edwards, who was working with country star Buck Owens at the time, joined Bob Bogle to form The Ventures. Recognizable hits like Walk Don't Run, Apache and Pipeline followed in 1960, making the Ventures the most commercially successful surf band of the period. The Belairs, another very early surf band, contributed as well with their 1961 instrumental classic Mr. Moto, a tune containing the Mexican influence in the surf style. Finally, the Southern California aggregate The Tornados also made a splash with their 1962 hit "Bustin Surfboards," also included on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. By 1962 the surf style had crystallized and its songs were doing quite well on the charts.
The undisputed king of the surf guitar style is Dick Dale, and his most famous work Miserlou stands as a virtual anthem to surf music. Misirlou is originally a Greek song, and Dale's arrangement of it stands as an icon to the surf sound and the era. Miserlou is resurrected in Pulp Fiction as the title song to the movie's soundtrack. Using a specially built Stratocaster with very heavy gauge strings and innovative pick-ups, Dale achieved a unique sound that transformed the approach to the guitar during subsequent years. Dale was initially influenced by country music until he formed Dick Dale and the Del -Tones in 1960. Dale and his group made a name for themselves starting in 1961 playing at the Rendevous Ballroom in Bilbao, California primarily for young people engaged in the surfing sub-culture. Dale's success in 1961 and innovative surf style resurrected the Rendevous Ballroom that remains today as a legendary and historic venue for this unique brand of American Roots Music. Dale's famous surf instrumental "Lets go Trippin", recorded in 1961, is his first surf instrumental, and is followed by the less famous and more rockabillyesque "Shake and Stomp." Dale is still active and touring, and has not deviated from the sound that he made famous, as more recent live performance demonstrates.
Finally, the contemporary surf music revival has spawned a virtual proliferation of groups originating from all corners of the globe. Some precursory searching on myspace reveals that this unique American genre, along with rockabilly and blues, is alive and thriving. There are many groups, but some of my favorites are the British group Surfquake, the Italian ensemble The Wavers , the Iowa group The Del Stars and the U.S. surf noir group The Vanduras,whose playful sound ranges from traditional surf to almost parodical interpretations of the Ennio Morricone sound.