Hi folks —
I just recently joined the site, and this seems like a good place to submit my first "official" post since doing so...
This IS a great thread; thanks to Ivan for getting it rolling, and to Jon Blair for his excellent perspective on surf music's origins (also to Ferenc for the cool banner!); after reading Jon’s piece along with all the other great posts, I have a number of thoughts/responses buzzing in my brain that may be of interest. So here goes:
First and foremost, it seems like a lot of the confusion and/or differing ideas here about surf music's origins, and particularly about the identity of the "first" true surf record, arises from the lack of a clear commonly-held definition of just what surf music is; from the posts in this thread, it seems that for some, presence of reverb is the essential characteristic; for others, having the word "surf" in the title qualifies a tune as a "surf" tune... and the Fireballs' "Bulldog” and other early tunes such as "MoonDawg" and "Church Key" are put forth as candidates simply because they exhibit much of the same characteristic sound and format as one hears in the later surf-era classics; then of course, there's that old bugaboo about whether to include Beach Boys/Jan & Dean-style vocals in with the instrumentals as all part of what defines surf music. Etc., etc., etc.
I would suggest that as a prerequisite to determining the identity of the "first" surf record (or even as to whether any particular record should be considered as authentic "surf music"), we need to come up with at least a basic definition that we can all agree on as to what "surf music" is — at least enough so that we can then have some degree of clarity in our discussion about it. For as things stand now, it's all very nebulous: IF we regard the definition as being "in the style" of the instro music that was popular in California in the early '60s, then "Bulldog," "Moondawg," "Walk Don't Run" and even "Underwater" might be regarded as early surf tunes. (And if we're going to go this route, why not go all the way back to Dune Eddy? Maybe "Rebel Rouser" should be touted as the first surf tune...) But then if REVERB is to be regarded as the defining factor, then that lets out both "Mr. Moto" and "Let's Go Trippin'"... in that case, "Bustin' Surfboards" might be the first, as it was the earliest hit I recall to have the classic Fender reverb tone, And if our criterion is the inclusion of a "surf" theme in the title, then the first hit surf tune would be “Surfer Stomp.”
I could go on and on with further illustrations of the difficulty we face in trying to draw the distinctions attempted here without a definition of what is distinctively "surf music." Thus it makes sense to me that perhaps a worthy (nay, essential) topic for discussion here would be to wrangle out such a definition amongst ourselves. Otherwise, I don't see how we'll ever come up with a clear consensus about the answers to such questions as "what was the first surf record, etc."
With this in mind, I would like to offer my thoughts on this issue...
For me, this question is greatly simplified by stripping it down to an examination of the unvarnished history of how this music evolved, and refraining from adding anything to the story other than what actually occurred. And as my perspective on this comes from having been right there in the middle of it, my view is formed by my recollection of just how I remember it happening.
Many of you already know the story I'm about to share, but it needs to be reviewed again here as it goes straight to the heart of the question. Accordingly, before proceeding further, please click the following link to read an original essay I wrote some years ago on the topic of "the origins of surf music"... this will lay the groundwork for your return to the rest of my commentary (below)...
"The Origins of Surf Music" by Paul Johnson
In light of this, it is my proposal that "surf music" be defined accordingly as that form of instro music that evolved on the west coast in the early '60s out of the larger "mother genre' of rock-instrumental (championed by Duane Eddy, Link Wray, The Fireballs, the Ventures, etc.), and that its "birth" be cited as that summer of '61 when the surfers themselves named it and claimed it as "their own" music. I believe the record clearly reveals the evolutionary process as: rock-instrumental music begat surf music, which in turn begat the "California sound" (Beach Boys et al). By this definition, one has a clear delineation of each of these related trends, based on the actual history rather than anyone's subjective criteria.
This allows us to revisit the question of "what was the first surf record" with the way now opened to properly discern the answer: in my view it is clear that it all comes back down to the question as to whether the distinction belongs to "Mr. Moto" or "Let's Go Trippin'" as these were the first hits to surface by the bands that the surfers had proclaimed as "surf bands."
