Surf’s Up: An Alternative Music History
by Jessica Lee McMillan
Surf music is as specific as it is versatile in its oceanic tempos, splashy drums, reverb-soaked guitar, and spacious water-walls of sound. While music experts have long been divided between the instrumental and lyrical iterations of surf rock, the myriad ways the genre has evolved arguably makes it a rhythm or a mode, more than it ever was as genre.
As many have compared the rhythms of surf music to the waves themselves, we may say surf music is a wave that has crashed into other genres, creating a dynamic sound that is just as exciting today as it was for the surfers who caught on to the Hawaiian sport and the pioneering musicians who emerged from the scene.
Surf music has evolved and cross-bred from its origins in early ‘60’s California and the production techniques that enhanced it. The King of Surf, Dick Dale, brought country western at the same time as non-western scales.
The sound now ranges from psychobilly and horror punk to mariachi music and surf music spans all corners of the world, maintaining prevalence in female-led bands, in modern indie, as well as in punk and pop.
Surf music used to be rebellious before it became the white, square music from your grandpa's record collection after the British Invasion rendered it fad. Tarantino brought surf rock standards to cult-like fame in his soundtracks but the incarnations of surf in especially alternative genres make it as resilient and badass as ever.
The first few years of the 1960s — and before the Beatles — surf rock “broke” and can be heard as far back as Chuck Berry. Dick Dale went back further using sounds from old Greek and Middle Eastern influences.
Those who overlooked surf music as a stopgap between Elvis and The Beatles have missed the full picture. Dick Dale never made it big but his influence impacted Jimi Hendrix and elicited Fender to make an amp that could handle the raw power of his guitar. And if we were to rate the
significance of music only by the charts, we would be automatons for the music industry.
Many will say the roots of surf are owed to the the prominent, twangy guitar sound of Duane Eddy’s 1958 “Rebel Rouser,” which was a platinum hit and was released several years before surf rock became a recognizable genre. The reverb had not been heard of before this track, which — like surf rock — shaped modern guitar sounds.
This is the starting point for a month-long journey where I wrote daily on an aspect of surf-- from mid-century to present-- through a brief history, personal reflection, ekphrastic poetry and prose.
Dick Dale, The King of Surf
And then you get out in a wave. And then you get out and you start paddling, and you’re facing a six-footer or an eight-footer and — let alone a 10-footer. It is the most frightening thing in the world, and you just have to just dig down and go for it. And then when you get sucked up and taken over, you never feel strength like that in your life. And you just can’t stop that power, so you must ride with it. — Dick Dale
Lebanese-American Richard Anthony Monsour named himself Dick Dale as a homage to the western sounds of Hank Williams but his legacy became one of sonic engineering and pushing the limits of guitar technology that would become what we know as Surf Rock. Dick Dale made it from Boston to California and immersed himself in surfing (unlike Brian Wilson), and his techniques and reference base for the surf sound are what made the quality of surf that we know.
He necessitated new technology to handle his staccato picking, influenced by the flurrying jazz drummer Gene Krupa, and after having dozens of amplifiers failed to achieve the thick sound he wanted, Fender made a custom amp for him.
Dale’s little regard for the limit of volume pulls at my very heartstrings and similarly drew massive crowds to his shows, pulling in enormous local record sales. Dale explains that the sound was so loud and thick that “all of a sudden [the audience’s] clothes would suck up the sound and suck up the thickness and the baseness of this sound”.
Dale played on a solid wood Stratocaster with thick “cables” and even played upside down and backward before Hendrix so famously did. When Dick Dale died, Queen’s Brian May stated on Instagram:
his heavy-end strings are at the lower edge of the fretboard. This means his fingers could never fall in the same shapes as the rest of us. Maybe this led him to use those low notes more often and more forcefully than everyone around him.
This technical description can’t help but sound metaphoric for Dale’s unique power. His language is wresting big sound out of the best approximation to an instrument he could make for his voice. Dick Dale’s rapid picking is what makes his style most recognizable and the reverb was not used on his first album (the petal came later) and not for what most fans assumed. Dale says in an interview with Planet Magazine:
reverb had nothing to do with the surfing sound, and here they got ’em on the cover going ‘That’s the wet, splashy sound of reverb.’ No! We created the reverb because Dick Dale did not have a natural vibrato on his voice. I wanted to sustain my notes while singing. So we copied the Hammond organ, which had a tank in it. We took the tank out, rewired it, and had an outboard reverb! It was for the vocal.
Dick Dale’s fast picking was heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music and it is less known that his style references the tarabaki, Middle Eastern drum. Dale explains:
“My uncle taught me how to play the tarabaki, and I watched him play the oud. We used to play at the Maharjan,” said Dale, referencing a Lebanese nightspot in Boston, “while my relatives belly-danced."
Dale brought a host of influences in addition to his pioneering and popularized “Miserlou” from Eastern Mediterranean folk music with Arab, Jewish and Greek versions in the first decades of the 20th Century.
The 1927 version is below.
Perhaps the most famous curation in Taranino’s Pulp Fiction, “Miserlou” introduces a non-Western scale, quadruples the tempo to that of a machine-gun in a gripping plight of surf rock energy. Dale created a sound akin to flying through a tunnel wave falling into relentless, pounding surf. And it was not only the ocean that inspired Dick Dale. He also trained tigers for decades and embraced their fierceness in his sound. Pitchfork’s tribute to Dick Dale after his death in 2019 explains that “Miserlou” is:
visceral, as violent as a pistol crack, commanding attention from Dale’s first pick scrape down his fretboard. “Miserlou” aims straight for the gut, but the secret to its success — and why Dale’s music endures — is how it blends muscle and mind, connecting at a gut level while expanding sonic horizons.
The New Yorker describes the draw of Dick Dale’s music through surf, which is “an alluring sport in part because it combines recklessness with grace. Dale’s music did similar work. It was as audacious as it was beautiful”.
For me, Dick Dale’s aggressively beautiful and expansive sound is sublimely emotional. Even when it is loud and intense, it stretches out beyond the body and mind. It gives a structure of larger forces, like the ocean sucking you up and taking you over.
Waves of Influence
I’d like to take a breakneck tour of some of the other sounds that helped Surf Rock make sense. This is not to give a comprehensive history that you can already find in books and magazines, but a nod to the forgotten and unsung heroes to explore the proper reach of musical inspiration in the inviting sound of surf music.
There is something inherently offbeat about surf music and I want to stay on that bent, responding to it passionately and poetically. Because what is not more poetic than the crashing surf and the thrill of lurking riptides? Sex and death, right?
And before delving into surf, it's important to acknowledge Chuck Berry's influence on surf and especially the Beach Boys’ sound — particularly for “Surfin’ USA,” where Brian Wilson had to add Berry as a credit.
Whitewashing of Black music should have us constantly suspicious of old-school rock criticism and this list touches specifically on non-White artists who were satellites of what would become the surf rock cosmos.
And as Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar became synonymous with surf sound, so did Link Wray’s 1958 “Rumble”, with its badass guitar distortion. Bob Dylan called it the best instrumental ever. Jimmy Page jumped around his bedroom. Iggy Pop would later claim after hearing “Rumble” “fuck it, I’m gonna be a musician”*. Later, rockabilly enthusiasts would own “Rumble” as testament to their rebellious lifestyle, evidence of how adjacent and overlapping surf and rockabilly sounds have always been.
Wray is argued to be the father of heavy metal in popularizing the power chord. He also is Indigenous and spent much of his life hiding from the KKK. While “Rumble” was banned for alluding to gang fights, Wray was up against the much more terrifying force of systemic racism.
While Surf Rock gained recognition, The Ronettes employed production techniques such as Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” that would eventually be closely associated with The Beach Boys. When Brian Wilson heard “Be my Baby”, he had to pull over his car and thus began his journey on brilliant sound engineering. When I listen to indie girl bands like The Cults who employ the technicolour sound, I hear the shiny bad girl — the dense edge in The Ronettes’ sound. NPR calls them pioneers of rock and when they first appeared on American Bandstand:
we could see them laying out a sneaky version of rock and roll disguised as pop. Through the way the group constructed its sound and look, The Ronettes embodied proto-rock transgressions, as their heavy eyeliner, poufed hair and natural New York accents all hint at.
Among some of the key sounds that had an adjacent evolution in the techniques associated with surf music, I leave you with Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun”, which was a tribute of sorts to Dick Dale when Hendrix heard that Dale was ill in 1964 and may not continue to play (he played well into the 21st Century). The instrumental has cut up conversations with Hendrix’s producer and the line which is believed to reference Dale lamenting “you’ll never hear surf music again." It rolls like the surf and coasts us along sonorous planes like the best of surf songs.
