Check This Action: The Sound Of The Surf

Check This Action: The Sound Of The Surf
Dick Dale in 1962.

Before acts like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean sang about surfing, guitar bands in Southern California started playing a style of instrumental rock that fans dubbed “surf music.” Inspired by the sounds of Duane Eddy, Link Wray, the Fireballs, and Ventures, groups like the Belairs, Eddie & the Showmen, and Challengers became local heroes. And, of course, Dick Dale rightly earned the appellation King Of The Surf Guitar.

A cool new documentary, Sound Of The Surf, dives into that genre, the culture that surrounded it, and its unlikely comeback in the ’80s and beyond. Fifteen years in the making, it features interviews with Dale, Paul Johnson and Eddie Bertrand of the Belairs, members of the Surfaris, Chantays, and Pyramids, actual surfers from the period, and even the real-life surfer girl nicknamed Gidget, inspiration for the movie and TV series. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a style that can be both powerful and romantic, and is too often overlooked.

Thomas Duncan produced and directed the film, which was finished and edited before he died in 2021; guitarist, surf historian, executive producer, and narrator John Blair then put together the soundtrack.

The story opens with Jimi Hendrix’s oft-quoted line from “Third Stone From The Sun” – “And you’ll never hear surf music again” – after which Blair declares, “Hendrix was wrong.” For reasons I’ll get into later, that’s an unfortunate starting point, but, thankfully, it’s followed by the sound of reverby, double-picked guitar and an incessant drum roll.

Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers then appears, saying, “I was attracted to the simplicity and the energy of it. That’s what rock and roll is and was.” Blair adds, “There’s no hidden meanings. There’s no message. It’s just pure, unadulterated fun.”

Along with Dale, the Belairs were also pioneers. Their “Mr. Moto,” written by 15-year-old Paul Johnson, has been covered hundreds of times. Johnson doesn’t claim ownership, but he mentions a fan saying, “You ought to call it surf music.” When he subsequently saw Dale live, he admits, “I was blown away.”

Dick Dale was as individual a guitar stylist as Merle Travis or Django Reinhardt. I’ve never seen a guitarist with such raw power. Drawing thousands of teens to his shows, he worked with Leo Fender to develop the Showman amp and outboard Reverb unit, and his fiery adaptation of “Miserlou,” a belly-dance number he heard his uncle play on oud, is perhaps the ultimate surf anthem.

But in ’62, the Beach Boys scored their first hit, “Surfin’ Safari.” With instrumental groups being a regional phenomenon, for most consumers the Beach Boys were surf’s personification. A few instrumentals charted nationally – notably the Chantays’ “Pipeline,” Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” and Pyramids’ “Penetration” – something that unfortunately eluded Dale. Then came the Beatles in ’64, and the ocean might as well have dried up. Some, like Bertrand, have a philosophical take (things change), but Medley calling the Beatles “bubblegum” comes off as sour grapes.

Jump ahead to the ’80s surf revival. Blair’s band, Jon & the Nightriders, was extremely important. The quartet’s high-speed, reverb-dripping brand bordered on punk and helped draw audiences back to surf.

Even bigger was Pulp Fiction in ’94. If his appearance in Beach Party didn’t garner Dale worldwide acclaim, “Miserlou” opening Quentin Tarantino’s movie did. His comeback is mentioned along with America’s Los Straitjackets and bands around the globe.

Paul Johnson’s Packards are name-checked, and Laika & the Cosmonauts are briefly seen, though not heard. But to me, Johnson is the one guy who came back but wasn’t just a nostalgic retread, with his Christian-based instro-surf, and the Cosmonauts furthered the music with great compositions and, being from Finland, demonstrated the universality the film set out to achieve.

Hendrix’s quote shows up again, but with a different twist. Post-resurgence, among dubious claims, like allegedly giving a young Jimi guitar lessons, Dick Dale said that Hendrix heard that he’d contracted cancer; thus, surf music was over. As music historian Jim Washburn says, “Aside from Dick’s claim, I have never heard it sourced from elsewhere, and I’ve read almost everything extant on Hendrix.”

So why include it, let alone anchor the film’s beginning and end on it? There are other ways to illustrate surf music’s resilience.

I’m not out to knock one of rock’s greatest guitarists, whose later albums and tours were downright awesome. So I e-mailed Blair, who said that Thomas Duncan wanted the movie to tell a story – “not necessarily a historically point-on, accurately detailed, Ken Burns-type of film.” But aren’t documentaries supposedly based on fact?

Performing ’til the end, Dale died in 2019, at 81. Blair says that the film revolves around him, adding, “The Hendrix story is the story he tells.” However, it’s included with no caveat. According to Blair, “It’s historically accurate in the context of how Dick Dale saw it.”

But if those two elements conflict, it’s the documentarian’s job to accurately sort things out – even if a guitar hero spins a colorful yarn.

© Dan Forte; all rights reserved by the author.

This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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