A Deep Dive Into An American Music Trend Gone Outernational
by Steve J.
It’s a hot, humid night along the boardwalk of the Jersey Shore. Asbury Park, long a summer haunt of teens, young families with kids, and couples of seemingly every age walking hand in hand, is jumping on a Saturday night. Music — is that doo wop? — mingles with laughter and ice cream or pizza orders, as the music of street musicians blend together in the warm night air. Toward the end of the boardwalk sits the Convention Hall, built in the late 1920s, and people are filtering in to listen to “surf” music. Hawaiian shirts, pompadours, bee-hive hairdos with head wraps, killer floral ’50s dresses, and flat tops, pork pie hats and tattoos are on display. As the music starts, so does the dancing, accompanied by an unfettered joy. But make no mistake; this is not a snapshot of 1960s America, but rather 2018 America, as the 8th Annual Asbury Park Surf Music Festival comes alive.
Instrumental surf music grew from the late ’50s and early ’60s instrumental rock and roll trend, led by Link Wray, Duane Eddy and “the band that launched 1000 bands,” The Ventures. Defined by their sound — a “wet” reverb-drenched guitar tone — Dick Dale (“Miserlou”), The Chantays (“Pipeline”), and The Surfaris (“Wipeout”) spearheaded the ’60s California surf sound that was not associated with the vocals of the Beach Boys. But it wouldn’t last. “Bob Dalley wrote a book about 20 years ago called Surfin’ Guitars, and he tried to interview every band he could find” says Frankie and The Poolboys’ leader Ferenc Dobronyi. “It was pre-internet, so it was quite a chore. Most of the bands were completely obscure, and just a few had members who went on to a bigger musical career. But, the thing almost every band had in common were the reasons they broke up. One was Vietnam, with band members getting drafted. The biggest, however, was Beatlemania.”
“The Beatles killed surf music,” continues Dobronyi. “At that point, instrumental music had absolutely no traction, and in a teen girl-dominated business like music, you had to do vocals.” Croatian-born Ivan Pongracic, lead guitarist of The Madeira agrees,“That is the commonly-accepted explanation behind the sudden demise of surf music around ’64-’65. The Beatles were a phenomenon in the US, no doubt about that, and seemed incredibly exotic with their accents, haircuts, strange sense of humor, and, of course, utterly remarkable songs. They really changed things overnight in the US, and instrumental acts didn’t stand a chance. Let’s face it, NONE of them were even remotely as talented or captivating as the Beatles.”
Frankie Delatorre, leader of The Volcanics, offered up a quick history of surf music explained ironically in “waves.” The “first wave” was, of course, the early 1960s, and the “second wave” started in the ’80s. The rest is up for discussion. Some say the “third wave” started in the early ’90s. After that, it really gets hazy. If you ask me and I had to make an argument, I’d say there was a “fourth wave” and we are now in the “fifth wave,” with the Hi-Tide record label leading the way. You can kind of “nerd out” with this discussion similar to a superhero fan fight. For me personally Thor can beat Superman easily.”
Not surprisingly, the musicians in this current wave came upon the music in many a time-tested fashion: older siblings, radio, movies, via other bands they admired and, of course, in the garage.
James Bacchi of Tikiyaki 5.0 recalls, “My sister had the Surfaris’ ‘Wipe Out’ on 45 and I used to play her records when I was like 4 or 5 years old. That was my introduction to surf music.” “I remember the hits from when I was a kid, but I made a connection through Johnny Thunders doing a version of ‘Pipeline,’” says Dobronyi, “And then hearing the song in the movie The Wanderers.” Bacchi also points out that surf music got a huge bump and perhaps had its largest appeal after Pulp Fiction, which featured Dick Dale’s 1962 hit “Miserlou” to great effect. Director Quentin Tarantino would employ two additional surf tunes in the film: The Revels “Commanche” brings the sound to the notorious S&M dungeon/gimp scene, and, as the movie ends on a jump cut to a black screen and the credits roll, Tarantino cues up The Lively Ones’ “Surf Rider.”