Back to the Beach
the reef erupts a soft gleam glittered ripples break electric waves gather air — finger by finger — into aquamarine passage, a motion sculpture gloaming the surfer moon
“Pipeline” is my internal surf song. The motorik guitar beat and soft sunset glow in the first chords take over my internal rhythms with the feeling of a time and place slightly out of reach. Directly descended from the stylings of Dick Dale, The Chantays crafted a perfect surf rock tune in 1963. The pipeline is the perfect metaphor for surf culture, embracing the beauty and the danger of a giant wave’s unpredictability.
“Pipeline” has nuances that I love to revisit: the haunting, buttery gleam of the surf at sunset and forward propulsion that hints at imminent doom, as well as the melancholy lone surfer.
Japan, where I had my first and last try at surfing, was an early adopter of surf music (to be discussed later this month), but I’d like to pay tribute here to famous Japanese guitarist Takeshi Terauchi — the Electric God — who passed away a few weeks ago and did a stunning, muscular rendition of “Pipeline” in 1964.
Another reason “Pipeline” is my internal surf song is because it is tuned into my personal timeline. I’ll let you in on my secret only those closest to me know.
1987’s satire of beach party movies Back to the Beach captured me as a child and I have watched it well, well over 100 times. It has everything: colourful, sarcastic characters, like Bobby the punk goth intellect and the quirky retro Annette — who I both wanted to emulate — endless cameos, an incredible soundtrack, and the ocean! It was the catalyst for my love of surf rock and is responsible for more than a passing knowledge of Dick Dale.
Clearly a B movie that never aimed to be highbrow, Back to the Beach was acclaimed by Roger Ebert as “a wicked satire that pokes fun at Frankie, Annette and the whole genre, but does it with a lot of good humour and with the full cooperation of the victims.” Spoofing on the beach-blanket genre’s “chasteness” is also a perfect antidote to the square leanings attributed to the surf-pop that accompanied the movies and the overly idyllic picture of surf culture painted by the Beach Boys, who gifted the world with some of the best music but had no teeth in surf sound.
While my friends were still playing Barbies, this film officially swore me in as a child of nostalgia and all the best music of bygone eras. It was also my first encounter with ska (Fishbone) and especially surf music. Back to the Beach features Dick Dale on stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan — who worshipped Dale — playing “Pipeline”. This was the first version I ever heard and it lingered with me for years until I started learning about surf rock in a dedicated way.
Goddamn, what I wouldn't do to be the wind in Stevie Ray Vaughan's hair.
The Lonely Bull
The romance of surfing
I have just divulged my guilty pleasure of watching Back to the Beach over 100 times, gratefully leading me to surf music. Among the amazing range of surf classics featured in the film was “The Lonely Bull” written by Sol Lake — a friend of Herb Alpert — and performed by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass in 1962. It was the first album to be released by A&M Records, co-founded by living legend Alpert, an accomplished vocalist, instrumentalist and son of Jewish immigrants who settled in California.
A generation or two later, I would come to love it as part of my musical upbringing. To me, my anachronistic taste is the yearning of a nostalgic soul from which I have suffered joyfully. I remember my Dad would always name a tune within seconds (as I was trained) and when this song came on in Back to the Beach, he instantly named it, despite the song not making it on the official soundtrack. It would be several years later that I would download it on Napster, then finally get it on vinyl.
“The Lonely Bull” is a toreadorian aria that became subsumed by surf music. It is captivating like a spacious stadium, rich with Alpert’s overdubbed layers, lullaby-inducing mandolin and bass, the regal sound of Alpert’s trumpet, and that mono-stereo aura of an unnamed coloratura soprano singer.
“The Lonely Bull” provides romanticism to surf culture by employing bullfighting tropes with a mariachi and surf rock palette. Originally titled “Twinkle Star”, Alpert renamed it and recorded it as a demo in his garage. The sound embodies the gentle, yet bold aspects of the bull. The rush of the ocean sound in surf music becomes the hush of fanfare that Alpert captures after being inspired by a mariachi band during a bullfight in Tijuana. Five years later, the band actually filmed a video for the song in the Toreo de Tijuana.
Symbolically, the lonely bull easily conjures the image of a lonely surfer, out in the vastness, surfing to the exclusion of everything else.
Does not our art sometimes make us feel lonely?
Walk, Don’t Run
Genre bending a theme emerging from the very beginnings of surf. Surf music is just another example of how impossible it is to extricate one genre from another. This is why I stick to defining surf music as a mode more that a genre with fixed characteristics. It is a culmination of influences that likewise infuses the genres around it.
In Critical Theory, the shared etymology of the French word genre and gender is a necessary application in discussing and deconstructing categories. Presumed polarities of gender or genre are finally starting to lose their grip in modern mentalities around identity as much as music.
“Walk, Don’t Run” is another example of a recognizable surf standard with origins in another genre. It is the very disobedience of categorical strictures where the most dynamic art emerges. The Ventures made concept albums that people would buy not for the single, but for the sound.
And the Ventures made waves that influenced famous rock musicians in the genre such as Carl Wilson and beyond the world of surf including George Harrison, Gene Simmons and Joe Walsh. Their experimental chord progressions influenced the Beach Boys’ happy sound and resonate in punk acts to this day.
Originally a jazz song popularized by Chet Atkins in 1957 “Walk, Don’t Run” was written by Johnny Smith in 1954. The Tacoma-based Ventures took out Atkins’ picking technique and added guitar twang to let the song breathe like the foamy surf.
Of course not all surf music shreds at a rapid pace and The Ventures slowed it down to walking pace while still moving you forward, similar to Dale’s first surf hit “Let’s Go Trippin”. Listening to “Walk, Don’t Run”, you can picture yourself cruising down The 101. To me, the feeling of “Walk, Don’t Run” is not entirely buoyant. The tones are still blue. Still rooted in a sense of searching.
The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 by John Fogerty of CCR and Rolling Stone explains “Walk, Don’t Run” was responsible for “a whole new movement in rock & roll. The sound of it became ‘surf music’ and the audacity of it empowered guitarists everywhere.”
The Ventures did not consider themselves a surf rock act when they entered the scene and it seems befitting that without limiting themselves to a prescribed form, the resulting sound was as revolutionary.
Surf, Flamenco and the infidelity of genre
Mr. Moto was recorded simultaneously with Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’”, and both are considered the first surf rock songs. Both were responsible for defining the genre that would then attract the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. In fact, the Beach Boys asked Bel-Airs’ guitarist Paul Johnson, who wrote the song in high school, to join the Beach Boys but he refused “staying firm in his convictions”.
Easy Reader, Beach Magazine explains:
They didn’t call it surf music at this point. Johnson was influenced by Link Wray, the Ventures and the nearby sounds of Tex-Mex music. The Bel-Aires instrumentals were just kind of a take on their influences. They didn’t think they were creating anything particularly new.
The Bel-Airs started without a bass player, which added to the distinction of their sound and gave breathing room to the subtleness of the guitar and piano. In the tradition of cross-breeding, the song also opens with a flamenco flourish that pays homage to the influence of tremolo style on surf guitar (although finger picking in surf standards à la Dick Dale, should not be confused with the specific tremolo technique in Spanish Guitar according to Brian May).
The story of “Mr. Moto” comes full circle with renowned flamenco guitarist Ben Woods, a genre-crossing enthusiast who grew in in Seattle during the ‘90s and coined the term “flamenco metal”. Woods covered “Mr. Moto” in 2004 with straight Spanish Flamenco, rendering the surf sound in rounded, dextrous warmth.
To me, surf rock becomes more relevant with every cover. While we sometimes falsely cling to our “originals” in the ethics of cover versions, Surf Rock was never purist, as I suspect no genre is. Just think of how displeased rock bands in early ’90s Seattle felt when they were slapped with the label “grunge”.
Surf music was a result of coalescing influences that were careful not to label themselves too early. It includes bands that live nowhere near the coast and embraces gothic and Mexican references. It is about the surf as much — for some — as it is about Tex-Mex, drag racing, skate and punk. And finally, surf legends such as The Bel-Airs, The Ventures and Dick Dale influenced countless artists outside of the genre. The illegitimacy of surf rock origins and subsequent influences simply adds to its meaningfulness as it flourishes in riffs of all genres.
