The Story of “Wipe Out,” the Classic Surf Rock Instrumental

“Not all gen­res in music are self-explana­to­ry,” writes Mark Stock at The Man­u­al. “Just ask baroque pop or post met­al. With surf rock, how­ev­er, it’s pret­ty much as adver­tised.” This obser­va­tion gets at what makes surf rock so refresh­ing. Its “wavy gui­tar sounds” and rol­lick­ing beats are a musi­cal ono­matopoeia for the thrills of a sun-drenched sport. From its niche ori­gins, surf rock invad­ed garages around the world. It found its way into the Pix­ies and the B‑52s. Waves of indie surf bands con­tin­ue to wash ashore.

Surf rock meld­ed with hard­core punk, anoth­er genre that does what it says and has scored many a board sport. Where hard­core is aggro, surf is mel­low and joy­ous, even when it’s sin­is­ter and dan­ger­ous; hard­core thrives on bash­ing three-minute attacks, surf shows off its tech­ni­cal chops, even when it sticks to three chords, as in the Sur­faris’ clas­sic “Wipe Out.”

The song, a 12-bar blues dri­ven by Ron Wilson’s drum solo, pro­duced “the yard­stick for every aspir­ing young drum­mer in the ear­ly 60s” and beyond. At the time of its record­ing, Wil­son wasn’t even old enough to dri­ve.

Accord­ing to gui­tarist Bob Berry­hill, the Sur­faris formed in 1962 while the mem­bers of the band were still in high school. (Their sax play­er, Jim Pash, was 12 when he joined.) They played teen dances and tal­ent shows, and by Jan­u­ary the fol­low­ing year, they had an orig­i­nal, “Surfer Joe.” They had their par­ents dri­ve them to a stu­dio owned by a man named Dale Small­en.

We met at a place in the Cal­i­for­nia desert called Cuca­mon­ga, and record­ed Surfer Joe. In those days 45’s required a B side so Dale asked us to play anoth­er song. We had not writ­ten a song before Surfer Joe so I sug­gest­ed a drum solo type of song with sim­ple gui­tar breaks. Ron­nie start­ed play­ing the famous Wipe Out solo and in about 10 min­utes we had the song togeth­er. We need­ed a gim­mick intro­duc­tion so my Dad broke a plas­ter soaked board close to the mic and Dale Small­en let out a laugh and screamed wipe out. We gave Dale the mas­ter tape and he took it to Hol­ly­wood, and by July 1963 it was #2 on the Bill­board top 100. 

Before they knew it, the teenaged Sur­faris were tour­ing Japan, Aus­tralia, and the U.S. with Roy Orbi­son, The Beach Boys, the Right­eous Broth­ers, and The Ven­tures, a bril­liant instru­men­tal rock band who were one of the biggest things going in the ear­ly 1960s.

The Ven­tures took “Wipe Out” fur­ther into the reach­es of drum­ming leg­end in their cov­er (see drum­mer Mel Tay­lor attack­ing the skins like Gene Kru­pa in a live per­for­mance in Japan from 1965, above). Then, in 1966, the Sur­faris broke up. The Bea­t­les had wiped them off the charts, or as Berry­hill puts it, some­what bit­ter­ly, “The British Inva­sion changed music to focus more on the intro­spec­tive needs of the ‘Me Gen­er­a­tion.’” Surf lost its hip appeal, but it was not for­got­ten.

“In 1980,” Berry­hill says, “the punk/new wave move­ment revived ‘Wipe Out,’ which gave it a new audi­ence.” It popped up in com­mer­cials, The Fat Boys teamed up with The Beach Boys for a rap cov­er, even the Mup­pets had a ver­sion. Surf rock “became a sponge,” surf gui­tarist Jason Lough­lin says. “In the 80s through the 90s [it] soaked up influ­ences from punk music and alter­na­tive rock.” Bands like Man or Astro-Man? brought in peri­od sci-fi rev­er­ences; surf teamed up with rock­a­bil­ly, anoth­er genre that “had a short win­dow of pop­u­lar­i­ty and growth and then went under­ground” until the 80s.

But “Wipe Out” acquired a spe­cial sta­tus as a pure spec­i­men of surf. It remains one of the most pop­u­lar instru­men­tal songs of all time. And all because of an inven­tive 15-year-old drum­mer, his high school bud­dies, and their sup­port­ive par­ents. It may not be the most rock ’n’ roll of musi­cal his­to­ries, but it is the most surf rock of sto­ries. A tale of tal­ent, teenage enthu­si­asm, and the guile­less desire to make oth­er kids dance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Quentin Taran­ti­no Explains The Art of the Music in His Films

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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Comments (5)
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  • Jim says:

    Inter­est­ing sto­ry. I believe I read some­where (a long time ago) that Frank Zap­pa was there in the stu­dio when they record­ed it.

  • Surfer jon says:

    When i start­ed play­ing the drums, in 1966 you had to play wipe out. Or you were not any good. It was the must know tune. And a work out as fast as i played it.. keep surf­ing mates.

  • Jay Fuller says:

    No Frank wasn’t there but was an own­er of the record­ing com­pa­ny.

  • Big Bob says:

    It was still the go-to test of any aspir­ing high school drum­mer in the mid-90s! I got to play it once on the drum kit dur­ing a school con­cert, and it was the high­light of musi­cal career. :)

  • Johnny Intrieri says:

    I’m a drum­mer. But before l was able to buy a com­plete drum set one piece at a time! With my paper route mon­ey, l loved play­ing Wipe Out on a school desk. A emp­ty desk was the best. Mak­ing more of a hol­low sound. Boy. What I’d give to go back in time.

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