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Surf Music in the 1980s: a brief historical review

Today, I had the time and the inclination to sort through the sacred-old-milk-crate-full-of-surf-LPs and the Converse shoeboxes full of old cassettes. As I started spinning some of the contents on the record and cassette players, I thought to myself: "Man, there were quite a few surf bands back in the 1980s, maybe I should share this info with my pals up on SG101." So here I am at the keyboard, attempting a brief essay on 1980s surf rock in hopes of offering something of value to those who might not otherwise have heard about this often-overlooked decade in the development of surf music.
First of all, I think I should remind you all that the 1980s were dark days for all kinds of music in general, and especially dark for surf music in particular. Synthesized-digitized-sequenced-formulaic music began ruling the popular airwaves. Video music and videotapes were just being introduced to the mass culture. Additionally, digitized CD formatted music began to appear as a viable alternative to the vinyl LP disc. Long playing vinyl and the audiocassette were both still in wide circulation, but it was obvious that these two forms of media were becoming archaic and soon to become extinct.

During the early 1980s, the music business became multinational, in other words, the music industry became larger and in many ways more impenetrable to "new" or "unique" recording acts. With increased control over airplay and distribution networks, "big music" offered an increasingly homogenous selection of musical entertainment.

As a reaction to the almost absolute monopolistic control exerted by multinational music corporations, many "independent" labels began appearing. Often these labels offered a hodge-podge collection of assorted artists: punk, ska, reggae, art music, oldies collections and re-issues and yes, even our beloved surf music. Often, you would find these small-time releases in small-time specialty stores that catered to the punk or new wave clientele. Many of these small-time labels offered their wares via mail order catalogues. Many artists themselves began producing and distributing their own albums through a network of independent distributors. The punk attitude of "do it yourself" infiltrated the surf realm.

One of the earliest self-produced and distributed LPs was Dick Dale's "The Tigers Loose" (Balboa Records BR-001, 1983). During the early 1980s, Dick was making a comeback of sorts; he was playing regularly and influencing many in the punk scene with his dynamic style. "The Tigers Loose" captured one of these dynamic performances at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach CA. Dale's band at the time featured a full horn section, a collection of female vocalists and an organ player; nonetheless, the live versions of "The Wedge", "Miserlou" and "Peter Gunn" featured on this LP are breathtakingly powerful surf instrumentals.

Agent Orange from Fullerton CA released their "Bitchin' Summer" EP on the Hollywood based label Poshboy Records and Tapes in 1982. The EP featured an extended version of the Chantay's classic "Pipeline" as well as punked-up versions of Dick Dale's "Miserlou", and the Belair's "Mr. Moto". Guitarist Mike Palm's penchant for quirky vintage gear (Vox guitars and HIWATT amplifiers) as well as a healthy dose of screaming distortion typified Agent Orange's 1980s surf style. Agent Orange releases can be found on the multitude of Poshboy compilations that appeared during the 1980s.

Jon & the Nightriders released several albums and singles during the early 1980s: "Surf Beat '80" (1980), "Live at the Whiskey A-Go-Go" (1981), "Charge of the Nightriders" (1984), "Splashback" EP (1982), and "Stampede" (1986). The high-energy reverberated sounds of Jon & the Nightriders featured traditional surf arrangements and instrumentation. The band featured future Slacktone members Dusty Watson on drums, Dave Wronski on guitar. Surf historian John Blair composed many tracks and was featured on reverberated lead guitar. Ultimately, John Blair would write the authoritative Illustrated Discography of Surf Music.

Rhino Records of Los Angeles CA released several surf LPs during the 1980s. Rhino's History of Surf Music series (1982) featured three surf themed LPs: Volume One - Original Instrumental Hits (1961-1963); Volume Two-The Vocals; and Volume Three- The Revival (1980-1982). Volume One offered a collection of then-hard-to-find instrumentals from such acts as The Belairs, The Chantays, The Pyramids, The Lively Ones, The Original Surfaris, The Crossfires, The Sentinals, The Challengers, The Surfaris, Tom Starr and the Galaxies, and of course, Dick Dale. Volume Three offered 1980s surf revival bands such as The Malibooz, Jon & the Nightriders, The Surf Raiders, The Wedge, The Evasions and The Surf Punks.

