One Punk’s Guide to Surf Music By Sean Carswell

One Punk’s Guide to Surf Music By Sean Carswell

Apr 18, 2024

Originally appeared in Razorcake 132 (Feb./March 2023) and 133 (April/May 2023)

Illustrations by Brad Beshaw
Layout by Todd Taylor

Want to see pictures that aren’t in this post? We recommend you downloading the free PDF or buying the stand-alone zine available directly from Razorcake.

PART 1
1939-1989

Surf and Razorcake

Here’s a bit of trivia. One of the first bands the two founders of the Razorcake print zine went to see together was Man Or Astro-Man? Todd and I first met in Flagstaff, Ariz. in 1994. At the time, the local live music scene was classic rock cover bands and Grateful Dead wannabes. As bad as this may seem, it was worse. I was starved to see live music that moved me.

In August, 1995, Todd got word that Man or Astro-Man? were playing in Phoenix, which is two hours south of Flagstaff. This being pre-internet days, we weren’t able to buy tickets in advance. We made plans to get to the venue five hours early. We figured that would be enough time to buy tickets before the show sold out. The only hiccup came on the drive down. An overturned semi closed the I-17 for two hours. But no worries—we still got there three hours early and got in. Just getting in was my second favorite thing about the show.

My favorite thing about the show was everything that happened between the time Man Or Astro-Man? got on the stage and the time when they left. They were all energy and madness. I only stopped dancing once, and that was to catch a Little Debbie snack cake that Starcrunch threw into the crowd.

I don’t know how many bands and shows I’ve seen live at this point. It’s well over a thousand, anyway. And that Man Or Astro-Man? one is easily among my all-time top ten. (Strangely enough, Brad Beshaw—the illustrator of this piece and the vast majority of the columns I’ve written for this zine—and his band Lux-O-Champ opened for MOAM? in Albuquerque the night before Todd and I saw them in Phoenix.)About five years later, I visited Todd in Los Angeles. He was the managing editor of Flipside at this point. Things didn’t look good at Flipside HQ. Todd and I had our first conversations about doing a zine of our own. And, during that trip, I dragged Todd to Mr. T’s Bowl to watch The Bomboras. Maybe they weren’t in my all-time top ten, but they did put on a hell of a show. They even had go-go dancers.

And there you have it. Two events in the founding of this zine had surf music as the soundtrack. So when Todd asked me to write this article, I could only feel like I should’ve done it twenty years ago.

There is, of course, a challenge to writing a One Punk’s Guide to Surf Music. I’m trying to jam eighty years of music into a few thousand words. This necessarily means that things will be left out and nuanced points will be simplified. I think of how protective and critical I’d be if someone wrote a One Surf Musician’s Guide to Punk. Regardless how well they did it, I’d think, “No, no. They got it all wrong.” Then I’d have to remind myself that it’s just one person’s abridged view of a big, complicated thing, and I’d relax.

And with that caveat, here we go.

Before There Was Surf Music

Pinpointing the start of surf music is as simple and as contentious as pinpointing the start of punk. And, to be honest, firsts don’t matter to me. I don’t even believe in them. Music is a continuum. All good music is some combination of embracing and rejecting traditions. Any starting point is somewhat arbitrary and reflects the bias of the author. So here’s my arbitrary and biased starting point. It’s Charlie Christian.

Christian was a guitarist in Benny Goodman’s band in the late ’30s and early ’40s. He played a Gibson ES-150, which was one of the first Spanish-style guitars to have an electronic bar pickup. The ES-150 came out in 1936. Christian was an early adopter. At the time, guitars in big bands were mostly rhythm instruments and guitarists mostly sat in the back and helped the drummers keep time. While the musicians in the band could hear the guitar, the audience mostly couldn’t. But when a twenty-year-old Charlie Christian got an electric guitar allowing him to play single-note melodies that could be heard over the drums and horns, he was able to show the world what an electric guitarist could do when he walked to the front of the stage.

Now, starting a discussion of surf music with Charlie Christian is similar to starting a discussion on punk music with The Sonics. Just as there’s something in The Sonics’ raw power and energy that seems to resonate through nearly every punk song, Christian’s crystal clear melodies underlie surf music. Both acts strike me as the soil from which a genre grew. Still, early surf guitarists knew Christian’s body of work about as well as early punks knew The Sonics—which is not very well.

There were also two cultural factors that fertilized the growth of surf music. First, in the middle of the twentieth century, instrumental music was popular. Bands didn’t need a singer to have a hit song. A lot of the most popular jazz, swing, and big band songs didn’t have vocal tracks. So not only were audiences open to rock instrumentals, rock instrumentals were the next logical step in the evolution of popular music.

Second, the development of both the electric guitar and electric bass in the ’40s and ’50s meant that you didn’t have to have a dozen or more band members to reach big audiences any more. An electric guitar or two, an electric bass, and a drummer was all you needed. This is where rock’n’roll came from. And, pulling from the instrumental tradition, several early rock’n’roll musicians had hits without singers. These early rockers—Link Wray, Duane Eddy, and The Ventures, in particular—are mostly considered influences to surf music rather than surf musicians themselves. To put it in punk terms, Wray, Eddy, and The Ventures would be the surf equivalent to the New York Dolls, The Stooges, and MC5. That is, all of the first bands in the new genre knew their music and tried to emulate them. And, just as any collection of punk music should include those first Dolls, Stooges, and MC5 records, any surf music collection has to be informed by Link Wray, Duane Eddy, and The Ventures.

The Proto-Surfers

Link Wray was a small-town guy from Dunn, N.C. In 1958, during a live show, he started playing around with a very simple chord progression that worked toward a descending pentatonic scale. In a sense, it was rock’n’roll distilled to its purest form. There were no vocals. There was no solo (unless you call strumming an E chord as fast as you can a solo). It was all a pure release of the pent-up energy of youth. The crowd at the first show kept screaming for Link to play it again, and he kept playing it again. When he recorded the song, he poked holes in the speaker of his amplifier to make it sound dirtier. The song, “Rumble,” became a huge hit. It’s one of those enduring tunes that speaks to every subsequent generation. It’s also so primal that it was banned in several radio markets throughout the U.S. This gives it the distinction of being the only instrumental song to have been banned for its content.

