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Best Surf Rock: Sunshine-Drenched Music To Catch A Wave To

A rundown of classics from the instantly identifiable sound.

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Folks playing surf rock music on a beach
Photo: Tom Kelley/Getty Images

The best surf music is high-octane rock ‘n’ roll, full of energy and invention. With bright, lead guitars, big stomping rhythms, and (often) a healthy dose of stunning harmonies, surf music became a highly visible genre in the late 50s and early 60s. Composed largely of California-based groups, the great surf music songs of this period came to cement an image of California in the world’s mind: Big surfboards, endless sun, and endless fun. It’s also a genre of music that you instantly know when you hear it, courtesy of spring reverb. Once The Beatles landed in New York, the original wave of surf music that we’re focusing on here began to decline in popularity, but the classics that were created back then are still beloved today.

One note before we begin: We’ve chosen one track per artist, just so that we could include as many different artists as possible! So, without further ado, dive into our list of the best surf rock of all-time. The water’s fine!

40: “Surfer’s Slide” – Richie Allen & the Pacific Surfers

Richie Polodor was the session guitarist on Sandy Nelson’s “Let There Be Drums,” and enjoyed a successful career as producer of Three Dog Night, The Monkees, Steppenwolf, and Alice Cooper. But in the early sixties, Richie dropped his surname, using his middle name Allen in its place, and recorded two surf-themed albums (The Rising Surf and Surfer’s Slide, both from 1963), which have taken on cult status among collectors.

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39: “Moon Dawg!” – The Gamblers

There are many candidates that lay a claim to being the first surf rock record – and “Moon Dawg!” by California’s The Gamblers has as strong a claim as any. Featuring Bruce Johnston on guitar and Sandy Nelson on drums, the track soon became a staple of every surf band’s set, with cover version by The Ventures, Tornadoes, and The Beach Boys, among many others.

38: “Apache” – The Shadows

This English quartet were largely responsible for bringing the surf rock sound to the UK, with this 1960 hit becoming their signature song. After hearing The Shadows’ single, drenched in atmospheric echo, Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann took it to #2 on the Hot 100 in the States, stealing the UK band’s thunder.

37: “Church Key” – The Revels

Hailing from San Luis Obispo, roughly equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, The Revels scored a surf rock classic in 1960 with the instro “Church Key.” But there’s nothing religious about the inspiration for this number. A ‘church key’ was a gadget used to open beer cans – you can hear one in action on this single, which was an early staple of many surf groups.

36: “My Little Surfin’ Woodie” – The Sunsets

A Woodie was a station wagon with wooden body work – and you could get a lot of surf boards in the back, as many surf and hot rod songs testify. Hot Rod was surf music’s twin brother – stylistically almost identical, but with titles or lyrics about cars rather than boards. This Gary Usher-produced 1963 single bridges both camps.

35: “I Live For The Sun” – The Sunrays

Beach Boy Carl Wilson introduced The Sunrays to his father and erstwhile Beach Boys manager, Murry Wilson. The sun-drenched ode to the California lifestyle “I Live For The Sun” suggested that Murry could fulfill his dream of repeating the success of his sons’ band, as it broke the Hot 100. Their success may have ultimately been fleeting, but this remains a vintage piece of West Coast sunshine pop.

34: “Cheater Stomp” – The Fabulous Playboys

With so many musicians, so many recordings and so many bands being formed and disbanded all the time, it’s impossible to keep track of all the great early surf rock records. A group of students at the University of Southern California, little is known about The Fabulous Playboys, although we do know that the Cheaters referred to in the title of this 1962 single were a South Bay car club. It’s a great example of what made this period so exciting.

33: “Little Honda” – The Hondells

While surf music unsurprisingly celebrated the sport popularized in southern California, it also reflected other characteristics of life for young Americans at the dawn of the 60s, which naturally included songs about cars and bikes – such as the latest offering from the Honda company. So enamored with the Honda was producer Gary Usher, who created The Hondells, that the band’s first album was called Go Little Honda and was comprised of 12 numbers, all with motorcycles as their theme, including “Haulin’ Honda” and “Hon-Da Beach Party.”

