Catch A Wave: A Surf Music History Lesson In 12 Songs
There’s only so many ways to say “catch a wave.” Original surf-rockers like Dick Dale and The Ventures didn’t need lyrics to communicate their beachy message, just signature guitar riffs played with gusto.
Yet when it came to putting vocal melodies to surf-style guitar instrumentals, the Beach Boys created and mastered the subgenre – and continue to work within it, just as they did last week with the release of their new album That’s Why God Made The Radio. In honor of this (and summer’s start), let’s take a look at the evolution of surf music in America with a playlist.
“Surfin’ Safari,” The Beach Boys
While 1962’s “Surfin'” was the Beach Boys’ first-ever single, 1963’s “Surfin’ Safari” was the So-Cal band’s major label debut, on Capitol Records, as well as their first song to reach Top 20 on the charts. Amidst all the Beach Boys’ songs about surfing – and boy there are a few – “Surfin’ Safari” remains one of their most iconic early hits. Listen here.
“Surf City,” Jan & Dean
Behind the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean was the other quintessential surf-pop act that incorporated vocals. Yet the duo has the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson to thank for its biggest hit, “Surf City.” Wilson started writing the track before passing it along to Jan & Dean, who took it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – the first surf group to do so. Listen here.
“Walk, Don’t Run,” The Ventures
Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Ventures’ most ubiquitous song may be the Hawaii Five-O theme, but their “Walk, Don’t Run” was a pioneering surf-rock hit – hence The Ventures being dubbed “the band that launched 1,000 bands.” “Walk, Don’t Run” started out as a jazz guitar instrumental, which explains its chiller vibe compared to other surf-rock songs. Listen here.
“Surf Rider,” The Lively Ones
Though penned and first recorded by The Ventures, “Surf Rider” remains the The Lively Ones’ defining hit. The band’s version remains the most enduring, thanks in part to the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, which ends with “Surf Rider.” Listen here.
“Bustin’ Surfboards,” The Tornadoes
Another track that received a resurgence in 1990s through Pulp Fiction was The Tornadoes’ sole hit, 1962’s “Bustin’ Surfboards.” The song was important on several levels: Not only was it the first surf guitar instrumental to gain national radio airplay, but it was the first to incorporate the sound of waves. Listen here.
“Let’s Go Trippin’,” Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
Dick Dale was nothing short of crucial to surf music’s development, and he’s often credited as creating the first instrumental in the surf rock genre. Debuted live in 1958, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones’ “Let’s Go Trippin'” features a less aggressive guitar riff than the surf instrumentals that would follow it, but it matters not – Dale is still the “king of surf guitar.” Listen here.
“Wipe Out,” The Surfaris
Most surf instrumentals are recognizable because of their riffs, but that’s what sets The Sufaris’ 1963 hit “Wipe Out” apart. Sure, it features some guitar fancywork, but it’s the onslaught of percussion and the maniacal laugh in its intro that made “Wipe Out” stand out. Listen here.
“Pipeline,” The Chantays
The Chantays’ 1963 hit “Pipeline” took surf rock to a different, shadowy place by giving the bass line as much as the guitar riff. The song, which brings to mind a P.I. on the case, has been covered by a number of surf artists including The Ventures, Dick Dale (with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan) and the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston. Listen here.
“Misirlou,” Dick Dale
Dick Dale took a traditional Greek song, sped it up, cranked up the volume, and BOOM – created the quintessential surf guitar standard in 1962. The throttling guitar shred that is Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” has made its way into the consciousness, being covered by the Beach Boys and countless other surf bands, as well as sampled by the Black Eyed Peas (in “Pump It”). Listen here.
“Out of Limits,” The Marketts
The Marketts had but one bit hit, 1963’s million-seller “Out of Limits,” but as far as surf instrumentals go, the song took the genre to an eerie place that sounded oddly familiar at the same time. The signature four-note motif from The Twilight Zone theme found its way into “Out of Limits,” sparking the show’s creator Rod Serling to take legal action against the group (thus inspiring the song’s title changed from “Outer Limits” to “Out of Limits”). Listen here.
“Surfin’ USA,” The Beach Boys
Despite its patriotic slant (or perhaps because of), 1963’s “Surfin’ USA” was the Beach Boys’ first big international hit. The song, the title track from the band’s sophomore album, become shrouded in legal controversy due to its close similarity to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Because of this, Berry was given a writing credit alongside Brian Wilson on the No. 3 hit. Listen here.
“Mr. Moto,” The Bel-Airs
In a genre defined by a signature guitar style, The Bel-Airs incorporated piano, saxophone and flamenco influences into their biggest hit, “Mr. Moto.” The result is an eerie, layered effect – a far cry from carefree beach tunes. Listen here.
- Jillian Mapes, CBS Local