The Riff
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The Riff


Surf’s Up: An Alternative History

Introduction and index to 31 days of surf

Horizontal panel of stained glass depicting waves in various shafes of blue with crisp, black outlines.
Image by stainedglassartist on flickr, CC.

Surf music is as specific as it is versatile in its oceanic tempos, splashy drums, reverb-soaked guitar, and spacious water-walls of sound. While music experts have long been divided between the instrumental and lyrical iterations of surf rock, the myriad ways the genre has evolved arguably makes it a rhythm or a mode, more than it ever was as genre.

As many have compared the rhythms of surf music to the waves themselves, we may say surf music is a wave that has crashed into other genres, creating a dynamic sound that is just as exciting today as it was for the surfers who caught on to the Hawaiian sport and the pioneering musicians who emerged from the scene.

Surf music has evolved and cross-bred from its origins in early ‘60’s California and the production techniques that enhanced it. The King of Surf, Dick Dale, brought country western at the same time as non-western scales.

The sound now ranges from psychobilly and horror punk to mariachi music and surf music spans all corners of the world, maintaining prevalence in female-led bands, in modern indie, as well as in punk and pop.

Surf music used to be rebellious before it became the white, square music from your grandpa's record collection after the British Invasion rendered it fad. Tarantino brought surf rock standards to cult-like fame in his soundtracks but the incarnations of surf in especially alternative genres make it as resilient and badass as ever.

Over the next 31 days, I will highlight foundations in the genre and move towards alternative examples that reverberate an edgy celebration of rebellion, craftsmanship, and longing for the coast. The links for each day will be posted at the end of this story. I’ll be sure to include some poetic responses here and there to the selections as I did last summer in my month-long tribute to Bossa Nova.

Your part in this? The Riff is inviting you to write about any song that makes you think of summer or brings up fond summer memories, regardless of genre.

I’ve created a working playlist on Spotify for you to enjoy throughout. Not all songs listed will be featured but discussed. The goal is not to cover songs that merely mention surfing and — as much as I love them — I will only mention the Beach Boys a few times because to me, they do not embrace the surf sound quite the same. I am in the business of championing underdogs here.

The first few years of the 1960s — and before the Beatles — surf rock “broke” and can be heard as far back as Chuck Berry. Dick Dale went back further using sounds from old Greek and Middle Eastern influences.

Those who overlooked surf music as a stopgap between Elvis and The Beatles have missed the full picture. Dick Dale never made it big but his influence impacted Jimi Hendrix and elicited Fender to make an amp that could handle the raw power of his guitar. And if we were to rate the significance of music only by the charts, we would be automatons for the music industry.

For now, I will leave you with the prominent, twangy guitar sound of Duane Eddy’s 1958 “Rebel Rouser,” which was a platinum hit and was released several years before surf rock became a recognizable genre. The reverb had not been heard of before this track, which — like surf rock — shaped modern guitar sounds.

Please join me in writing about your favourite summer songs, give me a mention (using the @ sign) and be sure to use one of your tags “Riff Summer Challenge”.

Jessica Lee McMillan © 2021
This introduces my 31-day series on surf music. Here the index of previous entries. The playlist below.



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