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32: “Surf Sink or Swim” – Bo Diddley

By 1963, surf music’s popularity saw artists and labels far and wide looking to hitch a ride on its wave. Chicago’s Checker Records may have been a long way from the surf, but they saw legendary blues guitarist Bo Diddley’s influence on the style. In 1963, they sought to go full-circle with a brace of surf-theme albums, Bo Diddley’s Beach Party and Surfin’ With Bob Diddley – the latter including this stinging track.

31: “Midnight Surfer” – Jerry Cole and His Spacemen

An in-demand session guitar player and part of the Wrecking Crew, Jerry Cole played on some of the finest records of the sixties – including Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. But he also released a run of records on Capitol under his own name, including Surf Age (from which album this cut is taken) and Hot Rod Dance Party.

30: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – The Crossfires

As the title suggests, this is a single with a split personality. The lilting, pedestrian, sax-led opening motif soon gives way to shrieking and howling laughter, as Dick Dale-style double picking and pounding drums take over. As The Beatles’ arrival in the US signaled the end of the first wave of surf rock sounds, The Crossfires duly changed style and changed their name to The Turtles, whose “Happy Together” would later replace “Penny Lane” at the top of the Hot 100.

29: “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” – The Rivingtons

It may have made no literal sense, but 1962’s “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” proved popular with surf rock groups, with a number of them covering the song – including the Beach Boys, who included it on the 1964 Concert LP and the following year’s Party! album. The Rivingtons – a West Coast group who specialized in doowop-influenced vocals – were themselves not a surf act, but their party song became part of surf culture by association.

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28: “Underwater” – The Frog Men

Before they put out the debut single from the Beach Boys, “Surfin’,” in 1961, Candix Records had already secured a surf-related hit on the Billboard Hot 100, with The Frog Men. As with most surf bands, The Frog Men were still teenagers, and their chance at the big time was snatched away, as their parents refused to give the necessary permission for the boys to go on tour to support the single.

27: “Bulldog” – The Fireballs

Another of the great proto-surf singles, “Bulldog” was recorded in 1959 by Buddy Holly’s producer Norman Petty, and written by lead guitar player George Tromso, who took inspiration from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Tromso’s echo-drenched Fender Jazzmaster guitar, played through a Fender Twin amplifier, is an early example of the classic surf guitar sound.

26: “Surfink!” – Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos

As with many short-lived crazes, the first wave of surf music saw its fair share of novelty songs. Mr. Gasser was none other than American illustrator Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, better known as the creator of Rat Fink, the anti-hero to Mickey Mouse. Among his records with the Weirdos (a selection of LA’s finest session players, such as Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Hal Blaine) on Capitol were 1963’s Hot Rod Hootenanny and Surfink!, from 1964, both adorned with fabulous characteristic Ed Roth artwork.

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25: “Let’s Go Trippin’” – The Challengers

Rising from the ashes of the Bel-Airs, The Challengers were driven by drummer Richard Delvy, who was becoming one of the most respected producers on the surf scene. “I used to watch Brian Wilson and Phil Spector,” he explained. Their Surf Beat LP became one of the most successful surf albums on its release in 1963, and went a long way to popularizing the genre outside of its California homeland. It featured covers of many of the most popular surf classics – including this rendition of the Dick Dale classic, “Let’s Go Trippin’.”

24: “Surf Route 101” – The Super Stocks

As the demand for surf music became insatiable, cany producers simply made up new surf bands as a front for the recordings they were making with sessions musicians – many of whom would achieve renown throughout the 60s as the Wrecking Crew. The Super Stocks were just such a group, invented by producer and songwriter Gary Usher. And if this song brings the early Beach Boys to mind it’s no coincidence: Usher co-wrote a number of Beach Boys songs with Brian Wilson, including “409” and “In My Room.”

23: “Bongo Rock” – Preston Epps

Preston Epps could often be found playing his bongos in the coffee shops and clubs of southern California, and seen on the bill alongside the young surf bands. A 1973 cover of “Bongo Rock” by the aptly named Incredible Bongo Band gave it a new lease of life, as it was sampled by some of the most influential names in hip-hop.

22: “The Cruel Sea” – The Dakotas

Few surf records can have their origins as far from the Californian shore as “The Cruel Sea” – or “The Cruel Surf” as it was renamed for the US market, where it was soon covered by The Ventures. The single was originally released in 1964 by The Dakotas, a group from Manchester, England. Managed by Brian Epstein and produced by George Martin, they first made their name as the backing band for Liverpool singer Billy J. Kramer.

