Saturday, January 29, 2011

January 29: Dick Dale, "Misirlou"

Artist: Dick Dale
Song: "Misirlou"
Album: Surfers' Choice
Year: 1962

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Misirlou Twist) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Del-Tones) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Late Mix) (will open in new tab)

Though it is often looked down upon in the larger sense, some of the more interesting moments in the history of recorded music have come via artists covering the songs of other musicians.  While in most cases, the cover version cannot compete with the original, there are a few instances where the latter take on the song has opened entirely new roads in music.  Furthermore, there are a number of situations where the general public is simply not aware that the song is a cover, and the recording can take on an entirely new life due to this misconception.  If one adds into this equation a new, exciting sound and an exceptional level of musical talent, it becomes understandable why people assume the originality of the piece, and this is exactly what occurred in the early 1960's with guitar god, Dick Dale.  Though the progression had been first performed in the 1920's as a slow, Greek folk song, over the decades that followed, the song simply known as "Misirlou" took on a number of different forms as musicians and composers across the world modified it to keep with current musical trends.  Yet even with all of these different arrangements, it would take nearly forty years before the world as a whole were aware of the song, and since that point, it has become one of the most easily recognizable songs in history.  The year was 1962, and Dick Dale sped up the pace and re-arranged the progression, and he became an instant legend when he released his version of the classic song, "Misirlou."

Truth be told, there are actually three well known recordings of Dick Dale doing "Misirlou," with each of them having their own, distinctive sound.  The first version, found on his groundbreaking 1962 album, Surfers' Choice, was called "Misirlou Twist," and incorporates a full string section, giving the song an almost "spy movie" feel.  The way in which the strings both compliment and contrast the guitars is absolutely stunning, and the brief appearance of a horn section helps to heighten the tension and mood on the song.  This is also the longest take on the song, clocking in at over four minutes nearly twice the length of any other version he recorded.  Shortly after the release of the Surfers' Choice recording, Dale worked a second version, with his band, The Del-Tones, in tow, and it sheds a completely different light on the song.  On this take, there is a far greater Spanish influence to be heard, as well as the introduction of backing vocals, singing along with the track.  The drumming is also more forward in the mix, and take the place of the strings in terms of contrasting the guitar playing.  Finally, there was a third take on the song, and it is this version with which most people have become familiar.  On this take, Dale brings back the horns, and the backing band gives the song an almost intimidating swing.  It is also on this version where Dale features the trumpet solo to contrast his guitar, and in many ways, one can see this final recording as the culmination of the work on the previous two takes on "Misirlou."

The only constant factor throughout the three best-known recordings of "Misirlou" is the absolutely brilliant guitar work of Dick Dale, and it is largely due to this song that he remains such a legend.  Without question one of the fastest guitar players of the era, the level of technical expertise and emotion he is able to convey is what sets him far apart from his peers.  Furthermore, there i s almost always an upbeat, fun feeling within his playing, and in many ways, it is the music of Dick Dale that defines the pure joy of playing guitar.  Legend has it that at a live performance, Dale was challenged by a fan to play the song on a single string, and this incident had a heavy infleunce on the later recordings of "Misirlou."  One can easily make the case that it was this song that set in motion the style that is called "surf rock," and the way in which Dale is able to inject a more mysterious, almost dangerous feel to songs like "Misirlou" is what sets him far apart from others in the genre.  On the song, it is easy to here the almost fiery energy he brings, and one can hear how his performances influenced everything from punk to heavy metal and even the psychedelic sounds.  Even almost five decades later, there is simply nothing that can compare to Dick Dale's performance on "Misirlou," and it continues to sound just and fresh and exciting as it did upon first release.

Almost since the day Dick Dale released his first version of "Misirlou," it has been a constant part of popular culture.  Shortly after his recording, The Beach Boys took a swing at the song, and one can find other covers from nearly every musical genre.  Furthermore, the Dick Dale version reaffirmed its iconic status when a modified version of the song was used to open the now-classic 1994 film, Pulp Fiction.  It was its use in this film that reminded many of the amazing mood that Dale conveys on the song, and it also proved that even so many decades later, the song remained fresh and unmatched.  Though in recent years, the song was disgracefully cannibalized to form the backing track for one of the most under-talented and overrated groups in the current music scene, Dick Dale's take on "Misirlou" has proven its strength in that it remains an untouchable classic that cannot have its greatness damaged in any way.  The way in which Dale was able to create three completely distinctive takes on this folk song serve as a testament to his massive talents, and it is amazing to be able to experience his development of the song through these versions.  Though each of them has their own personality, one simply cannot get past the absolutely breathtaking performance that Dale gives on all three, and it is this consistent display of true musical genius that vaults Dick Dale's takes on "Misirlou" to the level of unquestionably iconic status.

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