Gary James' Interview With Bob Berryhill of
The Surfaris had only one hit record, but what a hit record it was!
"Wipeout", the 1963 instrumental Rock record with that classic drum solo, went all the way to the number two spot on the charts. That song was written and recorded by The Surfaris.
Original Surfaris guitarist Bob Berryhill talked with us about his group, the early '60s and how "Wipeout" came to be.
Q - Bob, I would say that instrumental music was probably more commonplace on the charts in the early '60s than it is today.
A - Right.
Q - Why do you suppose that is?
A - As a child of the '50s, I saw a lot of things kind of go in transition. In the late '40s, early '50s, Country music was called Western music. There were a lot of songs on the charts at the time that were instrumentals, Country & Western instrumentals, that were called Country & Western music at the time. There were also music sound track instrumentals at the time that were popular. When Elvis Presley and those kinds of people came on the scene, that was pretty much a radical change in style. The Teen Idol era started to happen. Prior to those things, people were really interested in theme music, music songs they remembered from going to movies. People like Duane Eddy was doing themes from movies. Sort of like the Star Wars themes. These kind of epic songs. Popular culture was very accepting of those kind of songs. Then, coming in '57, '58, you had songs like "Torquay" and The Ventures were coming out with songs like "Walk Don't Run" in '59. People were hearing music that had a bit more edge to it. It wasn't called Surf Music. It was basically Hard Rock from an instrumental point of view. You gotta remember, Leo Fender, the guy who invented the Fender guitar was building equipment for people to play that was better quality than we'd had in the past. In other words, in order to get a good quality guitar you had to get a Gibson and that was several hundred dollars, which was too expensive for the average young person to afford. But when Leo came out, you could get a Fender Telecaster in 1958 or '59 for about $150 and that was including an amp. You could really get good quality equipment and so that allowed us to sound better. Prior to that, you basically had very inferior instruments. When you'd play, you'd sound like a couple of sixth graders out there trying to pick out the lead of some Heavy Metal song. It just didn't sound good. (laughs) So, what we were able to do in junior high is go over to somebody's garage when we were 13, 14 and jam with a drummer and two guitars and not sound too bad because we had Fender amps and Fender guitars. When music became a little better quality and we could follow along with songs by The Ventures, we could imitate that a lot better. So, we started playing for local dances and the music got going. Sock hops was a thing we did after football and basketball games. But to actually go to someplace for teenagers to dance...there really wasn't much of that going on other than local teen centers. Dick Dale, who was given a Fender Reverb unit and a large amplifier by Leo Fender and given the opportunity to play the Stradocaster as well, just took the instrumental music to a different level. So, when you spent four hours in a place like Harmony Park (Los Angles) and were just blasted by loud, blaring guitars, teenagers loved that. When we went down to Harmony Park and listened when we were freshmen in high school, we went "Wow! This is awesome. We gotta do this." We came back and we got the reverbs and started really jamming and started playing dances ourselves. Kids loved the instrumental music. As far as on the charts, it was not really there yet because it was more local. Like most music crazes that start, it has to start locally and grow. If it's got any strength it will grow. If it's just a little flash, it goes away.
Q - Did The Surfaris used to play beach parties? How did that work? Were you on a platform? How did you get electricity to play your instruments on the beach?
A - (laughs) Basically, that concept came from The Beach Boys movies, Annette, Frankie Avalon and people playing on the beach. We didn't do that. There was no electricity on the beach available. It was mostly you brought a standard guitar down before the sun went down and you strummed a few tunes. But usually it got so cold at the beach we would go to somebody's house. And then you could bring your guitar, plug in and we'd play in a living room. But, it would be very casual. As far as The Surfaris, we never just showed up at the beach and said "Hey, we're gonna play for you." That never happened. There were things that happened, but not like that. If there was a house on the beach, you could plug in there on the patio. You could play out onto the beach, but we never went out onto the sand. The sand would get into your equipment and your guitars and there wasn't enough money around then to say "We'll just ruin this and go get something new." You didn't do that.