21: “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin’” – The Fantastic Baggys

Songwriting duo PF Sloan and Steve Barri penned such hits as “Eve of Destruction” for Barry Maguire, and “A Must To Avoid” by the British Invasion group Herman’s Hermits. But before that, they’d formed a surf rock band called The Fantastic Baggys, appearing on hits for Jan & Dean as well as making a handful of recordings in their own right, with this being the cream of the crop.

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20: “Surfin’ Bird” – The Trashmen

Hailing from Minnesota, The Trashmen became a surf band after taking a vacation to Balboa beach in southern California, where they saw The Chantays and Dick Dale play. “We learned all this stuff when we got back, and nobody in Minneapolis had ever heard anything like it,” said lead guitar player Tony Anderson. A blend of The Rivingtons’ “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird is the Word,” “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen became an unlikely cult classic.

19: “Penetration” – The Pyramids

Surely one of the great surf guitar instrumentals, “Penetration” actually rode one of the last waves of the surf revolution, arriving just as The Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show changed everything – including signaling the end of the surf rock boom. As a final gesture of defiance, perhaps, The Pyramids appear in the 1964 movie Bikini Drag wearing Beatle wigs – before having them flipped off to revealed freshly shaved heads.

18: “Rumble” – Link Wray

Although its 1958 release pre-dated the surf music boom by a few years, “Rumble,” by North Carolina guitar hero Link Wray, was a hugely popular staple in the set of many of the original surf groups. As Eddy Bertrand of Eddy & the Showman explained, “People liked it, they grabbed onto it because it was simple.” Its simplicity is its genius; no less a talent than Bob Dylan described it as “the best instrumental ever.”

17: “Surf City” – Jan & Dean

While the earlier instrumental surf rock hits – a style known as ‘instro’ – had largely followed the pattern of fine lead guitar work over stomping rhythms, often with an unusual chord structure, 1963 saw surf more commonly characterized by strong melody and blended vocal harmonies. “Surf City” was key to this change, with its celebration of the cool California culture, where everyone was “either out surfin’ or they got a party growin’,” and where there were “two girls for every boy.”

16: “Surfin’ Safari” – The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys’ debut single for Capitol Records, “Surfin’ Safari” is often credited with putting the California surf scene on the global map. As Nik Venet, the young Capitol producer who signed them, recalled, “It was a new form of teenage music. It had nothing to do with your girlfriend breaking up [with you], or driving off a cliff. It was a pure California phenomenon. The Beach Boys represented California to the rest of the country.”

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15: “The Lonely Surfer” – Jack Nitzsche

Recorded with session musicians including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, “The Lonely Surfer” takes surf music to a new, widescreen space with this cinematic single from 1963. Jack Nitzsche enjoyed a remarkable career, as arranger for many of Phil Spector’s biggest hits, before working with the likes of Neil Young and the Rolling Stones.

14: “Surfin’ Hootenany” – Al Casey

The early surf records were made by surfers and their buddies, hanging out at venues like the Rendezvous Ballroom at Balboa beach, south of Los Angeles. But Al Casey was already a successful guitar player well before the surf revolution rolled in, and his 1963 single “Surfin’ Hootenany” (produced by Lee Hazelwood, and featuring the Blossoms on vocals) pays tribute to innovators like Dick Dale and The Ventures.

13: “Shoot the Curl” – The Honeys

Taking their name from a line in “Surfin’ Safari,” The Honeys must have endeared themselves to The Beach Boys, as not only did Brian Wilson produce a run of singles for them – including this self-penned number – he married singer Marilyn Rovell. Along with her sister Diane and their cousin Ginger Blake, The Honeys became one of the first groups Wilson used to establish himself as a producer outside of his role as a Beach Boy.

12: “Shoot That Curl” – Chris & Kathy

Not to be confused with the similarly titled “Shoot the Curl” by The Honeys, “Shoot That Curl” was the b-side of a 1964 single that failed to chart. It may not have stuck back in 1964, but it’s become something of a cult favourite since.

11: “Tequila” – The Champs

Many of the seeds of what would become known as ‘surf music’ can be seen in The Champs’ 1958 classic “Tequila,” which remains a party favorite today. Named after Gene Autry’s Champion the Wonder Horse, the band’s Latin influences included Ritchie Valens, who also recorded at Los Angeles’ emerging Gold Star Studios, where many great surf records would be cut.