The way I deal with the question as to which record was "first" is by simply citing what is true about each one, and adding nothing more: "Mr. Moto" was recorded and released some months before "Let's Go Trippin'" but it did not get radio play or hit the charts right away. (It was recorded in early '61 and released about midyear, but it wasn't until after the Belairs' local popularity increased with our activity that summer that "Moto" began to be aired on the radio...) In fact, "Trippin'" made it onto the charts before "Moto." Thus it is appropriate to say about "Trippin'" that it was the first "surf" record to hit the charts; and it is also appropriate to say about "Moto" that it was the earliest "surf" recording to achieve hit status. This way, by simply acknowledging what is true about each record, each is seen as having its own valid claim to being "first" in its own way, and all ambiguity is removed from the issue! (It is noteworthy that as both of these tunes predate the summer of ’61, clearly neither of them were created with the idea in mind that they would be called “surf music.” Again, the bands had no such conscious intent; it was only AFTER their creation that the surfers attached that identity to them.)
By the same token, it is true (as far as I know) to say that "Bustin' Surfboards" and “Paradise Cove” were the earliest hits to feature Fender reverb (I’m not sure which was first between them), and that “Surfer Stomp” was the first hit to have a surf-themed title. Likewise, it is true to say about "Bulldog" that its sound and format were highly influential on the "surf” style. THAT is its distinction vis-a-vis surf music, and it is no slight on this great record to acknowledge it for this, but to stop short of calling it a "true' surf record, as it predated the summer of '61, and the Fireballs were not in a position at that time, geographically or chronologically, to be regarded as a "surf band" by the surfers. It is only in retrospect, all these years later, that this distinction has become blurred (understandably so, as "Bulldog" does sound a lot like surf music, and the modern listener may not perceive the subtleties of the evolutionary process in making the proper distinction as to where it fits; likewise for “Moondawg,” “Underwater,” “Church Key,” “Walk Don’t Run,” etc).
To take the Fireballs' issue a step further: in the video of George Tomsco that Squid linked in his post, George describes their being introduced by Dick Clark as a "surf band from New Mexico" when the Fireballs appeared on that TV show to play "Bulldog." But according to George himself (in a conversation I had with him more recently) this account is not entirely accurate. When George told me the same story, I pointed out to him that if that appearance (to play "Bulldog") occurred at the time of that record's success in 1960 (which he confirmed to be the case), then this would have predated the very phenomenon of surf music, and thus Clark would not have made such a comment. Upon further discussion, we concluded together that the comment must have come on a subsequent appearance by the Fireballs, most likely when they were on Clark's show again to play their much later hit, "Quite a Party." This explanation resolves the problem of how the Fireballs could be called a surf band before there was any such thing as surf music, which in turn underscores the fact that while the Fireballs WERE a major influence on surf music, they were NOT in fact regarded at the time as a surf band.
To continue revisiting earlier posts in light of the perspective I have presented here:
Jon Blair brought up the subject of the Marketts' "Surfer Stomp," and this was followed by numerous related posts. About this I can only say that the ONLY relevance I see in this record to the surf music scene is the title. This was clearly a typical example of an "exploitation" record (producer rushes into the studio with seasoned musicians who had nothing to do with the actual scene, to jump on a new trend by making a generic record with the trend nominally touted in the title). No attempt was made here to even emulate the emerging surf sound; this is not to say it's not a good record — it’s just that I really don't see any basis for regarding this as a true surf record. At best it is worthy of regard as of peripheral relevance to the surf music story. Again, this is in keeping with my method of refraining from "defining” such things beyond a simple statement of "what they are." (More on this later...)
