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POP BEAT / Mike Boehm

Surf Rock's History Wrapped Up by a Longtime Devotee

May 04, 1989|Mike Boehm

Robert J. Dalley was hooked in an instant when he heard the surf rock instrumental "Pipeline" barreling over the radio one day in 1963.

Dalley, 15 at the time, bought an electric guitar with his paper route money and set out to become part of the instrumental surf music scene that crested during the early '60s, then ebbed with the arrival of the Beatles. But it was with a typewriter, rather than with a Fender Stratocaster, that Dalley ultimately wound up writing his chapter in surf rock history.

Actually, he wrote 41 chapters.

Dalley's book, "Surfin' Guitars: Instrumental Surf Bands of the Sixties," devotes a chapter to each of 41 bands from the peak days of surf rock, including 12 hailing from Orange County. In each case, Dalley hunted up former members, got them to reminisce into a tape recorder, and compiled the histories, memorabilia and discographies that fill his 421-page, independently published soft-cover volume.

"Surfin' Guitars" is a specialty project that will be of value and interest mainly to committed surf rock fans and early-'60s pop history buffs: Of the 41 groups chronicled, only five ever placed a song in the Billboard Top 100. Dalley's plain but usually serviceable prose won't rescue any of the lesser lights from obscurity. But by giving a basic recounting of each group's story, along with reproductions of their photos, posters and press clippings, he has managed to safeguard them from oblivion.

For Dalley, now 40, the book originated 10 years ago with his own attempt to regain a bit of youthful spark.

"I was going crazy, not being in a band, not doing anything," said the friendly, broad-built Azusa resident who makes his living reproducing documents for microfilm. "The first thing I thought of was, 'Let's play some surf music."'

Dalley, who grew up inland in Covina and never learned to surf, formed a surf rock revival band, the Surf Raiders, that stayed together through most of the 1980s. In trying to recapture the authentic early '60s sound, he began to hunt for original surf music recordings. He also sought out two former members of the Surfaris, the band that created "Wipe Out," one of the most enduring and influential rock instrumentals.

Dalley's aim was only to ask their advice on how to replicate the '60s surf sound. But the tape-recorded talks ended up forming the basis for an article that he submitted to Goldmine, the record collectors' magazine. Dalley soon began to write a regular surf music column for Goldmine, and he continued to seek out interviews with original surf bands. After deciding to compile a book, he cast his net as widely as possible, with the aim of making a comprehensive surf rock history. Dalley even enlisted the help of a private detective to track down a charter member of one hard-to-trace band.

While Dalley rarely strays from his straight biographical narratives into analysis or social commentary, "Surfin' Guitars" depicts a musical period that had the qualities of innocence and a naive creativity--qualities all but snuffed out in today's bureaucratized, conglomerated music industry.

The Chantays, from Santa Ana, were teen-age musical novices when they started in 1961, inspired by Dick Dale, the Orange County surf-rock pioneer who emerges repeatedly in the book as a key influence on other bands. Within a year of taking up their instruments, the Chantays had written and recorded "Pipeline," the No. 4 national hit that hooked Dalley on surf music.

Except for rap music, a grass-roots, cheap-to-produce form that pop's corporate masters haven't yet found a way to control, such sudden rises are virtually inconceivable today.

Recording and promoting music has become a slow, costly, calculated business guided by long-term marketing strategies. One-hit, out-of-the-blue wonders like the Chantays--or the Pyramids, whose "Penetration" was also a Top 20 surf hit--simply don't get signed nowadays by major labels, which look at bands either as tax write-offs or as expensive, long-term investments. It is true that smaller, independent labels sign such bands all the time, but no prominent pop radio station seems to have the gumption to run with an unknown act's song and give it the airing it may deserve.

In 1963, surprise hits like "Pipeline" and "Wipe Out" were the norm. What the music business gives us today is a world in which surprise is barely possible. Aside from rap--which requires the guidance of a technologically savvy producer--there is no place in the pop mainstream today for the kinds of musically unschooled, naive enthusiasts who gave us surf music and its direct heirs, mid-'60s garage-rock and psychedelic rock.

The enthusiast's spirit lives with Robert Dalley. Before he could go to press with his book, he said, he had to come up with about $13,000 to pay for printing. He raised some of it by selling his guitar and amplifiers and--after committing his favorite songs to tape--by auctioning his collection of rare surf records.

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