Surf music, like jazz, is an eminently American creation. I believe it’s an essential part of Tiki culture, starting in Mid-Century Modern America and flourishing worldwide today. Like Tiki, surf music took a break in popularity starting in the late 1960s, but was revived in the mid 1990s.
Let’s start with the classics. The Beach Boys. Dick Dale and The Del-Tones. The Ventures. Jan & Dean. The Surfaris. The list goes on, but this is pretty representative of the Surf music legends who stormed the beaches of Southern California in the early 1960s. My favorite Surf songs are still Hawaii Five-O and Wipe Out, going back to my preteen days. I’ve always favored the instrumental music of The Ventures to the vocal surf tunes of The Beach Boys, and the instrumental style has better withstood the test of time. Dick Dale has a foot in both camps and is still going strong, but he can do whatever he wants, because, after all, he IS the King of the Surf Guitar!
So, here’s a list of the Surf music artists I’ve been listening to for the past 30 years, with a brief description of their style and where I first heard them.
The Ventures: The Best of The Ventures (1987). These guys started it all for me in junior high. They actually covered a lot of songs, but they made Hawaii Five-O their own. I just saw The Ventures play last year in Bethlehem PA and they sounded great!
Dick Dale and The Del-Tones: Greatest Hits 1961-76 (1992). The King of the Surf Guitar, and arguably the greatest guitar player on Earth. Dick Dale’s been playing non-stop since 1961, and his popularity was rejuvenated when his classic version of Misirlou was used as the theme song for Pulp Fiction in 1994.
The Ultras: Surf Pop Sludge (1993). I first heard these guys on college radio in Lancaster PA. They were a nice blend of tribute and tongue-in-cheek, doing both vocal and instrumental Surf originals. The Ultras had the King of the Sludge Guitar!
The Halibuts: Life on the Bottom (1996). I found this gem in a small music store in Chicago (my first listening post experience) and haven’t stopped listening to it for almost 20 years. The Halibuts played some of the most melodic instrumental Surf music you’ll ever hear.
Red Elvises: Surfing in Siberia (1997). 4 cats from Russia move to LA and start playing Surf music. You can’t make this shit up! I first saw these guys play at Musikfest in Bethlehem in 1999, where they became a staple for years. Sadly, Red Elvises lost their mojo when their lead guitarist Zhenya left the band only a few years later.
Los Straitjackets: ¡Damas y Caballeros! Los Straitjackets (2001). Another discovery at Musikfest, only these guys’ shtick is that they wear Luche Libre wrestling masks everywhere they go. Hailing from Nashville TN, Los Straitjackets are my favorite Surf band of all time. Classic, straight-ahead instrumental Surf originals with Spanish dialogue between songs. Olé!
Coffin Daggers: Coffin Daggers (2002). Musikfest strikes again, this time with a band from NYC best described as Goth Surf. Coffin Daggers infuse Surf music with a heavy dose of fuzzy keyboards and theremin, creating a spooky, sci-fi sound very different from most other bands. Think Addams Family goes to the beach!
The Intoxicators: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2006). I just saw this band for the first time at The Hukilau 2014 in Fort Lauderdale. The Intoxicators are a high-energy, instrumental Surf band from Tallahassee FL playing clever, original music. Twin guitars, thumping bass and a Shriner fez-wearing drummer make them the perfect Surf band for the Tiki Lounge.
Great White Caps: Sting of Death (2009). Surf music from Bethlehem PA, of all places, and another Musikfest staple. We’re 90 miles from the ocean here, but Great White Caps crafted a unique Surf sound with their blend of original instrumental and vocal tunes. Sadly, these guys just disbanded earlier this year. Aloha GWC.
Skinny Jimmy and The Stingrays (2009). Another band I just discovered at The Hukilau, these guys hail from Deerfield Beach FL, just north of Fort Lauderdale. Skinny Jimmy was the most nondescript, pleasant fellow when I talked to him during the event, but with a guitar in-hand onstage at The Mai-Kai, he was an animal! I may have to move to Florida to catch Surf bands like this on a regular basis.
Five Eaux (2014). The newest band I’ve stumbled across hails from St. Louis MO. John Bartley, the creator of Five Eaux, reached out to the Tiki Lounge via Facebook, and we’ve been fast friends ever since. I can’t really classify them as simply Surf, as John also does James Bond themes, Spaghetti Western tunes, and much more. In his own words, Five Eaux is bringing Tiki back, with class. Aloha, Jon Tiki!
I’ve been creating Surf compilations for 10 years, and I’ve done more Surf mixes than any other genre of music. Over the years these mix discs have evolved as I’ve discovered more great Surf bands. I’ve also started incorporating other Tiki music styles into the mix, as I better learn the link between Surf and Tiki. They are inseparable! My friend Jeff Chouinard, a Tiki carver, says it best: Surf Soul Tiki. Mahalo!