1313 Mockingbird Lane, etc.
Kids in the Hall, Surf and popular theme songs
Surf music made a big impact on theme songs in the ’60s that became so ubiquitous that most people forget they are surf songs. Surf rock created the foreboding tone of themes from Batman to James Bond. Even the Ventures embraced the excitement by scoring the hit song from Hawaii Five-O.
The wildfire spread of surf music to television was no doubt hastened by the Wrecking Crew, a collective of session artists who worked together during the height of the era producing notable surf and surf-adjacent acts such as The Ronettes, The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.
Billy Strange, a Wrecking Crew session musician who’s CV would make your heart leap, wrote for Elvis, penned Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock” and got his feet wet in surf arranging songs for Duane Eddy and the James Bond Theme song. He was inducted in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Jack Mashall, however, arranged my favourite theme song for The Munsters, which I grew up watching despite begin born in the late ‘70s. Described as “part Ventures, part Henri Mancini, part Spike Jones” Marshall wrote “Monster riffs and fuzz guitar meet[ing] big band”. His work on campy gothic themes demonstrates an immediate affinity between camp, the gothic and surf. The proliferation of rockabilly and psychobilly bands stand testament.
Here’s a stellar cover of Billy Strange’s original with a delicious bridge by Nashville-based Los Straightjackets, donning personalized luchador masks. Jimmy Lester of Los Straightjacket’s toured with Robert Gordon, the father of rockabilly.It’s all connected, folks. Los Straightjackets bring a rockabilly sound while illustrating the entwined relationship between Mexican iconography and surf culture.
Kids in the Hall
My biggest connection to TV surf themes in my lifetime is Canada’s Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s “Having an Average Weekend”, which became the opening song for Lorne Micheals’ long-running Kids in the Hall. “Having an Average Weekend” epitomizes the absurdness of life, modern ennui and trivialities Kids in the Hall parodied in characters such as Gavin and the man who lost his pen.
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet reluctantly admit they are a surf rock band, a trend I am seeing in surf associated bands from the originals to present. They entitled a box set Oh, I Guess We Were a Fucking Surf Band After All.
But the Toronto-based Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet could also not get any more Canadian (and nowhere near the ocean). “Weekend” still gives us the same upbeat but irreverent aimlessness of a surf bum (inland) and is the perfect soundtrack for mischievous “kids in the hall”. Here they are playing at just another Royal Canadian Legion:
Bird Is the Word
Surf Punk and Rockaway Beach
Punk reached its height in the late 1970s and bands influenced by surf married the tough attitude of Link Wray’s “Rumble” and Dick Dale’s cacophonous guitar muscle with more edge and postmodern sentiment. Punk was not just rebellious and raucous. It was angrier. And with the family-meets-gang framework of Ramones members foregoing their surnames, they became surf punk icons with equal amounts bubblegum and grit:
People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds, because it’s not that civilized an art form. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative. — Dee Dee Ramone
Early Surf Punk
Many early surf punk bands covered the classics but also wrote original songs incorporating surf elements in their existing punk aesthetic. Within a few years of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, surf punk and skate punk exploded. This is stuff for the halfpipe:
Bands like Agent Orange and the Dead Kennedys seized surf sound in catchy, feral melodies with high energy but often without the idyllic atmosphere. Surf punk acts also emerged alongside skate punk bands like The Descendents.
Most people will point to The Ramones as paragons of surf punk and, ultimately, a crossover into pop.
It took a bunch of New York punks to make “Surfin’ Bird” — a gimmicky earworm — into a head-nodder in Ramones’ bop vernacular. Their version of Minnesota-based Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” celebrates surf culture as “the word”. I would like to think that the Ramones’ “word” is their aggressive brand of doo-wop garbage truck surf punk. The first popular surf version was already a whitewash of the 1962 doo-wop original by the Rivingtons.
It’s fascinating to see yet another influence (doo-wop) on some of the first big surf hits. And as surf music began to become a self-perpetuating machine of covers and novelty songs like “Wipe-Out,” punk found new applications for a genre tossed aside for the British Invasion.
I’ll always remember the bitchin’ way Pee Wee did “Surfin’ Bird” because of my aforementioned obsession with my surf rock nexus event Back to the Beach; however, to me, the Ramones made it their own. They made it cool again to sing “papa-oom-mow-mow.”
And let there be no mistake, this is pop music as much as punk. Initially wanting to be “a bubblegum group,” Johnny Ramone said:
we looked at the Bay City Rollers as our competition. But we were so weird. Singing about ’53rd and 3rd,’ about some guy coming back from Vietnam and becoming a male prostitute and killing people? This is what we thought was normal.
The Ramones’ Rocket to Russia was the first explicit use of the work punk as a non-pejorative identity marker in the beloved “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”. And the Ramones tried out their surf chops in “Surfin’ Bird” along with their original surf-infused “Rockaway Beach”, dedicated to the prime urban getaway in Queens.
“Rockaway Beach” takes us from the noisy household and the radiating streets to breezy ocean freedom. The lyrics hint at Dee Dee Ramone’s anguish escaping an abusive household and the catharsis of teenage rebellion.
I love to hear how the repetitive Ramones style in “Rockaway Beach” lends itself to vocal surf harmonies that conjure the Beach Boys. Consequence of Sound calls it “a bit of jittery bubblegum pop, like The Beach Boys doing coke off the toilet” and it epitomizes the era for the Ramones. It’s what happens when commercial desires run smack into an ironclad identity:
Ramones wanted to play like the Bay City Rollers, but the Ramones couldn’t play like anyone but themselves. — Wren Graves, Consequence of Sound
The Ramones gave us the escapism with the prick of reality. When you are in your teens, those carefree moments feel like they are already coming less frequently. You are already becoming disillusioned but still full of Dionysian energy. Like a brief escape from the city, from the drudgery of being, you unravel at Rockaway to wholesome melodies. It’s not hard, not far to reach. And when you are in full groove, you are jilted by the abrupt end of a short, classic punk song.
Charlie Don’t Surf
Militaristic surf undercurrents
I wonder if the pioneers of surf music could have imagined their sound facilitating a punk bands’ post-war political message against fascist regimes. The Clash and Dead Kennedys did just that when surf punk was sweeping the suburbs. And the clarity of surf guitar provided them both an eloquent backdrop for accompanying noise and anger.
While the Clash did not regularly use surf elements in their music, they experimented with genre and production techniques to convey their message in compelling hooks (I think of the entrancing percussion “Straight to Hell”, masterminded after the band recorded Strummer hitting the bass drum with bottle to a bossa nova beat).
Deservedly deemed “the only band that matters,” The Clash were seminal in the first wave of British punk but drew on influences from over the pond. Sandinista! — itself a message of resistance —departs from their tighter punk sound for reggae, dubstep and a surf song with a subversive message through the persona of a Vietcong soldier.
The title for “Charlie Don’t Surf” is taken directly from Apocalypse Now and the song’s upbeat rhythm is a stealthy delivery mechanism — a junta. The languid guitar is clean and airy, juxtaposing the low-fi racket of the intro mimicking an incoming helicopter and coming to a peak as the melody kicks in.
Those crystal notes on the surface, “Charlie Don’t Surf” is charmingly ironic. Listening more deeply, the song is an indictment against war, capitalism and xenophobia, rather than an eclectic, upbeat jam worthy of naming a restaurant after, as the folks at a nearby beach from here have done. Not sure if they heard “Charlie’s gonna be a napalm star”, or “satellites will make space burn” or “we’ve been told to keep the strangers out.”
The Clash properly asserts how problematic it is that “everybody wants to rule the world” before Tears for Fears admittedly stole the line. But Tears for Fears’ more benign take was censored when the song was banned during the Gulf War.
Dead Kennedys were intimately involved in the surf punk scene — arguably the “second wave” of punk — on the West Coast, influenced by British punk rockers The Clash but moreso The Sex Pistols. Dead Kennedys were serious musicians who used their craft as provocateurs out for anarchy. They were political and scathing and they paved the way for hardcore.
“California Über Allies” is a madhouse blending surf with punk in Jello Biafra’s over-the-top visualization of a Nazi regime taking over California. All of this after opening with a classic surf rock riff.
Biafra sings in a deriding, sinister tone loading his lyrics with literary and film references and allusions to war crimes, illustrating the cost of an Orwellian universe of totalitarian alliances. When the song slows to a grind, Biafra verbally struts over the assertive guitar mastery of East Bay Ray, who “can rifle through quick successions of distorted power chords with the best of them”.