Wray went on to record several more amazing instrumental tracks. Though he preceded the surf music craze by only a few years, and though all the first wave surf musicians credited him as an influence, he never tried to cash in on surf. As far as I can tell, Link Wray never really tried to cash in on anything. I think he was a musician who just followed his vision and passion and put out some great stuff. He was also there in the early days of punk. Robert Gordon, the frontman for the Tuff Darts and a regular performer at Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs in the seventies, recruited Wray to play on two rockabilly revival records that were released in 1977 and ’78. And though I call the records rockabilly, they sound a whole lot more like what was going on the in New York punk scene in ’77 than what was coming out of Sun Records in the ’50s. They’re dirty and goofy and pretty fun. They’re definitely worth a listen.

Returning to the late ’50s, while Link Wray And His Wraymen were causing a ruckus at teenage dances on the East Coast, Duane Eddy was starting to make a name for himself in the Southwest. Eddy, who was in his late teens, was playing live semi-regularly on a Phoenix radio station. There, he met a DJ who would go on to become one the most influential producers of the sixties, Lee Hazelwood. Eddy, Hazelwood, and a group of Arizona musicians started recording tracks around Eddy’s original, low-end guitar riffs. Their first album together, Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar Will Travel, was all instrumental and really creative. For some of the songs, Hazelwood brought a two-thousand-gallon water tank into the parking lot of the studio and recorded Eddy’s guitar through it. This gave tracks like “Rebel-‘Rouser” and “Moovin’ ‘N’ Groovin’” a wild echo. In a sense, that echo makes those songs sound like the first surf songs. Both were big hits for Eddy. Even if you don’t know the songs by name, you’d recognize them instantly from the soundtracks of movies and video games.

In 1963, five years after Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar Will Travel made Eddy a star, the surf music craze went international. Eddy and his touring band recorded a live album that included a bunch of his hit songs. They called the album Surfin’. It’s a good live album, but the title is just a way to cash in on the craze he influenced. It’s not really an album that surf music fans would describe as surf.

In a whole different part of the country at the same time, a couple of guitarists named Bob Bogle and Don Wilson started an instrumental band in Tacoma, Wash. They recruited a local musician named Nokie Edwards. Edwards was a guitarist in Buck Owens’s backing band. Bogle and Wilson talked him into playing bass on their cover of a Johnny Smith song, “Walk, Don’t Run.” They called themselves The Ventures and, with the help of Josie Wilson (Don’s mother and the band’s manager), they recorded the song in 1960. It instantly became a hit and the 45 sold over a million copies.

The song is one of the few by The Ventures where Edwards plays bass because, as The Ventures started working on follow-up songs, it became clear to everyone that Edwards was the most talented guitarist in the band. So Bogle moved to bass, Wilson kept playing rhythm, and Edwards and his guitar went to the front of the stage. The Ventures became a huge act, recorded over sixty studio albums and another thirty live albums. Most of these records were made up of a combination of covers of hit songs and instrumental originals. Because they recorded so many records, it’s easy to find oddball releases from them in record store bargain bins. A fair number of these releases should stay in the bargain bins, but there are hidden gems in their lesser-known records, too. A lot of the fluctuations depend on what songs they’re covering and what genre they’re exploring. Underlying it all, though, is the very distinctive sound of Nokie’s guitar.

The sixteenth of those studio albums is Walk, Don’t Run, Vol. 2. It came out in 1964 and is The Ventures insertion into the surf craze. I’ve seen Nokie Edwards in interviews say that he never used a reverb unit, but when I listen to Walk, Don’t Run, Vol. 2, it sounds soaked in reverb to me. As the title suggests, The Ventures re-recorded a surfier version of “Walk, Don’t Run.” It became a hit all over again. They also worked with Danny Hamilton—a musician from the surf band The Avantis—to come up with the song “Diamond Head.” “Diamond Head” is another of those instantly recognizable ’60s instrumentals and, along with “Walk, Don’t Run,” is one of those songs that seemingly every surf band after 1964 learned and covered.

The First Wave

And that brings us to the music that surf music fans explicitly refer to as surf music: the reverb-drenched instrumental rock tunes from early ’60s Southern California.

Inspired by Link Wray, Duane Eddy, and The Ventures, a Southern California surfer and guitarist named Dick Dale started his residency at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach in 1960. The Rendezvous was a concert hall that had been closed for two years when Dale convinced the owners to let him play there. They established strict rules for the teenagers who were already flocking to see Dick Dale, but let the band play regularly on Friday and Saturday nights. Pretty soon, Dick Dale And The Del-Tones were drawing three to four thousand kids every weekend night. He mostly played instrumental dance music on his gold Stratocaster.

The guitar had been given to him by a local businessman named Leo Fender. Fender had been a radio repairman who started an instrument company. When Dale was visiting Fender at his headquarters, Leo was developing amplifiers that could play very loudly without breaking into distortion.

This is what Dick Dale needed. He was already playing to thousands of kids in a giant ballroom, but he kept blowing out the speakers of his amp trying to play at a level where everyone could hear him. He worked with Leo Fender to create the only amp that could play loud and clean enough for Dale: the Dual Showman. It was 85 watts, had six preamp tubes, four power tubes, and two fifteen-inch speakers. It was loud, and it didn’t distort until it was well past a deafening volume.

Dick Dale loved it. He also had another idea for Fender. Because Dale wasn’t a great singer, he wanted something that would make his voice sound better. He and Fender worked together to take the reverberation coils out of a Hammond organ and put them in a stand-alone tank. It sounded so good that Dale didn’t waste it on his voice. He plugged his guitar through it and got that drippy sound that, combined with Fender’s loud, clean amps, gave surf its distinctive tone.

So the simplest answer to when surf music started is that it started with Dick Dale And The Del-Tones playing instrumental rock through a reverb tank and a Dual Showman at the Rendezvous Ballroom in 1960.

But that answer isn’t entirely accurate. Dale’s first hit song, “Let’s Go Trippin’,” came out before the Fender reverb tank. So did the Bel-Airs’ “Mr. Moto.” The Bel-Airs were a group of teenagers who played a residency at the Bel Air Club in Redondo Beach, about forty miles north of the Rendezvous. Both guitarists in the Bel-Airs—Eddy Bertrand and Paul Johnson—were visionary beyond their years. Together, they came up with “Mr. Moto,” which was a hit song in 1961. They also filled the club in numbers comparable to what Dale was drawing in Newport Beach.