And in response to numerous further posts regarding the role of studio musicians in the development of the genre, I take the same approach: let us not read more into this than is appropriate. The best way to understand the studio musician’s role is simply to describe what they do: these guys are often brought in to enhance the quality of a recording, and often sessions are convened wherein the entire “band” is comprised of studio musicians (as with "Surfer Stomp"), for purely commercial reasons; fact is, these musicians usually have little or no experience (or personal interest) in whatever trend they are being hired to exploit. I speak again from personal experience, as I participated in a fair number of such sessions, alongside Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kay, Richie Podolar, and all the rest, on sessions including Hondells tracks as well as Superstocks hot rod tracks, sessions produced by Richard Delvy, Gary Usher and Mike Curb, and later on, Sonny & Cher (I played on their first hit, "Baby Don't Go"). I can best sum up what I took away from this experience with a personal anecdote from a Bobby Sherman session produced by Gary Usher:
This was for one of Bobby’s releases entitled “It Hurts Me,” and it easperhaps the biggest session (in size and scope) that I ever did, with Hal Blaine on drums, Carol Kaye on bass, a full string section (violins, etc.) and lots more. And there I was sitting between Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell! Dazzled as I was by their sheer virtuosity, I recall asking Gary Usher afterwards, "What the heck am I doing here alongside guys like this?" His answer: “THEY are here to make sure the result sounds professional. YOU are here to make sure it sounds young!"
Ivan said in a post, "...So, we have some notable examples of non-teenage pro musicians playing this music, too." I would quibble with this only just a little; I would rephrase it with a very slight change: "we have some notable examples of non-teenage pro musicians playing on these recordings." These guys did not play “surf music;” that is, they did not play anything remotely like the way Dick Dale, the Belairs, or the Chantays did. Their bailiwick was the studio (not the beach) and they played what they were told to play by the producer, in their own distinctive (and very commercial) style. They were not attempting to adapt to the surf music style so much as they were seeking to adapt the very concept of "surf music' to THEIR style! The producers took the view that the best way to approach whatever trend they were exploiting was to use their own ideas, arrangements and commercially proven musicians to give it THEIR sound; I doubt whether, for the most part, guys like Marketts producer Joe Saraceno even took notice that there was already this new thing called "surf music" developing around the beach; I suspect that he simply saw that there was a surf trend occurring, and he decided to exploit it by making a record about it. He may even have thought that he was "inventing" surf music in the process.
Accordingly, we are free to like what he came up with or not; but let us not confuse it with "real" surf music. Let's just call it what it is in reality: it is "studio music" that is nominally about the surf trend. In my view, it is nothing more (and nothing less) than just that! Which is not to say it's not good. In fact, I happen to think it is very good studio music!
Regarding the Challengers: Delvy's genius was in combining his "local" guys (Art Fisher, et al) with a core of studio musicians (most notably Hal Blaine on drums) to create a hybrid sound that reflected both "studio" and "street.” (As Gary Usher had said to me, the objective was to make records that sounded both “professional” and “young.”) By the way — it is often assumed that I played on some Challengers sessions, but the truth is that I never did. They recorded a number of my songs, but my studio experience with Delvy was limited to some one-off LP productions of his, including "Surfbeat Volume II" by the Surf Riders, and my favorite, "Sidewalk Surfing" by the Good Guys. These were fictitious groups, of course... they never existed outside of these sessions. The Good Guys was a boyhood dream-come-true for me, as I got to play with Steve Douglas (sax player on many of Duane Eddy's hits) as well as with Hal Blaine. I was hired as the “arranger” for the session as well as guitarist, so you can imagine what a joy it was for me to be the creative director of such a stellar assembly of players! Delvy also produced tracks for Art Fisher and I, when we were playing together as PJ & Artie; for this session he hired some of the top hit-making session cats from the late '50s (all black guys who were the predecessors to the wrecking crew in the earlier LA studio scene) including Plas Johnson on sax, René Hall on bass and Sharkey Hall on drums. (These were the guys who played on Ernie Freeman's version of "Raunchy," and later Plas & René also played on the Marketts sessions...)
These were all wonderful experiences that I cherish in my memory, so you can be sure I have the utmost respect and admiration for what these guys did so well.