The Wedge released Surf Party '83 on the Rhino label. It features several vocal numbers about getting drunk and partying at the seaside, as well an assortment of 1980s-styled surf instrumentals. The Wedge's guitar tones range from 1980s style disco-style chorus & delay pedals to 1980s synth guitar to metal-esque 1980s style compressed distortion pedals. Classic surf tunes such as "Pipeline" and "Balboa Blue" take on a new life in the hands of The Wedge. Additionally, the Wedge offer an instrumental version of Olivia Newton-John's 1980s disco hit "Let's Get Physical".

What Records? of Los Angeles CA released the "What Surf" compilation in 1983. "What Surf" features cuts by Agent Orange, The Halibuts, Davie Allen and the Arrows, The Pyramids and The Surf Raiders. Also released on What Records? was Davie Allan and the Arrows' "Stoked on Surf" EP (1982)This 12" features Allan's opus surf medley, "Stoked on Surf": fifteen surf classics all combined into one 5:30 cut! The Ventures released the cassette-only album "Radical Guitars" (1987) on What Records? subsidiary label, Iloki ( ). "Radical Guitars" featured several Japanese produced Ventures tracks, one was the theme for a Japanese car commercial in the 1980s. Additionally, "Radical Guitars" offers the Ventures' version of the Wizard of Oz classic "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

During the 1980s, bands that played strictly instrumental music were a rare breed. One such band was The Raybeats from New Jersey. Although not strictly surf, they were strictly instrumental music that was heavily "surf-influenced". Tunes such as "Calhoun Surf" appeared on the Raybeats' classic 1980s album "Guitar Beat" (bar/none records Guitarist and bassist Danny Amis would later join Los Straightjackets. The Raybeats 1983 release "It's Only a Movie" (Shanachie 82003) featured a superb rendition of Link Wray's "Jack the Ripper" as well as Mancini's "Banzai Pipeline" and Jim Waller and the Deltas' "Soul Beat/ Intoxica". The Raybeats' organist and guitarist Pat Irwin eventually ended up as guitarist with the B-52s, playing alongside ex-Gang of Four bassist Sarah Lee.

Lawndale was an all-instrumental surf influenced act that hailed from, yes, the beautiful town of Lawndale CA. Lawndale released two albums on SST Records: "Beyond Barbecue" (1986) and "Sasquatch Rock" (1987). Guitarist Rick Lawndale's reverberated Fender appears on many cuts, most notably on a remake of Dave Brubek's "Take Five" as well as on a version of a Pink Floyd/Duke Ellington medley "Interstellar Caravan". Lawndale's motto: "Because Some Things Just Can't Be Put Into Words".

Atlanta, Georgia produced the instrumental wonder of Love Tractor. The band released their self-titled album "Love Tractor" on DB RECS (DB60, 1982), followed up with the album "Around the Bend" in 1983 (DB67). In 1986, the band released "This Ain't No Outerspace Ship" on Big Time Records. Like other instrumental bands in the 1980s, Love Tractor was not strictly surf, but the surf aesthetic is present in their flowing melodies and driving rhythms,

Last on my review is Robert and Linda Dalley's surf outfit: The Surf Raiders. During the 1980s, the Surf Raiders were practically a Southern Californian institution among surf aficionados. The Surf Raiders released singles and albums on many labels: Surf Wax, Rhino, GNP/Crescendo, Iloki and Bobette. They played many shows, most notably at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park CA; sections of which were released as a live EP. The Surf Raiders played traditional style surf instrumentals exclusively. Robert Dalley wrote Surfin' Guitars: Instrumental Surf Bands of the Sixties, an expansive text full of interviews and updates of those who participated in surf music's First Wave during the early 1960s.

So ends our trip back in time. I am sure there were other surf bands around in the 1980s; these are just the ones that I am familiar with. I hope that you might have the opportunity check out some of these bands and their music, they kept the spirit of instrumental surf alive during its darkest days, and for that, they should be commended and remembered.

This story has 14 comments.