Paul Johnson claims that the term “surf music” came from the Bel-Airs. He has repeatedly told the story of a surfer at one of his shows saying, “Wow, man—your music sounds just like it feels out there on a wave! You should call it ‘surf music.’” Dick Dale claims the term came from him, because he was a surfer and his shows at the Rendezvous couldn’t have been closer to the beach. The parking lot of the Rendezvous was built on the beach sand near the Balboa Pier. If the tide was high enough, some of the ocean water would flow into the parking lot. In both cases, the crowds at the shows were kids who surfed or hung out at the beach all day. They did a dance called “the surfer’s stomp.” So, to me, it doesn’t matter who came up with the term. Slang words typically become slang from repeated usage, not from everyone imitating one person. I’m okay with both acts being the start of surf music. I’m also insistent that their new genre is largely a continuum from previous instrumental rock.

Both Dick Dale and the Bel-Airs catalyzed a huge movement. Pretty soon thereafter, another band trying to capture “that Dick Dale sound,” The Chantays, had a hit with the song “Pipeline.” Another group of teenagers, in this case three fourteen-year-olds and a seventeen-year-old, went into the studio at the birth of surf music to record a single called “Surfer Joe.” They needed a b-side and didn’t have one. So the drummer started playing a rhythm he’d learned in the high school marching band. The guitarist strummed a 12-bar blues progression to go with it, the bass player joined in hammering root notes, and the lead guitarist played a Duane Eddy-style riff. They recorded it. The producer added a crash, a crazy laugh, and the word “wipeout” at the beginning, and the hit song “Wipe Out” was made.

The Bel-Airs broke up, reportedly because Eddie Bertrand and Paul Johnson couldn’t agree about the use of the reverb tank. Bertrand started his own band, Eddie And The Showmen, who recorded the next hit song, “Mr. Rebel.” Former Bel-Airs drummer Richard Delvy recast himself as a producer and formed The Challengers. Paul Johnson wrote and recorded some of The Challengers biggest songs, but he didn’t perform live with them. Another behind-the-scenes guy, Lee Hazelwood, wrote a bunch of surf tunes and imported an extremely talented group of guys from Colorado who called themselves The Astronauts. The Astronauts had a string of hits with Hazelwood’s songs, starting with the classic “Baja.” Another group of teenagers from Long Beach decided to distinguish themselves by shaving their heads completely bald. They called themselves The Pyramids and had a hit song with “Penetration.” They were able to play the song both on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and in the movie Bikini Beach. And so on.

From 1960 to 1966, surf bands popped up everywhere throughout Southern California. Most were groups of teenagers who started with two kids playing guitar together, penning a few songs, covering a ton of each other’s songs, and playing shows. Some—like The Astronauts—had backing from big labels. Most of the bands were DIY acts. They recorded their own 7” records. They set up their own shows, often at places like American Legion or various union halls. They promoted themselves. They basically created DIY prior to the days of DIY punk.

This trend lasted for six years. As the official history tends to go, in 1964, the British Invasion invaded, Motown made hits, the sixties became The Sixties, and surf music died. I disagree with the official history. Regardless, for surf music purists, the music that came out of Southern California in the early ’60s, that reverb-drenched instrumental rock, is surf music. A lot of music historians include a couple of vocal pop bands that sang about surfing in this movement. I don’t include them because they didn’t make the type of surf music that I enjoy. Dick Dale once said about the vocal bands, “The music wasn’t surf music… real surf music is instrumental.” And Dick Dale is the King of Surf Guitar. I’m going to defer to him on this point.

The Living Dead

Here’s where I deviate from the official history. I don’t believe in rigid genre definitions. When we started this zine, Todd and I consciously avoided definitions of punk. This was partly because most old punks want to define punk as the music they listened to when they were active, and everything else ain’t punk. I’m a different kind of old punk. I’ve been active in the scene for the last thirty-five years. I’ve witnessed a wide, expansive genre that’s continually redefining itself, growing, exploring new territories, and giving me fresh music to listen to.

I feel similarly about surf. I understand why surf music purists want to cling to ideas of reverb-driven instrumental rock inspired by the musicians of the Southern California scene from ’60-’66. I just find that too limiting. I like listening to the bands I’ve mentioned above the same as I like listening to the Buzzcocks or Stiff Little Fingers now and then. But a musical diet limited to that traditional stuff is too boring for me. I need new recipes.

For these reasons, I’m using a more expansive genre definition for surf music. I’m including spy, horror, spaghetti western, eleki, Indorock, and a bunch of other subgenres into surf. To me, it’s all instrumental rock’n’roll without too many effects—though reverb, echo, and fuzz are always welcome—and solid melodies. Using this definition, surf music doesn’t get shoehorned into only Southern California and only the early ’60s, and so it never died.

Here’s what surf music looks like when genre definitions are more inclusive.

When Dick Dale was first beginning his residency at the Rendezvous, another hugely influential instrumental band began making noise in England. The Shadows started as the backing band for a pop idol, but they branched out into an instrumental act. The Shadows were beginning to make a name for themselves on their own in 1960 when Hank Marvin, the lead guitarist, ran into an old friend, Jerry Lordan. Lordan played a tune he’d written on his ukulele to Marvin. Marvin loved it. He learned the song, rerecorded it through a heavy tape echo, added a ton of vibrato, and The Shadows had their biggest hit, “Apache.” It sounds more like something Ennio Morricone would have written for a spaghetti western than something from the beaches of Southern California. But the aesthetics of it are surfy enough that nearly every subsequent surf band did their own version of it. The Shadows song “Kon-Tiki” didn’t quite make it into the surf canon, but it’s reverb-drenched and consciously surfy.

