It may be a long time since surf music has dominated the charts, but back in the early 1960s, it was the hippest genre around, even rivaling Motown in terms of popularity. It started life in 1961 with Dick Dale and the Del Tones, whose reverb-heavy hit Let’s Go Trippin’ kickstarted the craze. Before long, groups like Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys were layering on vocal harmonies, adding lyrics about girls, cars, and teen romance, and taking the style to the world stage. By the mid-’60s, the British Invasion had happened, tastes had changed and surf rock’s popularity began to wane, never to regain its foothold in the charts. If you’re new to the style, here are 10 of the finest surf rock bands to discover.
10. The Trashmen
As singlequiver.com writes, the guys from The Trashmen got a lot of people to dance in the 60s. They scored their biggest hit with 1963’s Surfin’ Bird, a medley of The Rivingtons’ singles The Bird’s the Word and Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow which took them to number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has since been covered by a bunch of punk and alt-rock bands, including The Cramps, Silverchair, and The Ramones.
9. The Revels
The Revels began life as a high school band called Gil Serna & The Rockets, but by the late 1950s, they’d polished up their act, changed their name and began gigging along the West Coast. Consisting of Sam Eddy on piano, Gil Serna on lead vocals, Norman Knowles on saxophone, Dan Arnold on guitar, Jim Macrae on drums, and Brian England on bass (with Serna later replaced by Dave Davis), their peak popularity came in the surf music explosion of 1961-65, during which they scored hits with singles like Six Pak and Church Key.
8. The Challengers
One year before surf rock pioneers The Bel-Airs broke up, Richard Delvy left the group to form a new band. He enlisted bassist Randy Nauert, guitarist Art Fisher, and keyboardist Jim Roberts (all of whom had previously played with The Bel-Airs), along with Glenn Grey on lead guitar, Don Landis on rhythm guitar and Nick Hefner on saxophone. Their debut album, Surfbeat, is credited with helping to turn surf music from a Californian obsession into an international phenomenon, becoming the biggest selling surf album of all time.
7. The Bel-Airs
The Bel Airs were a surf rock band formed by Paul Johnson in South Bay, Los Angeles. The original lineup consisted of Johnson on rhythm guitar, Eddie Bertrand on lead guitar, Dick Dodd on drums, Chas Stuart on sax and Jim Roberts on piano. Hugely influential on the early surf rock scene, they’re best remembered for the 1961 smash hit, Mr. Moto.
6. The Surfaris
As discogs.com notes, the Surfaris eventually switched to a more folk rock style and had a number two hit in Japan with the song Kareen, but before they abandoned beach and hot-rod themes, they released one of the most memorable surf rock tunes of all time, Wipe Out. Instantly recognizable for its intro of a wicked laugh, the song took them to number two on the Hot 100 in August 1963 and to number 16 when it was reissued three years later. They also enjoyed international success with Surfer Joe and Point Panic.
5. The Lively Ones
Described by All Music as one of the best instrumental surf bands working the Southern California region in the ’60s, the Lively Ones built their sound around reverb-drenched Fenders and saucy sax breaks. They weren’t active for long, but over the course of just 12 months, they managed to squeeze out five albums. Most of their work consisted of covers and reworkings of other rock songs, but even if originality wasn’t their strongest selling point, the delights of hearing Rawhide or Cole Porter’s Night and Day being given the surf treatment is impossible to resist. Key moments to revisit include the wonderful Goofy Foot with its propulsive riffs, and Surf Rider, which got a second lease of life in 1994 when it was included in the end credits of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”
4. The Ventures
The Ventures were formed in 1958 by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle in Tacoma, Washington. Widely considered one of the most popular rock instrumental groups of the early 1950s and 1960s, they enjoyed enormous success with hits like Walk-Don’t Run and Hawaii Five-O. They also became one of the biggest early success stories of the expanding album market of the time, charting with 40 albums and scoring Top 40 hits with 17 of them. Although their star waned in the US during the 1970s, they transferred their success abroad, becoming especially big in Japan. With over 100 album sales to their name, they rank as the best-selling instrumental band of all time.
3. Jan and Dean
Consisting of William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby, Jan and Dean pioneered the California Sound that the Beach Boys would later achieve huge international fame with. After forming at high school, they went on to enjoy immense success, releasing twenty-six chart hits between 1959 and 1966. In 1966, a serious car crash involving Berry threw a curveball in the way of their success, but following his recovery, they continued to tour and perform into the 2000s. Widely regarded as a key influence on the Beach Boys, their music has been covered widely by numerous alternative rock and punk rock bands since the 1970s.
2. Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
As Wikipedia explains, surf music has two main variants – instrumental surf, which is characterized by reverb-heavy electric guitar (usually Fenders) played to evoke the sound of crashing waves, and vocal surf, which takes the main elements of instrumental surf and layers vocal harmonies on top. Dick Dale and the Del-Tones were the earliest pioneers of the instrumental kind, combining Middle Eastern and Mexican influences with a spring reverb and instrumental rock to create an all new genre. Their 1961 hit, Let’s Go Trippin’, is credited as the earliest surf rock hit, inspiring hundreds of other bands to pick up their guitars and try and create the same sound.
1. The Beach Boys
If Dick Dale and the Del-Tones pioneered instrumental surf music, The Beach Boys popularised vocal surf. Although other bands had enjoyed regional success with the genre, The Beach Boys took it to a different league, scoring a string of top ten hits with their songs about surfing, cars and romance. Although they later moved away from beachy themes and the classic surf sound, their early dabblings in the genre pioneered the “California Sound,” a style that, even today, over 60 years later, is as compelling irresistible as ever.