Premier Guitar explains “Spaghetti-western twang, slapback echo, and unorthodox clean tones were also integral“ to Dead Kennedys’ sound and East Bay Ray “crafted a tone that had much more in common with ‘60s surf than the sounds usually associated with punk and heavy metal”.
In this tale of two coasts, I love how punk seized surf tropes and techniques of surf rock masters, honouring their craft but bending the sound to communicate a message profoundly askew from the standards.
When the Sun Goes Down…
Depraved Bliss of Psychobilly
In the lively language of skittering tempos and dual guitars, The Cramps were punk meets rockabilly with an undercurrent of surf. They embraced smutty chic as an aesthetic and flaunted b-movie and horror themes in their lo-fi fishnet and latex garage glory. The Cramps are my favourite chimera of surf inspired psychobilly. They are chronically under-celebrated for their deluxe, decadent depravity.
The Cramps were campy transgressors at CBGB ground zero, an apotheosis rife with underground garage, surf, and party and punk from the B-52's to The Misfits. They were also my soundtrack as a university student and sometimes DJ who took weekly sabbaticals to local goth nights. This is the stuff you dance to on the dance floor and play with in the dungeon.
The Cramps inspired psychobilly and the worldwide waves of influence range from the well-known Reverend Horton Heat to myriad of sub-genres like horror punk and gothabilly acts who do the “Gothic Surf-O-Rama”.
Among countless covers, The Cramps had some amazing original songs with fucking killer surf riffs like “Human Fly” which was on their setlist for their CBGB audition in November 1976. You can hear Link Wray and Dick Dale in a whole new context.
Among many covers The Cramps hijacked “Goo Goo Muck” from the tame 1962 original by Ronnie Cook. They play up its double entendre of sexual reference and ghoulish celebration of vampiric wandering for blood. On stage, they were just as alive and blasphemous.
The Cramps’ embracing of ghouls, sex and death, and life affirming tongue-in-cheek humour is refreshingly crude and vital. They borrowed from the shock rock of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Much catharsis is to be had when dancing with fiends.
Scholars of gothic literature and dark imagery purport the macabre helps us explore and reckon with unsettling truths. Psychobilly having such a strong surf element, highlights the interrelated nature of beach iconography with death in surf and skate culture.
The Cramps’ sound in songs like “Surfin’ Dead” conjured the dangers of surfing in killer waves and riptides in a way that lifts the veil. There is something about how many Playas de los Muertos along with unanswered questions about colonial history, piracy and sacred beachside burial sites that hinges our favourite sunny spots on a sacred periphery between worlds.
The beach — and perhaps the surf song itself — then is a place to boogie and a place of reckoning with the primordial ocean that connects us in undercurrents of desire and death.
Inspired by “Goo Goo Muck”, I conclude with my ekphrastic response to the song and to the band that holds a dear place in my freaky little heart:
When the surf is high and the bones slap up the shore skims skulls and waves a sugar tongue in the thin hours, tide the draining of blood
Camp goes surfing with The Deadbeat Club
…When we play “Rock Lobster” they just go a little bit nuts. No matter where we play it. And if we play in Europe people form a mosh pit on that song. It propels people to let their inner-freak fly. Something about that song gives people a license to let loose and do the craziest dances, and it’s very entertaining to us. – Kate Pierson
I had to learn about how cool the B-52’s were in reverse. To know that they held their own with the punks at CBCG as uncanny ring leaders of uncategorizable sound mixing garage sale garage, surf twang, dance punk funk, party and retro power pop.
I grew up with “Love Shack” and “Shiny Happy People” but my introduction to “Rock Lobster” was not until I was frequenting a renowned gay bar, underage, on goth night wearing a camisole and pleather pants from Le Château, Canada’a fashion outlet that used to be pretty cool and now sells business casual. What a metaphor for selling out. The B-52s never did. They stayed together and they stayed true.
Can you believe there is a faithful live version of “Rock Lobster” from Atlanta, Georgia’s Downtown Cafe in 1978? It’s a miracle to watch them get started up, hear Fred Schneider introduce band members with random, absurd names and crack the cowbell with the first frenetic riffs. At about 5:30, I feel like I’m at a beach party speaking in tongues.
Producer: Tom Luce, Director& Editor: Kelly Mills, Camera: Tom Luce & Gary Anderson © 1978
The underground popularity of “Rock Lobster” endures like the increasing levels of euphoria you feel halfway through the infectious song. Here in Canada, it reached #1. The rusty sweet surf rock licks never loose their shine.
Looking back, I realize the B-52’s were always letting me know that it’s ok to be myself. Always an eccentric dresser, I had the audacity to go to a wedding with a beehive and only two people at the fairly conservative wedding “got” what I was trying to do with my doo.
When you meet folks who understand you — especially when you are a misfit — you have found your CBGB.
This is what I’d like to think of for the B-52’s on that fateful night sharing a drink at the Chinese restaurant and deciding to form a band. They shared an unmistakable and uncategorizable thrift store aesthetic, were mostly queer and were ready to have serious fun jamming.
Here is some free verse inspired by the antics of “Rock Lobster”:
funky alien arthropod boogies to horror organ and song with campy speech cataloging mystery ocean — queer and fascinating — in thrilling descent of animal calls and surf riffs fathoms deep in strobe-light sweat
Skidmarks on my Heart
Sexism and surf: girls can be sleaze-bags too
When I was laboriously going over my working list of surf gems across decades, genres, and countries, it dawned on me that I could use The Go-Go’s.
Then I said, “fuck yeah”.
Why? The Go-Go’s arrived on a new wave, scrappy with ideas and techniques from previous punk bands — some members learning to master their instruments on the fly — and made space for female-led bands. 40 years ago (almost to the date) The Go-Go’s penetrated the pop kingdom of Madonna with Beauty and the Beat. Yet, they belong in the same era as the B-52s, emerging from the punk scene to become incredibly successful artists who only just got nominated for induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame among an — ahem — marked increase of female inductees.
The Go-Go’s sounded like summer beach punk, distilling unmistakable surf sounds from their native LA Even their simplest pop songs are fortified with the surf drum roll and surf guitar bridge at 1:45.
But their backstory was so much more rock and roll.
The Go-Go’s broke out of poverty and fought sexism but were far from wholesome, making them a typical example of any male rock and roller. They may have been cute but they were not coy. They blew their cash on heroin and slept around. Vanity Fair calls them “one of the sleaziest bands in history” and guitarist Jane Wiedlin said the band was “cute and bubbly,” but “also crazy, twisted, drug-addict sex fiends.”
But are The Go-Go’s judged by the same lens as their male counterparts? Are they more shameful than Led Zeppelin’s sexual acts with underage groupies and sharks?
The Go-Go’s had a huge impact on music but are still easily dismissed as girl pop, despite being trailblazers in writing all their songs, choosing a female manager, and going double platinum on their first album. They had massive balls, performed as boys and Kathleen Hanna called them the “Valley Girl Intelligentsia” for girls looking for an empowering way out of male-dominated rock.
Patti Smith, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry and Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson of the B-52’s had shown women ways of being and creating that freed our minds and bodies. But the Go-Go’s taught a new generation, who were too young for the girl groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals, the power of the girl gang. — New York Times
Let the power wash over you.
Kill Surf City
The Jesus and Mary Chain
Surf music’s influence around the world was not exclusive to straightforward rock in the first years. The subtle inflections of surf sound in alternative music is like an emotional cord through a song. And so surf influences sweetened the distorted shoegaze noise of Scotland’s The Jesus and Mary Chain’s sound in songs like “Kill Surf City” and “Just Like Honey.”
Like any other badass pop gem, “Just Like Honey” from their legendary 1985 debut Psychocandy appears to be a ballad about a breakup but rather grapples with drug addiction that glints with sublime yearning. Even when they perform it today, “Just Like Honey” drips with sonorous noise seeking its own inherent beauty — like longing in life — without being able to actually touch it into a tangible melody. As Pitchfork puts it:
like with most heroin rock’n’roll bands, there’s an earnest, romantic belief in something beautiful and unattainable in the midst of it, which might be drug-related for them but doesn’t have to be for you. The many fun and pretty songs here still seem tired and hard-won, like the band’s grasping at beauty rather than just claiming it exists.
And in the beautiful noise, the band used the same wall of sound in “Just Like Honey” that so distinctive in surf music, even borrowing the same drum intro from The Ronettes “Be My Baby”.
Along the surf narrative, “Kill Surf City” is JAMC’s most direct reference to surf music in its interpretation of Brian Wilson’s “Surf City” (which Wilson “gave” to Jan & Dean). The reversal of bubblegum innocence in surf music by subverting the title and making a reference to wantonness and death in the lyrics follows a fairly consistent tradition of post ’60s alternative interpretations.