The Shadows weren’t the only European instrumental act of the ’60s. Before there was Man Or Astro-Man?, Sweden’s The Spotnicks dressed in b-movie style space suits and put on a wild live show full of instrumental guitar rock. In a similar but wholly different vein, four brothers who had immigrated to the Netherlands from Indonesia in their teens started taking over Europe with their instrumental rock. They picked the most obvious name, the Tielman Brothers, but nothing else about them was obvious. Their songs combined Indonesian kroncong-style music with rock’n’roll. Their records are great, but their live performances were even better. They had a regular routine in which Andy Tielman would play Dick Dale style glissandos with his foot on the guitar neck. Loulou Tielman would go so crazy on the drums that he couldn’t stay on his stool or even behind the drum kit. Ponthon played upright bass. Sometimes, he’d slide across the stage and end up under his bass. Andy would stand on the lower bout of the bass and start playing his guitar behind his head. Ponthon would lay down rockabilly slap triplets without missing a beat. Videos are on YouTube. Watch them.

So while the British Invasion invaded the United States, surfy instrumental guitar rock tore through Europe.

Similarly, Japan caught the instrumental craze. As The Ventures’ popularity waned in the U.S., it grew in Japan. They regularly toured the country and, partly because of their lack of foreign-language lyrics, The Ventures really spoke to Japanese teens. During the whole Beatles craze, The Ventures famously outsold the Beatles in Japan. They also inspired a Japanese spinoff genre called eleki. Eleki is the Japanese term for electric guitar. Most notably, Takeshi Terauchi bought a Ventures-style Mosrite, started playing instrumental rock’n’roll, but added elements of Japanese scales and techniques adapted from the shamisen to create something fresh. Then, inspired by eleki acts like Terauchi, The Ventures penned the song “Ginza Lights.” And this is my favorite thing about surf music and music in general: when songs emerge more communally through cross-cultural exchange.

I also love when that exchange keeps going. “Ginza Lights” was covered by The Coffin Daggers on their 2019 Eleki Album. The whole album is both genuinely eleki music and tinged with punk rock, which makes sense because a primary creative force behind The Coffin Daggers is Victor Dominicis, who you might know from the hardcore bands Nausea and Reagan Youth.

The Whiteness of the Wave

Before I leave the first wave of surf music, I do want to talk a little about how white it was. Most of the earliest fans of surf music were white kids, and the photographs that come from venues like the Rendezvous and the Bel-Air Club show audiences made up almost entirely of white teenagers. Most of the boys and men in the first wave surf bands were white, too. There were exceptions. Pat and Lolly Vegas in The Avantis were both Latino and Native American. They went on the form the ’70s band Redbone, where they sang quite a bit about their Native American roots. Will Glover, one of the two guitarists from The Pyramids, was Black. If you watch the video of The Pyramids on American Bandstand, you can see Dick Clark ask The Pyramids where they met. They tell him, “In high school.” And the racist Dick Clark responds by asking Glover, “Were you working there?” Glover has to say, “No, I was going to school.” Also, Dick Dale was Lebanese and his biggest hit, “Miserlou,” was his adaptation of a Middle Eastern song that his uncle taught him.

In addition to being mostly white, the first wave musicians were almost all boys and men. One teenage guitarist, Kathy Marshall, gained quite a bit of local celebrity in Orange County. She was nicknamed the “Queen of Surf Guitar,” and often featured with big surf bands like Eddie And The Showmen. Unfortunately, Kathy Marshall never made it into a recording studio, so all of her music is lost to history.

One of my favorite first wave bands, The Crescents, did make it into the studio to cut two 45s. Both feature the song “Pink Dominoes” as the a-side and have different b-sides. Even though it’s obscure and mostly forgotten, “Pink Dominoes” is one of the all-time great surf songs. The lead guitarist in The Crescents was a young woman named Chiyo Ishi. Ishi was also Hopi, which means that she broke two barriers to record that song.

But the Vegas brothers, Will Glover, Dick Dale, Kathy Marshall, and Chiyo Ishi were exceptions to the racial and/or gendered rules of the genre. Like most of America and American culture in the ’50s and ’60s, surf music was bolstered by patriarchy and white supremacy. It wasn’t uniquely or particularly patriarchal or white supremacist. It was more like ’90s pop punk: a not-very-inclusive scene for white boys.

This is the other big reason why I don’t want to romanticize the first wave of surf or be too pure in my definition of surf music. The broader my definition of surf, the more inclusive I can be. By including the proto-surfers, I can bring in Charlie Christian, who was Black; Link Wray and Nokie Edwards, who were both Native American; Indonesian-Dutch guys like the Tielman Brothers; the whole Japanese wave of eleki music; and so on. I can even include Freddy King’s album Freddy King Goes Surfin’, which relies way too much on the blues scale to be surf music, but is great instrumental rock’n’roll all the same.

The Second Wave

Punks held on to surf music, too. Johnny Thunders recorded a very punk version of “Pipeline” in ’78. Agent Orange did a punk version of “Miserlou” on Living in Darkness. They recorded several surf/punk songs, including a cover of “Mr. Moto.” And, in 1980, Greg Shaw, the owner of Bomp! Records, came across a self-released 7” by a band called Jon & The Nightriders. The band was founded by John Blair. Blair was a surf music fan who was too young to get into the first wave. When he was old enough and had enough money, he went into a studio, recorded the Jon & The Nightriders EP, and released it himself. When Shaw heard it, he convinced Blair to record a full length, which Shaw released on his Voxx imprint. The album cover features a Woody stranded on a beach next to a skeleton holding a surfboard. On the back, the skeleton has been replaced by a surfer running toward the ocean with the board in his hand. This announced the second wave of surf.

The second wave is the surf that I came to love. I knew the first wave stuff because I surf. When I was a teenager, I would rent surf videos. My favorite was The Endless Summer. I got to know that soundtrack by wearing out an old VHS tape. I watched all those Bruce Brown films and his soundtracks by The Sandals and Bud Shank. I also heard all the first wave stuff, especially “Wipe Out,” which the local radio station would play preceding the day’s surf report. But when I was a little older, I really got into surf music by listening to Agent Orange, the Insect Surfers, and Los Straitjackets, and then later, Satan’s Pilgrims, The Penetrators, The Bomboras, The Neptunas, and Man Or Astro-Man?

