In this post we’ll be talking about the history of surf and instrumental rock from its multicultural origins to how it is still an influence today.
Surf culture was something I had an interest in since I was a little kid watching Rocket Power and wishing I lived in California rather than a small town in the Midwest. Even to this day I would love to move to California.
The first thing a lot of people think of when surf rock is mentioned is The Beach Boys, and for good reason. They were very successful and influential with over 20 Top 40 hits in the US charts. But they weren’t the first surf rock band, far from it. They shouldn’t be the only image we have of surf rock and The Beach Boys did more than just surf rock.
What is the real surf rock story? Where did surf culture come from? Let’s explore!
Surf culture began in Polynesia. The name, Polynesia, comes from Greek. poly, meaning many, and nēsos, meaning island. A pretty good description because Polynesia is a lot of islands in the Central and Southern Pacific. Many people think of Polynesia as a dream honeymoon destination with Hawaii, Fiji, and of course Bora Bora. Palm trees, beaches, beautiful, blue water.
Polynesians have been surfing for thousands of years. According to this website, it’s one of the oldest sports in the world. Europeans first saw surfing in the late 1700s, when colonisers went to the Pacific Islands. Here’s a good article about Captain James Cook’s observations. According to the article by Ben Marcus, surfing is known as the Sport of Kings in Hawaii.
For 150 years, surfing declined, before it was revived. Why did it decline? An article from HawaiiHistory.org says that it was because of colonisation. Like when Europeans colonised the Americas, diseases killed much of the native population. Also, the colonisers brought their religion with them, forcing it on the native people. Within a short period of time, the traditional Hawaiian life was replaced. It meant (almost) no more surfing. It meant a different language, and Christianity rather than the kapu system. It meant modest western clothing rather than traditional clothing.
Christian missionaries saw surfing as perverted because people of all genders participated together and people wouldn’t wear very much clothing when surfing. Surfing almost disappeared in the 1800s.
Surfing came back in Hawaii in the early 1900s and from there it built up to more than just riding the waves and it spread to the Mainland US. You could see surfers in California, the Carolinas, and Florida too. Surfing also came to Australia in the 1910s. Surfboards became more lightweight; fins were added to the bottom of surfboards to help the surfer better control the board. Post WWII, Hawaiian inspired fashions were all the rage with designers like Alfred Shaheen. He popularised the Hawaiian print shirt in the late 40s and early 50s. Interestingly enough, he was not Hawaiian. He was born in New Jersey in 1922 to a Lebanese family and came to Hawaii in the 1930s with his family, where they set up a textile business. In 1948, Alfred Shaheen started his business, taking influences from Hawaii, Asia, and the South Pacific. His influence in fashion lives on today with many rockabilly and pin up clothing reproduction brands like Vivien of Holloway, Pin Up Girl Clothing, and Whirling Turban making sarong dresses and swing dresses with Hawaiian inspired prints.
In the late 1950s, surfing boomed. It was no longer an underground thing, but a part of the mainstream. For some, it was a fad. But for others, it was their passion. The 1959 film Gidget, popularised surfing. Other films were made about surfing and beach parties in the 60s, like The Endless Summer, Beach Party, and Bikini Beach. Now surfing is not a sport that is accessible to all. You can’t surf unless you can get to an ocean. Nowadays we have surf simulator machines, but they didn’t have those in the 60s. What about those who live inland? Skateboarding is the sport for you. It was invented in the 50s by surfers who wanted to surf on the land. Surf slang also was incorporated in people’s everyday vocabulary starting in the 60s with words like dude, hella, radical, stoked, and tubular spoken by teenagers and young adults.
The instrumental rock craze ended in 1964 with the British Invasion. The influences of instrumental rock can be heard in The Beatles and many other bands of the 60s and a great rock instrumental has no expiry date. You will likely know some of these famous instrumentals. Surf rock also seemed to die out in the mid-60s with bands changing their sound with the times.
In 1968, police drama Hawaii Five-O made its debut and ran until 1980. The series was remade in 2010.
