There are a few reasons why I wanted to read Surf Beat by Kent Crowley. Subtitled Rock’n’Roll’s Forgotten Revolution, I wanted to know the roots of a style of music I was raised on and grew up with. My dad was born and raised in Honolulu, loved the ocean and everything it offered. He was also a gearhead, loving the spirit of the road and fixing cars. With one uncle who loved to surf in the era of Gerry Lopez and go fishing on a regular basis, and another uncle who skateboarded in pools in the era of Tony Alva, it would not be uncommon for us to go to the movie theater, watch a surf movie and see everyone in the theater scream and yell when someone rode a wave, backed by some great music. One of my fondest memories is watching Hot Lips & Inner Tubes as one of the last films to be shown at the Kaimuki Theater on Oahu. Being close to the ocean was automatic, and also automatic was seeing Beach Boys records in my house. One year when I had good grades, I was given an ABC Goldies 45 pressing of The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”. Yet I was also raised with a good amount of Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. Having parents who allowed me to listen to anything and everything was essential to my own musical interests and what I ended up doing, so I think a part of me also wanted to be able to see if some of the seeds of my interests could be found in Surf Beat.
The subtitle may make people ask “what revolution did surf music create?” To the general public, surf music may seem more like an odd fad from the early 60’s involving beach blanket bingo movies and guitars that sounded like they were always dripping in hollow caves. While the music was indeed influenced by the power of surfing and hanging out at the beach with family and friends, it was the music that drove people into a frenzy, in more ways than one. Crowley looks at not only how the music became what it did, but traces its influences back to the early days of rock’n’roll and beyond. Surf music and surf culture still has the stigma of being “a white thing”, but musically it had taken elements of jazz, R&B, folk, different ethnic styles, and rock’n’roll to create something that was very distinct from one another. Its close proximity to jazz and R&B comes from the fact that many musicians involved loved the music, and if “going across the street” meant meeting different people, even better. If one was to go to the Mexican side of town and bring in sounds true to their culture, cool. In many ways, it was the first rock’n’roll equivalent of modern day sampling, or true to what happened when jazz musicians would pay homage to whatever came to mind at any given time. Surf music, at its best, is a sponge without shame and all of that is covered here.
Also covered here is the importance of music technology. Crowley interviewed hundreds of people for this book, everyone from the musicians to recording studio engineers and producers, to people involved in the creation of these then-new advances in music instruments. Up until the late 50’s, the guitar was used as rhythm accompaniment, and yet Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” and a number of musicians in country and rockabilly showed it could be much more. The sound of the electric guitar was thin and bare, the guitar solo in “Rock Around The Clock” is proof of this. What Surf Beat reveals is that while a guitarist like Link Wray would damage his own guitar amps to have his own sound of distortion, it was almost an unspoken means of support for guitar manufacturers to make things louder, bolder, and crunchier, which was unheard of in an era of sock hops and sweet harmonies. In the 21st century, one can find a blog or a video from someone who is into circuit bending, modifying an instrument to do something that it wasn’t meant to do. But in the late 50’s/early 60’s it was new territory, and to turn a guitar from a rhythm instrument to becoming the lead seemed freakish. In time, becoming louder and brasher became one of surf music’s endearing qualities.
The most endearing qualities were of course the songs, the music, and the musicianship. The book celebrates Dick Dale as the king of the surf guitar, and by all intents and purposes, the alpha and omega of a craze that became a worldwide influence. Dale’s guitar playing comes from his own ethnic mixture (Lebanese, Polish and Belarusian) along with the diversity around him in Southern California. He was also a surfer, so he played the music of his friends, for his friends, and having a need to be successful is what made him determined to keep at it, no matter what. Along the way, the book touches on the impact of songs like The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”, The Chantays’ “Pipeline”, and The Tornadoes’ “Bustin’ Surfboards”, along with Dick Dale’s performance of a Greek folk song called “Miserlou”. These songs, all instrumentals, were created for fans of the beach and meant to be played furiously. Some of the musicians talk about how they would notice women taking off their clothes to the fast rhythms, which would often make them want to play faster and longer. What’s also covered is the influence of The Beach Boys and how their love of pop and folk music would create a new awareness of surf music, even though purists will tell you they played anything but the real thing. Within the history of the music are stories of Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Ritchie Valens, Bobby Fuller, Glen Campbell, and many others who helped make the music as loud as it wanted to be, for the kids, by the kids.
