What is surf rock? Is it guitar-centric music from southern California? Sort of.
Is it informed by middle eastern folk music, rock and roll, jazz innovations, baroque sensibilities, and Indigenous postcolonial North American music? Yeah! Is it still happening? You betcha!
You have most definitely heard Surf Rock music, even if you’re not quite sure what it is. Surf rock is a musical style that is a big topic to dissect. Beyond a musical genre, which got its start as a reflection of youth culture in Southern California, it has transcended into a sense of cool that has spilled over into an aesthetic sensibility in film, dress, talk, lifestyle, and people. A cool that didn’t live by the same rules, but manages to effortlessly also fit in. It is also one that is in a constant state of flux, being both a reflection and an influence of the styles it mingles with at any given time. Song titles touch on topics such as surfing, Vesuvius, and Commanches, but what do these things have to do with one style of music? And why did it start with surfing?
Surfing is a sport in which an individual rides on a board along ocean waves. It is known to originate in Hawaii, though there is evidence of similar activities happening as early as 200 CE in what is now known as South America, in current Peru. Surfing became a sport known to colonists in the late 19th and early 20th century in North America. It then became a popular pastime and tourist activity in Southern California at the turn of the 20th Century and continues to this day as a very popular sport around the world. But surfing really began to take hold as a culture and lifestyle in the 1950s. It was around this time that Rock music really became a similar cultural icon in North America.
Rock music is a very broad term that can be generally defined as guitar-centered music from North America. Drawing direct influence from jazz and blues, two distinctly American forms of music that formed as a result of cross-cultural influences in colonial North America, primarily from that of African slaves who created and honed those genres, Rock music was born. In the 1940s and 1950s, this style was galvanized in the musical canon as it was appropriated by settlers and marketed to become one of the most prolific and globally influential genres of the 20th century. From this, instrumental forms of the genre were formed. This brings us to the ethos of instrumental surf rock. Its signifiers are brightly toned guitars, deep twangy bends, excessive reverb, and the iconic drum beat known as the surf beat.
Surf rock began as ensembles featuring electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit, and often saxophones, and sometimes keyboards and pedal steel. It is largely associated with surf culture in Southern California. This is not to be confused with its very close cousin, vocal surf, which has many of the same sonic features but also lyrics and is largely recognized by bands like The Beach Boys, or more recently musicians like Mac DeMarco. Instrumental surf stands alone as an iconic and monolithic genre all its own. To understand its origins, we have to go to its beginnings, in the late 1950s, and early 1960s.
The golden age of surf is recognized as the early 1960s, though the genre really began to take hold in the late 1950s with instrumental rock bands like Johnny & Santos, and Link Wray, who framed the foundations of what would become surf rock. The breakout hit of the genre, “Walk Don’t Run” a jazz song by Johnny Smith that was covered by the Ventures, came in 1960. It’s worth noting that lots of surf songs and albums and bands reference surfing, but quite often they have titles that don’t have anything obviously related to surfing and as it progresses, titles become even more obtuse, as you will see. Anyway, at this time, there was an explosion of surf musicians: The Bel-Airs, The Centurians, The Marketts, Eddie & the Showmen, the list is really huge, and for further reading about the many SoCal bands that pioneered surf, this article is great.
However, the genre was undeniably forged by Dick Dale. Born Richard Monsour, Dick Dale was a Lebanese American guitar player. His most well-known song, “Miserlou” is a Persian folk melody that Dick Dale reimagined in a rock band setting. With that song, and his first album Surfer’s Choice (1962), he set the sonic standard for surf rock: insistent backbeat with a double snare hit on 2, relentless tremolo guitar, glissandos, and of course, reverb so wet you can practically feel it dripping off of his guitar. He also introduced the use of harmonic minor scales, Middle Eastern and Mexican musical influences, and upped the game in terms of virtuosity. There was a reason they called Dick Dale the “King of Surf Guitar”, which is the title of his second album (1963).
By 1964, the British invasion captured audiences, and surf rock’s popularity dwindled. However, its influence was still prominent in other media. Throughout the 1960s surf rock sounds permeated into film scores. The James Bond Theme being possibly the most famous example. But it was the likes of Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov integrating those sounds into their over-the-top spaghetti western compositions that is really enduring. Films like “Django” “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” “Fistful of Dollars” and so on. This is part of the subgenre of surf, my personal favourite, known as Western Surf. It is a genre so integrated with surf rock that they are hard to distinguish sometimes. I like to think that the literal transplanting of people from Southern California to Italy for these movie productions is responsible for this integration.