Nicole Damoff, guitarist for Toronto’s The Surfrajettes, is also indebted to that movie as her introduction to surf: “I personally stumbled across surf music when I was a teenager through the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and as a kid learning the guitar at that time, that music really appealed to me because it’s so guitar-driven. And there is a really good surf music scene in Toronto where we’re based out of, so we were inspired by watching those bands and wanted to start our own.”
The Volcanics’ Delatorre took the garage route and entered the scene partly out of necessity: “Growing up, my friends and I were always into music. We wanted to learn how to play instruments and, after we spent all our money buying our guitars and amps, none of us had enough money left to buy a PA, mics, stands, etc. Also, none of us knew how or were brave enough to sing. As a result, we started playing instrumentals and surf.” Frankie and the Poolboys’ leader has a similar tale: “In college, I was learning how to play guitar so I picked up a surf ‘greatest hits” LP from the library to figure out the melodies. In bands, we’d play an instrumental to fill out the set, but in 1990 I couldn’t find a good singer to work with so I decided to start a surf band.”
Ah, the dreaded “all-instrumental” angle. Unlike the aforementioned vocal surf music of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and others, some find instrumental surf music harder to differentiate, and digest. “There is a very special kind of person attracted to surf and instrumental music,” says Dobronyi. “Not having vocals is a big turnoff for most people, and every surf band has been asked at one time, ‘When does the singer show up?’” The Madeira’s Pongrancic picks up the thread: “The obstacle to more mass acceptance is that lack of vocals and lyrics. But I’ll often simply point out that classical music doesn’t have singers or lyrics, and yet many people still appreciate it and love it. Listening to both classical and surf music requires a shift in one’s mental approach, and often potential listeners aren’t willing to go through the trouble.” Dobronyi agrees: “Surf fans tend to let the music into their head and see the imagery conjured– they are listening very closely!” Damoff sees it more simply: “I think one of the main reasons that surf appeals to people is that it’s feel-good music. Listening to it instantly transports you to a beach.” “You can throw on a surf album driving up the Pacific Coast highway and just dream away” echoes Delatorre.
Regardless of wave, surf music continues to evolve and attract new audiences. “Surf music was never allowed to naturally evolve, and basically disappeared in 1963 or so, just as it was developing out of infancy,” says Dobronyi. “When surf music came back in the ’80s, the original guys had gone on to pop, jazz, blues, hippie jam bands. But the younger guys who led the revival infused their own influences — punk, metal, ska.” Pongracic agrees that the music has changed “massively….the diversity of surf music today is simply vast.” Bacchi breaks it down even further: “In one respect it hasn’t changed all that much, in that it is primarily instrumental guitar music, with a good amount of reverb, and, for the most part, twangy clean(ish) guitars. However, in the 2nd and 3rd wave (especially), bands have pushed it in many directions. To the casual listener, much of it sounds alike, but to the more discerning ear, those differences are more apparent.” Or, as Dobronyi says, they’ve mutated: “A band might be described in a hyphenated way: heavy-surf, punk-surf, math-surf, trad-surf, depending on what influences the members bring to their sound.” Wait. Math surf?
Lorenzo Valdambrini, a key figure in modern surf music with the band Surfer Joe, as well as the festival bearing that name, is in total agreement. “I see a lot of contamination of traditional surf music with different styles. The genre has evolved into something way more complex and big. Technology and new instruments have provided new experimental possibilities and artists have started mixing this all up with traditional surf music. There is something exotic in surf music, and people like this.”
