Just like the history of surfing itself, surf music found its legs, became a major craze, and then all but disappeared for a long time before its re-emergence; now it exists as a genre in its own right, and is in a place where it’s not likely to be forgotten again so long as humanity survives.
There is a distinction often made between two early forms of surf music; the earliest surf music popularized by artists like The Ventures is sometimes categorized in music history as “instrumental rock and roll” because it links the early rock and roll of the 1950’s in the historical spectrum with the instrumental surf wave in the early 1960’s. The early stuff lacks some of the conventions that gave surf its flavor in the 60’s. However at the very least the Ventures played proto-surf – along with artists like Duane Eddy and Link Wray, they can be argued to have made music in a similar genre that contributed to surf as an influence. In other words, these artists began to form what is now known as surf music in the late 1950’s. Surf music fans and compilations tend to consider these early artists to be part of surf music.
Surf music “proper” began in Southern California, centered around Orange County in the early 1960’s, mixing together instrumental jazz standards from earlier decades with blues rock riffs, using more modern instrumentation than was typically offered by the music of the 1950’s. The reason Dick Dale is known as the “King of Surf Guitar” is because he took that trickle of early surf of the late 50’s and turned it into a wave, adding those previously-mentioned flavor conventions: the heavy use of reverb, fast alternate picking (especially on long slides), and tremolo dives. Other artists followed in this style, developing instrumental surf into a full-on genre of music.
Surf music leaked into the pop arena when artists like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, who were hugely successful bands in the 1960’s, added vocals to the mix and reached the top ten charts, but most surf bands chose not to incorporate vocals or to even sound like these groups, who were borrowing heavily from everyone else solely for the sake of commercial success. With the British Invasion arriving around the mid 60’s, the popularity of surf began to decline as the spectrum shifted toward more psychedelic music. Moving forward, surf music scratched out a meager form of survival in television and movie themes, and as an influencing style for artists in their own contemporary styles.
Enter Pulp Fiction. In 1994 this movie released in theaters with a multifarious soundtrack on which 5 of the 13 song tracks were surf music (here’s our Pulp Fiction Surf playlist on Spotify.) Two independent record labels came around in 1996 – Continental Records (now called Double Crown Records) in Bellingham, Washington; and Deep Eddy Records in Austin, Texas – to fill this new opening in the music world, joining Dionysus Records which had been around since 1983. Surf music experienced a miraculous resurrection, and new surf bands hit the scene. With the rise of the World Wide Web, independent surf music had a venue for discovery and was nurtured back to widespread popularity. Surf music is played by bands around the globe, most notably in the U.S. and Germany, but also in Iceland, Sweden, Holland, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Wales, and beyond. It can be obtained through one of the aforementioned record labels, as well as on Amazon and iTunes – essentially anywhere fine tunes are sold – and most commercially available artists can be heard on last.fm, Spotify, or Pandora.