Surf Music Sans Surf - Surf Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of UltraView Admin.

Dick Dale, known as “The King of the Surf Guitar”, and Southern California are the person and place associated with starting surf music.

Dick Clark, host of American Bandstand, and New Mexico, though? Not so often. But strangely enough, the media mogul did offer a unique introduction to the musical genre.

“In 1960, when we appeared on American Bandstand, he introduced us as The Fireballs, the surf band from New Mexico,” George Tomsco, the group’s lead guitarist, tells BTR. “We didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Confused, Tomsco recalls going home after that performance to look up “surf” in the dictionary. When he was talking to producer Norman Petty later on, he found out that The Fireballs’ music had actually grown popular out in Southern California, where surfers took to playing songs like “Bulldog”.

Though the band members enjoyed the songs of Dick Dale and Link Wray when they eventually heard them, he says they had no exposure to surf music or surf culture prior to the memorable moment on American Bandstand.

The Fireballs’ legacy lasts as surf music through today, though. Tomsco mentions how “Bulldog” made it as the first track on the first disc of a Rhino Records surf compilation, plus a cover version of their “Rik-A-Tik” was just licensed for the soundtrack of a surf movie set for production.

Do such connections make The Fireballs a proper surf band?

The Fireballs, circa 1959. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“I can see how we’re affiliated with it–not that we were actually trying to do that, because being from New Mexico we’d probably be playing desert sand music,” Tomsco reasons, adding he lives in the northern part of the state, near the Rocky Mountains.

He says that though The Fireballs have been labeled as “rockabilly” or “guitar instrumental,” and finds it amazing that they ended up becoming instigators for surf music, the truest description he can come up with is “Southwestern rock and roll.”

In the “land of 10,000 lakes”–that’s also far removed from the ocean waves–formed another “surf” band: The Trashmen.

“We’ve been called a surf band, we’ve been called a garage band, and called one of the original punk bands, so we don’t fit into any pigeonhole,” Dal Winslow, the band’s rhythm guitarist, tells BTR.

However, unlike The Fireballs, The Trashmen–hailing from the Twin Cities of Minnesota–were more intentionally surf.

“We went totally surf back in ‘62 and ’63,” Winslow says. “We just wanted to do something different.”

He tells BTR that there were about 100 bands in the area that were all practically playing the same sets, making them eager to embark on a new sound. Alas, they heard Dick Dale’s music, which inspired them to start collecting all of the surf albums they could, even dressing in cut-offs and sweatshirts for a phase.

“At that time I would definitely call it a surf band without a surf,” he says.

The Trashmen covered Dick Dale songs like “King of the Surf” and “Misirlou” on their only album, Surfin’ Bird.

As for the namesake track of the 1963 record, Winslow admits, “I don’t think that’s really a surf song. It’s more of a ‘Louie-Louie’-type party song that is totally meaningless.”

Titling the song came on a whim, he says. The track is the Trashmen’s hybrid of The Rivingtons’ “Papa-Ooo-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird is the Word”. They decided to name it “Surfin’ Bird” because at that point they were playing a good deal of surf music.

Even before that song’s success with movie soundtracks and assorted covers, Winslow says the band was doing well locally, “packing all of the roller rinks and armories.” He describes “Surfin’ Bird” as a type of “after-burner that shot us out of the Midwest.”

Photo courtesy of Daniel Hartwig.

On the West Coast, also in 1963, The Ventures released an album called “Surfing”, with songs appropriately titled “Barefoot Venture”, “Surf Rider”, and “Party In Laguna”.

When The Ventures’ co-founder, guitarist Don Wilson, is asked if he considers the group a surf band, he offers BTR a quick response: “No.”

He explains that he lived in Southern California for some time, but now he’s back around the Seattle area, close to Tacoma, where he formed the band.

Tacoma maintains an impressive legacy of pioneering rock bands but the Northwestern city certainly is not a surf spot.

“[The Ventures are] famous for surf music, but we have 270 different albums released, and you cannot be playing ‘Wipe Out’ on every one of them,” Wilson says. “We’re very well diversified as far as music goes–we even did a classical album with 35 different horns and strings.”

He says that of course he’s not opposed to surf music, and it’s the genre that the band is most known for, mentioning a recent CD The Ventures released in Japan called Sounds of Summer, which mostly features that type of music.

Perhaps Dick Dale’s persistent legacy as “The King of the Surf Guitar” has held true through these decades. Though for many other classic surf bands, the open-ended title takes on a multiple of malleable meanings.