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Rock 'n' Roll's Forgotten Revolution

Crowley's 'Surf Beat' rides wave after wave of music

Oct. 17, 2011
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Kent Crowley's Surf Beat (Backbeat Books) is, at long last, a correct, detailed history of the rock 'n' roll idiom known as surf music. All previous books on the subject can be tossed from the shelves or deleted from electronic reading devices. Surf Beat erases all of the unsatisfying elements of its predecessors with accurate scholarship, proper musicological definition, historical/cultural lineage and essential technical information. Crowley has produced an absolute masterpiece with prose as smooth as the ocean before the next wave.

“The key issue flummoxing historians chronicling the careers of artists whose first stirrings included stints as surf musicians…is that surf music seemed to emerge full-blown from a vacuum, shaking up the music business for a brief shining moment and vanishing as quickly, and mysteriously, as it had arrived,” he writes. Beginning circa 1958, Crowley introduces artists such as Ritchie Valens, Duane Eddy, Link Wray, Johnny and The Hurricanes, The Ventures and the epicenter of this “instro music” pipeline, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, who are engaged with producers such as Bob Keane, Frank Zappa and Lee Hazlewood.

All were operating in a homemade world. Referring to “a simple click-track (a hand-clap to keep the beat) and an ominous, echoing, single-note guitar figure” that would become Duane Eddy's 1958 hit “Rebel Rouser,” we discover Hazlewood “recorded the original track in Arizona by placing a guitar amplifier and microphone in an empty aquarium in a parking lot next door to the studio.” The search for a certain kind of sound that deployed reverberation and the shimmering wash of bouncing guitar licks would crash onto an unexplored sonic beachhead. The advent of the 1954 Fender Stratocaster alters history in a singular manner. According to Dale, Fender “created something with the purest tone.”

And it is Dale, ultimately, who not only helps create new equipment for this newest sound, but also puts it in a centrifugal swirl. Originally working with Keane at his Del-Fi label, Dale soon goes off with his own father to create Deltone Records and his band, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. And we are back into personal experimentation when Dick's father James Monsour (Dick's given name, Richard Monsour, was changed at the suggestion of 400-pound disc jockey T. Texas Tiny, who wanted him to succeed with a more commercial name) occupies the producer/engineer chair. Dick's dad had never sat there before but disliked seeing Keane in it. Surf music comes from mavericks.

Crowley tells story after story, each related with vast research and a huge view of history. Although the surf sound did seem to disappear, it was picked up and altered by so many whose stories are also related with amazing historical provenance. From The Beach Boys, through The Byrds, into The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and beyond, Crowley finds what legitimately was surf. Surf music remains embedded in rock, flourishing, “quietly, like bluegrass or folk blues, as a style of music with its own niches in college radio.” Boutique record labels issue both classic and new surf records. “No longer mocked or forgotten, instrumental rock found a home with listeners who liked their music served with subtext and context.” Surf Beat rides wave after wave of music that has been a wellspring for so many artists, each given substantial due in the text. The music was as unpredictable as any kind of rock ever was. There was more to it than we ever knew. Surf Beat proves it.


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