Surveying the landscape of today's rock and roll underground, it seems hard to imagine a time when there wasn't any surf music around. Once the twangy, reverb-soaked, early-Sixties commodity that drove Frankie and Annette bonkers as they rode the Hollywood celluloid surf, the music these days is found at all points of the compass -- from San Francisco (home of the Tiki Men, the Trashwomen, the Phantom Surfers, et al.) to the unlikely surf zones of Japan, Finland, and Holland (the respective locales for Jackie and the Cedrics, Laika and the Cosmonauts, and the Apemen), and just about everywhere in between. Miami has a good surf band (Category 5), as do Memphis (Impala), Detroit (the Volcanos), and Portland (the Galaxy Trio).
Such was not always the case. Although the first surf craze of the early Sixties produced several formidable hits, its chart run lasted barely three years, from 1961 to 1964. Those were also the glory years for Dick Dale, a guitar-playing surfer whose group the Del-Tones ruled the Rendezvous Ballroom, a surfers' nightclub in Balboa, California, not far from Los Angeles. Dale wasn't the first artist to put a surf instrumental on the charts (both the Wailers and the Ventures had hits before him), but his debut single, 1961's "Let's Go Trippin'," gave the music much of its sound and style. The staccato blasts from Dale's savagely picked Stratocaster guitar, which was cranked through a specially designed Fender amplifier equipped with a reverb unit, echoed throughout garages and neighborhood studios across the U.S. From there, the surf singles came fast and furious: Both the Surfaris and the Chantays had anthemic hits in 1963, the former with "Wipe Out," the latter with "Pipeline"; the chrome-domed Pyramids broke the Billboard Top 20 in '64 with the slinky instrumental "Penetration"; and innumerable obscure combos released singles on fly-by-night labels, few of which ever found a market outside of the bands' respective hometowns. Beyond the waves of instrumentals, the lifestyle and mores of the surf set were celebrated in the work of various vocal groups, including the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and the Fantastic Baggys.
As most trends do, though, surf music evaporated soon after its first big splash, and by the late Sixties the music had all the hipster appeal of ultradork piano duo Ferrante & Teicher. The oft-quoted line from Jimi Hendrix's epic 1967 freak-out "Third Stone from the Sun" still defines the music's decline: "May you never hear . . . surf music again."
Hendrix may have been a musical prophet, but he was a lousy fortuneteller. Just as Ferrante & Teicher are now hailed as visionaries by the denizens of the so-called cocktail nation, surf music has caught on with thrill-seeking bohos and alt-rock tastemakers. Amid the resurgence, Dick Dale made a triumphant return in 1993 with the Hightone release Tribal Thunder, not so much an update of his vintage Sixties sound as an elaboration on the foundation he helped create. Since its release, Dale has been a fixture on the punk nightclub circuit, where he is justly received by his new fans -- "Dickheads," they call themselves A as both a hero and a legend.
As it was back in Dale's day, instrumental surf music remains the sole province of independent labels (with the added bonus of better distribution). In Germany, Pin Up and Demolition Derby have knocked out a string of brilliant singles by groups such as the Apemen and the Astronauts, while San Francisco's Hillsdale Records has built an artist roster consisting entirely of surf bands. Meanwhile, Washington's Estrus Records has cranked out more instrumental-only vinyl albums, CDs, and singles than practically any other label in the nation. And most of them are very, very good.
Listed below is a chronologically arranged guide for the surf novice, highlighting ten albums and compact discs that show where the music came from and where it might be heading. Though singles dominate the current surf market, none are listed below. Most of them are pressed in limited quantities and go out of print as soon as they hit the mail-order lists, and who wants to read about songs they can't find? Everything on this list is currently in print and pretty easy to locate, so if you're looking for something wild, weird, and wet -- and with no irritating lyrics to get in the way -- dive in.
1. Dick Dale, The Best of Dick Dale & His Del-Tones (Rhino): If surf music had a bible, this eighteen-track collection would be it. Drawing from singles, B-sides, and album cuts, the disc highlights the genius of one of the ten most influential guitarists of the last 40 years. All the hits are here, from "Let's Go Trippin'" to "Mr. Eliminator," as are wonderful rarities such as "Taco Wagon," "Surf Beat," and Dale's adaption of the standard "Hava Nagila."