The 1970s saw a decline in instrumental surf bands, but surf rock’s sound was formative in another emerging genre: Punk Rock. Bands like the Dead Kennedys cite surf rock as a major influence, and this can be clearly heard in tracks like “California Uber Alles”. This continued from the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. Other noteworthy bands are the Descendents, the B-52s, Agent Orange and JFA. Out of this, another subgenre known as Surf Punk was developed. Not surprisingly, this new genre is also closely associated with Southern California, and emerging skateboard culture.
Surf rock was not limited to just California–many early surf rock musicians came from the east coast, and also Hawaii–and one of the most well-known surf bands of the 1980s came from Canada. Shadowy Men on a Shadowy planet formed in Calgary in the early 1980s. You most certainly know them as the band that wrote “Having an Average Weekend” which is the opening theme for Kids in the Hall. Their first album “Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham” was released in 1991. As you can see from this title, it points to a departure from surf rock necessarily having to really have anything to do with surf rock. Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet seemed apprehensive in adopting this as their genre, releasing a song titled “We’re Not a Fucking Surf Band” but it was later followed by their compilation box set Oh, I Guess We Are a Fucking Surf Band After All. Now more than ever, the genre sees a silly and absurdist sense of humor developing, one that continued into the 1990s and 2000s. These titles are reflected with bands from this era having an especially fun and plucky sound, and often tenuous connections to surfing.
In the 1990s, something really big happened to surf rock, and that thing was Quentin Tarantino. The nostalgia-kick soundtracks of his movies catapulted classic surf rock, among other genres, back into the pop-culture consciousness. This led to a 1990s surf rock revival. Bands like the Aqua Velvets, Susan and the Surftones (the first female-fronted surf band I was able to find), and the Fathoms, all released albums throughout the mid-1990s. Surf’s influence also extended into alt-rock bands of the time. Weezer is an example, with songs like “Surf Wax America”. Tarantino has said “when I actually sit down to write something, I go to my music selection and start finding the songs that will be the beat of the movie, the rhythm of the movie”. Surf rock is inseparable from his films, and as such, classic surf rock saw a new life in a completely different generation and cultural setting.
Throughout the 2000s, surf continues to be a prolific and appealing genre. Artists became even more experimental with their crossovers of genres, and bands like Daikaiju and Man or Astro-Man? incorporated more heavy and chromatic elements to their songs, while still staying true to the ethos of the genre. Right now some of my favourite bands making instrumental surf music are coming out of Canada. From the landlocked prairie surf bands like Surf Kitties and Matt Monsoon and the Riff Riders, west coast treats like Vancouver Island’s Los Barrochos, Haida Gwaii’s The Psuedos, and Atlantic Canada’s Jonny and the Cowabungas. Beyond North America, the genre seems to know no bounds, with surf bands ranging everywhere from Serbia to Brazil to Japan to the UK.
What started as a modest and esoteric genre has become an omnipresent musical force. It’s a still-evolving dynamic genre, with new musicians making new sounds, adapting it to new settings, and with or without knowing, taking serious nods to the past. Surf rock rules. Dig in!
Track Listing for the Vivascene Surf Rock Playlist
1954 – Walk Don’t Run ~ Johnny Smith
1958 – Rumble ~ Link Wray
1959 – Sleepwalk ~ Santo & Johnny
1960 – Walk Don’t Run ~ The Ventures
1961 – Let’s Go Trippin’ ~ Dick Dale and his Deltones
1963 – Apache ~ The Ventures
1964 – A Fistful of Dollars ~ Ennio Morricone
1968 – Man with the Harmonica ~ Ennio Morricone
1978 – Rock Lobster ~ The B-52s
1979 – California Uber Alles ~ Dead Kennedys
1980 – Bite The Hand That Feeds pt. 2 ~ Agent Orange
1980 – Ride The Wild ~ The Descendents
1983 – Walk Don’t Run ~ JFA
1988 – Having An Average Weekend ~ Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet
Naomi Kavka is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and performer who resides in Prince Rupert, BC. She loves writing and talking about music and also writes for Thimbleberry magazine. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org