At the same time that surf culture started gaining popularity in Southern California, a new sound began emerging in the local music scene. Since most of the musicians were surfers, anyway, the name “surf music” was an obvious choice for the new genre. The first entries into the genre were dance instrumentals, with medium-to-fast tempos and an emphasis on electric guitar. The “wet” spring reverb feature, which started appearing on Fender amplifiers in 1961, was thought to mimic the sound of waves, and was also a consistent feature of surf music.
Guitarist Dick Dale is credited with starting things off with his 1961 hit “Let’s Go Trippin’,” which was later covered by The Beach Boys on their 1963 album Surfin’ USA. However, Dale would become even more popular with his 1962 rendition of the Greek song “Misirlou.”
Other instrumental groups who emerged in the early 1960s include The Bel-Airs, The Challengers, and Eddie & the Showmen. The Chantays released the top 10 hit “Pipeline” in 1963, and the genre-defining “Wipe Out” was released by the Surfaris in 1963. This song, known for its opening “Ha ha ha ha hawipe out!” and drummer Ron Wilson’s solos, swept the nation and has been covered numerous times since then including by Animal of the Muppets.
Of course, instrumental songs weren’t the only classic tunes in the genre. The other side of the coin was known as “vocal surf pop,” and is best represented by a little group known as the Beach Boys. These songs featured surfing, girls, and cars as popular subjects, and were based around classic rock and roll, doo wop, and vocal pop by groups like the Four Freshmen.
The Beach Boys first charted with “Surfin’” in 1962, but their later material left their classic surfing themes behind. Coincidentally, the Beach Boys were the only surf group to survive the British Invasion in 1964. However, there were plenty of acts that burst onto the scene for a short period beforehand, including Ronny & the Daytonas (“G.T.O.”), the Rip Chords (“Hey Little Cobra”), and Jan & Dean (whose song “Surf City” reached number 1, and was co-written by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson).
Instrumental surf rock provided the background for many spy movies in the 1960s, including the James Bond series, and influenced later musicians, including Keith Moon (The Who), East Bay Ray (Dead Kennedys), and Joey Santiago (Pixies). Dick Dale once again came to prominence with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), which featured his version of “Misirlou” in the opening credits.