SURF COUNTY, USA : No Words Can Describe <i> Real </i> Surf Music
Surfing is the only life, the only way for me, now surf, surf. . .with me.
--The Beach Boys, 1961
Ask most people outside of Southern California, and they’ll likely tell you that surf music was the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and their clean-harmonied brethren. And next to the early 1960s surf films--both Bruce Brown’s enthralling documentaries and Hollywood’s Annette-and-Frankie glut--their songs were indeed the chief proselytizers of California’s golden surfing life.
But here in the heart of surfing, the Beach Boys and their ilk weren’t considered the real surf music. Along Orange County’s beaches they didn’t need music that was about surfing, not when they could fill their nights with something that practically was surfing, only pounded out with sound waves.
Enter Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar.
“Surfing was my life,” the Orange County legend recalled recently from his home near Twentynine Palms. “Those ocean waves had a power and a sound that was second to none; it was eerie. When I experienced the first rumble from a bottom turn and that wall sucked me up over the top, it was such a power that when I’d get on stage and play, I’d feel myself coming off the top of a big wave again. I’d go neeeeaooow down the low E string, and that would be that rumble, that screaming on the high strings was when the top broke over my head in the tube. It was like being right on the edge.”
That rumbling and screaming Dale speaks of was instrumental surf music, Orange County’s unique contribution to the music world. There were antecedents in the instrumental guitar rock of Link Wray, Duane Eddy and others, but the booming, reverberating surf music was so evocative that it swept up the pervasive teen-age culture that occupied the Southland beaches and spread beyond. It was a subculture, Life magazine then claimed, that would fascinate Margaret Mead.
Although the South Bay’s Belairs beat Dale as the first to wax a surf record in 1961, most people credit Dale with originating the surf style, with its incipient rumblings being heard in the Balboa Peninsula’s Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor and Rendezvous Ballroom. It was a timely confluence of pop culture, Dale’s vision and technology.
The latter of those came by way of Fullerton’s Leo Fender. Nearly without exception, all the six-string surfers rode Fender’s Stratocaster or Jaguar guitars, pulsing through splashy-sounding reverberation units and the biggest, loudest amplifiers the world had seen up to that point.
Fender used Dale’s relentless shows as an endurance test for his rock-oriented products. “If it will stand up to Dick Dale,” Fender was quoted as saying, “it will stand up to anything.”
The surging, sluicing sounds of Dale’s Stratocaster proved a clarion call. Surf bands soon abounded in Orange County. Among the more notable performers were Myers’ Surftones, the Lively Ones, the Rhythm Rockers and the Original Surfaris. Unlike today’s meager scene, there was a wealth of teen venues in the county. One group that came up fast through that local scene was the Chantays. Some six months after getting their first guitars, Santa Ana High School students Bob Spickard and Brian Carmen wrote “Pipeline,” which, alongside the Surfaris’ “Wipeout,” is the world’s most copied and enduring surf instrumental. In the spring of 1963 “Pipeline” went to No. 4 on the national Billboard chart and even reached No. 16 in Beatle-infested England.
Though the Chantays surfed and were influenced by Dale’s music, Spickard says they weren’t necessarily attempting to duplicate the feel of the waves.
“When we wrote it after school, just plugging our guitars in and doodling, we originally called it ‘Liberty’s Whip’ because we were big Liberty Valence fans,” he said. “Then we went to a surf movie at high school--I’m sure it was one of Bruce Brown’s--and they had a big shot of the Pipeline (one of Hawaii’s best but most dangerous surf breaks), and we went, ‘Wow, far out!’ ”
The Chantays were one of the few instrumental surf acts to reach an international audience. Most other bands received scant attention outside Southern California. That was reserved for the Beach Boys. Composing over sundaes in a soda shop, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and his writing partners Gary Usher and Roger Christian created paeans to Surf City that captured the nation.
Between the films and songs, surfing became such a national fad that, according to Dale, “Hobie (Alter) was shipping 400 boards to Boise, Idaho. There was no surf in Boise--kids were sticking them in the backs of their woodies just to drive around town with them.”
By 1964 surf music, both sung and strung, had largely been transmuted into hot rod musicin what Dale claims was a record company-inspired move to capture a larger market.
It was a short-lived idea. Dale recalls playing an auto show in Los Angeles and announcing: “I’m taking an intermission right now because I want to see the Beatles on TV.” As the nation watched the mop-tops on the Ed Sullivan show, the public’s musical tastes suddenly shifted. Spickard, touring with the Chantays when the British Invasion hit, recalled: “Our business slacked right off. They started importing British acts and hardly using any American ones.”
Pushed along by Vietnam and other ‘60s concerns, the public’s fascination with the surf life faded. The next time a Fender Strat came to the fore, it was in the hands of Jimi Hendrix in 1967’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” as he playfully intoned: “You’ll never hear surf music again.”
But several surf musicians can still be heard: Dale and his Deltones will be at San Juan Capistrano’s Coach House on Aug. 2, and the Chantays--with three original members--will take part in the Hot Days, Cool Nights series at Irvine’s Park Place (the former Fluor complex) at 11:30 a.m. Aug. 15.