The great Richard Anthony Monsour, better known as Dick Dale, the king of surf guitar, left us orphaned last year. At Guitars Exchange we have a particular weakness for a guitarist who is not only one of the true pioneers of the electric guitar but who was responsible, along with Leo Fender, for the instrument finding an amplifier capable of withstanding its onslaughts, which opened up the path for the hardest rock. So, even though we dedicated one of our legends to him some time ago, we want to pay tribute to him in the month when his music is best heard, in August, by the beach and the waves. These are our ten favorite songs by the iconic Dick Dale.
One night, high on adrenaline after a day of surfing, Dale decided to teach his musicians an old Greek melody, close to his Lebanese roots, it was called Misirlou, and when he performed it for the first time onstage, the room almost went wild. It's one of the most powerful riffs in music history, and offers the best example of Dale’s style. ‘The Beast’, his legendary Strat, unleashes the perfect wave that is impossible not to climb. With it he fulfilled one of his dreams, to sound as if Gene Krupa was playing his drums inside the giant wave. The song was released as a single on April 21, 1962, and despite not making the charts, it would become his most popular song, with covers of it by people like the Beach Boys, the Ventures, and the Trashmen. Of course, the song would live a second life when, on May 12, 1994, Pulp Fiction was premiered at the Cannes film festival. The movie opens with a restaurant scene where a couple are discussing robberies, and finally decided that this is a good place to rob and end up saying:
WOMAN: I love you, Pumpkin.
MAN: I love you Honey Bunny.
The two suddenly get up…
MAN: Everybody be cool this is a robbery!
WOMAN: Any of you fucking pricks move and I’ll execute every one of you motherfuckers!
Then the scene freezes and Misirlou starts spitting fire as the opening credits roll. A second generation had been forever captivated by the king of surf guitar.
Let's Go Trippin'
The song that holds the title as the first surf rock instrumental is one of the 2 best of Dale’s career, and the one that made him a household name. With his Strat plugged into a Fender Showman, its thick strings like cables and Dale’s amazing speed he became the leader of the new surf cult. He had debuted the song in 1960 at the Mecca of the movement, the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, a place with a capacity of 3000 people, from which the surf rock phenomenon spread throughout California. The sound he made was huge, gigantic, and everything paled in comparison. In this marvelous instrumental he gives free rein to all his expertise with the guitar, achieved tremendous success in the region along the way, landing at #4, which would make the national charts, where it stood at #60. If you want to know where ground zero for surf music is, listen to Let’s Go Trippin’.
King of the Surf Guitar
When Dick Dale’s 2nd record was released, in June of 1963, the whole world knew him as the King of the Surf Guitar, so there wasn’t much talk about what to name it. So Alonzo Willis was asked to compose a song to Dale’s glory, using his nickname. Willis, who had already written Peppermint Man for the first record, came up with this beauty, but instead of it being sung by Dale, as he had done in Peppermint Man, the remarkable Blossoms of Darlene Love were hired. With one of the best voices of the decade to help out, Love and her girls gave the track a resemblance to the girl groups of Phil Spector, while Dale was in charge of bringing that surf flavour with his guitar, in one his most brilliant moments on the 6-string, the lyrics were not complicated but left very clear what was happening: “Listen to the king of surf guitar (...) from Balboa to Anaheim, from San Bernardino to Riverside, all the girls in all of L.A., come to hear Dick Dale play”.
Besides being an incredibly original guitarist, Dale is absolutely essential in the history of the electric guitar through his association with Leo Fender when it came to improvements to the instrument and its amplification. His success led him to places with a much bigger audience, so when he was working on his 3rd album, Checkered Flag, released in September of ‘63, he came to the conclusion that he needed more volume from his guitar, so Dale and Fender got to work to make a speaker that would fit two 15` speakers capable of handling his powerful riffs, they would later design one of 100 watts, which would reach 180, and the Fender Dual Showman was born. It’s not surprising he is considered the father of the loudest guitarists in the world. One of them, also a lefty with a taste for Strats, managed to see him in the early 60s while he was in the military. From that moment on, Jimi Hendrix always had great esteem for the King of the Surf Guitar. I’m sure one of his favourite songs is the iconic The Wedge, one of his compositions included on that third album, with one of his most remembered melodies, where he gets the perfect mix of strength and melancholy.
I have always thought that the first three albums by Dale were the best of his career. Of the three, my favourite is King of the Surf Guitar, where his version of the popular Hebrew folk song Hava Nagila appears. Dale makes a rework similar to Misirlou, turning a traditional eastern song into an unstoppable rock & roll number. And that’s because Dick Dale was one of the first rock musicians to open up to ‘world music’. His interpretation here is absolutely masterful, and of course the band behind him aren’t far behind either. This is not surprising if you take a look at the credits on this record, where you’ll find some members of the legendary Wrecking Crew, like Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, and the jazz guitarist Barney Kessel.
Pipeline (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)
The appearance of the Beatles and the ‘Brit Invasion’ meant the end of surf madness. Dale retired for a few years until he returned to the studio in 1986, recording Tigers Loose. The next year he got together with Stevie Ray Vaughan to cut a cover of the classic surf number Pipeline by the Chantays, for which they would get a Grammy nomination. In addition to the song, Dale and Vaughan recorded a video for it, and it is wonderful seeing the two ‘guitar heros’ together, despite Dale’s 80s hairdo, playing two guitars as mythic as ‘The Beast’ by Dale and ‘Charley’ by Vaughan, a custom guitar, Strat style, with 3 Danelectro pickups that was built for him by Charley Wirz.
The opening song on Surfer’s Choice, the first of the artist’s albums released in 1962, has a heavy riff totally ahead of its time. This is one of the reasons why he is considered the father of heavy metal. You can imagine Dale with his left-handed Strat, given to him by Leo Fender, destroying amp after amp (giving it the nickname ‘The Beast’) playing this song without stopping. Dale’s force and volume was too much for these little 10-15 watt amps that ended up in flames before the onslaught of ‘The Beast’, a guitar that, despite being built for lefties, had the strings upside down, the 6th on top and the 1st below, the way Dale had learned to play.
Dale’s true resurgence would come in the 90s...but not just for Pulp Fiction. In 1993 he recorded Tribal Thunder, an album which includes powerful songs like Nitro and Esperanza. The first is a gem that sits at the level of his greats of the 60s, with a wild riff, played at top speed, which is the perfect distillation of the Dale sound and his unstoppable intensity.
It is evident that the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone was a big fan of surf music in general and Dick Dale in particular. Listening to his marvelous soundtracks for the classic ‘spaghetti westerns’ one can trace the sounds of the electric guitars in the surf music of the early 60s. And Dale was no stranger to Spanish and Mexican aromas, as proof in his cover of Spanish Kiss, where he plays a Spanish guitar and slips in a bit of Malagueña by Ernesto Lecuona. No surprise that Tarantino is a fan of them both.
Riders In The Sky
This classic country/western number has had many versions since it was composed by Stan Jones in 1948. From Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, and on to the Muppets of Sesame Street, hundreds of artists the world over have tried to put their mark on the song. But perhaps the most remembered have been the instrumentals, especially the one in 1960 by The Ramrods, and 3 years later our protagonist, with an interpretation that fits perfectly to his style, mixing the cowboy flavour with the roar of the waves.