“…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.