I hope you delve into the early stuff. And, if you’re feeling brave, learn to play a couple of these first wave songs on guitar. Even if you don’t know how to play, you can learn “Wipe Out” or “Rebel-‘Rouser” in about an hour. They’re as easy as whatever your first guitar teacher wants to teach you on your first lesson. And if you do know how to play, go after the first-wave greats like “Miserlou,” “Mr. Moto,” “Penetration,” and “Pipeline.” They’re a little more challenging, but so much fun.

PART 2: 1989 TO NOW

Surfing Sets

Here’s a little wisdom I picked up from years of surfing crowded spots: waves come in sets, and it’s best to let the first wave of a set go. That first wave of a set is always crowded and full of kooks. Everyone has been sitting on their boards, waiting for exactly this, and everyone goes at the same time. They cut each other off or flounder trying to catch the wave and send their boards flying. It’s a mess. If you have a little patience, though, the second and third waves of the set almost inevitably follow. Fewer surfers wait for these, so you’re more likely to get the clean face of the wave all to yourself.

This wisdom can sometimes work as a metaphor for life. Let’s take the waves of surf music. Last issue, I wrote about the first wave of surf music—the craze that hit Southern California in the early 1960s, catalyzed by acts like the Bel-Airs and Dick Dale And The Deltones. It exploded into a national sensation, then died off a few years later. Like the first wave of a set, the first wave of surf music was crowded and full of kooks. But here’s the other thing about catching that first wave: you’re still riding a wave. Even a crowded, kooky wave is a wave, and it can be really fun. I hope you read last issue’s article. I hope you went online, checked out some videos, listened to some music, and enjoyed it. Maybe you even picked up a record or two. You can’t go wrong with Link Wray, Dick Dale, or that long-forgotten 45 by The Crescents. I ended the article with the second wave stuff. I wrote about Jon & The Nightriders’ Surf Beat ’80 LP, a few surf songs on Agent Orange’s Living in Darkness, and Johnny Thunders cover of “Pipeline.” I didn’t write about the great Finnish band Laika And The Cosmonauts or about Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet or the Insect Surfers. They’re among my favorites of the second wave and worth more than the ten bucks you’d need to pick up one of their CDs these days.

So I genuinely enjoy the music from the first and second waves. I loved pulling out my old records and listening to them while I wrote that article. But the wave I really caught was the third one. This is the music I love. This is the music I think you’ll love. Hopefully, this article does more than send you online to watch a few videos. Hopefully, it leads you to dust off your CD player and fill it up with third-wave surf (because that’s where third-wave surf lives: on CDs). Hopefully, you’ll reach a point in a few months where you realize that this article cost you a couple hundred bucks in new music, but turned you on to some of your new favorite bands.

Behind the Mask

To be honest, I don’t know how to distinguish waves after the first one. For convenience’s sake, I’m calling that first revival of surf music in the ’80s “second wave.” I’m situating the third wave in the ’90s, and I’m abandoning the wave metaphor after that. Still, the third wave has to start a year before the ’90s because, in 1989, Danny Amis and Eddie Angel started playing surf songs together. They teamed up with drummer Jimmy Lester, called themselves The Straitjackets, and started playing around Nashville. Angel had friends in the music industry who would tease him about starting a surf band in the country music capital of the world. Regardless, The Straitjackets drew a respectable and growing local audience for about a year until Lester, a professional drummer, left to tour in Webb Wilder’s backing band. Angel turned his focus to his rockabilly band, The Planet Rockers, and drifted out of town. He moved first to Chicago, then to Austin. Meanwhile, Amis stuck around Nashville and became fascinated with Mexican culture. When Angel and his wife needed a place to stay on their return to Nashville in ’94, Amis offered up his. Angel and Amis started playing together again. Jimmy Lester came back. They found a local bassist named Scott Esbeck. Amis added two things to the reborn Straitjackets. He changed the “The” to “Los,” and he handed out Mexican wrestling masks.

Within a year, Los Straitjackets had recorded and released a record. They went on the road in ’95 and stayed there for three years. During that massive road haul, they wrote and released a few more albums and built a sizable following. They also became a mainstream success. Conan O’Brien hosted them on Late Night several times. Their music started showing up in big movies and hit television shows. They teamed up with singers—some really well-known, like Nick Lowe, some pretty obscure, like the Pontani Sisters—and recorded albums with vocals. They opened for huge acts on national tours.

And they still keep at it. The band has had a few lineup changes. Pete Curry replaced Scott Esbeck on bass in ’98. They’ve had three drummers. In 2010, Danny Amis was diagnosed with a cancer in his plasma cells. He received stem cell treatment for it and says he’s doing okay. He also survived a heart attack in 2012 and a coma in 2019. So he still records with Los Straitjackets and plays occasional shows, but the touring band picked up Greg Townson. Townson added a whole new and interesting dimension to the band. This caused the weird effect of having a longstanding band whose latest releases sound distinctly different from their early ones, yet are every bit as great.

A couple of years after the health scares, Danny Amis moved to Mexico, first to Mexico City, then to Acapulco. Los Straitjackets are apparently huge there. Amis has said that the band draws a couple of hundred fans in the U.S. and 50,000 in Mexico. And it’s true. They sell out baseball stadiums south of the border, and when I saw them a few weeks ago, they didn’t sell out a mid-sized club. Though, to be fair, it was a Wednesday night in a small town.

Still, it’s great that Los Straitjackets continue to record and put on an incredible live show. Their latest releases kick ass. They’ve been lending a hand to keep surf alive, too. Pete Curry recorded the excellent album Miles High by Los Venturas. Danny Amis produced the latest album by The Neptunas. Eddie Angel did guest guitar parts on the newest Tourmaliners album. And they still open for huge, ridiculously famous musicians.

Man… Or Astro-Man?

In the years between The Straitjackets and Los Straitjackets, somewhere around 1990 or ’91, a spaceship from Sector 23-861 crash-landed in the northern Alabama college town of Auburn. Three astromen—Star Crunch, Birdstuff, and Coco the Electric Monkey Wizard—climbed out. Though there is no air in space, and though music is, by definition, vibrating air, these astromen brought their music to this planet. They also recorded and toured as if their ship would recall them to an airless and musicless space at any moment. From their first 7” in 1992 until the end of the decade, they released ten full-lengths and twenty-nine 7”s or EPs. They also played around 1,500 shows in thirty-one countries. As one would expect from this type of output over eight years, the band burned out and released the last album of their original run, A Spectrum of Infinite Scale, in 2000. Really, though, they’d burned out before that. They performed five hundred of their 1,500 shows over a two year period in ’94-’96. Star Crunch—who was the lead guitarist and the front man—left in ’98 (though this shouldn’t dissuade you from enjoying their two post-Star-Crunch albums, EEVIAC and Spectrum).