If imitation is a sincere form of flattery, then the playful irreverence towards surf music tropes honours it without becoming its sycophant.
Instrumental surf revival with a twist
After surf rock lost appeal during the British Invasion, it came back to life in punk then hit a dry spell in its classic, instrumental iterations. Mainstream eighties instrumentals went the route of new age and muzak, taking over radio stations in malls and doctors offices with “Baker Street,” which almost made me forever hate the sax.
Instrumental music’s stepchild, electronic music, was safely underground and the only popular instrumental I can live with from the ’end of the century is the Moog treasure “Axel F”, which sits among my soundtrack LPs.
Then there was Pulp Fiction.
And a steady flow of fresh takes on the classic surf instrumentals from surf revival bands that graciously lobotomized us from Mannheim Steamroller.
In my introduction to this series, I alluded to the longstanding argument among critics that surf rock is an instrumental in its purest form. It’s as if lack of lyrics lets the guitar do the speaking on behalf of the ocean.
Rick Simmons of Rebeat argues the classic surf instrumentals were “more of a soundtrack to the act of actually surfing than music about surfing’s context”. The first instrumentals like “Mr. Moto”:
wasn’t a song sung about surfing — it was surfing. The tempo of the song coincides with the slow buildup as you wait for, then paddle into, then catch the wave. The remainder of the song matches the exhilaration of actually riding the wave….
San Fransisco’s Aqua Velvets sound like the calm of riding the perfect wave at dark with an exotic twist. Guitarist Miles Corbin calls The Aqua Velvets “neo-surf spaghetti western” and resolved to add hypnotic dimension to his surf revival band. The resulting “noir” sound feels cinematic and airy with the boxed symphony track. The subtle wave of synth, drum-kit and acoustic guitar sound is like the Mark Knopfler of surf and becomes more affecting with each listen.
Rolling in like ghost riders on the “third wave” of surf revival bands is Susan and the Surftones, formed ’90s in New York, kept a foothold in Europe and are now established in Portland, OR. Led by female guitarist, Susan Yasinski aka Susan Surftone, is a former FBI agent and fascinating musician whose solo work is also a hidden treasure because, as she explains “Surf music is male-dominated, and mostly straight-male-dominated.”
Susan and the Surftones carry the edge we rediscovered in Dick Dale when Pulp Fiction brought some of the best surf classics into the light. The play covers and originals and are still rocking today. Here’s their stellar original “Blue Hammer 99”.
There are too many bands to mention who hunker down and fine tune their craft by putting out faithful surf tracks, which gives me assurances the surf instrumental continues to be preserved in contemporary iterations for the purists.
Wave of Mutilation
The Pixies and the personal essay of a broken heart
The shattered illusions of the world are mirrored in punk and The Pixies sharpened those pieces into a fine, eloquent edge. Kind of like the sweetness of longing that runs through a broken heart. Joey Santiago’s surf guitar glides on that edge drifting us into the ’90s with a post-punk surf sound that is as haunting as it is idyllic.
The Pixies’ pleasantly neurotic undulation of noise alternating with silence endows their music an unexpected grace. But their surf interludes transcend the lulls and sail you away on a “Wave of Mutilation”.
The impossibly perfect, surf-drenched album Bossanova (1990) emotes a wistfulness of longing at the beach; of breaking, but breaking beautifully. A little over a decade later, Pixies albums like the indomitable Surfer Rosa were already classics but Bossanova became my summer soundtrack during my worst breakup.
I was drowning in sadness and a good friend, Lung, noticed and whisked me over the border and down the coast to Cannon Beach, Oregon. We listened to The Pixies on the way down and communed with the ocean for a weekend.
When I asked Lung to give me a bear hug before bed one night, we both heard a resounding pop. He accidentally cracked a rib, so it seems appropriate to say I did break that summer. Lung is an accomplished, professional photographer and he took pictures on the trip trying to collect the energy from the majestic surroundings. He took pictures of me that did not show my breaking as much as my dissolution into the landscape, which is really how I want to die. Listening to The Pixies gives me that beautiful feeling.
In “Ana” — my favourite surf song ever — Frank Black whispers ocean poetry into the waves, to a surfer goddess who unveils and disappears into the water:
S he’s my fave U ndressing in the sun R eturn to sea F orgetting everyone E leven high R ide the wave
Ana lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
Surf music in Japan
Japan’s affinity with the sea means modern surf culture is as lively and lengthy as in California; however, Japanese folk were was using an itago to surf centuries before American soldiers came with their boards.
Japanese surf culture was born in Shōnan, which continues to be a quiet surf mecca south of Tokyo where I learned to surf and played peek-a-boo with Fuji-san on the other side of the Pacific from my native Vancouver. Shōnan is in Kanagawa prefecture where Hokusai’s iconic wave has permanently immersed our imaginations in the colours and shapes of the sea.
Shōnan is tucked in a bay near the temple town Kamakura and the beach is populated by amazingly tanned surfers who have slowed life to a breeze. The vibe in Shōnan has inspired a poem or two. It is a world of surfing culture that feels so distant from Japan’s morbid work culture, which claims its own word for “work to death”.
The need for self expression and catharsis make fertile soil for variations on surf music in Japan and rockabilly subculture continues to thrive prominently, especially in Tokyo’s Harajuku district where the goths and greasers donning gravity defying pompadours hang out on Sundays at sundown in Yoyogi Park. I put myself on exhibition a few times in my ballgown version of goth and it felt really good to identify with similar creatives who would look you in the eye and smile.
As for surf music, The Ventures first played in Japan in 1962. They tapped into the craze and played hundreds of times after, remaining big in Japan even when surf rock was overcome with Beatlemania. The instrumental focus of surf music meant that there was no language barrier.
Takeshi Terauchi and his Blue Jeans put out the surf album Korezo Surfing in 1964 and surf rock acts have steadily come out of Japan since. The AV Club astutely observes that just as Dick Dale tapped into his own cultural roots, Terauchi’s music and playing were informed by Japanese folk genres such as shamisen.
Terauchi, who just passed in June 2021, is a legend in Japan and has earned the respect of The Ventures and Jello Biafra. The Austin Chronicle describes the affectionately known “Terry” as “a revelation”. He is:
the incomparable leader of the movement as a Zen master Buddhist and quicksilver guitarist with violent, needlepoint precision….
I could spend another month crate digging for hallowed Japanese surf hits and discovering the new gems for you. But this is borrowed time and I would rather be in Shōnan.
Instead, I will meditate on the mastery of The Surf Coasters who formed in the third wave in the ‘90s and played with Dick Dale in Japan, leading Dale to name lead guitarist Shigeo Naka “The Surf Prince of Guitar”. When you watch Naka, he has spirit that will leave you Tsunami Struck.
The Surf Coasters became famous on TV, covering “Miserlou” and most people thought it was their original song until the third wave (and Pulp Fiction) brought the next generation up to date on the surf canon.
The Surf Coasters are still active, putting out originals and adding great splashes of modern guitar and insanely fast shredding, storming you with what Naka and his predecessors call “wet sound”.
I Want Your Skull
Surf, Horror Punk and The Murder City Devils
By the approach of the millennium, a strong revival of instrumental bands were coasting on Pulp Fiction badassery and vocal surf descendants from ‘70s and ‘80s punk and garage lineage were proving the sunny sounds of surf can feel seductive in the shadows of dark imagery.
Seattle’s Murder City Devils emerged in the late ’90s and owned their heavy, raw reverb version of surf with a thread of horror punk that we now associate with bands like The Misfits or The Damned, who both had surf references in their repertoire. While the genres are not mutually exclusive, there is a strong lineage of surf marrying horror punk after royal couple The Cramps paved the way.
The Damned experimented with genre and would not overtly play with the gothic for some time, however, “Fan Club” from their debut is driven by reverby surf licks.
Associated with horror punk rather than surf, The Misfits nonetheless laid tracks with surf bones in the tight, high-energy drum and guitar structures while injecting their lyrics full of gothic and horror imagery. The Misfits could not be contained and proved they could even master rockabilly in “American Nightmare.”
“Nike A Go-Go” is a shining example of their twisted surf spirit. The Misfits’ affinity with surf was enough to spawn the tribute band Crimson Ghosts who play surf covers of their songs. Here’s my favourite Misfits song in surf mode.
The Murder City Devils came from multiple lineages and illustrate the concurrent hues of surf and horror that were even popping up in Denmark in acts like the Horrorpops.
