It is commonly understood that the period of the mid-1950s was a time of enormous change in American music. Even one of the mildest of Elvis Presley’s early hits — 1956’s “Hound Dog” — is obviously a very different thing than Patti Page’s 1953 hit “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.” It is also commonly understood that the mid-to-late sixties was also a time of change, with almost as large a difference between the Beatles’ 1964 hit “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and Hendrix’s 1967 recording of “Purple Haze.”
But to many the in-between period appears to be rather bland and blank. In fact it was anything but. In the very early sixties, for instance, several musical styles were vying for attention and some of them were very inventive and exciting. One of these styles was called “surf music,” and arguments about it — which recordings, artists and styles are “best” — still continue to this day.
Let’s look back at some of the top surf contenders and see just what the fuss was about. Let’s also see if we can separate the truly great surf songs from the “almost.”
1963’s “Penetration” by the Pyramids is a good starting point. It reflects the basic qualities that make for good surf music. Driving guitars saturated with heavy reverb, a strong beat, and a catchy melody. Surf bands still play it, and audiences still love hearing it.
Is it “good”? Certainly. But is it truly great surf music? We put it in 10th position.
9. “Surf City”
One battle that continues amongst the more fanatical fans of surf music concerns something very basic: Is all really good surf music purely instrumental? Or can vocal numbers also compete?
Jan and Dean’s “Surf City,” also from 1963, is a good example of the latter. It was the first surf song to hit #1 on the U.S. charts.
Why people liked it is not at all hard to understand, with its catchy tune and appealing lyrics that almost make one want to be 17 again. “Two girls for every boy” — yes, we do like the possibilities that raises. But still, in this tough competition we place “Surf City” only at #9. A nice song, maybe even a great one for teens, but not the very best surf has to offer.
8. “California Sun”
Maybe we should give the Rivieras some extra points. They were, after all, from South Bend, Indiana, and perhaps had never even seen a Pacific Ocean beach. But despite this, their 1964 hit “California Sun” is pure surf — from its driving beat and its ‘verby guitar, right through to its thoroughly sun-soaked lyrics.
“California Sun,” by the way, was one of the very last songs of its type to move up the Billboard charts. Just weeks after its release the Beatles made their fabled appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and before long such music, and bands like the Rivieras, either changed their style or were washed away by the tidal wave called “The British Invasion.”
We’d call “California Sun” a good effort. Who knows what the Rivieras would have done had they had more time. But for this effort we rate them #8.
7. “Mr. Moto”
Dating all the way back to 1961, “Mr. Moto” was at the time of its release only a local hit. It was recorded by the Bel-Airs, then a band with a big following in southern L.A.
With the passing of time the song made its way across the country, and most surf fans nationwide today agree that the south L.A. locals knew a good thing when they heard it. Also, to its credit, it was a bit of a trend setter. The song’s flamenco-inspired introduction caught on with surf players and became a regular part of the surf style.
But still, this competition is stiff. As good as “Mr. Moto” is, we rate it only at #7.
6. “Wipe Out”
Coming in at #6 on our chart is the Surfaris’ 1963 hit “Wipe Out.” Considered quintessential surf music, the song went on to be used in over 20 motion pictures! Quite an accomplishment for a song pretty much written “on the spot” when the band was asked to provide a second tune to be used for (the typically seldom listened to) “B” side of another song they had just recorded titled “Surfer Joe.”
Built around a super-catchy guitar melody and a pulsating beat the drummer had been playing around with, the heart of the song came together quickly. Needing a surf-sounding title the group quickly chose “Wipe Out” – the term used to describe someone falling off their surfboard. And when ideas for the introduction were being tossed about, the band’s manager let out that startling laugh surf music lovers are so familiar with… “Hoo ha ha ha ha ha hah… Wipe Out!”
Yes, “Wipe Out” is a well-deserved #6.
1960’s “Apache” is still regularly played by nearly every surf band in the country. But in fact, as its name suggests, the song, at least initially, had nothing to do with surfing.
Yet one cannot deny it — Apache does have that sound… that trebly, clear, bright Fender twang, suitably soaked in heavy reverb; that staccato picking of the strings and driving bass and drums – all of which is pure surf.
Another oddity – shall it add to the song’s rating, or detract from it? — is the fact that the song’s initial recording was made, not on America’s Pacific Coast, but in England (and by a pre-“British Invasion” band at that).
But here we have to judge the music’s worth by the music itself, and no matter what its origin we have to admit: Apache is truly “surfy.” This is largely due to Hank Marvin — the Shadows’ very talented lead guitarist — and the fact that he was playing the very first-to-reach-England Fender Stratocaster.