Very cool DP! Someone should write something up about the Halibuts in the 80's. There was also the South Bay reunion show in 1986 which featured Eddie and The Showman, The Belairs, David Marks and The Marksmen, and more.

Brian | 18-Jul-2006 09:41:15 | Flag

Very cool!

skeeter | 18-Jul-2006 14:42:14 | Flag

Pulled out some old Jon & the Nightriders album, there are darling pictures of Dusty and Dave (and of course John) plus I never realized that Nicky Syxx played bass in the earlier versions of the band. Thanks for the great article!

outsides | 18-Jul-2006 15:31:48 | Flag

It's not the same Nicky Syxx....that Motely Crue clown stole the name from the JTNR's.

Brian | 18-Jul-2006 18:09:10 | Flag

REALLY nice job, DP!!! Thanks for taking the time to put that together. I'm embarrassed to say that I was totally unaware of the "2nd wave" surf revival during the 80's, although I was in L.A. right in the middle of it. At the time I was totally immersed in The Blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan. DOH!!!!

Bob S.

RobbieReverb | 18-Jul-2006 21:26:02 | Flag


your comment points to a real interesting thing that happened during the 1980s: an increase in musical sub-genres. there were many examples that developed: hair metal, speed metal, death metal, goth, techno, rap, hip-hop and tagger, funk, punk, skater punk, reggae, dub, rock-a-billy revivalist, and of course the surf/instro crowd.

almst all these sub-genres were "underground" during most of the 1980s: in oher words, mainstream media and distribution channels typically ignored hese sub-genres...hat is until the "critical mass" of their devotees grew to a certain level. Then all of a sudden, bands that had been underground for the better pat of a decade all-of-a-sudden became hip and popular (Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica serve as good examples of this phenomenon).

in many ways, I feel fortunate t have experienced music during the 1980s before MTV and Hot Topic and the Internet all had such an enormous effect...laying the groundwork for the global homogenization of mass culture we continue to witness to this day. I mean, there must be a dozen stations that offer video music entertainment...yet it is rare that I see any truly new music or truly original acts...It seems that most of the unique music video comes from international channels such as IMF (the International Music Feed).

fortunately, places like sg101 still exist as viable hubs where like minds can congregate and have fun discussing the music they love.

thanks for the kind words, -dp

dp | 18-Jul-2006 23:50:07 | Flag

That takes me Back! I was working in a record store in Tucson AZ. back then as I do now. I tried in vane to get any "new" instrumental stuff back then but we couldn't due to the lack of national distibution. I did however get the Rhino LPs in a limited edition 3-D cover box set which included: Volume One - Original Instrumental Hits (1961-1963); Volume Two-The Vocals; and Volume Three- The Revival (1980-1982) and the best of the Challengers. I still have it number 287 of 500. Other than the Surf punks the revival here was non existant.

Dark_Knight | 19-Jul-2006 00:45:06 | Flag

I've been a surf fan since the mid 80's. I kinda miss how it was back then. Information on surf music was not as easy to come by. When you came across some fanzine or indie release, it was like, THE COOLEST THING IN THE WORLD. I would find out about surf stuff through the classified ads in the Beach Boys fan club newsletter. Yeah, it helped to be a Beach Boys fan since that would lead to hearing about instro stuff. I ordered Bob Dalley's book when it first came out. I also ordered the "California Music" magazine from John Blair in the early 90's and met him at one of the ESQ conventions in San Diego. With the internet, the scene has lost much of it's archaic coolness. Now that I can go online and order just about anything I want, the mystery is gone.

I did score several of the records you mention back then. But, the Surf Raiders have always eluded me. I have never even laid eyes on one of their records. A correction: the Ventures' Radical Guitars was released on CD and LP. I was there for the early instro CD's and I bought just about everything including Compact Ventures, Beach Classics, and Surf Legends(and Rumors).

I think my first surf instro show was the Surfaris at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in the late 80's. My second show was probably the Mermen at the DNA Lounge in Oct. '90. They were playing with John Blakeley of the Sandals.

mattshaffer | 20-Jul-2006 03:11:22 | Flag

For those curious about The Surf Raiders, a nice intro is the best version of the best song they ever recorded, "Curl Rider" which is included on the GNP-Crescendo compilation "Bustin Surfboards."