The thing that makes all of these shows and recordings so impressive is how intricate they were. MOAM? don’t play generic surf music. They fold in samples from old B-movies, they bring in unconventional instruments and percussion, and they get increasingly complex with every record. I wrote a column for issue #111 where I talk about playing MOAM? songs on guitar. What I didn’t say is that I can only play their early stuff. Their first releases are very riff-dependent and simple. Birdstuff called it playing Ventures songs as fast as they could. The later stuff is complex. You can’t get those sounds by playing guitar alone. And MOAM?’s live shows were even more involved. They’d bring out theremins and Tesla coils. For EEVIAC, they toured with a mock-supercomputer that Coco built. In an interview in Chunklet, Birdstuff describes tours for MOAM? They’d roll into town in the middle of the night, get up by 10:00 for a fanzine interview, play on the local college station, do an in-store show, set up all the equipment for their stage show for a few hours, play an all-ages set prior to the opening of the twenty-one-and-up venue, play their show, break down for a few hours, then drive to the next town that night. Or some variation of these events. Just writing about it is exhausting. But I attended a bunch of those 1,500 shows, and they never looked exhausted. I remember watching them open for Superchunk once. Superchunk is one of my all-time favorite bands, but after MOAM? left the stage, everything was anticlimactic.

MOAM? reunited on a much smaller scale in 2010 as a way to raise money for a friend who had cancer. Since then, the original lineup has continued to play and record sporadically. The new stuff drifts more toward soundscapes and includes more songs with vocals. But they still put on a great show, and I still buy everything they put out. I’ve been listening to their new double 7”, Distant Pulsar, a lot lately. I recommend it, though maybe as the tenth or twelfth MOAM? release you buy.

Satan’s Pilgrims

Band origin stories, especially in surf music, tend to be basically the same. Two guitarists start playing together. They begin with covers and move onto originals. They find a drummer and bass player. They play a few shows. One or both of the rhythm section quits and is replaced one or several times. Satan’s Pilgrims threw little wrenches into that cliché. They started with five musicians living in a house together. The guys played in various hardcore, punk, and pop punk bands, in some cases with each other but mostly not. The five of them started goofing off playing surf songs on Saturdays in 1992. Covers first, then originals. They had the idea to play a party at their house. They called themselves Satan’s Pilgrims in homage to the ’60s biker flicks they’d watch together. Originally, the idea was to dress as pilgrims, but they couldn’t find the costumes, so they put on white pants, red shirts, and black capes. The first party went well. They threw a second party, a third, and so on. Pretty soon, word got out. The parties got bigger. One drew over two hundred people, who trashed the Pilgrims’ house. At that point, they decided to become a band that played clubs and recorded albums.

In the ’90s, surf was much more infused in punk than any time before or since. Surf bands played with garage and punk bands, were released on punk labels, performed at punk clubs, and were interviewed in punk fanzines. Because Satan’s Pilgrims were so connected to the scene, they were able to put out records on Estrus (who also put out the early MOAM? albums) and Empty. What followed was a string of four of the ’90s’ best surf albums: Soul Pilgrim, At Home with Satan’s Pilgrims, Around the World with Satan’s Pilgrims, and just Satan’s Pilgrims. Soul Pilgrim was the one that really caught me. I picked it up at Gopher Sounds in Flagstaff in ’95, and I’ve been listening to it consistently since then.

What makes Satan’s Pilgrims work is both simple and incredibly difficult. They build their songs off a foundation of garage rock, which makes them seem simple. But they have three guitarists—not so much by design as by the fact that three guitarists lived in the house originally. Often, the lead guitarist is the front person of a surf band. In the Pilgrims’ case, all the guitarists alternate between rhythm and lead. This causes more of a musical conversation than a musical lecture. And the consistency of the rhythm section can’t be understated. Ted Pilgrim goes way beyond the standard bum-cha-ka surf beat. His dynamics and intensity really steer the band. John Pilgrim has the chops to play bass in a trio, but he knows how to get in front and back of the songs in all the right spaces.

Like all four bands that I’m highlighting here, Satan’s Pilgrims are still active. Their latest album, Go Action!! came out last year. It’s my current favorite of their releases, if only because it’s the only one I haven’t listened to a thousand times. Unfortunately, Dave Pilgrim died suddenly in March, 2021. He’d recorded all of his parts for Go Action!! and a few other songs prior to his death, so his last recordings are seeing the light of day. The Pilgrims initially planned to quit playing live after Dave passed, but have recently reconsidered. Garrett from The Ghastly Ones has joined the band. The white pants, red shirts, and capes are ready. More live shows are on the horizon.

The Neptunas

While Satan’s Pilgrims were tearing up the Northwest and Los Straitjackets and MOAM? were playing every show they could everywhere in the world, a bassist who goes by the name Pamita was listening to The Trashwomen albums and plotting her own all-women surf band. She posted flyers saying that musicianship wasn’t important but wigs were. She wrangled in a guitarist and a drummer, and The Neptunas were born. Pamita Neptuna and the drummer, Toastita, were pretty firmly entrenched in the punk and garage community in LA. Toastita (aka Toast) contributed to Flipside in the ’90s. She also booked a bunch of cool shows at around L.A. Pamita had started another legendary L.A. surf band—The Bomboras—but left to be a Neptuna. And Leslita played guitar like a siren on the rocks outside of Aeaea.

Unlike Los Straitjackets, who had two amazing lead guitarists; Satan’s Pilgrims, who had three; or MOAM? who had theremins, Tesla coils, sci-fi movie samples, and space junk from their interstellar travels; The Neptunas had just a bass, one guitar, and drums. They had a schtick that they didn’t really stick to: sometimes they’d play in grass skirts and bikinis, sometimes in wigs, sometimes dressed as mermaids (sort of). Sometimes, they claimed to be mermaids. Their first album, Scratch ’N’ Surf, is also rich with samples from creepy ’50s and ’60s instructional records. Above all that, the band relied on just playing well together. Pamita does enough on bass and Leslita does enough on guitar to fill the front of the song. Toastita (who is only on the first album) and Laura Bethita (who’s been on everything from ’96 forward) lay down the bedrock of the songs’ back ends.