Those discerning ears and the live experience have birthed several surf music festivals worldwide. And, like much of rock and roll music, the live experience is king. “I think any form of rock’n’roll music really has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated,” says Pongracic. Dobronyi agrees: “A surf band must deliver the goods on stage. As I said, the fans are listening very closely. And for me, there is no bigger thrill than seeing a band get the crowd rockin’ and working up a sweat.” “We’ve had a great time touring. The audiences everywhere we’ve gone have been amazing,” continues Damoff. “We love going to the States because people are always so friendly and enthusiastic there. It’s really inspiring to go to a town we’ve never been to before, and there’s all these people there who love the music we’re playing.” “Surf is live,” says Valdambrini. “We all enjoy recordings, but the energy of this genre is live on stage. The vibrations, the volume, the reverb. It’s a matter of energy, that is what surf music is about.”
Many bands are able to successfully take this once-uniquely American music abroad to places like Italy, Germany and Japan. One reason? “There really isn’t a language barrier, because there is almost no singing” notes Bacchi. ”In a way, it makes surf music far more universal than most other genres of music with vocals.That cool band from Spain, Denmark or Japan that you love loses NOTHING in the translation, because there is no foreign language to decipher.”
Dobronyi says Frankie & The Poolboys have “been lucky enough to do a few European tours and also Japan. It’s true that fans are more enthusiastic and open there, especially if you throw in some of the surf classics or Link Wray. They go ape for the primal stuff. If you just show up in a small town, there will be some head scratching from the patrons, but if you get to play a bigger show or festival, the crowds will be really lively. I think in Europe and Japan, there’s an association of the music with dancing, which seems to have largely disappeared in the US. There are some bigger festivals happening in the US now, and it’s really helping the music. At the recent Asbury Park festival, I spoke with people who had come from all over New England, the South, even the Pacific Northwest.”
Frankie Delatorre has had similar experiences abroad. “Regarding Italy, I felt so much love. People knew who we were and had our music and t-shirts. It was beautiful. I remember nothing but smiles and fun from everyone we met. People were there to have a good time and dance the night away. They completely soaked in the music. Mexico I felt was the same, except they were super passionate and wanted to rock hard. They take nothing for granted and were serious about the music. They were appreciative of us being there and just made us feel amazing. Whenever we get invited to play anywhere, we are so grateful because people want to hear the music that we’ve created so it makes it such a joy to play.”
The Surfer Joe Summer Festival — co-organized by Valdambrini — is the largest gathering of surf music fans in the world. And it’s free! This summer, Livorno, Italy hosted the four-day event, which also includes symposiums on subjects such as recording techniques, surf drumming, and a discussion of Blackface vs. Silverface Fender amps. How has this growth happened? Valdambrini, who is also the leader of the band bearing the name Surfer Joe explains. “The internet has allowed us to communicate more easily. This has made it way easier to organize tours and exchange information and music. The fans are different depending on where you go: in some places they listen with great attention, in others, you sell more merchandise, and in some other places they like to dance. It happens that many young kids don’t dance to surf music now, saying they don’t know “how” you dance to it. They are used to modern rhythm patterns and tempos. But — hey — in 1963 everybody was dancing to it. So what’s up? Where is the difficulty?”
Fun is a word you hear a lot in any discussion of surf music. And it extends beyond the music. Band identities are often wrapped up in how they dress onstage (and perhaps off), recalling a time when bands would have their own uniform look. Perhaps it’s a nod to those surf-killers The Beatles in their early days, and — while not all of them do it — the visual identity of surf bands can’t be denied. “Surf bands definitely make an effort to wear a uniform or have a look” says Dobronyi. “Well, again….it IS a throwback to the early ’60s,” according to Bacchi. “Many of the bands wear matching outfits, which is something modern bands don’t do anymore. I love that aspect of knowing who the band is based on their stage outfits, unlike today where everyone just wears whatever.”