Re Matt 22’s comment: “About Paul Johnson; I read that he was opposed to using reverb and it was Eddie that was pushing it for the Bel-Airs.” To set the record straight... I was not opposing the use of reverb per se — I have always liked the reverb sound, and I love the sound of the great bands that featured reverb. But I was of the opinion at the time that as a “pioneer” surf band, we already had a distinctive sound of our own (resulting in a hit record); and as the musical director of the band, my preference was that we continue to develop OUR sound, rather than lose our distinction by trying to sound like Dick Dale or others that were going the full-reverb route. The very nature of our style was that we played as an ensemble — we were all about the blend of the instruments and the interplay between them. The nature of the “full reverb” sound is that it sets the lead guitar apart from the rhythm and accentuates the space between the guitars rather than their intimacy, which is what I have always favored. Accordingly, while I was open to using the reverb judiciously and tastefully incorporating it into what we did, I didn’t want to lose the distinction of our ensemble style by “overdoing” it. And this is what we did; thus, it is not true to say the Belairs had no reverb — we just used it more subtly than the “full reverb” surf bands did.
To explain further, the next two paragraphs are copied here from the liner notes to the Belairs’ “Origins of Surf Music” CD:
The Belairs were rooted in an amalgam of the guitar ensemble model we heard in the Fireballs (and later the Ventures) and the dominant lead guitar model of Duane Eddy. At first, we were able to combine these influences effectively into “our own style” (which is well represented in the sound of “Mr. Moto”). However, just as we were about to make our second record, the new Fender reverb was being adopted by many of the new “surf” bands. Eddie was eager to turn the reverb up and move further in the direction of the “dominant lead guitar” model, while I favored a more subtle incorporation of the reverb into a refinement of the “ensemble” aspect that had distinguished our sound up to then. I thus resisted the idea of coming out with a follow-up record that would sacrifice this distinction; I wanted to build on the unique sound we began with, and find something that would sound like the Belairs, rather than like “every other surf band.” After all, many of these bands were, in fact, protégés of the Belairs; were we going to continue to be a leader, or were we now going to become their follower?
In hindsight, I don’t see this as being about who was right or wrong; it was about two guys in pursuit of their own musical ideals—both equally valid but increasingly difficult to reconcile within one band. Eddie later went on to prove with his own band that he could continue to succeed in the world of surf music by doing his thing, and I was similarly vindicated in doing mine. For awhile, our attempt to make it work together did result in some of our best music; but this wasn’t enough to sustain us once we were past the point of opportunity to ride the coattails of “Mr. Moto.”
This segues nicely into a return to the topic of whether surf music should be defined as being all about reverb:
Let us remember that the Belairs and Dick Dale both earned the surfers’ regard as being “surf” bands without using reverb; whatever it was in the summer of ’61 that inspired the surfers to call our music “surf” music, reverb was NOT a part of the formula; that came later. This is good reason, in my view, NOT to make reverb the ultimate criterion for inclusion in the most basic definition of surf music, as to do so is to contradict the surfers’ very reason for coining the term in the first place; that would imply that the very sound they gave the name to does not qualify as true “surf music.” (And it would also mean that the Challengers are not a surf band.)
I know that what I’m about to say may be regarded as heresy around here; but I think the heart of what makes for true surf music lies somewhere beyond reverb. Once reverb came in, it did become such a vital part of what came to distinguish surf music from other forms of rock instrumental music that it became, over time, an essential part of the sound that was identified as” surf”, and thus it IS appropriate now to cite it as a chief characteristic of the sound in its heyday. But let us remember that the term was initially bestowed on music that had NO Fender reverb!
Shivers 13 cited the claim that “Dick Dale invented surf music in the 50's...” followed by the caveat, “Precisely why one shouldn't believe everything they read especially on the web.”
I will surprise some of you here by saying that here IS some truth to this claim; but it needs to be understood in proper context: Dale was clearly experimenting in the ‘50s (as were Eddie & I) with guitar sounds that would come to be known as surf music. However, none of us at that time had given it that name, nor did we anticipate that the surfers would do so in the summer of ’61, or that it would give rise to all that followed. My final conclusion from all of this is that it is the surfers themselves who should be credited with giving birth to surf music, and that the date of that birth should be regarded as the summer of ’61, and also that the root characteristic of the genre should be regarded simply as “the style in which Dick Dale and the Deltones and the Belairs played.” Again, this is a simple statement of truth, with no embellishment, as this IS what the surfers called “surf music.” Another basic statement of truth would be that as time went on, Dick Dale began to use Fender reverb, and the bands that emulated him did so as well, to the point that Fender reverb became the chief tonal characteristic of the genre in its heyday.