The Neptunas caught on around L.A. and did tours with The Trashwomen and The 5.6.7.8’s.  Their first two albums were released by Sympathy For The Record Industry. The second of those albums, Let Them Eat Tuna, shows both the heights the band could reach and the catalyst for a long hiatus. The heights are in the music. On this album, The Neptunas really found their sound. The interchange between the three musicians is incredible. As far as the hiatus goes, it’s promised in the band photographs. The band members are dressed as mermaids in the CD booklet, and Pamita’s eight-month-pregnant belly is in full view. And so The Neptunas swam away for a decade and a half.

They returned in 2014 to tour with The Breeders. They’ve played sporadically since then. In 2017, Danny Amis invited them down to Mexico to play a surf festival. This inspired the band to work with him on their latest record, Mermaid A-Go-Go. The band recorded it in 2019 in Mexico City with Amis producing. It’s their best album. They’re so tight, the songwriting is catchier and more mature, and they sing a lot more. The back-and-forth of vocal and instrumental numbers works way better than it does on most surf albums.

I remembered The Neptunas always featured in Flipside in the late ’90s, so to prep for this article, I dug out all my old issues of Flipside. I wanted to see how the punk scene treated an all-women surf band. Mostly, the Flipside writers were very supportive. Then, I stumbled across a horrible, sexist review of one of their EPs. The worst thing about the review for The Neptunas was that the review attacked a great record unjustly. The worst thing about the review from my standpoint was that, as I read it, I thought, what kind of asshole writes a review like this? To my horror, I was the asshole. Shit! I’m sorry, Neptunas! There’s no excuse for what I did. I’m also sorry to every girl or woman who read that review and felt unwelcome in punk rock. It’s a great record and a great scene. I should’ve done more to live up to both.

The Rest of Them

There are too many good surf acts from the ’90s to cover individually. I wanted to go into detail about a few of them in hopes of getting you excited enough to check out their stuff. I could recommend individual albums by the four bands above—I sort of did—but, really, just pick one. They’re all good. They’ll all get you into surf. And I picked these four bands because, over the years, I’ve bought almost all of their releases. I’ve listened to them repeatedly for decades. They’re the bands I keep going back to. They’re not the only ones. I could have just as easily highlighted The Penetrators, The Mermen, The Ghastly Ones, The Boss Martians, The Trashwomen, The Bomboras, Space Cossacks, or a dozen other bands. I fear Brad Beshaw might boycott illustrating this article because I didn’t highlight The Phantom Surfers. He might be right to do so. They were a great band, too. I just have limits to how much space and how much detail I can put in here. Hopefully, the limitations of the article inspire you to fill in the gaps yourself.

And since I’m in the ’90s, I have to mention Pulp Fiction. As soon as Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” tore through the opening scenes of Pulp Fiction, surf music was back on the national radar. Eddie Angel talks about being mid-tour when all of the punk and garage bands that used to open for Los Straitjackets were replaced by surf bands. Even in places like Dayton, Ohio, surf bands were suddenly ubiquitous. You could catch one just about any night of the week. Back then, this bugged me (though only in principle; I went to see those ubiquitous surf bands all the time). For me, surf was around before the movie. I’d seen MOAM? live. I had albums by Satan’s Pilgrims and Los Straitjackets and Agent Orange. But the sudden popularity of surf felt like an underground scene I loved was being co-opted just so Quentin Tarantino could give his movie cool points. In retrospect, I’m a lot more chill about it. I’m glad that surf bands were ubiquitous. I’m glad I was able see so many surf bands and shows. I’m glad their records sold and enough people came out to support their tours. I’m glad this wave established enough of a foundation that we still have a surf community today.

The Aughts

By the turn of the century, most of my favorite ’90s bands were largely inactive. I don’t remember any surf records coming through the post office box when Todd and I started Razorcake in 2001. In the ’90s, it seemed every punk label from Touch And Go to Lookout had surf bands. A few years later, they all went away. The wave had crashed.

I want to look at it a different way, though. Here’s another wisdom I gained from surfing: some spots are flat some days and pumping others. And it’s a fact of nature that there are always waves somewhere. Right now—regardless of when you’re reading this—some surfer is riding the wave of their life. They’re in the right place at the right time.

Take the song “Cecilia Ann,” for example. You probably know it as the opening song off the Pixies Bossanova album, but it was originally recorded by a band called The Surftones. Only, The Surftones didn’t really exist. Instead, there was a mastering engineer named Steve Hoffmann. He worked for a subsidiary of Universal called DCC Compact Classics in the ’80s. His boss would let him release one compilation CD a year. In ’88, Hoffmann decided to release a compilation of surf songs from the ’60s. As an Easter egg, he included “Cecilia Ann,” which wasn’t from the ’60s. It was from Hoffmann and his buddy goofing off in Hoffmann’s apartment one night. They recorded their own surf song that sounded like a first wave gem on a little four-track tape deck. Then, Hoffmann mastered it to sound legit.

The marketing department hated the album and predicted it wouldn’t sell. It was only released because Hoffmann’s boss liked both Hoffmann and surf music. As predicted, the album initially sold ten copies in the U.S. However, once the album was distributed overseas, it became a hit. It sold over 30,000 copies in Europe and Japan. The Pixies heard it while touring in Europe, asked Hoffmann for permission to cover it, and opened Bossanova with it. The song went from being a lark to a classic. The Surftones’ version of it plays over the credits of Noah Baumbach’s first movie.

