Surf music. We love it, but do we know its roots? Southern California? Most of it, sure, but it just didn’t just pop up there one day. Most importantly, who were the influential artists and groups that started it all?
This article answers some of those questions and introduces you to some essential surf bands that, once you hear them, will prove there is a lot more to surf music than just Dick Dale and the Del-Tones (the “firstest with the mostest”), the Beach Boys (best surf vocalists), and the Ventures (most popular surf instrumentalists).
If you take an anthropological slant on surf music’s beginnings, a combination of factors came to together to create the sound. As surfing grew in popularity, it coincided with the rise in mostly guitar-based music styles from Latin America, Polynesia, and, in Dick Dale’s case, Lebanon.
With the technical innovations of electric guitars and their use in rock music (replacing mostly saxophones as the lead instrument), instrumental guitar tunes grew in numbers. Companies like Fender manufactured advanced electric guitars with varied features, allowing the player to create completely new sounds.
Reverb, an amplifier effect previously used sparingly, contributed to what was called a “wet sound” that could mimic waves. Guitar players drew upon foreign influences, merged them with their new lifestyle, and created amazing sounds with their improved technologies.
Taking a more romantic view, as the population of Southern California grew and more people spent their time at the beach, music associated with the surf, the sun, and the girl/guy dynamic that predominated the sandy shore organically sprang up. The kids needed a sound, a theme of sorts, to go with their tans, Jantzen swimsuits, and bleached hair.
If you take a capitalistic perspective, it was the recognition by both the record companies and the musicians to find a hook and keep the supply chain humming. The proliferation of surf music was largely cannibalizing the more authentic sounds of the genre and churning out carbon copies by pop-up bands cashing in on the craze.
There’s been much chatter over the years as to what constitutes a real surf record: instrumentals or vocals? The reality is that some of these great instrumentalists and their bands could not sing a lick, so using their combined guitars, drums, organs, and saxes to sound like voices was a much better path to success.
People then and now argue over the first surf band and the first record recognized as surf music. There’s a lot of good, but not convincing, evidence recognizing a variety of bands and songs as the first. The first song could be one of many, with a lot of tunes recorded in the late ’50s that were spiritually adopted later in the early ’60s by surf music aficionados and critics.
My vote goes to Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, or maybe Duane Eddy, the Revels, the Belairs, or Santo and Johnny. It depends on where you were (on the SoCal beaches or in wintery Ohio) and what you felt when you heard it.
Here are 10 bands who created their own surf-rock sounds but aren’t nearly as well known as some of their surf-rock brethren.
1) The Fireballs
New Mexico might not be your first stop for surf music or as a recording mecca, but in Clovis, New Mexico, a town of 38,000 or so near the Texas border, a genius started a studio that made history.
Norman Petty, a hometown boy who hit big in the ’50s as a piano player, formed a trio with his wife, Vi, and guitarist Jack Vaughn and scored with a recording of “Mood Indigo,” selling a half million records. His studio also recorded superstars like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings, among many others. By experimenting with mic placements and never putting the artists on the clock, he created an environment where artists could always get their best cut without hurrying. Thus, the “Clovis sound” was born.
The Fireballs were from Raton, NM, and got their start singing “Great Balls of Fire” at the Raton High School PTA contest in 1958. They won, and afterward, they earned their name from the song that started it all.
Later that year, they auditioned for Norman Petty, who quickly signed them. They recorded some tunes and got some airplay in early 1959. Then, Petty signed them to a new distribution deal with Top Rank Records, which subsequently released their instrumental recordings of “Torquay,” “Bulldog,” and “Vaquero.”
The group leveraged their Southwestern and Latin influences to inadvertently craft surf music. Surfers everywhere loved them. My favorite is “Torquay,” a tune that captures all the critical elements of a classic surf tune. On December 4, 1959, it reached #1 in Los Angeles.
2) The Astronauts
Another “landlocked” surf band, the Astronauts were extremely talented instrumentalists from Boulder, Colorado. They called themselves the Astronauts as a possible tribute to real-life astronaut and fellow Boulder native Scott Carpenter.
