Tuesday, August 18, 2009

August 18: Dick Dale, "Surfer's Choice"

Artist: Dick Dale
Album: Surfers' Choice
Year: 1962
Label: Del-Tone

Perhaps due to the massive number of musicians in the history of music, some of the most influential are often overlooked. Though he is often thought of as ONLY the founder and King of "surf rock," the truth of the matter is that Dick Dale was also a huge innovator in both equipment as well as physical playing style. First and foremost, Dick Dale is, without a doubt, the founder of the "surf rock" genre, and the tone and style with which he played had a profound impact on everyone from the Beach Boys to The Pixies. With his lightning fast, staccato-based riffs and progressions, he also laid the groundwork for the playing of guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Junior Brown. Whether he was showing the world how to "shred" on his guitar, or working with a number of equipment companies to push the limits on what was thought to be possible with amplifiers and guitars, Dick Dale changed the musical landscape in countless ways and his impact stretched far beyond surf rock. Though he has recorded on countless albums and his songs can be found on nearly every "surf" compilation around, his debut record, 1962's Surfers' Choice, is a truly monumental masterpiece of top notch playing and wide ranging musical innovation.

Though the sound quality is exceptional, the fact of the matter is, nearly all of Surfers' Choice was recorded live at the Rendezvous Ballroom. To this point, one can hear the crowd yell as the opening notes of "Surf Beat" come blaring out of Dick Dale's amplifier. There are a number of over moments on the album when the crowd becomes obvious, yet it only adds to the fantastic mood on the record. Though many may not recognize them by name, there are a number of songs on Surfers' Choice that have become standards across genres. Though many believe it is, the song "Sloop John B" was not, in fact, written by The Beach Boys, and the version found on Surfer's Choice is just one in a long line of covers of the song. The song was actually written around 1917, though the Beach Boys version has slight lyrical alterations. The version found on Surfers' Choice brilliantly incorporates a bright string section, and it becomes a slow, swaying love song. Thanks in large part to the film Pulp Fiction, many will instantly recognize the root of the song "Misirlou Twist." Though the core riff is the same, the version found on Surfers' Choice is slightly different, though delivers just as much impact as the version with which most are familiar. The song would also become the core sample for the 2006 hit "Pump It" by Black Eyed Peas. Though both of these songs had a profound impact on the world of music, they are truly just the tip of the iceberg in the influence of Dick Dale.

Musically, there are three very distinct sounds to be found throughout Surfers' Choice. The first of the sounds is a classic mixture between the ballad-style singing of the late 1950's and the more edgy feel of Dale's guitar playing. The songs swing more seductively than their predecessors, and the vocals are more rough in texture, and similarly sound as if they are directed as a much younger audience. These differences can be heard in the brilliant vocal track, "Peppermint Man." The second style found on the record are the string-based, slower, almost "love" songs. Though in most cases, such a contrasting style would seem out of place, the entire album has a wonderfully cohesive mood, and it somehow works perfectly. The final style of music found on Surfers' Choice is what Dick Dale is best known for, his blisteringly fast guitar instrumentals. While in some cases, the string sections are also incorporated, the focus of these songs is Dale's mind-blowing guitar skills. Perfectly capturing the essence of riding waves, Dick Dale was able to bring the "surfer mentality" to youths across the world; even those who had never even seen the ocean. Pushing to a sound that is almost "tribal," songs like "Surfing Drums" contain a mood that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It is the mood found within these blazing compositions that makes them so fantastic, as the songs perfectly balance unprecedented musicianship with an edgy, almost seductive swing that makes the songs truly irresistible. When Dale adds in meandering horns alongside his guitar playing, the entire mood of the songs shifts, and the horns seem to add a sense of mystery or maliciousness to the songs. The combination is perfectly displayed on the back to back songs, "Surfing Drums" and "Shake 'n Stomp" and are easily two of the finest tracks on Surfers' Choice. This ability to make the music swing also gives the songs there unique mood that borders on dangerous, and it is this aspect of the music that makes it so enjoyable, as well as making it the perfect choice for the Tarantino film.

One only needs to listen to the opening minute of the albums' first song, "Surf Beat" to fully understand what makes the playing of Dick Dale so uniquely fantastic. The distorted, almost bubbling sound, followed by the powerful, lightning fast riffs remains stunning to this day. Looking back, there was simply nothing else even remotely close to the sound that Dick Dale made, and the musics' distinctive, almost menacing swing further sets Dale aside from his peers and his followers. However, aside from his unparalleled style of playing, it is very much the nuances of Dale's sound that make him one of the most iconic figures in the history of guitar playing. Dale was known for playing his guitar virtually upside down, and doing this without changing the string order make his appearance like no other. This method would later be adapted by one of Dale's biggest fans, a young man from Seattle, Washington named James Marshall Hendrix. Dick Dale was also a huge innovator in amplification, and throughout the 1960's, he worked very closely with the Fender company, and helped them to produce new equipment that was capable of creating the far thicker, louder sound that he desired. This louder, more powerful sound is often cited as one of the primary building blocks for heavy metal, and Dale's unorthodox approach to playing style was also a profound impact on the same genre. Though the genre of "surf rock" has countless great artists, it was Dick Dale that pioneered the sound, and his distinctively louder and edgier sound makes him still stand far above his peers.

The album was out of print for a VERY long time, but in 2006, Sundazed Records brought it back to the world in its original form as a CD re-issue. The re-issue is a true gift to music fans, as the songs found therein are true musical landmarks. Whether he was playing slower dance songs or tearing up his guitar with his unorthodox musical passages, Dick Dale uses his debut record to show the world that there was an entirely new sound to be explored. Singlehandedly creating the entire genre of "surf rock," his music perfectly encapsulates the mood and attitude and brilliantly conveys it to the masses. Anyone who can claim influences on nearly every legendary guitar player in history was obviously doing something right, and in the case of Dick Dale, his ability to approach the guitar from angles never before thought is what makes him so brilliant. While his work outside of the stage and studio was undoubtedly just as influential as his playing style, it is the music that he made that catapulted him to truly iconic status. When one weighs all of the contributions that Dick Dale gave to the music world, he is truly unrivaled in terms of overall impact on the music scene. Presenting a phenomenal, flawless recording, Dick Dale's 1962 debut record, Surfers' Choice, remains exciting and fresh and it is by far one of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Surf Beat," "Misirlou Twist," and "Surfing Drums."

No comments: