The soundtrack of my childhood has, as one of its components, the theme songs to countless cartoons, TV shows, and movies. Even programs I didn’t watch – Quincy, The Streets of San Francisco, The Rockford Files, et al – have made their way into my memories thanks to me playing in front of the TV while my mom watched her shows. When I was a junior in high school I made friends with a guy who enjoyed live music and who had a car. I tagged along with him as often as I could to hear live bands. One night in 1988 we traveled from LA’s Westside out to the wilds of North Hollywood where he wanted to hear a band at the Palomino. The opening act was the Insect Surfers and I found them to be something of a snore at the time. The good thing was that the headliner was The Ventures and they tore the roof off of the place. I had no idea who they were or why my friend wanted to see them, but once they belted out the theme to Hawaii 5-O I understood it all. I have been a lifelong fan of the band since that night. And I’ve been a fan of surf music since then, all the same.
When I say that I’ve been a fan of surf music since 1988 I’m actually wrong. I have been a fan of The Ventures and the few surf songs that came across my ears since that night, but I had yet to experience the genre. Had I know it at the time, the audience in the Palomino was peppered with some of the top names in “second wave” surf. I was among surf guitar royalty. For the uninitiated, surf music boomed from its birth in 1961 to its demise in 1964, when the British Invasion wiped it out. A guitarist named Jon Blair revived the genre in the late 1970s. His first album hit store shelves in 1979 and began what it known as “second wave” surf. The term is a misnomer because it implies that something in the music has changed, as though there is a noticeable distinction between the surf guitar of the 1960s and the 1980s. That distinction doesn’t exist, but the label has stuck. There is, though, a distinction between the guitar instrumentals of The Ventures and surf guitar. The Ventures were a powerful influence in the founding of the genre, but they themselves are not fully part of the genre. For me to listen to The Ventures and claim that I’m a fan of surf is incorrect, but it was what I did until I was exposed to proper surf music.
I’ve never spent a lot of money on music. It always felt too chancy. Just because I like one song doesn’t mean I’ll like enough to get my money’s worth. Surf was definitely in the category of “do not buy ”. There wasn’t much out there until Pulp Fiction popularized the genre in 1994 anyhow, and after the movie I was still too cheap to buy anything. Really, my love of the genre continued to live on the back burner of my mind without any exposure to new or recent surf guitar. It wasn’t until streaming music that I re-engaged the genre. In the late 00’s I was turned on to a band named Los Straitjackets. I fell into a hard love with their sound. I love their sound so much that it took me another year to come to terms with the fact that, like The Ventures, they’re not properly a surf band. They’re an instrumental guitar band that has some surf in their catalog.
Los Straitjackets were a catalyst and a gateway for me to find the path to surf music. I began by learning all about 1960s surf music. I educated myself on the rise of Dick Dale, the regional surf scenes, and how there were two band named The Surfaris. I plumbed the depths of that 1960s surf sound before I even discovered second wave. Jon Blair and the Nightriders are the real deal and I love their sound, but there was something so last century about surf. Even the modern stuff that I was discovering was all from late 1990s or early 2000s – the genre felt so old. While I was going down the rabbit hole of surf I encountered Halloween surf and Christmas surf and spent a lot of time cultivating playlists in those two sub-genres. In an odd way, listening to Christmas music in the surf style was a major education into what the true hallmarks of surf music are and allowed me to better discriminate. By “discriminate” I really mean “split hairs” because surf music butts against and overlaps with other genres, so genre creep is a thing and it’s possible to over-classify music beyond useful means. I spent time with my mind there – really over-classifying and trying to understand it all.
One of my primary tools for understanding surf was/is Phil Dirt’s website, Reverb Central. Phil is a major league, longtime fan of surf music, having discovered it at its birth in 1961. I don’t know what he’s up to nowadays, but he has been a radio DJ playing surf music for decades. His website is a catalog of surf music albums that he’s reviewed and rated. It’s a useful tool for steering into the good stuff. After listening to enough of what he’s reviewed and trying to understand why he likes one thing and not another, his opinion has really helped me to develop my ear and become more critical. However, at some point Phil stopped adding new reviews to his website. It was more of a fade away then a solid stop point, but essentially his reviews cease in the early 2010s. His site has been useful for me to discover music that is new to me, but not music that is brand new. Reading over a site where the most recent content is five or more years in the past doubled the feeling that this genre is so old.
I wanted to find new surf music. I wanted to find music that is new to the year 2020. This led me to Hunter King’s website, Storm Surge of Reverb. Hunter is a radio DJ playing surf music in New Orleans. His website is both a tool to promote his show and to promote new surf music. Beginning in 2015 and recurring every year since, he generates a list of all the new surf music of which he’s aware. It’s an incredible resource for getting into modern surf. There is new, essential music being released all the time and Hunter is the best way to discover it. I have finally found the modern, living pulse of surf music. For a long-lived genre it is nice to learn that it still has a vibrant and passionate scene.
The list of bands that Hunter King provides has enabled me to start tracking music releases on my own, in addition to using his site. I follow many modern bands on Bandcamp (great tool) and on Band Is In Town (meh tool). This has led to me buying more music and buying more surf music than ever before. It also has me looking to see live acts. Surfer Joe – one of the biggest names in modern surf – is on tour right now and he’ll be in Los Angeles in just a couple of weeks. I aim to see him at least once and hopefully twice. I have started listening to surf albums that have been released in the past few years, starring my favorite tracks, and adding them to playlists. My year 2020 is going to be catching up on the previous decade and then turning and looking at now and the future of surf guitar. I am absolutely excited to have found bands that are still performing and releasing music with gusto.