Signed by RCA, their classic album Surfin’ With the Astronauts, which contained “Baja, competed directly with the Capitol Records’ Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA. Written by Lee Hazlewood, “Baja” reached # 94 on the Billboard Hot 100 for just one week, the highest they ever charted for a single, although their LPs charted higher (all reviews of the band agree they kicked ass live).
“Baja” is the epitome of the staccato-picked surf sound with lots of reverb, two rhythm guitars, deep bass, and classic Fender amps. They never settled for anything less than perfection. They released seven albums, were huge in Japan, and appeared on Hullabaloo and in more surf movies than any other group.
3) The Belairs
“Wow man — your music sounds just like it feels out on a wave! It’s like… ‘surf’ music, man!”
This remark was reportedly made by surfer Lance Carson to the Belairs at Redondo Beach sometime in the summer of 1961. While I noted above that the first, true surf record is hard to pin down, the arguments of the Belairs’ “Mr. Moto” as the one are strong.
From South Bay near Los Angeles, the original band was together for just a couple years, but they created one of the most subliminal guitar instrumentals ever in “Mr. Moto.” This record rates at or near #1 as one of the best surf tunes ever. It’s so good that it inspired countless groups like the Surfaris, the Tornadoes, and the Chantays to form guitar instrumental bands specifically to play surf music.
Paul Johnson and Eddie Bertrand met in 1960, discovered their joint love of the guitar, and formed a band while in high school. During their evolutionary period, Johnson and Bertrand developed a great complementary style, with Johnson playing rhythm and Bertrand on lead. Their band included a sax player, a drummer, and an occasional piano player. They named their band the Belairs after the ’55 Chevy one of them drove.
Releasing “Mr. Moto” on Arvee Records, the 45 gradually gained traction from Sam Riddle, a KRLA disc jockey who hosted a show called “Topic Youth” every weeknight. Their success allowed them to create the Belair Club, a teen hangout, and play for hundreds of kids who came from everywhere around LA.
Lack of promotion and the usual band tensions eventually led to the band’s breakup. Eddie Bertrand went on to play with Eddie and the Showmen, another great surf band with a strong lead guitar that became extremely popular in SoCal. Former Mousketeer Dick Dodd played drums for them and later joined the Standells.
Sadly, Bertrand died of cancer in November 2012. Paul Johnson played with other bands over the years and released some singles that were well-received by surf music fans.
4) The Sentinals
This San Luis Obispo High School band formed in 1961 and recorded a couple of albums for Del-Fi Records: Big Surf and Surfer Girl, both in 1963. Del-Fi was a label started by Bob Keane in 1957 and subsequently recorded diverse artists like Richie Valens, Frank Zappa, and Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman TV show fame. Crawford, in fact, had more hits than anyone else in the Del-Fi stable. In 1963 Del-Fi got in on the surf music wave with groups like the Lively Ones, the Surfaris, the Surftones, and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston.
“Latin’ia” was written in 1962 by 16-year-old Tommy Nunes. He and the Sentinals toured the country in a station wagon, promoting the song and trying to gain an audience. Nunes and the band had been inspired by the Ventures’ song “Walk, Don’t Run” and were eager to succeed. Norman Knowles, formerly of the Revels (another band that’s worth a listen — the Revels’ song “Comanche” appeared in Pulp Fiction), managed the band and got the song heard in the Los Angeles area.
“Latin’ia” was one of 14 cuts on the Big Surf LP and the most popular of this reverb-drenched attack on the senses. It’s an outstanding illustration of what a surf song is and ranks high in all best-ever lists. The band stayed with it until ’66 and some members stayed in music, most notably drummer John Barbata who joined the Turtles — playing on “Happy Together” — and later joined Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.
5) Santo and Johnny
Santo and Johnny Farina were two handsome brothers from Brooklyn. Santo became intrigued with the steel guitar sounds he heard on a country radio station and excitedly acquired one, later taking lessons from a Hawaiian teacher. Teaching his younger brother Johnny to play acoustic guitar, the two teamed up and began playing gigs around New York City, earning Santo enough money to buy a three-neck steel guitar, each neck with eight strings.
He also began writing, and in August 1959, their new tune “Sleep Walk” was released on a small Brooklyn label named Trinity. It became a regional hit before it was picked up by the Canadian-American label and released it on a self-titled LP.