So... my contribution to resolving this issue is in putting forth these points as a proposed position-statement on “what is surf music.” Not that this should be decided without first having a lot of hearty discussion among ourselves about this, of course! I suggest that we give feedback to one another about these ideas, and/or any other ideas that one may care to submit, to be sure that every perspective is properly considered, and that our definition be fine-tuned accordingly.
In conclusion, here is my proposed definition of surf music:
“Surf music” is a regional variation of the guitar-driven style of instrumental rock ‘n roll music originally made popular in the late ‘50s by such artists as Duane Eddy, Link Wray, the Fireballs, the Ventures and others. Coinciding by chance with a growing interest in the sport of surfing among California youth (which, by 1961, had developed into a major trend), Dick Dale & the Deltones (in Orange County) and the Belairs (in LA’s south bay area) began playing this style of music to large crowds of these new young surfers, who embraced it as “their own” and began calling it “surf music” in the summer of ’61. This marks the point where this California variation of the style took on its own identity, and continued thereafter to develop characteristics that further distinguished it from the larger “rock instrumental” genre. Chief among these characteristics was the use of Fender reverb by many of the “surf” bands that emerged in 1962 and beyond, following the phenomenon surrounding the original “surf” bands (Dick Dale & the Deltones and the Belairs). Accordingly, the presence of the Fender reverb sound became emblematic of the surf music style in its heyday (’62-64).
The success of the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and others with vocal hits that were topically relevant to the newly-emerging California “surfer” lifestyle, is to be regarded as a related but separate cultural development; as the surfers themselves insisted that “true” surf music must be instrumental, the vocal hits shall be identified as “the California sound” and regarded as a distinct phenomenon of its own. Similarly, while the role played by Hollywood session producers and studio musicians in making records popularizing the new surf culture may be seen as integral to the development of this “California sound” (as so many of these hits were studio concoctions), it is understood to be so secondary as to be negligible in the development of the classic instrumental surf music style, which developed among those young musicians who were playing to crowds of surfers, thus developing the style on a grassroots level apart from the commercial world of studio recording. In other words, the surf-themed records produced by Hollywood studio players had little, if anything, in common with that style, and thus they had no significant part in its evolution.
Care must also be taken to properly categorize certain pre-surf era hits such as “Bulldog,” “Moondawg,” “Underwater,” “Church Key” and “Walk, Don’t Run” as belonging to the “rock instrumental” genre; these were, in fact, chief among the stylistic “models” for surf music, as these were the tunes that the original surf musicians were listening to (and being influenced by) just prior to the summer of ’61. This accounts for why they sound so much like what we think of as surf music, but as they all predate the surfers’ coining of the term “surf music,” they were clearly not intended as “surf” tunes by their creators. And this points out what I see as the most basic premise of a proper definition of “surf music:”
It is clear that the origin of the very concept of surf music can be dated to the summer of ’61 (to the surfers’ “christening” of Dick Dale’s Deltones and the Belairs as surf bands). Therefore, any record that predates this cannot be regarded as surf music, though the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph should be regarded as rock instrumentals that had a strong influence on what came to be known as surf music. Also, it was clearly a part of the surfers’ intention that the term should refer to instrumental music (as they specifically rejected the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’” as having relevance to what they meant by the term). Therefore I suggest that by recognizing the surfers’ viewpoint as the defining viewpoint on the matter, we can identify Dick Dale & the Deltones and the Belairs as the original surf bands, and from this it follows that the key to identifying subsequent bands as belonging to the surf genre is in recognizing their music as having descended stylistically from these original surf bands.
Belairs / Galaxies / Packards / Surfaris / Duo-tones / etc.