Q - Your music has been labeled Surf music. That almost seems too narrow. What would you prefer your music to be called?
A - The label Surf music kind of just came onto us because remember my idols were basically The Ventures and they weren't considered Surf music. They were just instrumental music. We call it instrumental for lack of a better word. I think we need to come up with a new word. Somebody said "Instro Surf" one time. To us, it's hard driving guitar music. It's guitar music without guitars getting in the way. If you want to come up with a term that means that, that's what it is to me. The term Surf obviously only applied out here in California and it just happened to be that we wrote the music at a time when California and surfing was a big deal. It was on people's minds 'cause surfing was what we did. We're surfers. That's who we are. That's what teenagers did. It was their most exciting activity at the time.
Q - You're telling me that all the guys in The Surfaris were surfers?
A - Yeah. Well, Pat Connally, the bass player and I were avid surfers. Ron Wilson (the drummer) would go to the beach and try to surf. Jim Fuller went a couple of times but wasn't interested. Jim Pash floated on one, one day. But basically Pat and I would surf.
Q - How long did it take to write "Wipe Out"?
A - Remember, we were fifteen years old. Three fifteen year olds and a seventeen year old. When Ron Wilson came to me and said he had a dream about a song called "Surfer Joe", that was the first time I ever heard about anybody writing a song that actually came to me and said I've written song. I'm fifteen years old. I can play guitar. I know how to read music. I can arrange. So, he starts singing it and we sat around and strummed a few chords and came up with a basic framework for his song. I helped him write a few more lyrics so he can get five more verses and make a song out of it. When we got all done, Dale Smallin says "OK guys, let's go record it." We said "What? How are we gonna do that?" "Well, I know this guy in Cucamonga." So, this guy named Paul Buff had a recording studio in Cucamonga, California. My mother ends up writing a check for $100 to give to Dale for the recording studio time plus one hundred 45s. One night in December, 1962 we drove to Cucamonga, my dad and my uncle Don drove his station wagon. I had my learner's permit, so I drove my '56 Ford pickup, which I was re-building from scratch. We loaded up our equipment and took it out there. We set up in this little studio and we record "Surfer Joe". When we finished "Surfer Joe", Dale Smallin gets on the talk back button in the little room and says "Boys, you need a second side for this 45. So, write a song now! (laughs) We'd only written one song for the studio. I mean, how many groups today would show up in a recording studio with one song? Can you think of that? (laughs) That's the concept. Here you are: four ignorant little boys who know nothing about the recording industry, nothing about recording other than a Wollensak tape recorder in your house and hadn't ever done that as a band. We'd never recorded anything. What happened was, Ron Wilson happened to be an excellent drummer. He was pretty much our musical inspiration person because he was what you would call the talent in the band. He was older and had the artistic capability to say "Alright. Let's do it." So, Ronnie just starts playing a drum solo, which turned out to be the "Wipe Out" drum solo. Well, Jim Fuller, myself and Pat Connolly go "We better put some chords and notes to this thing. Ronnie will make it a drum solo record if we don't play something. (laughs) So, I started putting the chord structure to it, kind of like a bongo rock thing. Hey, a drum solo with a guitar was not original. Gene Krupa had been doing it for years. So, I just started playing some chords and doing drum breaks with chording and Ronnie doing the solo and Jim Fuller and Pat were fooling around with some notes. We said "hey, that sounds good! Let's do that!" We put "Wipeout" together in about ten minutes. We had a song. We recorded it about three times and I think they took the second or third recording of it. Then, after we finished recording "Wipeout", we had to come up with a name. The story goes Fuller wanted to call it "Switch Blade". Well, that didn't have any interest. Well, what about "Wipeout"? Kind of like Goofy yelling a laugh and busting a surf board over the microphone. My dad went out in the alley and picked up an old cement soaked piece of plywood, came back in and we broke it over a microphone to sound like a busting surf board. Then Dick Smallin, who is our manager, happened to do voice over laughs and voices for documentary films, gave the laugh of Goofy going down the ski jump...the Walt Disney thing. He let out that laugh and it sounded great. They spliced it on the front of the tape, sent it out to record producers and they stamped it. About two weeks later we had "Wipeout" on DFS Records. (laughs) So, that's how it was. It was strictly spontaneous.