10: “Pipeline” – The Chantays

“Pipeline” became the first international surf smash hit, despite its humble origins. As piano player Rob Marshall explained, “We practiced twice a week in my parents living room and drove the neighbors crazy.” It was drummer Bob Welch who had the initial idea for the song. “He played a little bit of it,” said Marshall, “but he said he didn’t know how the middle should go. I said ‘How ‘bout this?’ It seemed to fit. We wrote the song in about a half-hour.”

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9: “Walk, Don’t Run” – The Ventures

Despite being one of The Ventures’ signature tunes, “Walk, Don’t Run” is essentially a cover version of a cover version. After Chet Atkins had made his interpretation of Johnny Smith’s 1954 jazz recording, The Ventures’ Bob Bogle and Don Wilson made it their own in 1960. They revisited the tune with “Walk, Don’t Run ’64,” a reinterpretation that, like its forbear, was a top 10 hit – a rare example of a group having a smash hit with two versions of the same song.

8: “Surf Rider” – The Lively Ones

Surf music performances were high-energy affairs, and few could compete with this act, dubbed the Lively Ones by local DJ Gene Weed. As guitarist Jim Masoner confirmed: “We moved it! We’d jump on the amps, do flips… pretty much any clowning around.” “Surf Rider” was partly responsible for a surf rock revival in the early 1990s, when it featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

7: “Squad Car” – Eddie & the Showmen

Eddie Bertrand had already tasted success with The Belairs, before forming the Showmen (named after the Fender Showman amplifier, which in turn was named after Dick Dale, the ultimate surfin’ showman). This 1963 Liberty single – complete with wailing sirens – is a real smash-and-grab raid, charging in with an explosion of drums before Bertrand’s arresting lead guitar work kicks in, and steals the show. Turn it up for full effect!

6: “Miserlou” – Dick Dale and the Del-Tones

The undisputed King of Surf Music, Dick Dale’s innovations can’t easily be measured. He was instrumental not only in the style, but in the equipment that made the surf rock sound so distinct, thanks to his close relationship with guitar innovator Leo Fender. “Miserlou,” based on an old Middle Eastern folk tune he recalled an uncle playing on the oud, showcases Dale’s signature double-picking guitar technique.

5: “Surfers’ Stomp” – The Marketts

The Marketts (originally The Mar-Kets) may have been among the first to put ‘surf’ in the name of a hit record, but they were actually session musicians, rather than surfers. As producer Joe Saraceno recalled, “I was in a bar where everyone was doing a dance I’d never seen before. One of the girls said it was called the surfer stomp. So I wrote a song with that pattern in mind.”

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4: “Let There Be Drums” – Sandy Nelson

There can be precious few drummers to have notched a run of top 10 hits with drums as the lead instrument, but that’s exactly what Sandy Nelson achieved in the late 50s and early 60s. Nelson’s High School band included Jan Berry, Dean Torrence (aka Jan & Dean), and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. He then become a session drummer for the likes of Phil Spector and Gene Vincent, before cutting a string of instrumentals – including this classic from 1961.

3: “Bustin’ Surfboards” – The Tornadoes

Not to be confused with the British Tornados of Telstar fame, this Redlands, California band named their sultry instrumental after the worst outcome of a wipe-out – a broken stick. Not content with breaking surfboards, the 1962 single holds the accolade for being the first surf rock instrumental to break the Billboard Hot 100 – and saw renewed fame when it featured on the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction.

2: “Mr. Moto” – The Belairs

“Mr. Moto,” it is claimed, was the first surf rock single by a band made up of surfers. Indeed, The Belairs were one of the most important groups on the emerging surf music scene, which began to gain popularity in southern California in the early 1960s. Initially, as Belairs drummer Richard Delvy explained, “Surf music was for dancing and to be played behind a surf movie.”

1: “Wipe Out” – The Surfaris

For a record made up on the spot in the studio by a group of inexperienced teenagers, “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris has certainly stood the test of time, becoming one of the best-known surf records ever. A Billboard #2 hit in 1963, it was knocked out at the end of a one-hour recording session when the teenagers realized they’d need a flip side to “Surfer Joe,” the track they’d come to record. The rest is surf history.

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