Originally released as a 12" LP, it has more recently been reissued as a CD. There are two currently listed on E-Bay: Item #170019937366, and Item #290029593794.

This CD is worth the price, for "Curl Rider" alone, but also includes original instrumental recordings by Bobby Fuller, The Gamblers, Jim Messina, The Rockin' Rebels and Richie Valens plus several more.

As far as I was concerned, betweem 1980-83, there were only TWO serious Surf Revival Bands in Southern California, The Surf Raiders and Jon & The Nightriders.

Sure there were The Halibuts, The Wedge, The Evasions, The Bel Air Bandits and Malibooz, but it seemed the Raiders and the Nightriders were the two most prolific in songwriting and recording, hence more commercially successful and furthest in the reach of their influence.

Incidentally, a charter member of my band, Longboard Ranch, was Loyd Davis, founding bass player in The Surf Raiders. Loyd co-wrote several of the Surf Raiders strongest songs, such as The Curl Rider and Wave Walkin', both of which Longboard Ranch has recorded, and performs at our gigs.

There were a lot of cool things going on in the early 80's. A lot of New Wave music was being influenced by Rockabilly and Surf, and due to this retro influence, it brought the audiences streaming to the clubs to see The Ventures whenever they played in L.A.

I totally loved those years and wish that level of energy would reignite Surf music again, and help create a larger, more loyal audience base than currently turns out for the shows.

Bruce D

wetreverb | 15-Sep-2006 05:20:00 | Flag

Ha ha. The Nikki Sixx that someone posted as being in the Jon and the Nightriders wasn't the Motley Crue Nikki.

Think on this: think of how many showmans, bassmans, reverb units and unwanted jags and jazzmasters were at Pawnshops and garage sales and music shops - for nothing.

Phoenix AZ also had a band that did some punk/new wave/surf called JFA. Same vein as Agent Organe.

Surf Raiders, Jon and the Nightriders, Insect Surfers, Phantom Surfers, The Wedge who incidentally used a lot of chorus and many others thanks.

ScubaMatt | 14-Aug-2007 18:48:14 | Flag

How about the Wedge? The Big, Bad, Boss Beat of ... the Wedge, Rhino Records 1980 RNEP 509? Or the Evasions Son of Surf 1982 SOIF LP S-1000? Two of my favorites. You hit the rest, including some I'd never heard of.

Tuck | 02-Jun-2008 22:57:03 | Flag

don't forget my highly loved B-52's. they have a couple of really good very influenced-by-surf-music songs.

surfaca | 20-Sep-2008 03:03:56 | Flag

I'd like to add a band as to Surf in the 80's, The Plugz from Los Angeles who composed the surfy music you hear on the Repo Man soundtrack. Did a great cover of Secret Agent man (with vocals). Though they were not exclusively an instrumental band, they did some very atmospheric surf music for that soundtrack (just listen to Reel Ten).

Jagshark | 05-Nov-2008 11:50:18 | Flag


David Arnson from Insect Surfers here, I started the band in summer '79 in Wash.DC.

We put out a 45 'Into the Action/Pod Life' in 1980,an 8 song 12", 'Wavelength' in1981, a double instro 45 'Stingray/Spin' in 1982, and a 5 song 12" 'Sonar Safari' in 1983. These were all released on 'WASP (our manager William Asp) records'.Our repertoire was about 2/3 new wavish tunes and 1/3 surf instros. In 1985 I moved to Los Angeles to re-form the band in 1986. We recorded 'Reverb Sun" in 1989-90 but we couldn't get anyone to put it out til Skyclad released it in 1991.

]Also, don't forget the very awesome 'Stoked' lp by the Dragsters in 1989. They managed to get it released on an Island Records subsidiary "Great Jones' cause they worked in the Island Records mailroom!

Also don't forget that Danny Amis's band, The Overtones ,released a 7" ep 'Red Checkered Wagon' in 1985.He brought the song 'Calhoun Surf' from this record with him when he formed Los Straitjackets (he also had brought it into The Raybeats' repertoire!)

insectsurfer | 29-Apr-2009 13:20:02 | Flag

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