The Murder City Devils had a big moment when the musical landscape in Seattle had been rocked by the demise of grunge. They seemed like an answer to the post-grunge vacuum, but, as AV Club notes “they remain largely disregarded outside of tattoo shops and dive bars in Washington state” despite associated acts in the big leagues including Pretty Girls Make Graves, Melvins, Cold War Kids, and Modest Mouse.
I kind of like that I get to keep them to myself.
Their self-titled 1997 album played around with dense surf riffs akin to the garage punk style of The Cramps but with a lushly dark swagger of a prominent electric organ. They spoke to a kind of violence and reckless delight that appealing to the goth rock and horror punk crowds.
But regardless of pegging them in a genre, the Devils deserve loud play for their stomp-inducing sound, like a blunt object made from the same DNA as a Dick Dale banger (Dale was also dubbed “King of Stomp”).
Murder City Devils’ first LP came with a stencil of their logo for aspiring DIY kids. A collector would not dream of using it, but a goth punk princess living in East Van needing a cool new tank top would. It was worth keeping the tank top around for when I finally got to see them live in 2008.
It continues to be my philosophy that shiny things should be used, including those records from a time not even too long ago that situate us in a whole world away and bring us the sheen of the ocean under a blood moon.
And if you have never heard The Murder City Devils, you can situate yourself in the present with a strut to “Boom Swagger Boom”.
Wild variations of the surf genre
Surf music has branched into unimaginable variations and sub-genres that deeply contrast each other and it is delightful to hold contemporary acts like the psychobilly Reverend Horton Heat up to frothy surf-pop acts like Beach Bunny.
So we arrive at a departure point before we dive into the prominent influence of surf on pop, indie, garage, and punk acts today, and give a nod to the most imaginatively strange couplings over the last few decades who are best known for their live shows.
Texas’ The Reverend Horton Heat was directly inspired by The Cramps when “the reverend”, Jim Heath, saw them live. After the show, he witnessed a parking lot fight against rockers and punks, which planted the idea to unite the two in unholy wedlock.
The result is an entertaining, technically masterful, blood quickening “Psychobilly Freakout” of Motörhead thrash, rockabilly twang, and surf guitar reverb. The band has stuck to their signature sound and while they have newer releases, “Psychobilly Freakout” from their debut album delivers surf guitar on speed.
Similarly, there must be some intentionality in such a motley of influences for the Red Elvises, whose description in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight as “Siberian Surf Rock” piqued my interests so much, I had to see them live.
The show was bonkers and it was surreal to see so much colourful energy crammed in one of Vancouver’s smallest and longest-running venues, The Railway Club. I’ve seen them once or twice since.
The Red Elvises’ musical plurality echoes the band’s cultural diversity. While some members are Russian and American, according to the band site, frontman Igor Yuzov was:
born in Germany, raised in Ukraine and studied in Russia. He grew up in the former Soviet Union, where folk music was the norm and rock’n’roll was illegal. A rebellious streak, however, led him to seek out the forbidden music.
And so The Red Elvises — known for hitting the stage with a giant red bass — have stepped over genre boundaries like proverbial sidewalk cracks.
They also have a similar sense of humour to Reverend Horton Heat, although more hedonistically kitsch. And that’s ok. They are more the velvet painting than their namesake, Elvis, but they have a rockabilly core with surf and occasional inflections of Russian folk, which Igor refers to as “Folk n’ Roll.” You can catch some of that Russia meets surf boogie especially at 2:20.
These vibrant and kooky bands use surf like a foreign accent to their varied lexicon. Their stylings show how genre complements and contrasts within a song before mashups became popular. While they remain more novelty than progressive, they have done something interesting and absurd with their raw materials that generates a lot of joy.
You Want the Candy
The new millennium and advent of indie surf
The Raveonettes pushed the wall of surf sound right into the new millennium with sounds of the Everly Brothers flecked in janky lo-fi dirt that somehow sounded incredibly clean. Like sweetness at the lip of lusty desire.
From the first riff of “Dirty Eyes (Sex Don’t Sell)” the Danish duo’s unobstructed spaciousness and lo-fi pop bliss seduced me when Chain Gang of Love was released in 2003. I remember being struck by their dark lyrics, crystal sound, and crisp, two-part vocal harmonies like a surging wave catching light.
It’s no shock that the album was produced by Richard Gottehrer of Go-Go’s and Blondie fame. Gottehrer worked with girl groups in the ’60s, co-founded Sire records and worked with The Raveonettes on several albums.
Most of the tracks on Chain Gang of Love clock under a sweet 3 minutes in the key of B-flat major, a favourite of classical composers for its frank and cheerful energy. “Dirty Eyes (Sex Don’t Sell)” was the song that lured me in and the well-crafted build up will do the same for first-time listeners.
“You Want the Candy” from 2008’s Lust Lust Lust borrows heavily from The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Spectoresque tinge of lo-fi surf. The song seems to be an answer to “Just Like Honey” or “Some Candy Talking”.
The Raveonettes are the rough ride and the smooth leather. While critics will inevitably pick apart lack of lyrical depth, their lyrics can get very ominous and no topic is off the table, including speaking out against rape.
But the way their songs make you feel are most of the equation, like you are being naughty in the most exciting way. They bring us the structure of the ‘50s and ‘60s with the sins of post-modern desire up front.
When I listen to The Raveonettes, I think of sun glitter on the ocean and fetish wear and vintage car shows and patina shine of nostalgia shops, and of the way the world feels big but unintimidating when you are falling in love. The sound is candy talking.
Introducing Beach Bunny
Emerging surf pop
Surf is reigning right now in pop, punk, garage and indie so much that the remainder of this series will map out some of the best offerings in each. I have left out many great bands, which is a wonderful problem to have in championing the enduring relevance of surf music.
Staying on the trajectory of recent pop sounds of The Raveonettes but bringing us to this decade, Chicago’s Beach Bunny brings surf with discussions on body image, heartbreak and frank coming-of-age anxiety in elegantly produced music and videos.
Their 2020 debut is stellar cotton candy pop, some punk scaffolding and the rich, plaintive vocals of Lili Trifilio. Beach Bunny which started off with only Trifilo, is sometimes more beach than surf like the recent “Cloud 9” with Tegan And Sarah (with such refreshing use of gender pronouns in a love song), but the band is jubilant and inviting as a beach ball.
Listening to Beach Bunny and enjoying their well-directed videos, I remember being that girl, down to the pinky punk details, but I feel empowered by Beach Bunny’s re-imagination of a broken heart as a moment to sing it out over sun-kissed melodies.
In the more surfy “Painkiller” Trifilio’s character is jilted at the prom and wheeled down the streets by her bandmates smiling contagiously, summoning the shine through darkness as so many indie and pop acts seem to do with surf melodies. In “Painkiller”, the joy is contagious at about 2:30 with gorgeous guitar splashes.
Discovering Beach Bunny among some of the other bands on my playlist is one of the most gratifying aspects of a month-long study in a genre that ebbs and flows under the mainstream radar. It’s having a moment now in So-Cal music, in land-locked regions, and across the globe.
The surf genre is a choose-your-own-adventure with endless variety and — finally — with a prevalent representation of women. Surf today is fluffy, dreamy, heavy, waterlogged, straight, queer, virgin, whore…. Just look at the band names on the playlist. They have their own surf story to tell.
Mama, I Wanna Go Surfing
New wave indie Surf
The Raveonettes foregrounded the ebullience of surf and by the late aughts, indie pop bands with surf influences aimed for top 40 airwaves.
Garnering Pitchfork’s “Best Hope” title for 2010, their review of The Drums’ first album states the band was “snapped up by Columbia Records during the post-Franz Ferdinand/Killers major-label rush to sign any new wave-inspired band with swooping-fringe haircuts.”
And so New York’s Drums made an anthem for carefree summers that brought surf elements to the forefront. Founding partner Jacob Graham confirms the major role of surfy reverb in their sound stating “If reverb didn’t exist we wouldn’t have bothered trying to start a band”.* Sometimes a song or lyrics make no sense or have no compelling thread until they find the missing element. For The Drums, it was surf guitar.
The Drums’ distinct minimalist tendencies and motorik beat make them accessible and more intimate than the wall-of-sound proponents of surf. Their sound is not revolutionary, but can be imbibed as one would with similar surf pop notions — at the beach.