In 1984, instrumental rock band (do not call them a surf rock band because they rejected that label) Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet were founded in Toronto. They recorded the theme song for Canadian sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall, “Having an Average Weekend”. They have made some pretty cool medleys that incorporate classic rock. Check them out here. I have to say “16 Encores” is my favourite since it covers all the eras of classic rock from the 60s to the 90s.
Fast forward to the 90s and early 2000s and you’ll see big wave surfing and shows about surfing, like Rocket Power. Popular Nickelodeon show, and one of my favourite cartoons of all time, SpongeBob SquarePants took place somewhere in the Pacific Ocean and appropriately uses Hawaiian and surf rock themed production music. Here is a playlist I made of all the great surf rock music in SpongeBob. Surf and skateboard fashion was also popular with brands like Billabong, Quiksilver, Vans, and Element. Kids played Tony Hawk video games and when they were away from the TV or computer, they had the Tech Deck mini skateboards. Rather than surf rock, the cool music was pop punk and ska punk.
A major part of the surf culture was the music. Guitar driven instrumentals and 2-3 minute long pop songs with a California/beach/surf/pretty women/cars theme. Surf rock’s roots are rock and roll (obviously), Arabic music, and Mexican music. Let’s listen to some surf rock! You might even find that there are some patterns here with bands covering the same song. Tell me what your favourite versions are in the comments!
Prologue: Beginnings of instrumental rock
Stan Jones writes and records “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend”. This song has been covered by The Ventures, Dick Dale, The Shadows, Johnny Cash, and more.
Jimmy Reed releases the instrumental single “Roll and Rhumba”.
Jimmy Reed releases the vocal single “You Don’t Have To Go”, which reached #5 in the US. The B-side was the instrumental “Boogie in the Dark”.
Bill Doggett Combo release the instrumental “Honky Tonk Parts 1 & 2”. The single sold four million copies and topped the R&B charts in America. This was considered one of the first rock instrumentals.
Bill Justis’ instrumental “Raunchy” reaches #2 in the US. This song is very influential to rock stars of the 60s and later. George Harrison impressed John Lennon and Paul McCartney by playing this song.
Rock and roll instrumental “Tequila” was released. The song had a Cuban influence and went to #1. Surf rock band, The Ventures went on to cover this song.
Dick Dale released his first single “Ooh-Whee-Marie”. Dick Dale was born in Massachusetts to a Lebanese father and a mother of Eastern European descent. During his childhood, he was surrounded by Arabic music, which had an impact on his guitar style and surf rock music as a whole. His family moved to Southern California when he was in grade 12 and he took up surfing.
“Rumble” by Link Wray was released. This was Link Wray’s first single. It went to #16 in the US in 1958, but the song was recorded in 1954. Ahead of its time and considered controversial due to its sound and its title. It was highly influential to surf rock and instrumental rock that dominated the early 60s. Other Link Wray songs of the late 50s and early 60s I recommend you listen to are “Raw Hide”, “Comanche”, “Jack The Ripper”, and “Tijuana”. Link Wray was born in North Carolina in 1929. A few of his songs were named after Native American tribes. Link Wray is often cited by punk and hard rock musicians as an inspiration.
Duane Eddy released the instrumental “Rebel Rouser.” The album, Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar Will Travel, was the first rock and roll album released in stereo. It’s worth a listen.
Jan & Dean release their first single, “Baby Talk”. The song made it to #10 on the Billboard charts and #7 on the Cashbox charts.
Drummer Sandy Nelson releases the drum-based instrumental, “Teen Beat”. The song went to #4 that year. The Surfaris covered the song a few years later. Over the next few years, Sandy Nelson released other influential songs like “Drum Party” from 1960 and “Let There Be Drums” from 1961.
The 60s: Surf’s up dude!:
The Shadows release the single, “Apache”. This is one of the best-known rock instrumentals of the early 60s and it transcended genres, with a bongo drums version in the mid 70s and a rap version in the early 80s. It was written by Jerry Lordan and inspired by Western films. The Shadows were on tour with Jerry Lordan and heard him play it on ukulele and he thought they should cover it.