Karen Dobronyi plays keyboards in several bands including Frankie & The Poolboys and Meshugga Beach Party, She notes “The few all-women surf bands, such as The Surfrajettes,The Whys, The Neptunas, The Trashwomen and LuluFin the WooWoo embrace the ’50s Hawaiian style of dress and popular hairstyles of that time period. Male surf bands often wear 50’s style bowling shirts and traditional Hawaiian shirts as their uniforms. But, there are also quite a few bands that have unique uniforms when they play. For example, The Pyronauts are a surf band who occasionally wear gorilla masks and diapers! Our band, Frankie and the Pool Boys, choose to wear Cuban-style guayabera shirts. Los Straightjackets wear luchador masks, Daikaiju wear kabuki masks. It’s a matter of taste, and individuality.”
Bacchi: “Bands like Satan’s Pilgrims bring that unique look to the band, and it makes you think of the music in a certain way, based on their look. Meshugga Beach Party is another…that’s a genius concept.”
Meshugga Beach Party’s Karen Dobronyi (aka Shayna Madela in Meshugga) describes that band’s concept: “Mel Waldorf came up with the concept of bringing twangy, rhythmic surf guitar together with traditional middle eastern chordal influences to create Meshugga Beach Party. There are five members in the band and we play weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, night clubs, festivals, and we were recently featured on The Gong Show. The band puts on a lively, energetic show — we dress like rabbis with beards (except me!), hats, tallis, and black suits, and have some synchronized dance moves. I think that most Jewish people who hear our ‘Jewish surf music’ feel the same sort of familiarity, coming back to their roots, so to speak.”
The Surfrajettes are another band that perfectly execute a visual concept to accentuate their music. The “look” of the all-girl band is simply perfect. They recently did a wonderful cover of Britney Spears “Toxic,” and I wondered if there was any thought to expanding their audience, perhaps to a younger demographic or to young women?
“Toxic” has always been a guilty pleasure favorite song of mine,” Damoff tells me. One day, Shermy and I were talking, and we thought it would be funny to do a surf cover of it. It already kind of sounds like it could be from a James Bond movie, with that string line and the tremolo guitar part. We didn’t consciously decide to cover the song to appeal to a particular demographic, though it was really great to see that a lot of young women who’d never heard of our band before liked the video. We just loved the song and thought it would sound good as an instrumental surf tune.”
Their video for the song is jaw-dropping. It is picture perfect, with the retro apartment setting, and the band’s clothing and style, so conceptually complete. I wondered if the band — or someone else — “art-directed” that. “No art direction at all!” says Damoff. “That is Shermy’s actual living room. That is how she decorates in real life. We filmed that video at a rehearsal we had before heading off to a gig. We were already dressed for the show so we thought, let’s quickly record a video of us playing this new song we just learned. We honestly put hardly any thought into the video. It was done in one take. We were totally shocked at the response it received online.”
Album cover graphics, band logos, advertisements and band merchandise are awesomely fun eye-candy. There is a huge amount of creativity in the surf scene, and it is extremely conscious of its roots, both musically and visually. There is some serious visual branding going on here, with both the knowledge of its history, and a reflection of the modern era these bands now inhabit.
“Imagery is very important to surf music, recalling its history and defining it as a genre,” agrees Ferenc Dobronyi. “You can’t talk about the image of surf music without mentioning Rick Griffin. He became one of the most well-known artists of the psychedelic era with his Fillmore posters, Zap Comix, Grateful Dead album cover and more. Dobronyi continues: “But in the early 60s, Griffin was also doing drawings for The Challengers surf band and drew “Murphy” for Surfer magazine, and his style I believe influenced many artists today, including Fred Lammers, the current artist most identified with the surf revival. His brilliant work is everywhere.”
Indeed, it’s hard to find a contemporary artist more connected to a music genre than Fred Lammers is to surf. And in a nod to surf’s international growth, Lammers is from Oslo, Norway, of all places, hardly a surfers paradise. “There’s not a surf scene as such but we have a handful of bands,” says Lammers “And there was an occasional surf gig. Music has always been a big part of my life. The link, I really can’t explain. I guess it starts with just seeing something I like, then I want to study it, or copy as some might like to say, but over time I think it’s a natural process of inspiration and evolution. I don’t want to sit still. I hope I evolve, try different things and ideas.”
