Sometimes when listening to a band, I wonder if it qualifies as “surf music.” So we’re going to try and answer the question of “what is surf music” here.
We’ll start with a look from ye old Wikipedia for a definition:
Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture, particularly Orange County and other areas of Southern California. It was particularly popular between 1961 and 1965, has subsequently been revived and was highly influential on subsequent rock music. It has two major forms: largely instrumental surf rock, with an electric guitar or saxophone playing the main melody, pioneered by acts such as 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.
So there we have a basic definition. We focus mostly on the instrumental form on this site, so let’s look into that further. Here’s a little more on the types of sounds heard in instrumental surf music from Kahuna Kawentzmann, formerly of the German surf band The Looney Tunes:
This kind of reverb effect is seldomly heard in other musical styles, but can be found on the drum tracks of 1970s dub reggae recordings. With the connection to mid century surfing culture came influences from abroad in the form of Flamenco melodies, Polynesian inspired Exotica tunes and jungle mood drumming.
Taken in context of the music at the time, it’s interesting to look at how it evolved separately from similar music. A lot of influential rock music was coming out at the time, which splintered off indifferent directions. Leonard Lueras in Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure writes:
Transition artists such as Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and the inventive oldtimer, Les Paul, had long been experimenting with tremolos, echolettes and other such techno music toys, but these gimmicks were usually utlized for the odd temporary effect. Not until Dale began promoting himself as a surf guitarist and calling such sustained electro riffs ‘surf music,’ was this pecular sound given a popular or proper generic name.
Here again we see Dick Dale given a nod for both the sound, and the name of surf music. Wikipedia has a take on this as well:
By the early 1960s instrumental rock and roll had been pioneered successfully by performers such as Duane Eddy, Link Wray, and The Ventures. This trend was developed by Dick Dale who added the distinctive reverb, the rapid alternate picking characteristic of the genre, as well as Middle Eastern and Mexican influences, producing the regional hit “Let’s Go Trippin'” in 1961 and launching the surf music craze.
The Ventures, mentioned above, also had one of the first surf songs to make the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Walk Don’t Run.” Another song often mentioned as one of the first surf songs is “Mr. Moto” by The Belairs, in the video below:
Beyond simply the sound of surf music, part of what made a song a “surf” song was the strong association with surfing, California, beaches, Woodie cars, etc.
Kahuna Kawentzmann also dives into this distinction between surf music and other forms of instrumental rock. He breaks them into surf, indo rock, eleki (largely Japanese), Asia a go go, European rock instrumentals, Latin American, biker movie soundtracks, and the pioneers. Definitely worth a read.
Fast forward to the present, songs are still being labeled as surf rock. A number bands, along with the surfy soundtrack of Pulp Fiction, helped renew surf music in the 90’s such as Man or Astroman, the Mermen, the Blue Stingrays, and many others. There are some bands, the Torquays and the Eliminators, for example, playing largely the classic surf sound. But there are also modern bands that have much in common with rockabilly, punk, space rock, and other genres. From Phil Dirt:
Many of the bands that perform surf now are pushing the envelope of what surf music is. To borrow a band name from Teisco Del Rey, they are the “Lords Of The New Surf“. These new bands have stayed with the original instrumental genre as a foundation, shunning the vocal pop that diluted and polluted it over 30 years ago. They have infused new life via the combination of their healthy respect and love for the pure instrumental form, and varied approach incorporating many influences.
Here’s a good look at what’s involved in being labeled “Surf Music” today from Pitchfork Media:
Somewhere along the line, surf music ceased to have anything to do with actual surfing and migrated to kitsch. But although shuddering tremolo bars fit the image of a guy in floral print trunks, the music is mostly instrumental and as such essentially abstract, so you can make it mean anything you want it to. Even early surf rockers like the Ventures and the Tornados realized this and began to incorporate the astronautical, lounge, and kitsch elements that color most efforts in the genre these days. So the term “surf” as it relates to music today basically just refers to music with lots of reverb and crazy guitar playing…”
Surf music today seems to have less to do with surfing than references to robots, monsters, outer space and any other weirdness you can think of. This is a good fit with what as El Surfadero said the other day – every surf band has a bit. So if you want to be a surf band today, slap on your Mexican wrestling mask, give yourself a cool name, and set your reverb on 11.
