What is Surf Music?

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.

Woodie Car at the Beach with a Surfboard
Woodie Car at the Beach with a Surfboard

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 Ghastly Ones: Spooky Surf Garage Music from Van Nuys, CA

Today’s Surf Guitar interview is with The Ghastly Ones, a very popular surf band from Van Nuys, CA. These guys are awesome. With song themes revolving around monster movies and graveyards, it is very easy to describe their music as spooky. I love their devotion to surf ideals: awesome gear, awesome tone and references to monsters, planets and werewolves. Well, maybe not every surf band writes about werewolves, but we think all surf bands should consider it!

Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA
Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA

Today’s Surf Guitar interview is with The Ghastly Ones, a very popular surf band from Van Nuys, CA. These guys are awesome. With song themes revolving around monster movies and graveyards, it is very easy to describe their music as spooky. I love their devotion to surf ideals: awesome gear, awesome tone and references to monsters, planets and werewolves. Well, maybe not every surf band writes about werewolves, but we think all surf bands should consider it!

  1. How long have you been playing together?
    Garrett “Dr. Lehos” and I started the band around the summer/fall of 1996. We used to practice and write songs while watching Russ Meyer and 60’s monster movies on TV in my living room.
  2. What city do you claim as your hometown?
    We sprang from the mean streets of Van Nuys, CA.
  3. Do you have any nicknames?
    Garrett is Dr. Lehos, I’m Baron Shivers and Dave is Capt. Clegg. We don’t call each other these nicknames mind you. We just thought it would be more interesting for the album credits plus they go with the undertaker vibe.
  4. What songs come up on shuffle on your ipod?
    Stuff like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Jan and Dean, The Ventures, the Ramones, The Shangri-La’s, Chuck Berry. I listen to about 80% music from the sixties and fifties, 15% music from the seventies and eighties, and about 5% or maybe even less of music from now.
  5. If you had the chance for some interstellar travel, what planet would you colonize?
    Planet Draculon, of course! Although, I hear the girls on Venus are quite nice.
  6. What kind of music do you say you play?
    Surf and Garage. Most people flat line if you try to explain anything beyond that.
  7. Tell us about everybody’s gear.
    Garrett plays mostly Mosrite, but he’s known to play Burns, Yamaha and Fender now and then. I have a ’67 Ludwig. And Dave plays a Keyboard that he built that he calls The Rasputone.
  8. Spaghetti westerns or spaghetti meatballs?
    Both, but not at the same time.
  9. What’s your favorite venue to play?
    Any place where the people are dancing, jumping around and having a good time.
  10. Who’s your favorite superhero?
    I’m actually more into Creepy and Eerie comics from the 60’s than superheroes.
  11. Are there any other surf bands we should check out?
    There are a lot of really good ones now, but my favorites are Satan’s Pilgrims, Jackie and The Cedrics and The Dynotones.
  12. If all of your band members were in a knife fight, who would win?
    Geez, I would hate to see that happen but it’s come close.
  13. Have you ever actually surfed?
    I never go to the beach without my bogey board!
  14. Favorite surf guitar song?
    Tuff to answer but I’ll say… Bikini Drag by The Pyramids. That’s the first thing that popped into my head.
  15. Favorite SciFi movie?
    War of the Gargantuas!
  16. If you saw Mothra standing on the sidewalk asking for change, would you give him a buck or tell him to get a real job?
    I doubt Mothra would ask for change. He’s too busy destroying Tokyo.
  17. Do you drink beer while you play?
    Beer is a key ingredient to a good surf sound, but too much and the audience will definitely disagree with you.
  18. When is your next tour?
    We played more shows this year than ever. We just got back from playing a festival in Nottingham, England and everyone is pretty burnt out, so we’re going to take a break from shows till next year.
  19. Do you plan to release an album anytime soon?
    We have a brand new 4 song, 7 inch vinyl EP coming in mid-October. You can get it at www.ghastlyones.com
  20. If you could make a worm hole to any time and place, where would you go?
    If that were possible I would love to be a teenager in SoCal circa 1963 to witness the original Surf Music boom..
Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA
Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA
Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA
Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA
Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA
Spooky Surf Band: The Ghastly Ones from Van Nuys, CA

Cheers and Reverb!

“Walk Don’t Run” Covers

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…