And while their songs very much touch on darkness and loss — and recently working through sexual identity — the sound does not have to be dark to have substance. The critics seemed to forgive the band for being so light, but I find myself fatiguing of this criterion. With a deep appreciation for good songwriting, lyrics are not poetry, which is generally judged for what is on the page. Songwriting is not on the page any more that Shakespeare’s plays are.
And the substance of a band’s sound sometimes lies in the effort to be bright when it is easier to give into cynicism. Surf music is far less vapid than most top 40s music centred on looks and money — the bullshit “cool crowd” hegemony still running the world.
The Drums did lose some sparkle with changes in the lineup and the curse of reinventing themselves after the heights of their first album, but they were an important gateway for indie acts hungry for surf sound. For us, this song is a portal to escape the increasing depression among youth and their children who are inheriting summers that are far less carefree. We all have moments where we want to “care about nothing”.
While enjoying the playlist for this month-long journey, “Let’s Go Surfing” got stuck in my head a few days ago when I took my daughter to the beach for a swim in the ocean, then the beachside pool. I felt like I was answering her plea to drop everything and head to the water. After all, I needed it too.
Instead of focusing on the arcane COVID-19 protocols to get into the pool and worrying about re-applying 50 SPF lotion to avoid sunburn, I hung onto the melody of “Let’s Go Surfing” in my mind as I waited to catch my daughter each time at the bottom of the waterside.
LA girls, doo-wop and dream pop
LA female-led bands like Best Coast and La Luz put the dreamy quality back in surf melodies with smouldering layers of noise, surf guitar and vocal harmonies.
When I started listening to Best Coast a decade ago, I didn't connect their sound to larger sonic surf tides in indie and shoe-gaze but they were on my playlist among the ranks of The Cults, No Joy and Beach House of dream pop milieu. My brain was rewriting itself around an aural reincarnation of the doo wop girl group, which we know has a deep texture in the first sounds of vocal surf.
La Luz emerged around the same time with pristine surf pop woven around more prominent doo wop and organ harmonies. They consider themselves dark pop but like to dance, which delivers them from what Seattle’s The Stranger calls “tired, fuzzed-out reverb rut of every other punk band that has tried to claim that pedigree recently”. Instead, “their unique edge lies in their ability to create pastoral, hazy dream songs with simple, perfect harmonies and a sprinkle of ethereal twee.”
In “Brainwash”, crisp, punk guitar defines the bridges and the 4-part vocal harmonies invoke The Ronettes, sounding modern and never saccharine in their longing for love. The song asks: “Just as, no more sun grows up the sea/So will, your own mind turn to me.”
Shifting straight into trippy nostalgia, La Luz’s newest single buzzes with ‘60’s psych meets french pop (a lá Stereolab) with a surf undercurrent. The video and theme embrace the pastoral, which is arguably the primary modality of surf.
Also from LA, Best Coast is a duo consisting of frontwoman Bethany Cosentino and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno who have been giving us the softer side of noise since 2009. I remember listening to their EP Where the Boys Are and being transported into a resonant space where I felt I could swim.
Best Coast produces bedroom sounds of bleeding surf tones with lo-fi grit. Their lyrical confections distinctly contrast the clean image of the Beach Boys’ ‘Surfer Girl” who was only ever the passive recipient and object “standing by the ocean’s roar” and a far cry form the Pixies’ Ana.
The object of affection is reversed in “Make You Mine” and while Bethany Cosentino sings to her intended with the “ohhh baby” sweetness of Wilson, she is taking charge. And the guitar becomes a vehicle for longing as much as the waves.
And it’a not all wistful. The more uptempo “When I’m with You” lavishes us with fuzzy guitar and a great guitar solo and the video humorously places Ronald McDonald as the object of desire.
Beast Coast and La Luz show us we can sometimes return to a lyrically simpler time of “all I want is you” but from the female gaze and postmodern musical sensibilities.
Both bands have been going strong for a decade and are putting out compelling music. Best Coast released Always Tomorrow in 2020 and tour this January. La Luz lined up fall dates and the both have me wanting to clamber over the border when it opens. One day the coast will feel seamless again and we can croon with dreamy melancholy to upbeat melodies.
Surf and culture of sexual abuse
I had stated falling in love with The Growlers, The Frights and Surf Curse when I discovered they are subject to multiple sexual misconduct allegations made last year involving a toxic patriarchal work culture at Burger Records. These are only three of several more bands that routinely used and abused underage girls. Surf Curse was with Danger Collective, but subject to allegations, playing the same circuits, and were promptly dumped. Burger Records folded shortly after and the reverberation is still unfolding.
So I take a moment I do not have for housekeeping, as I have just had to delete two entire stories and scrap some tracks from the playlist. Of course, I’m not surprised this culture still exists — even in the indie scene — but it hurts.
When I was putting together my initial list, I already had to exclude Surfer Blood who I had enjoyed a decade ago but never made it back after the frontman’s physical battery charges. But I am still assured by the wealth of beautiful surf music past and present. There are still too may contemporary acts to include. At the moment, I am relieved that Tijuana Panthers, Plastic Cactus and SadGirl have made bigger impressions. They will be keepers and I will round off the month with them.
So with that, I shift gears for a day and bring you Toronto’s all-girl, multi-generational band The Surfrajettes.’ Their YouTube channel explains “when not on tour, the group is busy woodshedding in their secret beach hut, sewing new miniskirts, debating vintage gear, and daydreaming about performing in a Quentin Tarantino movie.”
With backgrounds in blues and slinky garage-y sound, The Surfrajettes remind us instrumental surf is alive and well. On that note, while the current trend of indie is to borrow surf to shine up their tunes, we will end this journey next week as it began — with lush surf instrumentals — with groups, like the Surfrajettes, who craft “crafting radiant tones and shimmering melodies”* on the classic structure of a surf song.
And speaking to the industry’s toxic masculinity, and the Surfrajettes’ impossibly perfect name, I find it befitting to leave you with their viral hit cover of Brittany Spears’ “Toxic”.
Cynicism, nostalgia and "Carpet" Diem
Is there something disingenuous about all these California surf garage bands? Is nostalgia overplayed?
California has been enjoying a huge revival of surf-influenced garage for the last decade and is likely getting tired of being typecast since the dawn of the Beach Boys. Critics — and disenchanted musicians especially within the So-Cal scene — are pouncing on the homogenizing effect of the hype. And hype can be a buzzkill, indeed. However, it feels strange to criticize a revival in the very area the sound was born.
Perhaps it is as simple as the current acts are metaphorical children of the surf masters. And those along for the ride from other parts of the world are honorary laureates of surf. Revival bands — if we decide to crudely label them as such— have taken the heart of surf through cultural osmosis as much as they have from their nautical surroundings. Perhaps the critics, caught in their own artifice, are overlooking how well longing is expressed through nostalgic song structures. Are we really going to be dicks about younger people enjoying and appropriating sounds from generations before?
My recent infatuation with Long Beach’s Tijuana Panthers has personally made my summer of 2021 memorable and has fed my deep-set sense of nostalgia. I was nostalgic as early as memory and I am grateful for a feeling generated by instruments that speaks to this basic yearning in a language I can understand. Isn’t that what makes music matter?
Tijuana Panthers have palpable integrity and unique energy in their sound. Drummer Phil Shaheen, guitarist Chad Watchel and bassist Daniel Michicoff have known each other since high school and they are all involved in the production of their music, trading up vocalists and drawing from a wide reference base — from punk to the ‘50s. Their blend has given them a lasting foothold along with bigger acts and festivals including Coachella, and they transcend claims of gimmicky posturing. Austin Prince of PopMatters rather reluctantly sets Tijuana Panthers apart from something:
deeply disingenuous about the psychedelic-and-surf rock revival of the last few years, something cynical about the way the music is painstakingly overproduced to sound as if it was recorded in a garage instead of a top-of-the-line studio, something manipulative about the way it sells itself by evoking a false sense of nostalgia in it audience and something sad about the fact that many of the musicians so dedicated to advancing this decades dead genre do so at the expense of considerable talent.
While I take issue with surf ever being dead or Prince’s criteria for genuine production, he concedes that the Tijuana Panthers stand out from the plethora of revival acts in their instrumental agility and their hints of depth. Tijuana Panthers are not trying to emulate a particular sound and Watchel notes “to anyone who thinks we’re not a very good surf band, I agree with you. We’re not trying to be.”
With Tijuana Panthers, it was love at first listen with 2013's melancholy ’50s crooning of “Boardwalk”, which caught the attention of Rolling Stone. The solid gold guitar and Chad Wachtel’s register make the perky backbeat and doo-wop vibe feel emo. The song from their 2013 album Semi-Sweet clocks just over 2 minutes and sounds like flawless pop. The band’s involvement in all aspects of its production is evident in sticky riffs layered with buoyant twang and yearning, sunset-tinged guitar tones.