Two people mentioned in this book may surprise some readers, but Frank Zappa’s influence in surf music is a significant one. The studio he would turn into Studio Z was once Pal Recording Studio in Cucamonga, California, the home for countless recordings that would become popular surf music hits, where Zappa served as engineer and producer. Zappa eventually invested in and purchased it from its original owner, to where it also doubled as his home. Much of the studio trickery Zappa would become known for came from non-stop time in Studio Z, a fascination with sound that did not stop until he died in 1993. The other person mentioned is Jimi Hendrix. While his music, history, and persona is bigger than life 41 years after his death, people tend to forget that Hendrix was just a musician who was willing to play with anyone and everyone at any given time. While most know of his Seattle upbringing, what many also tend to ignore is the fact that California is only two states below Washington, so traveling up and down the West Coast is not an issue for someone who was playing music and looking for a way to make it. Hendrix’s experience in the chitlin circuit is well documented, with many stories of singers and bands kicking him out because he would dominated with his flamboyant playing. He was a student of the music and a bit of a geek too, wanting to know the capabilities of his instrument and equipment, but also understanding that bettering his style also meant learning from others. He would eventually find himself on stage and backstage with Dick Dale, and Hendrix was known for having late night jam sessions with many surf music musicians, playing in clubs and doing surf music. Some of the technological advances Dale and other musicians were making a daily habit was unknown to Hendrix, but he would eventually take a few hints and incorporate it into his sound. Hendrix may have said the words “and you will never hear surf music” in “Third Stone From The Sun”, but the book states that while that may have officially killed the first wave of surf music, a few (including Dale) felt it was nothing more than Hendrix saying he had found his voice, and was saying thank you to those who helped him along the way.
The book also covers the renewals over the years of surf music, from it being revealed as a true form of punk rock and being acknowledged by punk bands as a no-bullshit way of playing rock’n’roll, compared to the bombastic methods of carrying out 40-foot bigs and 30-foot inflatable penises in 75,000-seat capacity stadiums. Punk was like an attack of the sense, but so was surf music. It was loud, raw, raunchy, short and sweet, and that spirit is what not only kept punk bands covering old surf music, but kept surf music on itself alive for the original creators to enjoy, along with new audiences who wanted to hear its origins. While Surf Beat heavily focuses on the rise and fall of surf music’s initial spark, it does a very good job at covering its lifeline and survival in the 70’s and 80’s, and of course also covers the phenomenon of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which brought back “Miserlou” to the surface and Dale as a true innovator of not only surf music and guitar playing, but heavy metal. Without the distortion and volume tactics of surf music, much of the trippy, progressive, and far out sounds of the 60’s and 70’s may not have happened. The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) movement of the late 70’s/early 80’s, which would help to spark the thrash and speed metal movements (and its many sub-genres), would not exist without the unabashed attitude of “Surfin’ Bird”. Even Green Day showed respect when they would release an album under a surf band persona, showing the link between their Berkeley upbringing and the beach sounds of southern Cali.
Guitarists will love the fact that it also cites Curtis Mayfield, Freddie King, and Albert King as not only participants but major influences to surf music, even though some will say that the ocean is not one thinks of when hearing Mayfield’s “Superfly” on the radio. Movie buffs will enjoy reading about the influence of Hollywood in the music, for better or worse. When Hollywood wanted to cash in, so did major labels who rushed to get studio professionals to record surf music that sounded too clean for some purists, but knowing the difference between something with a lot of polish vs. a song that sounded as if it had taken five minutes to write and record. Recording studio enthusiasts will like reading the different angles of these recording sessions, and how it is felt that for the first time, the recording studio was used as its own instrument thanks to the techniques of Wilson, Zappa, and other producers who were involved.
Surf Beat is a very informative document about a music that for novices may have seemed like a mere bleep in rock’n’roll, but does an excellent job in proving how a music that may have only been of interest to those in the Pacific Rim would spawn and offshoot like hot rod music, and how that phenomenon would help get it into other pockets of the United States and North America that surf music could not too. It does very well in talking about how wanting more out of a guitar and amplifiers would change the way all electric guitarists wanted to be heard and eventually seen. Even the fashion sense of musician/singer Chris Montez was said to influence The Beatles when he went on tour in England in 1963, which lead to the group asking him about his clothes and eventually taking it as their own when they first arrived to the United States. The core of this book is build upon the creativity and ingenuity of what is described on the back of the book as sounds made “between the death of Buddy Holly and the arrival of The Beatles”, so while The Beatles are credited as being the group that brought rock’n’roll out of the doldrums, kids in California were rocking out to a style of music that was indigenous as a true American art form, without caring what anyone in the outside world thought. The spirit may have dimmed but has never died, proof with the countless surf bands in Japan, Australia, and Europe. Surf Beat is far from being a eulogy, and some will say it’s not even validation, because why validate something that had already showed itself to be worthy many times over? Nonetheless, while the music has moved in and out of different trends in the last 50 years, Kent Crowley shows in his book that as long as there are kids who want to play and get other kids excited, and as long as people of all ages still have youth in their heart, there will be a need to rock out in honor of the music influenced by the ocean and the sunshine.
Personally, reading about the different musicians and styles of music that blended and interwove with each other was in many ways reading about the source of some of my own musical tastes. I’m not able to ask my dad directly about what lead him to being a fan of everything from Indian classical music to the California sound of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but to read this book is almost in a way a bit of validation for my diverse tastes in music. Surf music may only be viewed as rock’n’roll, but like the book, dig a little deeper and readers will be able to find a more genuine fabric of America reflected in the sounds meant to duplicate the sounds of waves, covering and crossing all ethnic lines. It’s a true hybrid music as a reflection of the great American melting pot, perhaps better and more satisfying than the metaphor the pot is meant to represent.