The Ventures release their first album, Walk, Don’t Run, an album made up of covers. The covers range from “Morgen”, a German song written by Ivo Robić, who was originally from Croatia to the early rock and roll instrumental “Raunchy”, to the jazz instrumental “Walk, Don’t Run” (which was popularised by the band and was their biggest hit, reaching #2 in the US), to twelve-bar blues instrumentals like “Night Train”. It’s a cool mix of instrumentals, and it’s all in their surf rock style.
Dick Dale released his first hit single, “Let’s Go Trippin’”. It was considered the first surf rock instrumental and it was a regional hit in Southern California, but got some national attention, reaching #60 in the US. During this time, he performed in clubs in Southern California and held surfer dances.
The Beach Boys release their first single, “Surfin’”. This song is considered the one that began the California Sound subgenre. The California Sound is known for its descriptions of the ideal California life: beaches, surfing, sunshine, pretty girls, and cars. The B-side was “Luau”. The song was covered by Jan & Dean in 1963. Brian Wilson often collaborated with Jan Berry in the early 60s.
The Shadows get 4 top 10 UK hits with “FBI” (#6), “The Frightened City” (#3), “Kon-Tiki” (#1), and “The Savage” (#10).
The Bel Airs release the hit single “Mr Moto”. The band were very short lived and only released two singles before breaking up. The members went their separate ways with the original drummer, Dick Dodd joining The Standells, and a few of the members forming The Challengers and Eddie & The Showmen.
Dick Dale releases his most famous song, “Misirlou”, a cover of a traditional Eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern song. The oldest recording was made 90 years ago in a Greek rebetiko style. Thirty-five years later, the song became associated with surf rock. Much faster tempo, rapid alternating picking, and that combination of guitars with horns, it became an energetic song and an icon of early 60s pop culture and a precursor to the heavy metal genre. Other great songs from that era include “Take it Off”, “Surfing Drums”, “Boney Maronie”, and “Shake n Stomp” (also has a lot of Middle Eastern influences). The alternative version on Surfers’ Choice, “Misirlou Twist” is a very good version as well. Dick Dale worked with Leo Fender to create better equipment for louder rock music. His website tells the more complete story of how he created surf rock.
By the mid 60s, rock instrumentals were out, in favour of vocals. Dick Dale was diagnosed with cancer and was only given a few months to live. Fellow lefty guitarist Jimi Hendrix wrote the lyric “and you’ll never hear surf music again” in the song “Third Stone From the Sun” to encourage his recovery. Dick Dale recovered, but took a couple decades long break from music. He still tours to this day to pay medical bills.
The Beach Boys release their third single, “Surfin’ Safari”. This was a way bigger success than “Surfin’”, which was released the previous year. “Surfin’ Safari” was their first Top 20 hit in America. It also was a minor hit in Australia, another country where surfing is popular.
“Telstar” by The Tornados is the first British rock song (instrumental if you want to be exact) to go #1 on the US charts. Possibly one of the first science fiction inspired rock songs. The band didn’t have any other hits in the US, but back home in the UK, they did with songs like “Globetrotter” and “Robot”.
Forget the e on this band’s name and you’ll get a British group famous for the song “Telstar”. The Tornadoes release the single “Bustin’ Surfboards”.
The Surfaris release their classic hit surf rock instrumental “Wipe Out”. This is one of the most recognisable surf rock instrumentals. This song was inspired by 12-bar blues. The song did best on the Canadian, British, and American charts, reaching the top 10. The sound at the beginning was made by the father of one of the band members by breaking a board in front of a microphone. I also recommend the singles “Point Panic” and “Waikiki Run”.
