The Gnarly Surf Rock of Dick Dale (RIP): Watch the Legend Play “Misirlou,” Surfin’ the Wedge,” and “Pipeline” (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)

The End­less Sum­mer is over. The arche­typ­al 1966 surf doc­u­men­tary might have been scored by The San­dals, but the sound and the cul­tur­al dom­i­nance of surf cul­ture would per­haps nev­er come into being, and may not have sur­vived the decade, with­out Dick Dale, who died on March 18th at the age of 81. His gnarly, men­ac­ing gui­tar on songs like “Miser­lou” and “Pipeline” turned a fad dom­i­nat­ed by the teen anthems of The Beach Boys and Annette Funicello’s post-Mouseke­teers biki­ni and bee­hive into gen­uine­ly grit­ty rock and roll.

Dale’s sound defined the risky wan­der­lust of surf­ing that ear­ly skate­board­ers picked up on in the 70s and 80s, snow­board­ers in the 90s, and so on. Hun­dreds of gui­tarists stole from his dis­tinc­tive tech­nique long after the 60s surf rock craze died at the hands of British invaders. Dale rode the sound into the 21st cen­tu­ry, tour­ing and per­form­ing across a Unit­ed States whose pop­u­lar cul­ture he helped invent by appear­ing on (where else) The Ed Sul­li­van Show.

But it’s arguable whether his fame would have sur­vived as long with­out Quentin Tarantino’s shrewd use of “Misir­lou” in Pulp Fic­tion’s open­ing cred­its. It so hap­pens that Dale almost didn’t sur­vive past the six­ties him­self. If he had died from what seemed like a ter­mi­nal can­cer in 1965, it’s pos­si­ble surf gui­tar would have died with him, become a curi­ous rel­ic rather than a liv­ing tra­di­tion.

Jimi Hen­drix thought so—at least accord­ing to Dale in the lin­er notes to 1997’s Bet­ter Shred Than Dead: The Dick Dale Anthol­o­gy. “Then you’ll nev­er hear surf music again,” Hen­drix sup­pos­ed­ly said. Maybe in the purest sense, it’s true. Only Dale tru­ly “trans­ferred,” as he put it, the “tremen­dous amount of pow­er” of surf­ing into the gui­tar. His play­ing was an extreme sport; his shows were “stomps”; the audi­ence nev­er stopped mov­ing for a minute, whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing along with him.

And still, his cav­ernous gui­tar filled ball­rooms. He pushed Fend­er to build loud­er and loud­er ampli­fiers, and every­one else along with them. Like Hen­drix, he was a lefty who played a flipped-over right-hand­ed Fend­er Strat. Yet Dale didn’t restring the gui­tar, effec­tive­ly play­ing it upside-down. He used the heav­i­est strings he could find, the loud­est amps that could be made, and more reverb than any­one had pre­vi­ous­ly thought advis­able. “Bands like the Beach Boys,” writes Aman­da Petru­sich at The New York­er, “often sang about surf­ing,” but the genre Dale invent­ed “was wet and gnarly and uncon­cerned with romance or sweet­ness.”

His style earned Dale the title of “King of the Surf Gui­tar,” also the title of his sec­ond album and a fact he liked to trum­pet as often as he could, along with claims that he was called the “Father of Heavy Met­al.” (Link Wray might like a word.) He was a tire­less pro­mot­er and per­former with­out whose influ­ence there may’ve been no End­less Sum­mer-scor­ing San­dals or Sur­faris’ “Wipe Out”—surf cul­ture essen­tials that trav­eled the world.

Surf rock became a niche sound, pop­u­lar with increas­ing­ly spe­cial­ized audi­ences, before Quentin Taran­ti­no made it cool again. Pulp Fic­tion’s use of the song was not an iron­ic detourne­ment, but a gen­uine reminder of how dan­ger­ous Dale sound­ed. He buz­z­sawed through the ear­ly-six­ties scene of skin­ny ties and big hair. The footage of him above play­ing “Misir­lou” with The Del Tones—all of whom wear ter­ri­fied smiles and iden­ti­cal suits, above—is strange­ly Lynchi­an.

Part of the incon­gruity comes from watch­ing square white Amer­i­cans bounce through a haunt­ing Egypt­ian folk song, while look­ing like they should be play­ing “Mr. Sand­man.” Dale made 50s pop seem child­ish, and sound-tracked the entry of mild­ly adult sit­u­a­tions in 60s surf movies. He deserved to have fared bet­ter from his influ­ence and fame.

Dale’s last cou­ple decades were spent like too many oth­er peo­ple in the U.S. He couldn’t stop tour­ing, he said, “because I will die. Phys­i­cal­ly and lit­er­al­ly, I will die.” After his first recov­ery from col­orec­tal can­cer in 1965, he con­tin­ued to bat­tle the dis­ease,” writes The Wash­ing­ton Post. “Up until the end of his life, Dale was explic­it that he toured to fund his treat­ment” after his can­cer returned. He couldn’t retire even when his career rebound­ed, twice after his ear­ly six­ties’ hey­day: first in 1987 when he record­ed “Pipeline” (fur­ther up) with Ste­vie Ray Vaugh­an and again after Pulp Fic­tion.

His fans con­tin­ued to sup­port him not because he was a hip nos­tal­gia act, but, he said, because he grew and branched out as a gui­tar play­er and he was hon­est about his dif­fi­cul­ties, and peo­ple con­nect­ed. He was an Amer­i­can orig­i­nal. The son of Lebanese immi­grants, he took the music of his par­ents’ home coun­try, blend­ed it with coun­try swing and blues, and played it dirty, wet, and as loud as it could go, some­thing no one had quite done before and thou­sands have done since.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Quentin Taran­ti­no Explains The Art of the Music in His Films

The Beach Par­ty Film: A Short Appre­ci­a­tion of One of the Odd­est Sub­gen­res in Film His­to­ry

A His­to­ry of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 100 Riffs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Thomas Burroughes says:

    I saw Dick Dale play live in Lon­don, in about 1995. He was bril­liant and loud as hell, and very nice to talk to. I lat­er bumped into him at a hotel in Gene­va while he was tour­ing, at the Mon­treaux Jazz fes­ti­val, I think.

    His music makes me smile and think of the beach, surf­ing, and the excit­ing, free-wheel­ing place that the US is in my mind and always will be.

    God bless his mem­o­ry.

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