Twang-bar Kings

"Third Stone From the Sun," the mostly instrumental, effects-laden, just-under-seven-minute meditation-from-the-outer-limits miniepic that appears on the Jimi Hendrix Experience's brilliant 1967 debut, Are You Experienced? Jimi comes up for air after some swirly cosmic fuzz-box tripping to deliver a brief monologue in the voice of a merely-visiting-your-planet alien, capping it with the seemingly throwaway line, "Can you ever hear surf music again?" (universally misquoted, by the way, as, "And you'll never hear surf music again").

Well, yes and no. Certainly, you can hear surf music -- lots of it -- these days. If you really try. The early-Sixties instrumental genre has functioned as alternarock's 1994 Rosetta stone. Better still, its Pet Rock. Witness this confluence: two new albums in two years and a high-profile national tour by self-proclaimed "king of the surf guitar" Dick Dale; surf music by the sound's mullahs -- Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, the Revels, the Lively Ones, and the Tornadoes -- splayed all over Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction soundtrack (see "Music," page 95); a host of CD reissues of surf music by those same progenitors and others on a handful of indie labels; and, inevitably, a feeding frenzy of "Surf's Up Again!" articles in the press, from Billboard to the New York Times, waxing ecstatic about the dozens of contempo young-scamp bands discovering the twangy, reverbed bliss of a Fender Stratocaster. But no, turn on the radio and you'll hear Boyz II Men, not the Trashmen of "Surfin' Bird" fame.

Surf music -- characterized by reverberating guitar lines and nifty double picking pushed along by a peppy rhythm section, a sound Dick Dale says he intended as the aural equivalent of the exhilaration of physically riding the waves -- hasn't enjoyed this much cachet since its heyday 30 years ago, when, from 1961 to 1963, it breezed through pop's sunny consciousness. Not that it ever really ruled. Only a few surf instrumentals -- the Pyramids's "Penetration," the Chantays's "Pipeline," and the Surfaris' s "Wipe Out" -- actually made the Top 40, but the sound found eager participants and listeners all over the nation, even in rocky-mountain-high Colorado, home of the band the Astronauts. To no one's great astonishment, it flourished wildly in surf-central, Southern California, where scores of bands held court at weekend teen meccas.

Along the way, however, something gnarly happened: On their 1961 debut single, "Surfin'," the Beach Boys started singing about the superfine virtues of the surfing lifestyle: sun-sun-sun, fun-fun-fun, girls-girls-girls. An aquatic avalanche of like-minded vocal records followed, with the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Fantastic Baggys, the Tradewinds, and many others enjoying commercial success far exceeding that experienced by the instrumental-only bands. In quick succession, the vocal groups graduated from surf songs to hot-rod songs. The Beatles and a bevy of other Brit bands bivouacked on the American pop charts. Ditto American Motown acts. And by 1965, with the country still reeling from the cataclysmic assassination of JFK, wracked by escalating racial tensions, and watching its young soldiers shipped off to fight in the remoteness of Vietnam, surf music -- both instrumental and vocal -- dried up. As original Chantays guitarist Bob Spickard told the Los Angeles Times this past spring, "Surf music went from being the coolest on the block to an instant anachronism."

Ah, but around about 1980, in the midst of New Wave's reign, boomers' relentless craving for nostalgia reanimated the surf-music corpse, with a gaggle of bands (California's Jon & the Nightriders, England's Barracudas, Oregon's Surf Trio) mixing dead-earnest revivalism with coy genre tinkering. On their bratty MTV novelty hit, "My Beach," the Surf Punks snarled, "My beach, my waves, my sand, shuddup, go home!" And the Forgotten Rebels tweaked hodads everywhere with their "Surfin' on Heroin." In 1982 reissue mavens Rhino Records released three volumes of surf music: one instrumental and one vocal from the sound's golden era, one from the early-Eighties resuscitation.

As it did with periodic predictions of a happening-any-second-now comeback of big-band music, newspapers trumpeted an impending surf-music renaissance throughout the Eighties, even when widespread interest in the genre didn't exist. "Surf Music Washed Up? Not on Your Pipeline," announced the Los Angeles Daily News in March 1987; four months later the Los Angeles Times proclaimed "Surf Instrumentals Seen as Next Big Wave." Uh, not exactly. But despite the fact that yet another surf-music tsunami never materialized, interest percolated. In 1988 Stevie Ray Vaughan teamed with Dick Dale to cover "Pipeline." In 1989 Robert Dalley, a member of early-Eighties L.A.-area revivalists the Surf Raiders, self-published a 41-chapter history of the sound's pioneers, Surfin' Guitars: Instrumental Surf Bands of the Sixties. And in 1990 the Pixies opened their album Bossanova by revisiting the Surftones's Sixties instrumental "Cecilia Ann."

Now the current hype. As Jan and Dean sang during the opening credits of 1964's The T.A.M.I. Show (the original rock-concert movie), "They're comin' from all over the world." Groovy new surf bands, that is. Everyone from Finland's Laika & the Cosmonauts to Canada's Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet to Japan's Jackie & the Cedrics to Belgium's Vice Barons to a brimming oceanful of American bands has co-opted the moldering sound and infused it with widely varying idiosyncratic spins. Earlier this year, Jim Thomas, guitarist for San Francisco's Mermen, told Billboard, "To me, a lot of the surf stuff is fairly one-dimensional in terms of emotional expression." To which the band's drummer, Allen Whitman, added, "We're not happy ponytails boppin' in the sand. We use [surf music] as a springboard." In the same article, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet bassist Reid Diamond sniped, "We reserve the right to be a surf band and to not be a surf band. But it would be totally boring to do a whole album in a purist vein."

Just as the swell of CDs by all these nouveau surf bands and a raft of reissues of original music by the Tornadoes, Lively Ones, Revels, Impacts, Trashmen, Challengers, Dick Dale, and Belairs crested, just as Dick Dale rode out fawning profiles in the vapor trail of his Unknown Territory album and accompanying national tour A along came Quentin Tarantino to consecrate the music with a doff of his cinematic cool-school miter. In a quote he would trot out again and again in various permutations for an obliging entertainment press in the wake of the release of his Pulp Fiction, the director told Billboard in October, "I've always loved surf music, but I've never had a blanking [presumably, he said fucking] clue of what the hell it had to do with surfing." Dick Dale notwithstanding, Tarantino has a point.

Very likely, by this time next year, surf-music hype will have evaporated. Just as likely, though, surf music's appeal will endure, reinventing itself from time to time, just as it has since Dale first explored its possibilities. Laika & the Cosmonauts' s guitarist Matti Pitsinki probably best encapsulated the music's timeless attraction when he explained to Billboard, "Since it has no lyrics, it's universal. Not just global, but universal.


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