The Trashmen release “Surfin’ Bird”. Interestingly enough, they were not a California band. They were actually from Minneapolis. They based the song off of two Rivingtons songs: “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word”. They never released a single as big as “Surfin’ Bird”, but “Bird Dance Beat” went to #30 in the US. It wasn’t nearly as successful because it was a rehash of “Surfin’ Bird”. Audiences wanted to hear something a bit different. The band released their own version of “Misirlou” and had their own version of “Malagueña”, a Cuban song.
The Astronauts release “Baja” and it was a minor hit for them. The band were from Boulder, Colorado, which is not very close to the shore and more suited for snowboarding than surfing, but that didn’t stop them from making surf rock.
The Chantays’ hit “Pipeline” reaches #4 on the Billboard charts. The song was also a hit in the UK, making it to #16. The band were made up of five friends who went to secondary school together. They released an album that year called Pipeline and released a sophomore album the following year, Two Sides of The Chantays before breaking up in the mid 60s.
Jan and Dean release “Surf City”, their best-known song and the first surf rock song to go #1 all over the US, not just in California. They had other hits that year like “Honolulu Lulu” and “Drag City”.
The Beach Boys soar in popularity with three top 10 hits: “Surfin USA” (#3 US, #6 Canada, #12 Australia), “Surfer Girl” (#7 US, #17 Australia), and “Be True To Your School” (#6 US). On the Surfin’ USA album, there is a decent cover of “Misirlou” (Dick Dale’s version is the best IMO). “Stoked and “Let’s Go Trippin’” are two other good songs on the album. This year was a busy year for The Beach Boys because they released two other albums, Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe, but a few of the songs on Little Deuce Coupe appeared on earlier albums.
The Honeys were a girl group made up of two sisters, Marilyn and Diane Rovell, and their cousin, Ginger Blake. Their name comes from a slang term meaning female surf enthusiast. Brian Wilson was their producer and you can hear his influence in their style. Brian Wilson was dating Marilyn Rovell at the time. He married Marilyn in 1964. The couple divorced in 1979. They had two kids, Carnie and Wendy Wilson, who would team up with Chynna Phillips to become Wilson Phillips. In 1963, they released a Beach Boys style single, “Shoot the Curl”. The band released other singles that year like “Raindrops”, “Pray For Surf”, and “Surfing Down the Swanee River”.
Australian surf rock band The Atlantics release their first two albums, Now It’s Stompin’ Time and Bombora. The band formed in 1961 in Sydney and were made up of immigrants from Greece, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. They were best known for their instrumentals like “Bombora,” which was used in the closing ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. “Reef Break”, their cover of “Tequila”, and “Mirage”.
Los Angeles based band The Challengers release their debut album, Surfbeat. The band were made up of members of The Bel-Airs. Like a lot of surf rock albums, this one is full of covers of influential songs from the 50s and early 60s surf rock hits. This album is a favourite among surf rock fans and is worth a listen. I like the songs “Bull Dog”, “Ramrod”, and “Torquay”.
The Shadows get their last number #1 hit with “Foot Tapper”, but they had other hits with “Atlantis”, “Shindig”, and “Geronimo”. The band broke up in 1968, but got back together in 1973.
The Lively Ones release their first album, Surf Rider. Quite of the few songs are covers of songs by Dick Dale. The title track was in the final sequence and end credits of Pulp Fiction.
The Marketts release the hit single “Out of Limits”, which makes it to #3. The band were sued because the song sampled part of The Twilight Zone’s theme. They also released the album The Marketts Take to Wheels, which is an album full of instrumental songs with titles relating to cars. The band broke up in 1966.