Q - What kind of promotion did "Wipeout" get?
A - Well, basically we gave the record to Dale Smallin and Dale asked "Boys, what do you want to do?" Jim Fuller and Pat Connolly said "Well, we'd like the records so we can sell them and get some money so we can buy some equipment." (laughs) Pat didn't have a bass guitar or an amp. Jim Fuller had a little Fender and a little ten inch Champ amp. I had a Fender Bandmaster amp and a Jazzmaster guitar. And, they wanted to sell their stuff to get equipment. I said I wanted a hit record. They said Ok, I'll take it to a distributor and we'll see if we can get somebody to buy it. Well, he took it to a guy in San Bernardino, a distributor company there. He said "I know another place in Los Angels that might pick it up as well." So we took it to a distributor in Los Angeles. That's where he met Richard Delvy. He's all of nineteen years old and working on a distributorship. He says "I like the record. Why don't we press this on Princess Records?", which was sort of a subsidiary of Dot Records. So they pressed it and did a little editing as well. The original song was a little too long. Richard took it out to do some promotion in San Bernardino to a radio station there. They played it about two o'clock in the morning. By the end of the day it was the most requested record, all by itself. Then they took it up to Fresno. In the L.A. market you can't break a record if you're an unknown band. You gotta go outside of the area to get it popular and then it comes to L.A. There's a lot of records that live and die in Fresno. So, this record went to Fresno and again they played it and people just fell in love with it. So, once that happened, Delvy took it to Dot Records and said "Why don't you press this on Dot Records? We think it's gonna be a million seller", and they did (press it). Randy Wood, the president of Dot Records at the time said "Yeah, let's do it." So, they produced it and sent it out worldwide. Remember, we started this in December, 1962. By July of 1963, the song was number two on the Billboard charts. Now, talk about a meteoric rise! Really, it was just the song. We didn't have to go around station to station. We didn't do it the hard way. We did it the skyrocket way.
Q - How do you explain the fact that the song took off when the Surf movement was primarily a California thing?
A - Surf music doesn't fit "Wipeout". It is an internationally accepted groove that has no surf connotations in Japan or Switzerland or Austria. It says The Surfaris wrote the song. The Surfaris are Fuller, Berry, Connolly and Wilson. We just used the name of The Surfaris because it's a great name and let's spell it with "surf". And we come to find out that somebody else had already done that. So, it wasn't that original, but heck, we did it. That's what you do when you're fifteen years old. You go with your emotions. "Wipeout" has a life of its own. People don't really care who did it. They just care that a song does for them what a song does.
Q - So, you're putting out a new CD, are you?
A - Well, basically what we're gonna do is "Wipeout" and "Surfer Joe", which will be a vocal and the rest are going to be an instrumental. I guess I would call it Guitar Rock. It's guitar for people who love guitar. It's driving guitar music. It's hard, impact sound pressure. This is new music. The only reason I'm putting "Wipeout" and "Surfer Joe" on it is because I have people who want to buy it when we do concerts. I can't get "Wipeout" and "Surfer Joe" any longer. MCA is not making any more of our CDs. They've taken it all back in and are re-packaging it. I need stuff to sell at my concerts. People just flat out want a copy of it and they can't get it. So, I'm making it so I can sell it at concerts and try to see if I can get distributed world wide. I'm doing sort of the lost Surfaris album. In other words, what would the "Wipeout" album have sounded like if we could've had eight additional tunes by The Surfaris? And so, I'm doing that. It's kind of like forty years in the making. If we would've done the album with our own songs rather than the songs that are on them, this is what we would've sounded like, with two guitars, bass and drums. It's just really good music.