The Ventures are one of the classic surf bands, and “Walk Don’t Run” is one of the most classic surf songs. Because of the lasting popularity of the song, it’s one that’s been covered numerous times. Below are a few covers of “Walk Don’t Run” that I found worth a listen…
Here’s the original if you need a refresher:
Now here’s a version from guitar great Chet Atkins. It’s a cool acoustic, jazzy version:
And here’s a ukele version of the song, which is also very enjoyable. It’s done by a felt bear and rabbit apparently:
Another acoustic version, but with more guitar parts. This is by the California Guitar Trio, but the sound quality is pretty lousy:
And the final one, this is more of an update to the original version. It’s by the Shadows, and I like this version the best:
Give us your opinions on the best covers of this song…
A lot of credit is given to Quentin Tarantino for reviving interest in surf music. With the release of Pulp Fiction, one of my favorite movies, the soundtrack was a big seller and full of surf music. The album included songs by Dick Dale, the Lively Ones, the Centurions and the Tornadoes.
The Philadelphia Inquirer said that Pulp Fiction “reinvigorated surf rock.” Inspired by the soundtrack, surf music started showing up in places like commercials, making surf music hugely popular again.
According to a recent interview, Tarantino uses the music to help influence his writing.
“When I actually sit down to write something, I go to my music selection and start finding the songs that will be the beat of the movie, the rhythm of the movie. In the case of Jackie Brown, it was ‘70s soul. In the case of Pulp Fiction, that would be surf music. That helps inspire me. Even as I start writing and going further on it, playing that music transports me into a movie theater. I feel like I can see it on a screen.”
During another interview, he gave his thoughts on surf music specifically.
“I’m using surf music as the basic score – from the 60’s, Dick Dale style. I don’t understand the surfer connection to surf music. To me, surf music just seems like rock n’ roll Ennio Morricone music, rock n’ roll spaghetti western music, that’s what it sounds like.
Track list –
Overture – Daikaiju
Heaven On Their Minds – Urban Surf Kings
What’s The Buzz – Waistcoats
Strange Things Mystifying – Prawns With Horns
Then We Are Decided – Breakfastime
Everything’s Alright – Susan & The Surftones
This Jesus Must Die – Atomic Mosquitos
Hosanna – El Ray
Simon Zealotes – Pipelines
Poor Jerusalem – Lava Rats
Pilates Dream – 3 Piece Suit
The Temple – Ward 69
I Don’t Know How To Love Him – Crime Factor Zero
Damned For All Time / Blood Money – Babyshaker
The Last Supper – Hypnotic IV
Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say) – Surfones
The Arrest – HiFi Ramblers
Peter’s Denial – Fabulous Planktones
Pilate And Christ – Capacitors
King Herod’s Song – Susan & The Surftones
Could We Start Again, Please? – Noseriders
Judas’ Death – Johnny Vortex
Trial Before Pilate – Supertones
Superstar – Atlantics
Crucifixion – Longhorn Devils
John Nineteen Forty One – Aqualads
Also, how odd is it that this album has a band called “Babyshaker?”
Not really a video, just pictures but with the sound. Regardless, it’s great country artist Junior Brown playing a great surf medley on his crazy custom-built “guit-steel.” He puts on a pretty entertaining show.
If you’re not sucking down your company’s broadband by streaming Pandora radio all day, you’re missing out. Pandora is a great site for listening to free music, based on the artist or song you specify.
Setting up a station depends on the type of surf music you like. Most all popular bands are available, so if you simply enter your favorite band, that will work fine.
Personally, I like to create stations with multiple artists, to make the music a little diverse. At least, I think that’s how it works. Here are some tips I’ve found:
Songs work better than artists. A song has a specific sound, a band can have many sounds.
Do you want a 60’s “clean” surf guitar sound, or do you want a dirty sound? If you want both, create two different stations or your one station will sound muddled.
For an old-school surf station, try:
“Surf Rider” by the Lively Ones
For a clean station, try:
“Pacifica” by Los Straitjackets
“Blue Venus” by the Blue Sting Rays (also good for a slow, get your wife in the mood station)
For a crunchier sound, how’s about:
“Eliminator” by Dick Dale
“Son of DaiKaiJu” by DaiKaiJu
A more swing sound:
“Can You Dig It?” by Los Straitjackets
Lots of reverb:
“Mystery Meat” by Man or Astro-Man?
“Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy
What are your Pandora station suggestions? Or any other internet radio stations?
Non-surfy music like rockabilly when we’ve got nothing better to say
A combination of thorough, interesting posts and grammatically-flawed, late night ramblings.
And hopefully lots of great community discussions.
Either way, this single post can’t possible capture the tremendous awesomeness that this site will be, but you may want to print it off, frame it, and hang it on your office wall to let people know you were there to witness the beginning.