By Lee Zimmerman
The Beach Boys
THE SIGNIFICANCE: It wasn’t The Beach Boys’ first album — that distinction belongs to the seminal Surfin’ Safari — but Surfin’ U.S.A. can be credited as the first essential Beach Boys offering and the one that fully defined their ability to encapsulate California’s youthful culture and its surfing subsect in particular. It was also the first album to ensure their stardom, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop-albums chart, a subsequent reign of some 78 weeks. Its songs effectively captured a young Brian Wilson’s vision of the sun-speckled American dream, making it among the first defining moments of true ’60s significance.
THE BACKSTORY: Although the group’s record label liaison Nik Venet was officially listed as producer, it offered Wilson an opportunity to cull his creativity into something exceptional and enduring. Wilson himself credits Surfin’ U.S.A. as his first serious attempt at formulating a sound that represented the band’s essential style, and it was that effort that gave him the confidence to take the band forward toward the future. It was an ideal showcase for their trademark harmonies, and Wilson used the occasion to establish himself as the band’s principal coach and cheerleader, a role he took to heart.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: A definitive example of The Beach Boys’ early signature sound, the title track, “Shut Down” and “The Lonely Sea” are considered among the more essential songs in the band’s early canon. Notably, Mike Love’s co-compositional credits were originally omitted, only to be reinstated after a judgment in his favor following a 1994 court case. There was no such dispute over the origins of “Surfin U.S.A.,” however. The fact that it owed its melody to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” was never denied.
Jan and Dean
Jan and Dean Anthology Album
THE SIGNIFICANCE: While The Beach Boys were the preeminent vocal surf band, no one did as much to help further propel the popularity of surfing as Jan & Dean. Likewise, they helped spawn the then-nascent sidewalk surfing craze when they appeared on television balancing themselves precariously on skateboards while singing their hits. Credit the duo with ensuring that the skateboarding craze continues to thrive, both on local streets and as a high-profile competitive sport.
THE BACKSTORY: One of the first duos to successfully ascend the pop charts, Jan and Dean — otherwise known as Jan Berry and Dean Torrence — attended Emerson Junior High School in Los Angeles. The story goes that they had adjoining lockers, giving them the proximity to not only become friends on the football field but the incentive to harmonize together as well. After early incarnations as a doo-wop group called The Barons, and later as Jan & Arnie, they embarked on a series of recordings under the mentorship of future record execs Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. Nevertheless, it was only after they aligned themselves with fledgling Beach Boy producer (and soon to be co-writer) Brian Wilson that they watched their career take off with no fewer than 26 chart hits, of which 16 hit the Top 40. Berry died in 2004, while Torrence went on to a successful Grammy-winning career as a graphic artist. Sadly, they’ve yet to achieve their well-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: Anthology captures all the essential hits and remains the duo’s definitive collection. “Surf City,” with its promise of “two girls for every boy,” became the wave riders’ ultimate anthem, while “Ride the Wild Surf,” “Sidewalk Surfin’ ” and “Honolulu Lulu” helped propel the interest further. Like The Beach Boys, the lyrics described an idealized notion of a fabled American pastime, thrown askew when, like Wilson and company, they veered off to a new fascination, that being drag racing. That said, the ominous “Deadman’s Curve” foretold Berry’s near-fatal car crash on April 12, 1966.
Dick Dale & His Del-Tones
THE SIGNIFICANCE: No single instrumentalist did more to imprint a surfing soundtrack than guitarist Dick Dale, the man widely hailed as “King of the Surf Guitar.” His use of reverb created the twangy effect that provided perfect accompaniment for those spectacular scenes of daredevil surfers riding the impossibly high waves crashing on the shore with their daredevil human wave riders in tow. When Surfer’s Choice was released in 1962, it, as much as any other album, helped lay the musical foundation for the surf culture while bringing it to the further realms of middle America.
THE BACKSTORY: In a career that lasted some 60 years until his death in 2019 at age 81, Dale became one of the most influential musicians of the modern generation, influencing an ongoing progression of guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan. He integrated tremolo effects and Eastern chord progressions in a way that defined a unique surfing sound. What’s more, his work with Fender Guitars founder Leo Fender led to the creation of the first 100-watt amplifier, assuring him the admiration of every heavy metal guitarist that followed in his wake. Dale’s inclusion in the music shared in the opening credits of the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction further ensures his immortality.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: “Misirlou Twist” is widely heralded as one of the greatest surf songs ever recorded, while “Let’s Go Trippin’” is often cited as the first instrumental surf song and the one number that single-handedly launched the surfing craze in general. Other offerings — “Surf Beat,” “Surfing Drums,” “Shake N’ Stomp” and an early take on “Sloop John B.” — helped maintain the mystique.
THE SIGNIFICANCE: No list of seminal surf music would be complete without including The Ventures, arguably the most important instrumental outfit of the entire idiom. The band demonstrated unmatched versatility, covering practically every genre imaginable over the course of more than 200 albums. Likewise, their instrumental prowess and lightning-fast delivery allowed them to create the ideal instrumental soundtrack for those surfing scenes that stirred the public’s imagination and allowed even a landlocked kid to imagine what it would be like to actually ride the waves.
THE BACKSTORY: Notably, no one in the band was a surfer, but being the adroit instrumentalists they were, they showed the savvy and skill to convey that idealized impression. Indeed, it’s little surprise that such iconic players as Joe Walsh, George Harrison, Stephen Stills, John Fogerty, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Carl Wilson all credit The Ventures as influencing their respective careers. The Ventures established a style that made instrumental music viable bestsellers, and even to this day, they remain one of the most successful instrumental outfits of all time.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: “Pipeline” is, of course, an absolute standard, but originals such as “Barefoot Venture,” “Surf Rider,” “Changing Tides,” “Cruncher,” “Ten Over” and “The Ninth Wave” are equally indelible as well.
THE SIGNIFICANCE: Were it not for the title song, The Surfaris might forever be confined to the realms of absolute obscurity. Thankfully then, they’re not only credited as among the originators of the surf sound, but also one of the most important contributors to the surfing soundtrack overall.
THE BACKSTORY: Original members Jim Fuller, Pat Connolly and Ron Wilson founded the band in high school, quickly adding Bob Berryhill as the fourth member courtesy of the fact that Berryhill’s house became their place to practice. Sax player Jim Pash is featured prominently on the “Wipe Out”/“Surfer Joe” single which they recorded early on. (Archivists might note that Ken Forssi, who later joined Love, briefly took over Connolly’s bass duties after Connolly quit the group.) Although the group would never have another song that came close to the success achieved with “Wipe Out,” its inclusion on their debut album all but assures their immortality. Berryhill continues to perform under The Surfaris moniker, being the only original member of the band (aside from Connolly, who quit the music business in 1965), who is still alive.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: “You have to admire The Surfaris’ dexterity, given the fact that many of the songs on the album consist of covers, among them, “Memphis,” “Green Onions” and “Walk, Don’t Run,” originally recorded by guitarist Johnny Smith and more famously by The Ventures. Nevertheless, the inclusion of “Surfer Joe” (the only album track containing vocals) and “Wipe Out” (featuring what could be considered the most indelible drum solo ever recorded and the demonic voiceover “ha ha ha ha ha, wipe out” voiced by the band’s manager, Dale Smallin) makes this an essential addition to any set of surfing records.