Delatorre, for one, agrees with Dobronyi’s comic book connection. He explains “The graphic art revolving around surf is often very appealing and has a particular look. I think it goes back to the early 1960s. You had the art of Ed Roth (Rat Fink), Rick Griffin (Surfer Magazine), along with others comic artists. Logos were also very cartoony, fun, playful, and interactive. For the most recent Volcanics’ logo font, we used the Dick Van Dyke Show font as the basis for our logo. Times may have been a little more simple back then. I think the art of surf captures those nostalgic playful and interactive ideas.”
“Another notable ’60s artist is John Van Hammersveld (himself with a long list of credits, including Beatles, Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead album covers) who designed the iconic poster for Endless Summer, which you see recreated or repurposed frequently in modern surf music imagery,” says Dobronyi. “Anyway, imagery is very important to surf music, recalling it’s history and defining it as a genre.”
What I love about this music,” says Pongracic “is that it mentally transports me to exotic locales and fascinating settings. I listen to it and my imagination is almost forced to engage and take me out of the ordinary and commonplace to somewhere much more interesting and exciting. The evocative nature of surf music, made to sound like a western, a dragster race, a space exploration, a Polynesian beach, a Moroccan market, a Mexican fiesta, a Cossack dance, a seduction, a battle, and a thousand other things. So, why not use the visual aspects that go along with music to play into and emphasize those themes? I really love that about surf music! Most regular rock is really quite dull and one-dimensional by comparison.”
“The visual graphic of surf is amazing,” says Bacchi. “It’s rooted in its origins of the early 1960’s. I love the visuals aspect of the genre. As far as my band Tikiyaki goes….we, of course bring in the Tiki element pretty heavily, and with that, comes our tiki/exotica slant to the sound as well.” Bacchi and his band Tikiyaki 5.0 bring all of the above back home with their wonderful cover of reputed surf-killers The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” retitled here “Eleanor Bigsby.”
Ah, tiki, the third rail of surf music. Many musicians bristle at any connection of their music to pu-pu platters and scorpion bowls. But the Asbury Park Surf Festival had DJ Sufferin’ Bastard — named after the potent tiki rum drink! — spinning between sets, a Velveteen Lounge Kitsch-en that presented tips and tricks for building your bar and mixing cocktails at home, a Tiki Brunch, a Twist contest, a Hangover Pool Party and a rooftop sunset screening of the 1963 film Beach Party, starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.
“I think surf music’s ongoing relationship with it’s much classier cousin, tiki culture, has brought fashion to the fore,” says Dobronyi. “I do enjoy it when I see fans dressed up, it means they came to have a good time! The Surfrajettes Damoff agrees: “It’s great to meet people who are into the same music and style that we are into, because in normal everyday life, that is not often easy to do! The surf and tiki events we play at are always fun for that reason, they bring like-minded people together.” “There is a sort of happening with the explosion of the Tiki scene,” Delatorre tells me. “Surf music is being associated with Tiki more than ever and is sort of helping out with a scene.”
If all of this sounds like a ton of fun, well…it is. And, according to Magdalena O’Connell of Hi Tide Recordings, sponsors of the Asbury Park event, planning for next year has already started, and “we hope to expand and utilize the boardwalk space moving forward.”
Asbury Park itself is undergoing an incredible renaissance, and surf music is, at times, providing the summer soundtrack. Under the boardwalk. Down by the sea…
See you there.
Check out our Spotify playlist “Surf’s Up” here.
“Greetings From Asbury Park” photo by Ferenc Dobronyi.
Live photo of Lorenzo Valdambrini and Surfer Joe courtesy Arnyzona.
Live shot of Frankie & The Pool Boys by Arny Zona.
Surfer Joe Festival graphic by Josh “Shag” Agle.
Meshugga Beach Party promo shot by Ferenc Dobronyi.
Asbury Park Surf Festival graphics by Fred Lammers.
The Volcanics photo by Stacey Dott.