Okay, but just to make the story a little stranger yet (and to make it a bit harder to judge the song’s worth) there’s this: The version of “Apache” that climbed the charts in America was not the original Shadows recording at all, but a “cover.” This was quickly produced to take advantage of the song’s proven hit potential and recorded by, of all people, a Danish guitarist named Jørgen Ingmann.
Only in later years did American surf guitarists get to hear (and then “borrow the chops” of) Hank Marvin. Today American surf musicians honor and revere both. We thus rate “Apache” – both versions – a solid 5th place.
4. “Walk — Don’t Run”
“Walk Don’t Run” was recorded initially by two guitarists from Tacoma, Washington, who reportedly didn’t even have a regular band at the time. The bass and drums on the record are said to have been recorded by studio musicians – one of whom, it is said, chose to take a $25 on-the-spot payment rather than the offered twenty-five percent of the record’s take. Big mistake! But these two guitarists — Don Wilson and Bob Bogle — who met at a used car lot and discovered their shared interest in music making, went on to form a group –the Ventures– that, with some changes of personnel, is still playing to packed houses to this day and has sold in excess of 100 million records.
1960’s “Walk — Don’t Run” quickly climbed the charts and by doing so became, not only one of the most recognizable rock instrumental hits of all time but, arguably, the recording that more than any other led to the electric guitar craze that swept America before the Beatles came to America in 1964.
All that is fine and good. But is “Walk — Don’t Run” truly “surf”? And are the Ventures truly a “surf band”? That is a question that has been hotly debated for years!
We’ll let you, our readers, sort out an answer for yourselves. This we do know, however: every surf guitarist has to know how to play “Walk — Don’t Run.” And most admit that they really enjoy doing so.
We’re getting down to the wire here. Mention “surf music” and the first song that comes to the mind of most people is the Chantays’ 1963 hit “Pipeline.”
It’d be easy to write off their tastes as “unsophisticated.” How could the average Joe know what makes for truly great surf music? But give them this… “Pipeline” is truly unique. What makes it so is its quickly picked, downward sliding, lead-in phrase and something, perhaps, even more unusual: its buried lead-guitar melody, buried under the hypnotic bump-bumpa, bumpa-bumpa of the bass, and even under the secondary melodic lines of the electric piano. This was and is a truly fresh and unusual musical idea.
In fact, so good is “Pipeline” that we struggled for a time about whether to keep it where it is in our listing as #3, or to reverse its position with the song that follows.
2. “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
If there is one song that captures the heart and soul of summer in California – that makes you want to pack up your “woodie” and grab your surfboard — it’s got to be the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
Although in Brian Wilson the Beach Boys had enormous song-writing abilities of their own, the music of “Surfin’ USA” was “borrowed” from (and only much later, after a lawsuit, credited to) Chuck Berry. But where Berry in “Sweet Little Sixteen” sang of something small and personal, the Beach Boys in “Surfin’ U.S.A.” sang of something much larger: the dream of catchin’ the waves with a surfboard on one of California’s great beaches.
It’d be easy, as with “Pipeline” above, to write off “Surfin’ U.S.A.” as just another pop tune, as something that only appeals to unsophisticated musical tastes. (And maybe even to write off the Beach Boys as a group for the very same reason.) But we’d have to disagree. It is not just to the unsophisticated that “Surfin’ U.S.A.” belongs, but to anybody who loves what surfing – and surf music – is all about: freedom, energy and motion.
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys truly said it all when they sang…
We’ll all be planning that route
We’re gonna take real soon
We’re waxing down our surfboards
We can’t wait for June
We’ll all be gone for the summer
We’re on surfari to stay
Tell the teacher we’re surfin’
Yes, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” deserves its #2 spot.
Among those fanatically devoted to surf guitar, there is only one king, and his name is Dick Dale. Grabbing the #1 spot on our chart of the 10 Best Surf Songs is his justly famous 1962 hit “Misirlou.”
Dale, born in Boston, Massachusetts, and of Lebanese, Polish and Belarusian descent, learned to play the ukulele and guitar when just a lad. His Lebanese uncle also taught him to play the tarabaki and exposed him to a style of Arabic music played with a rapid alternating picking technique. It is that, at least in part, which give Dale his unique sound.
In 1954, Dale’s father moved the family to El Segundo, California, to take up work in the state’s then-booming aerospace industry. Dick, then 17, took to the beaches, surfing all day long. And then, it seemed to many, he took the ocean right with him when he and his band, the Del-Tones, played before enormous and enthusiastic crowds of fellow surfers well into the night.
Turn on any of Dick Dale’s amazing recordings – especially “Misirlou” — and you’ll hear the waves pounding. This is surf music at its best: powerful, driving, electric. Our truly deserved “#1 Best Surf Song of the Sixties.”