The Kingsmen release their first album The Kingsmen In Person. Now I know their sound would be a bit more garage rock than surf rock, but their sound seems like the bridge between the two because garage rock took influences from surf rock and instrumental rock. The story behind their biggest hit, “Louie Louie” is a strange, funny, but totally true one. Only about $50 was spent recording that song and it was recorded in one take. As you can imagine, the band wanted to do another take. They go into the studio one morning in April, to only find three microphones in a room. The reason the vocals sound the way they do, slurred and hard to understand is credited to Jack Ely’s screaming delivery so he can be heard, him tilting his head up at the suspended microphone, and having braces (although he claimed in an interview that that didn’t affect anything). When the song was released, people were trying to figure out the lyrics. It got to the point where the song was banned on a bunch of radio stations, being dubbed the dirtiest rock and roll song (even though the lyrics were innocuous). The FBI even spent years trying to suss out the lyrics. After that song was recorded, Ely quit the band because the drummer wanted to switch roles with him. You can hear some of the surf rock sound in songs like “Little Latin Lupe Lu”, “Haunted Castle” (the b-side to “Louie Louie”), “Killer Joe”, and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
The Crossfires, later known as The Turtles (yes the same Turtles who sang “Happy Together”) release their first album, Out of Control. “Silver Bullet” is a surf rock style “William Tell Overture” and “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” makes a great Halloween party song. Other good songs on the album are “Chunky”, “Out of Control”, and “Inferno”.
The Dakotas, Billy J. Kramer’s backing band, release the single “The Cruel Sea”, which was written by band member Mike Maxfield and went to #18 in the UK. The Ventures covered it later on.
Jan and Dean had a strong year in 1964 with two top 10 hits: “Dead Man’s Curve” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”. They had two top 40 hits with “Ride the Wild Surf” and “Sidewalk Surfin’”.
The Beach Boys kept the momentum going with “Fun Fun Fun”, “I Get Around”, “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, and “Dance Dance Dance”. This was a big year for the band because they got their first #1 with “I Get Around” and it wasn’t the only time they topped the charts, as you’ll see in the timeline.
The Challengers release their follow up album K-39. The title track is great as well as songs like “Out of Limits”, “Mr Rebel”, “Back Beat”, and “Bedlam”. I like this album better than Surfbeat.
South Bend, Indiana band The Rivieras release their first album, Let’s Have a Party. What makes this band distinct from the California based surf rock bands, besides where they were from is the fact that their songs prominently feature the organ. They do a pretty cool cover of “Danny Boy”. Other highlights on the album are “California Sun” and “Little Donna”, which is a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” with different lyrics.
The Rip Chords release the album Hey Little Cobra. Lots of car themed songs on this album.
The Pyramids get a top 20 hit with the instrumental, “Penetration”.
Another big year for The Beach Boys with “The Little Girl I Once Knew” making it to #20, a cover of “Do You Wanna Dance” hitting #12, “California Girls” peaking at #3, “Barbara Ann” at #2, and a chart topper with “Help Me, Rhonda”.
The Beach Boys started to turn away from surf rock, evolving their sound, and went into more complex pop songs with their album Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson wrote all the songs on the album with Tony Asher. Songs like “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” had bits of their surf rock sound, but with a more complex, layered sound and they were a success with “Sloop John B” charting at #3 and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” charting at #8. “Good Vibrations” was the band’s biggest hit that year, topping the charts in December 1966. It cost $50,000-75,000 (back then – now it would be half a million dollars) to record “Good Vibrations”. The Electro-Theremin alone cost $15,000 (still talking 1966 dollars here)! But with the song making it to #1, it was all worth it in the end; the song inspired musicians with its experimental innovative sound. The following year would not be as great for The Beach Boys, with critics panning Smiley Smile. Brian Wilson was working on Smile, but that project fell apart and his mental health was deteriorating.
The Challengers release the album California Kicks. This album is distinct from the others because there are covers of more current songs from the 60s in more than just the surf rock genre, but all in their signature surf rock, guitar driven style. Best tracks in my opinion are “Kicks”, “Louie Louie”, and “Gloria”.
Surf film The Endless Summer comes out and San Clemente, California band The Sandals do the score for the film. The film follows two surfers around the world to places like Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. The soundtrack is something worth checking out.
The Ventures record a version of the Hawaii Five-O theme and reach #4 on the Billboard Charts. The theme song is used as an unofficial fight song for the University of Hawaii and even has a following in the Northern Soul scene because of its beat.
Like the post? Share your favourite surf rock songs in the comments section!