With “Boardwalk”, I am taken to the sun-splashed lonesome waterfront, hoping the waves deliver my heart’s desire. The heart-string pulling hooks and fat bass of “Boardwalk” have floated me through half the summer already.
The cinematography of the official video has a wonderful lone ranger meets the carnival theme, but cutting straight to the song:
There’s something smarter about Tijuana Panthers’ sound that tickles me and it could be in the pragmatic wit behind albums like 2019’s Carpet Diem. Wachtel, who is also a fine carpenter, explains the basis of their title like a philosophy for their music in that:
You get it done after work and on the weekends. Inspiration is overrated and usually doesn’t produce interesting results — that goes for most of the arts, especially music. Just keep plugging along, the ideas are always there, just need to make time to take time to lay them down. So put down the box, look around and take it all in…it’s all carpet, it’s all denim.
Tijuana Panthers’ versatility is well met in changing up vocalists and lyrical focus like their newest single “Current Outfit” which brings an early Cure vibe with surf-punk jangle. It instructs us to “tread lightly through fixed outrage” and sarcastically wraps up its world pain in a snazzy suit.
I can’t stand how good it is. This is why I do these laborious challenges. What the fuck have I been missing?
Surf, comics, punk, and writing through pain
One true joy in digging into the catalogue of current surf sounds is the diversity within each of the bands’ repertoire. Tough Age is no exception.
From one song to the next, their sound is a collage of surf classics with grungy melodies and punk toughness. At the same time, they win the award for the catchiest song: “The Heart of Juliet Jones”.
Signed to Vancouver-based Mint Records (previously producing acts like Neko Case, The Handsome Family, New Pornographers, Lou Barlow) Tough Age has relocated to Toronto. The label website characterizes Tough Age as “the sound of four radical adults with shared decades of experience, chops, and killer record collections coming together to create charismatic, idiosyncratic pop songs for the ages”.
Like many indie acts, the group is not strictly surf and takes issue with being simply defined as punk. And you can hear why.
2017’s “Me In Glue” frontwoman Penny Clark seems to resurrect Blondie from Parallel Lines as the melody dances along in jangly surf tones. Layered in the mix are lo-fi atonal guitar licks, drum crashes, and mock apathy in lines like “It’s all fake and I’ve got to try it/ Lost my opinion, I’ve got to buy it”.
I love the shitty DIY charm of the video and the “hide the bugs” item on the shop “to do” list. And dear reader, I will not lie about my thrill that there is a Spongebob phone in it.
Shifting sounds to Tough Age’s beachy pop offerings “The Heart of Juliet Jones” references the 1953 comic strip and builds on the motif of sodapop romance evident in many of the surf songs we’ve sampled.
It is a lovesick singalong for a love that ends as a literal fiction, yet “The Heart of Juliet Jones” is a two-minute surf romp that transcends the aches, as so so many other bubblegum songs do that flirt with big surf sounds, from The Ramones to The Go-Go’s.
Samson explains “I don’t like therapy or drugs, so it’s sort how I medicate myself”. He says “I write these songs to get rid of them. I don’t cut myself, I just write a catchy ditty.”
Frontman Jarrett Samson (aka Jarrett K.) worked in comics and claims it influences his music. From the cut-and-paste cover art to the assemblage of musical styles, the band’s sonic plurality is refreshingly “not punk.”
Samson explains to Wavelength:
so many people who consider themselves a punk have some weird idea of what it means that also manages to exclude every other subset of people who also consider themselves a punk.
Many of us get into genre trouble when we identify with something to the exclusion of others. This journey of surf’s mutability is solid proof of the divinely insidious ways that genres are born from others and feed into others. Just as punk is an anarchist hybrid of forms that it consumes and evolves upon, surf music cannot be claimed by purist scenesters because it is too multitudinous.
Surf, gothic, deserts, and Portland
Listening to Plastic Cactus, you can imagine roving through the desert under a gloomy eclipse. They are the sound of cactuses on a wobbly slope against the star-studded night sky. They are land-locked surf.
Portland’s up-and-coming foursome uses the full, lush potential of surf instrumentation and vocals on dry turf. Along with Michaela Gradstein on vocals and guitar, Plastic Cactus includes Bill Wilson on bass, Brooke Metropulos on lead and backing vocals, and Tyler Brown on drums.
In the article “The Members of Plastic Cactus Can’t Decide if Their Music Sounds More Like ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ or a Spaghetti Western,” Gradstein explains to Willamette Weekly that “we heard someone call us ‘beach goth,’” and reckons “two words we often play with are ‘beachy’ and ‘moody,’ so we’ll take it.” Fate would have it that I would have found a band using descriptions of surf, goth, and Spongebob in the same breath. Life is grand.
But decluttering ourselves first from the dominant California garage surf scene with its micro-genres, I take issue with simplifying Plastic Cactus to mere beach goth. And I am licking wounds about the allegations towards the key bands who ran the annual Beach Goth Festival. To me, Plastic Cactus’ arrangements feel much more mature than a kindergoth’s grasp of a genre that would eat black-clad beach bunnies alive.
Plastic Cactus shimmer with “Dark & Moody” sound, however. Give it until 0:50 seconds of the song to feel the plunging weep of electric guitar and breathtaking vocal harmonization reminiscent of Cat Power in Moon Pix. It’s lone surfer meets lonesome cowboy. It’s coming full circle to the twangy stylings of Link Wray and Duane Eddy.
In describing their 2018 EP Moth Eyes, Portland Mercury vividly paints their sound with:
giddy-up rhythms, earth-rumbling bass lines, rattlesnake-like percussion, and twangy guitar riffs. With lyrics about dust and whispering skulls, it plays like a mini existential breakdown; all four songs dwell on time’s steady crawl toward death over melodies that sound fever-dreamy and detached from reality.
But with a name like Plastic Cactus, they can’t be all serious. Take their skillfully composed 2020 cover of The Everly Brothers’ hit “All I Have to Do Is Dream” where the video sarcastically plays out repressive domestic life in the ‘50s. The tone captures the group’s namesake of fake succulents so well — a romantic desert fixture turned piece of household kitsch that is just as tacky as regressive gender roles.
Willamette Weekly, rather cleverly observes Plastic Cactus sounds like “surf rock written in the desert by a band who’s never seen the ocean, and isn’t sure they want to.” After exploring their catalogue and watching their videos it is easy to hear how their surf sound leans hard into spaghetti western, but with a dreamlike quality and techniques of surf.
In 2019’s “Mystery Box” the band keeps it weird on druggy, breezy, warped reverb.
Plastic Cactus has been a genuinely thrilling personal find because they are refined, offbeat, and less self-conscious than the typically curated surf bands. They are proficient architects in surf soundscapes and unearthly delights. Sounds like the best of Portland to me.
London underground, The Doors and surf
Continuing along the vibe of the surreal and desert-meets-surf, London’s Dead Coast draws from jazz, surf, and blues influences with a psychedelic flourish. After coming together in 2013, Dead Coast soon became involved in the underground London psych scene but somehow end up on surf playlists globally.
Dead Coast draws heavily from surf themes but is far from confined to its sound. For instance, their 2020 single “No Friends” sounds like rocket surfing into a space garage playing Belle and Sebastian.
On their trippier tunes, the guitar is alternately languid and addled but Dead Coast also produces delightfully British-sounding traditional surf ballads like “Because I Know You”, with a guitar and vocal register that reminds me of The Smiths.
When pushed into a corner, frontman Luca Bianco calls their sound “Sea, Desert, Space…. Or Trash Sex Party”, descriptors that are the seeds of atmosphere I seek in bands I want unfold into. Bands I want to hear at the planetarium lazer show.
The remaining tracks up for discussion are from 2017’s Shambolic.
“Jenny Loves the Sun” opens with a solid guitar groove before diffusing in insistent reverb and hazy vocals that make the overall impact pleasantly diabolical. Like an ashram with contraband. The video fittingly unveils what might happen when one drinks too much alone.
And in the spirit of the recurring western themes running with surf, “Hills Made of Sand” stands out in my playlist as a surf western with a backbone of The Doors’ “Alabama Song”. Dead Coast‘s sound is often haunted by The Doors. The band adds their own touch of surf with contemporary manipulations of ghostly vocals overlapping reverb-y notes, providing a thrilling but uneasy sense of distance from the ears.