My point here is, while surf can seem flat in the U.S. sometimes, waves are still pumping throughout the world. From my perspective, it seems Japan didn’t have any waves of surf music. It seems like they first heard The Ventures, decided to start their own form of electric guitar music (whether you want to call it Eleki or not), and stuck with it. So, when third wave surf was going off in the mid-’90s, Japan produced The Surf Coasters. When U.S. surf went flat around 2000, The Surf Coasters kept going. And they were part of a scene that also bred bands like the El Caminos and The Whys? (and, oh man, do I love The Whys?; I even wrote a Razorcake column about them in issue #131). The late ’90s and early ’00s in Croatia also brought about one of the surf bands that every surf fan should know: the awkwardly-named Bambi Molesters. The Bambi Molesters drift from spaghetti western to flamenco-inspired instrumentals to classic surf and manage to blend it all together. 2001 saw the release of their highly-revered album Sonic Bullets: 13 from the Hip. At the same time in Denmark, El Rey started releasing a number of singles that have recently been compiled into the CD Highwave to Hell. In Sweden, the Fjellgren brothers started The Surfites and a handful of offshoots. While their bands could be lumped together as traditional surf, they’re just as informed by Satan’s Pilgrims and Davie Allen as they are by Dick Dale or The Bel-Airs. In Belgium, Los Venturas began their string of an album about every three years (which hopefully means one coming this year). Each of their releases is better than the one that precedes it. All of them are great. And, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Oleg Fomchenkov formed Messer Chups, who blend surf, traditional Russian music, horror movie-soundtracks, and a few other diverse influences. Depending on how you count them—because there’s so much overlap across their releases—Messer Chups have put out about an album a year since ’99. L.A.-based punk label MuSick has been re-releasing all that Messer Chups stuff recently.

But of all the acts that were keeping surf stoked, perhaps the most influential was Surfer Joe. For the most part, Surfer Joe is Italian musician Lorenzo Valdambrini. In 2003, Valdambrini and his collaborators started the Surfer Joe Festival in Livorno, Italy. It’s been a steady presence in the surf community ever since. In 2004, Valdambrini moved to Antigua, where he played in the Wadadli Riders, and since 2011, he’s been back in Italy or touring the world. Most Surfer Joe albums feature Valdambrini playing all of the instruments—which is often a recipe for disaster, but absolutely not in Surfer Joe’s case. I have all of his albums. I recommend them all. His live band always features seasoned surf musicians like bassist Jonpaul Balak and Los Venturas drummer Pieter Dedoncker. The first post-COVID installment of the Surfer Joe Festival is going down this summer, and, if the past is any indication, Surfer Joe will be playing in a club near you sometime in the next year.

No More Waves

Starting somewhere around ten years ago, it seems that the ideas of waves, trends, and the like have changed. As social media has become more of a presence in our lives, the metaphor of a mainstream society being fed by various tributaries, rivulets, and creeks doesn’t really work. Waves, which build gradually over long periods of time and space, don’t seem to be happening any more. Instead, we’re fractured, focusing on narrow interests that don’t necessarily intersect with similar interests unless that intersection is deemed profitable by the social media companies that control our information. The idea of punk labels all having surf bands or of a video store clerk getting to write and direct a big movie that starts with a surf song seems increasingly remote. So we don’t have the same kind of interaction between the punk and surf communities.

What we do have is viral media. I’m hugely skeptical of anything that goes viral. It typically appeals to the lowest common denominator. But one exception is The Surfrajettes. What they went viral for is less interesting than who they are. They’re a Canadian surf band that does everything right. They sew their own costumes, do their hair up in ’60s bouffants, and play some of the best surf music you’ll hear. Really, it’s their music that matters. I saw them shortly before the COVID lockdown. The played five or six songs and had the whole place dancing before they said as much as, “Hello,” into a microphone. Think of how good the music and the live show has to be to pull off that stunt. And, if you look them up, steer away from the viral stuff. Start with their latest album, Roller Fink.

How to Find the New Stuff

As I wrote about in my column that features The Whys?, it’s important to me to find curators of culture and information rather than let social media algorithms direct me. So I find surf music the same way I learned to find punk: through zines, through radio shows or podcasts, by going to live shows early enough to catch the opening bands, by talking with people in the know, and by buying the releases I want from record labels I trust. So, for the more recent surf, rather than listing a bunch of bands that are active now, I’m going to point you to the places where I find my surf.

There are a few record labels I trust greatly. Otitis Media has been doing an incredible job lately of finding surf around the world and making it available on vinyl, CD, and digitally in the U.S. Green Noise Records carries just about every Otitis release. The guy who runs Surf Cookie Records in Greece also has great taste and does a good job of making his stuff available in the States. U.K. label Sharawaji has been on a hell of a run for years. Again, none of it is hard to get your hands on or is particularly expensive. And, in the U.S., Double Crown Records, Hi-Tide Recordings (who also put on a surf festival every summer in Asbury, N.J.; last year featured Los Straitjackets and MOAM?), Altered State Of Reverb, and MuSick are all reliable.

If you prefer your new recommendations to come in the form of a radio show, there are numerous. The one I listen to the most is Fiberglass Jungle. It’s hosted by Jonpaul Balak—bassist for the Insect Surfers, Surfer Joe, The Scimitars, and a bunch of other bands. He has to be one of the most—if not the most—knowledgeable guys in the surf community. He starts every show off with a set of first wave stuff, plays at least one Satan’s Pilgrims song every week, and brings in the newest and best surf throughout his two hour set. You can find Balak’s show on Luxuria Music.

And, since you’re reading Razorcake, I’ll point you in the direction of print. There’s a contemporary surf zine called The Continental that still comes out regularly and keeps you up-to-date.

The Most Important Thing

I want to end this article with a reminder that the best way to enjoy surf music is by picking up an instrument and playing it yourself. It’s so fun. I first started playing it on guitar a few years ago because I was going through a major depressive episode. Every day, I’d come home from work and struggle to avoid getting drunk by myself. So I distracted myself by learning how to play a bunch of MOAM? and Link Wray songs. Then I moved on to the early stuff: “Penetration,” “Mr. Moto,” “Surf Rider,” “Walk, Don’t Run,” and “Diamond Head.” I learned to palm mute and double-pick. Mostly, I learned how to make notes in a minor key turn into happy songs. My brother called it “playing ‘Miserlou’ to end my misery.” That’s exactly what playing surf music can do. And remember, the first surf musicians were teenagers. Just like three-chord punk, surf is something that anyone can master the basics of in a few months. And from there, the possibilities are endless.


Thankful Bits

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