Sunday, February 20, 2011

Surf's Up

 In the late 1950's a new sound had began to develop  on the West Coast, that would soon fill the vacuum left by the induction of Elvis Presley into the Army and the deaths of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. Surf music was built on a variety of influences;  Jazz, Swing, R & B, Folk, Barber Shop quartet and Doo Wop.  The music evolved from the surfing culture of post war Southern California. Hot Rod music was born from the obsession for customized hot rods  that has long gripped the California southland.  Surf and Hot Rod music are one and the same, musically there is no difference. Lyrically most musicians of that era would switch from Surf to Hot Rod jargon with ease.   Instrumental groups also played a big part in Surf's early development, The Fireballs, who started in their hometown of Raton,N.M, preceded most of the California surf bands. They first recorded at Norman Petty Studios in 1958. It would be a stretch to call The Fireballs a surf band, but their hit songs fit right into that genre. "Bulldog" and "Torquay" would become surf band standards, surefire crowd favorites at  surfer stomps.  
Around that same time Link Wray was recording music that was way ahead of its time. "Rumble", "Rawhide" and "Run Chicken Run" were unlike anything else from that era.  Surely, Link was a time traveler who had dropped in to show us puny mortals what music would sound like in the future.  It was hard to pin any one style on Link Wray, he never achieved great commercial success.  Just the same, he would have a strong influence on the next generation of rock guitarists. Do they surf in Tacoma? that northwest city was home to The Ventures, the most successful instrumental rock group ever. They sold millions of albums and their first hit single "Walk Don't Run" is cited by many surf musicians as their primary influence.  The Ventures also pioneered the concept album, releasing  several albums every year, many of them centered around a specific theme. The Ventures released so many albums that it's rumored that their record label had a crew of studio musicians recording them, while the real Ventures were out on the road.  Surf music's popularity would result in surf bands from the most unlikely of places; The Trashmen (Minneapolis) and The Astronauts (Denver) Buddy Holly's old band The Crickets would record surf music as did El Paso's Bobby Fuller Four.
Thus, it doesn't seem so absurd that the  "King of the Surf Guitar", was born in Boston and raised in Quincy,Mass.  Dick Dale (Richard A. Monsour) did not get to California until his last year of high school. Once in California he took up surfing and started playing music.  Although, what Dick Dale played then was closer to jazz or swing than the surf sound he would become famous for. (Dale has always said that Gene Krupa was his biggest influence.) In the mid-1950's He met up with Leo Fender and the two began an association that would benefit both. Dale played a Fender Stratocaster guitar, being left handed he played it upside down and backwards, rather than re-stringing, which amused Fender to no end. This technique, born out of necessity, gave Dale his signature sound. Dick Dale used an early prototype reverb unit, invented by Leo Fender, to get what he referred to as a "Wet Sound" that was supposed to imitate the sound of waves. He was the first to use a tubular or rolling effect to imitate the sound of a surfer riding through a pipeline. Dick Dale invented surf music one technique at a time, playing a steady schedule of surfer stomps, he tweaked and fine tuned his music and equipment until he got the exact sound he wanted.
Dale became acquainted with Jimi Hendrix (a fellow left handed guitar player) and played a small role in one of Jimi's most famous songs "Third Stone From The Sun" Dick Dale who was being treated for cancer explained: "Jimi thought I was dying and that's why he said you'll never hear Surf music again. People say he was putting it down, but that's not true."...hmm!...I don't buy it, everyone knows that hippies don't surf, the drug addled, unwashed youth of the late 1960's would look down on surf music as square. (but they just loved Sha-Na-Na! go figure?) While Dick Dale refined the surf guitar, Jan Berry was developing a vocal style that would forever  be associated with surf music.  By 1957 Jan was experimenting with different vocal techniques in his makeshift home studio. Dean Torrance and Arnie Ginsburg (they were all from SoCal) worked with him until Torrance left for a stint in the Army Reserves. Jan Berry's first musical success came in 1958 with "Jennie Lee" (a song about a stripper best known for spinning tassels around with her breasts) credited to Jan and Arnie it peaked at #8. Dean Torrance returned in 1959 and Ginsburg was drafted into the Army, thus they became Jan and Dean. "Baby Talk" released that year was a Top Ten hit, sporting flat tops with fenders and white bucks, Jan and Dean were still far  removed from the surf scene.  In fact that early music had more in common with The Coasters and Chuck Berry than anything Dick Dale was playing. 
Brian Wilson would claim that Jan and Dean's "Baby Talk" inspired him to write music, while Jan Berry said that it was the Beach Boy's surf sound that inspired him to go in that direction. The chicken or the egg? who knows!, either way everybody that came after them simply used the same formula with slight variations. Jan and Brian Wilson worked together on "Surf City" (two Girls for every boy!) a song written by Brian that went all the way to #1 for Jan and Dean.  This angered Brian's father Murry, who felt that Brian had given away a  #1 single. Jan and Dean also had iconic hits with "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" and "Deadman's Curve" before Jan Berry suffered serious brain injuries in a car accident that for all intents and purposes ended the group's run. The three Wilson brothers (Brian, Carl and Dennis) grew up in Hawthorne, Ca. Under the tutelage of their overbearing and abusive father Murry, they (and by that I mean Brian) started to develop a lyrical and vocal style that would be the trademark of the genre. Brian had his finger on the teenage pulse of Southern California, writing about Surfin', Hot Rods and Teenage angst.  He accompanied these operatic tales with music inspired by (some would say stolen from) Chuck Berry.
During the height of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, Brian matched hit song after hit song with Lennon and McCartney before the stress and drug abuse did him in.  At his prime, leading up to the "Smile" sessions, Brian Wilson was without a doubt America's premier pop composer. Today it's hard to remember that The Beach Boys were once cutting edge, and not just an oldies band led by some asshole in a baseball cap.  With Brian out of commission, leadership of the group fell to Mike Love.  Cousin Mike had always opposed most of Brian's more progressive musical ideas telling him  "Don't Fuck with the formula"  in the end Love would get his way and The Beach Boys became nothing more than a novelty act. The creative departure of both Jan Berry and Brian Wilson all but spelled an end for surf music.  Jan Berry never fully recovered from his injuries, but eventually he was able to compose and record music. Jan and Dean continued to tour but sadly their live shows were painful to watch, as Berry's ability to move and his speech had been greatly impaired. Brian Wilson after years of treatment and therapy started recording again and even teamed up with Van Dyke Parks to finish the "Smile" project, the results were less than spectacular.  Most of Brian's solo work is hard to listen to, his sad little ditties, while a triumph for someone who has had so much to overcome, also remind us just how far over the edge he fell.