Like many of my generation, I first got hip to “Miserlou” via Agent Orange’s punked-up cover of it on their iconic 1981 Orange County punk LP Living in Darkness. I bought the record to hear their classic “Bloodstains,” but the Dick Dale cover became my favorite track on the album. And, like every human who encounters Dale’s electrified interpretation of the Eastern Mediterranean folk melody for the first time, I had my mind blown when I heard the 1962 original
By the 1980s, Dick Dale remained cult-famous — not only for his stunning back catalog of instrumental classics and massive musical achievements, but also, a guitarist’s guitarist, he was also known for his influence on everything from punk to metal to, of course, surf music. In 1994, Quintin Tarantino’s focus on “Miserlou” in Pulp Fiction firmly established the king of the surf guitar in the popular consciousness and sent him trippin’ on an epic final chapter that brought him on the charts via Black Eyed Peas, in Guitar Hero and into infinite music venues and festivals worldwide.
Witnessing Dick Dale perform live was unlike going to see any other oldies artist. Nobody was at the gig for nostalgia. And while his audience obviously whooped and hollered upon hearing the maestro effortlessly drill his way through the opening bars of “Miserlou,” nobody was there for the hits. Year after year, generation after generation, crowds came to experience the tremolo troubadour’s big wet wave of volume and reverb and velocity. And if you looked around, the audience was also a far cry from what you’d get from any other 1960s act. In addition to the ubiquitous guitarists taking notes, punks, metal heads, garage rockers, and an odd assortment of all stripes joined together to be transported far from the dark familiarity of their urban nightclub, on a thrilling ride to the sunny Pacific.
Richard Anthony Monsour, hailing from a Lebanese/Polish parents, grew up in Boston playing not only piano and ukulele but also the tarabaki and the oud before he learned guitar. Many of the hallmarks of his style, all of which became standard in surf music, the alternate picking, relentless tremolo, and the eastern scales, can be traced to his early experiences with Middle Eastern music. His family moved to El Segundo in 1954 and the teenage guitarist learned to surf as the post-war surfing craze was slowly baking into a proper subculture under the warm California sun. Monsour started singing country music in bars and was christened “Dick Dale” by radio/TV host Texas Tiny. Within a few years Dale was mixing the folk melodies he grew up with, the instrumental rock’n’roll craze, and emerging surfing subculture aesthetics to father the surf music genre around the beaches of Orange County.
By 1961, he hit local critical mass, regularly selling out Newport Beach’s 3000-capacity Rendezvous Ballroom and releasing recods on his own Deltone imprint. The reverb and tremolo may have been deliberate aesthetic choices but the volume came from a practical concern. Leo Fender caught one of these stomps and along with Dale helped develop the now standard loud 100-watt amp to drown out the audience’s screaming. As Brian Eno famously said that every one of the 30,000 people who bought the first Velvet Underground LP started their own band, everyone who witnessed Dick Dale at the Rendezvous started their own band.
Surf music exploded out of Orange County and became a bona fide international pop phenomenon. Dale’s self-released “Lets Go Trippin’”/“Del-Tone Rock” scraped the national charts and his mostly live at the Rendezvous Surfers’ Choice LP is credited with establishing surf music outside of Southern California. After the success of “Miserlou” in 1962, he moved up to Capitol Records where he reached his zenith at the height of the national surf craze with timeless classics like “Night Rider,” “The Wedge” and his adrenalin-fueled take on “Hava Nagila.” These tracks, while retaining their Eastern folk elements, are the ideal soundtrack to the space age and still feel like the future.
Dick Dale’s 1960s sound showed the promise of what American music can be — a wildly individualistic modern art form developed organically through the intersection of subculture, technology, and a fusion of foreign and domestic musical elements. It was everything. And in more recent decades, a road warrior who lived and died on the road, chasing what Genghis Khan called “the eternal blue sky,” the sonic boom of Dick Dale’s musical landspeed record run still shakes the world. While we can no longer be overwhelmed by his guitar pyrotechnics and volume live and in person, generations will continue to marvel at the urgency, the explosive energy and the virtuosity of his timeless recordings.
Jonathan Toubin is a DJ based in New York City. With his event-production company New York Night Train, he travels the globe spinning rock and soul 45s for parties and private events.