“Sleep Walk” was a major instrumental accomplishment and instantly recognizable by almost everyone. It hit #1 on Billboard in September 1959 and stayed on the chart for 18 weeks, earning gold-record status. It was covered by many guitarists; the 1998 Brian Setzer Orchestra cover received a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Upon first listen, you’d assume bleach-blond dudes from some SoCal beach or possibly a Hawaiian band were behind this tune. While not meant for a surfer audience, it was listened to and loved by a large contingent of surfers. Santo’s steel guitar evokes a balmy beach at sunset after an all-day surf, walking hand in hand with your date while the waves lap gently on the shore.
6) The Chantays
Getting together in 1961 at Santa Ana High School in Orange County, California, the Chantays were inspired by a local band called the Rhythm Rockers. The band included Bob Spickard, Brian Carman, Bob Welch, Warren Waters and Rob Marshall. Two of them, Spickard and Carman (using a $40 Montgomery Ward Airline guitar — Jack White also plays one), co-wrote one of the keystones of surf music, “Pipeline.”
This standard, named after the Banzai Pipeline waves at Ehukai Beach Park on the north shore of Oahu, was notable on many levels. First, during the recording session, the band put the lead guitar and drums in the rear and the bass, electric piano, and rhythm guitar up front in an “upside down” mix. Second, the tune employed arpeggios, broken chords or notes from a chord played individually instead of strummed together. The broken chord pattern created a smooth, sustained, flowing sound.
“Pipeline” hit #4 on Billboard in May 1962 and charted for five weeks. A landmark tune, it has been covered by countless artists and heard in all kinds of media. The song is also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” The Chantays were also the first Orange County band to join the Hollywood Rock Walk that includes the likes of Van Halen, Aerosmith, and Carlos Santana.
7) The Centurions
A tremendous band from Newport Beach, California, the Centurions were Jerry Dicks (keyboards), Joe Dominic (drums), Ernie Furrow (guitar, bass), Pat Gaguebin (saxophone, harmonica), Jeff Lear (bass), Ken Robinson (saxophone, flute, clarinet), and Dennis Rose (guitar, bass).
Two of their tunes merit your close attention.
“Bullwinkle Part II” was written by Rose and Furrow in 1962 and placed on the LP Surfer’s Pajama Party, released the following year. I love this tune, with its opening bass line that portends danger and the saxophones ripping it open in the middle. The surf sound was just evolving in ’62 and would explode the following year.
“Bullwinkle Part II” is significant because of its saxophones, a hangover from earlier rock ‘n’ roll. Thus, this tune provides a great bridge from that period to the surf instrumentals hundreds of bands would unleash on the world in 1963.
“Intoxica” was included on the same LP. Written by Norman Knowles, formerly of the Revels (see the Sentinals above), this song opens ominously, a single, dark note struck with a sustaining reverb and then a fast, twangy guitar reminiscent of Duane Eddy.
Regardless of the intended marketplace for these two tunes, both had a large appeal to both new and veteran surfers of the time, rising above many of their competitor’s attempts. “Bullwinkle Part II” was later included in Pulp Fiction and both were covered by everyone, but none approached the excellence exhibited by the Centurions.
8) The Fender IV
Teenagers when they recorded this classic, this is MBA-level badass surf rock/guitar virtuosity at its best. Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, and led by guitarist Randy Holden and bassist Mike Port, the Fender IV courageously moved to California and, being underage, went to Tijuana, Mexico, to get fake IDs so they could play local clubs.
Signed to the Imperial label, their 1964 monster hit “Mar Gaya” (no one knows what this title means) begins with a pounding drum beat followed by the bass and rhythm guitars jumping in, then a ferocious, Dick Dale-like Holden hitting a thousand strings a minute on his Fender guitar.
It alternates keys throughout, making it different enough to stand out from the many sound-alike bands that saturated the scene at the time. Hypnotic and nasty shooting-the-curl music at its best!
Not together long, Randy Holden subsequently reformed the band as the Sons of Adam. With the British Invasion in full force, they moved to a more vocal-based rock sound and were equally well respected. Holden later played for other bands, including Blue Cheer. Guitarists consider Holden one of the best they have heard.
He said in an interview years later that “the great thing about surf music was the fun it was. There was a good spirit about it and about the time it was done in.” Well said.