- Surf Music
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Prior to 1961, Southern California kids didn’t hang out at the beach all that much; you’d be more likely to see them cruising in their cars, hanging out at the ice cream / root beer drive-ins, or dancing to 45 rpm records at sock hops. Live music was a rarity, and there was no such thing as “surf music.” In short: prior to 1961, there was no “California surf culture” as we know it today.
But the new trend was on the rise that year: with the advent of lightweight foam boards, surfing caught on big with the beach-area kids; by summer this had grown into a major cultural explosion — a mass youth-movement complete with it’s own styles, mannerisms and slang.
Going into that memorable summer of ‘61, I was 15 and a fledgling guitarist with a fledgling band (the Belairs) that emulated the sounds of the rock-instrumental heroes of the late ‘50s (Duane Eddy, Link Wray, The Fireballs, Johnny and the Hurricanes, the Ventures, etc.). When we heard that a lot of these new young “surfers” were driving thirty miles south to Balboa on the weekends to hear somebody named Dick Dale play similar stuff, we decided to throw our own dances locally. The result was like jumping onto a speeding train!
We had never given the slightest thought to calling ourselves a “surf” band. But at our first dance that summer, which drew about 200 beach-area kids, a prominent local surfer came up to me and said: “Wow, man — your music sounds just like it feels out on a wave! You oughta call it ‘surf music’!!” By summer’s end we were filling halls with 1500 fully “stoked” surfers who were doing just that: over the summer they had embraced our music (along with Dale’s) as their own, and now they were calling it “surf music!”
Fifty years ago, the earliest forms of surf music were being defined and cultured in the beach communities of Southern California. It was, in great part, focused on the high school social scene; music created by and for teenagers (not by and for surfers). The emergent (and most frequent) form was the reverbed guitar instrumental (Dick Dale & The Del-Tones, The Challengers, The Surfaris, The Chantays, etc.), but the popular form of surf music was vocal (Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Bruce & Terry, etc.). Celebrating the 50th anniversary of surf music in 2011 is actually a celebration of the first four important recordings of this genre, released during the last half of 1961 (the “golden years” of the music were 1962 and 1963, so the celebration might continue for awhile!):
“Let’s Go Trippin’” by Dick Dale & The Del-Tones. Widely considered to be the first surf instrumental recording, it was released on Dale’s own record label (Deltone) in September, 1961. Dale and his band were packing them in every weekend at the huge Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa.
“Mr. Moto” by The Belairs. It’s not exactly clear when The Belairs’ first recording was available in local record shops, but it would have been very close to the release of Dale’s single. The band was from the South Bay area of Southern California, a group of small beach communities just north of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Both Dick Dale & The Del-Tones and The Belairs played equally important roles in the emerging surf music style in 1961. A large percentage of the kids who came to see both bands were avid surfers. It was the audience, not the performers, that ultimately coined the term “surf music.” The sound and energy of the style came from Dick Dale; the style and form came from The Belairs.
“Surfin’” by The Beach Boys. Part of the South Bay enclave was the city of Hawthorne, forever known as the “birthplace” of The Beach Boys. In the fall of 1961, the bouncy and danceable “Surfin’” – a vocal – quickly became a local radio hit. When the band signed with Capitol Records in the summer of 1962, the music suddenly went nationwide.
“Surfer’s Stomp” by The Marketts. They were a studio group produced by Joe Saraceno who saw their recording climb into the Top 40 and remain on the national charts for over two months in the waning days of 1961 and early 1962. It was, arguably, the first rock instrumental recording to incorporate the word “surf” in the title; certainly the first such recording to be nationally distributed (“Surfer’s Stomp” went from the indy label, Union, to the major label, Liberty in early 1962). Despite all the trappings of the winter season, “Surfer’s Stomp” made the rest of the country’s teenagers aware that something cool was starting to happen on the West Coast.
By the early spring of 1962, there was no mistaking the new genre of pop music. It was all over the radio, it had a name, and it had a certain sound and form. Happy 50th Anniversary to surf music, and a toast of gratitude to Dick Dale & The Del-Tones, The Belairs, The Beach Boys, and The Marketts.
-- John Blair