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Book Review: Surf Beat: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution by Kent Crowley

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“…And you will never hear surf music again” sang Jimi Hendrix at the close of “Third Stone From The Sun.” Most people interpreted this as the psychedelic warrior’s ultimate dis of the Camelot-era’s innocent fun-in-the sun sounds, as exemplified by the Beach Boys. However, as author Kent Crowley points out in his new book Surf Beat: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution, Hendrix’s intent may have been the exact opposite.

For one thing, there is the title’s similarity to one-hit wonders The Nocturnes’ 1963 “Third Star To The Left.” But the deeper connection is with Dick Dale, whose playing had a huge influence on Hendrix. More than anyone else, Dale pioneered the use of amplifier as instrument. He consulted with Leo Fender on ways to get maximum sound out of the primitive equipment of the day, because in a live setting the music was all about the volume. And the shredding, of course, of which Dick Dale was a master.

At the time Jimi recorded Are You Experienced, Dale was in Hawaii attempting to beat a particularly virulent form of cancer. It was thought to be terminal, and after spending a considerable amount of time with the surf hero after his Air Force stint, Hendrix was said to be distraught. Seen in this light, the line becomes a sad farewell to a friend. Dick Dale not only beat cancer but even recorded his own version of “Third Stone” in the 1990s.

The nineties saw the biggest boom in surf music since its original early sixties heyday. The renewed interest can be traced back to one of the best films of the decade, Pulp Fiction (1994). Quentin Tarantino’s use of Dale’s “Miserlou” as the theme, and other surf classics on the soundtrack did wonders for the genre. It rightfully linked the music to the danger and violence it once represented, which was what drew surfers to it in the first place.

Crowley certainly did his research, and meticulously explains the early connections between the various surfing scenes and the bands. One tends to think of Southern California as one vast, sprawling mass. But to surfers, there were distinct differences between the various beaches, which the individual surf groups reflected. Many of these were high-school garage bands, who drifted apart after a year or two together. They may have scraped enough money together to record a single – usually sold at their gigs, before moving on.

As Crowley’s subtitle indicates, there is a great deal of surf’s history that has been forgotten. He blames much of this on vocal groups such as the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, as well as that infamous line Hendrix sang. He recounts some great anecdotes along the way too. The origins of the killer “Ha-ha-ha, wipeout!” opening of The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” and Frank Zappa’s involvement in the scene are just a couple of examples.

Another intriguing aspect of the book is the rapid development of the equipment during this time. Surfboards morphed from the custom-built, and very expensive wooden long boards, to the inexpensive mass produced short boards we see today. This innovation put surfing in the hands of the general public, popularizing the sport – but ruining it for purists.

The developments Leo Fender made to his guitars and amps at the suggestion of surf musicians were crucial. His shop was in the area, and guys would often show up on Monday morning with their battered equipment and work with Fender on improvements. He also attended many performances himself, to get a first-hand look at what was going on in the field. Volume was key for the amplification, and sustain for the guitars. The advances Fender made proved invaluable to the growth of not only surf, but rock, and later heavy metal.

About Greg Barbrick