Surf rock legend Dick Dale takes to the stage at West Palm Beach's SunFest tonight. Sandwiched in between early rock 'n' roll, rockabilly and the British Invasion, surf rock briefly dominated the charts in the early '60s. Its easily accessible rhythms and narratives of carefree adolescence conjure images of sun soaked beaches, parties, girls, hot rods, and of course, catching that perfect wave. It remains incredibly evocative of the era, creating the kind of joyful blissful escapism that rapidly fell out of vogue when rock began to take itself more seriously as the decade wore on.
Dick Dale was a pioneer of the instrumental surf rock tune. His distorted heavy twang played at a frenetic pace and raucously loud made waves that influenced not only the genre he is synonymous with, but everyone from Van Halen to the Ramones. To celebrate his arrival, here's a playlist of surf rock classics to get swept away with.
10. "Surfin' Bird" - The Trashmen
If any early rock 'n' roll song could've provoked the ire of musical purists, it would have been the manic, nonsensical, propulsive "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen. Released as a single ten days before the Kennedy assassination, "Surfin' Bird" is the kind of tune that would have had parents generally worried about what the hell their children were listening to even today. Surely this was one of the first examples of inarticulacy as a virtue in rock 'n' roll, where something in the racket resonates with emotions that we do not have the means to express otherwise. There is madness in genius, and "Surfin' Bird" is brimming with both.
In 2010, a Facebook campaign was launched to get the song to the converted Christmas No. 1 spot in the UK, as a means of preventing the annual aural pap offering from that year's X-Factor winner. Alas, it just missed, reaching #3.
9. "Out of Limits" - The Marketts
This February '64 smash from the Los Angeles based outfit, incorporates a sci-fi B-movie twang to the classic surf rock instrumental. In fact, the story goes that Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling thought the song's opening lick rode the wave of his hit TV show a little too closely and sued the band for copying the title music's opening four note motif. However, this remains a classic of the surf rock era.
8. "California Sun" - The Rivieras
Not sure if these barely out of school teens ever rode a surf board, or even went to California. The Rivieras hailed from South Bend, Indiana, some 1,800 miles from the shores of southern California's beaches. However, their 1964 smash "California Sun" is blissed out, sun drenched cheery surf rock at its best.
Indeed, "California Sun "represents an end of innocence of sorts and is one of the last purely American rock 'n' roll numbers. The single reached number #5 the same week that The Beatles topped the U.S. charts for the first time with "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The following British Invasion proved that rock 'n' roll was no longer just an American phenomenon and would usher a seismic shift that had even the Beach Boys abandoning surfy rock for more expansive sounds.
Rivieras' lead singer Marty "Bo" Fortson and guitarist Joe Pennell left the band to join the Marine Corps and head to Vietnam shortly after. The other band members gradually fell away one by one, under pressure from their parents to assume more sensible endeavors at college. However, the "California Sun" quickly became a staple of oldies radio, and was later covered by the Ramones, its youthful hedonism fitting nicely into the punk agenda.
7. "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena" - Jan & Dean
Jan Berry and Dean Torrence are oft overlooked as a poor man's Beach Boys. Their first #1 "Surf City" was co-written with Beach Boys wizard Brian Wilson, a partnership that so enraged Wilson's father and manager Murry that he denounced Jan and Dean as "pirates." Jan Berry responded by walking into a Beach Boys recording session dressed as a buccaneer.
"The Little Old Lady from Pasadena" plays on surf rock's obsession with hot rods, though takes a comic twist. Here we have a granny riding a "Super Stock Dodge," as the "terror of Colorado Boulevard" who whoops all preening hot rod jocks in her wake. This make for a wonderfully whimsical number, and a prime example of Jan Berry's criminally neglected mastery of studio production.
6. "Pipeline" - The Chantays
This moody slice of Orange County surf rock was actually originally a B-side. The haunting organ cools the normally frenetic surf rock guitar into a cool cadence. If ever there was a tune made for driving at night, this is it.
Note: the above clip was the only performance by a rock 'n' roll band on The Lawrence Welk Show.
5. "GTO" - Ronny and the Daytonas
The automobile and rock 'n' roll go together like peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, mustaches and '80s dads. However, the cars of today just aren't the most stirring muses. The Chrysler 200 midsize sedan doesn't scream freedom, independence or any obvious sexual metaphor. In the early 1960s, things were different. Cars were gargantuan chrome phalluses on wheels that were worth singing about. Ronny & The Daytonas did just that with 1964's "GTO," a wonderful surf rock ode to the Pontiac muscle car.
4. "Baja" - The Astronauts
A little surf rock instrumental gem with thickly layered fender reverb that only reached the lower echelons of the Billboard chart. "Baja" is evocative of the faded Technicolor Bruce Brown surf movies of the time that helped turn the perception of surfers from sand dwelling beatniks, to showmen of a difficult, dazzling and exhilarating sport.
3. "Wipe Out" - The Surfaris
The quintessential surf rock tune, "Wipeout" came about by complete accident. In 1962, Surfaris members Bob Berryhill, Pat Connolly, Ron Wilson, and Jim Fuller hurriedly threw together a tune intended as a B-side to the lesser known "Surfer Joe." What they ended up with has become one of surf rock's most enduring classics. The near punk like frenzied riff, frantic drum, and rumbling bass line, all introduced by the famous witch laugh (adlibbed by the band's manager) are known coast to coast the world over. And to think they almost named the tune "Stiletto."
2. "Miserlou" - Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
The burning engine of Dale's guitar on the classic "Miserlou" is still capable of sending shivers up the spine over fifty years since its recording. The tune itself is a rendition of a Middle Eastern folk song and speaks to Dale's own Lebanese background, a fusion of sounds that had more impact on the surf rock sound than any other recording. Played at amazingly rapid pace, Dale's heavy strung Strat (nicknamed "The Beast") is cranked to the hilt, creating the kind of menacing growl that the electric guitar was invented for. It's primal, tribal, frequently copied, but never bettered.
1. "Surfer Girl" - The Beach Boys
Almost anything the Beach Boys recorded between 1962 and 1964 should make any surf rock playlist. "I Get Around," "Surfin U.S.A.," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "California Girls," "Little Deuce Coup" -- all shine with immaculate harmonies, deliciously saccharine melodies and a lush musical complexity them made the premier purveyors of perfect pop.
However, for this list, let's go to the lesser celebrated "Surfer Girl." The Beach Boys' fragile mastermind Brian Wilson has claimed that this was his first composition, written when he was 19, inspired by Dion and the Belmonts version of "When You Wish upon a Star." The same dreamy quality is present, with a wonderfully delicate vocal that evokes an image of the young, awkward Brian sitting on a California beach wishing he was surfing with the beautiful girls out of his league (Brian Wilson of course was never a surfer). Lovely.
Dick Dale performs tonight at SunFest at 7 to 8. Others at the fest include Kid Rock, Robin Thicke, J. Cole, Ellie Goulding, and others. 5 to 10 p.m. April 30 to May 2, noon to 11 p.m. on May 3, noon to 9:20 p.m. on May 4, at 525 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $30 to $71 plus fees. Call 561-659-5980, or visit sunfest.com.
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