2. Link Wray, Rumble! The Best of Link Wray (Rhino): Okay, Wray was never a surf guitarist per se. Nevertheless, the slashing, distortion-heavy singles he cut in the Sixties A "Rumble," "Ace of Spades," and "Jack the Ripper" among them A wield as much influence on the current surf pack as Dale's early work. Of the countless Wray collections out there, this set is the finest.
3. Various Artists, Surfin' Hits (Rhino): With definitive cuts by Dale and the Beach Boys, as well as hits by the Chantays ("Pipeline"), the Surfaris ("Wipe Out"), and the Trashmen ("Surfin' Bird"), Surfin' Hits is the greatest overview currently on the market. It also features two terrific nuggets from 1963: Jack Nitzsche's majestic "The Lonely Surfer" and the Rumblers' "Boss," which punkabilly group the Cramps appropriated for their 1980 cult hit "Garbage Man."
4. Various Artists, Beach Classics (Dunhill Compact Classics): This duplicates a few tracks from the above set, but there's enough exclusive stuff here -- the Frogmen's dripping-wet "Underwater" and the Hustlers' "Inertia," to name just two -- to make it essential too.
5. The Ventures, Walk, Don't Run: The Best of the Ventures (EMI): Sure, they were surf's most popular group. And yet the bulk of the Ventures work seems staid in comparison to Dale's high-volume assaults. Still, "Walk, Don't Run" sports one of surf's keynote melodies, and there's some fine guitar work throughout this definitive overview of the band's Sixties hits.
6. The Raybeats, It's Only a Movie! (Shanachie): A lost gem from 1983. The Raybeats were a New York City-based group formed by no-wave guitarist Jody Harris, whose first album A 1981's Guitar Beat A encompassed arty surf originals and a Jan & Dean cover. Movie, however, is one of surf's most ambitious and inventive albums. On it, the Raybeats dabble in Ennio Morricone-style atmospheria ("Doin' the Dishes"), stomp all over a Booker T. and the MGs cover ("Jelly Bread"), and salute their elders with adventurous reworkings of classics by Link Wray and Henry Mancini, among others.
7. Man or Astro-Man? Is It . . . Man or Astro-Man? (Estrus): They claim they're from outer space, but Man or Astro-Man? is really just four college guys from Alabama who've released more records in four years than Dick Dale has in the last three decades. Is It . . . , the band's 1993 debut album, is an amazing assemblage of ultratwang riffs, neck-breaking percussion, and B-movie samples and voice-overs worthy of De La Soul or Firesign Theatre. Unarguably the greatest surf album of the Nineties.
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8. The Phantom Surfers, Play the Music from the Big-Screen Spectaculars (Estrus): Don't let the matching suits and masks fool you: The Phantom Surfers may look kitschy, but their sound is lifted directly from the old-school verities of vintage surf rock. This 1992 set is the prolific band's masterwork, a collection of covers from film soundtracks including The Unknown Terror, Malamondo, and Mondo Topless, all delivered with the reverb knob set to "10."
9. Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Savvy Show Stoppers (Cargo): Thanks to their slinky theme song for the comedy show Kids in the Hall, this Canadian trio was the first nuevo surf group to find an audience beyond the obscurantist followers of the genre. Savvy Show Stoppers rounds up the band's early singles, all released in 1990 on their Jetpac label. There are some nice covers here (especially "Misty" and "Summer Wind"), but originals such as "Good Cop Bad Cop" and "Our Weapons Are Useless" are the real standouts.
10. The Trashwomen, Spend the Night with the Trashwomen (Estrus): They're named in obvious homage to the masterminds behind "Surfin' Bird," yet this Bay Area trio might be the better group. Consider: Where the Trashmen disappeared after one great single, the 'Women have knocked off three ace albums (Spend the Night being the first, from 1993) and some equally fine singles. Neither slaves to the cover tune (guitarist Elka Zolot writes a hell of a riff) nor above adding vocals to an instrumental classic (e.g., "Peter Gunn"), the Trashwomen truly live up to their self-bestowed title "the Queens of Tease Rock."
Dick Dale performs Friday, February 23, at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd; 757-1807. Showtime is 10:00 p.m. Admission is $12.