Surf Rock Innovator Dies at 81: "All Hail Dick Dale"

Dick Dale passed away on March 16, at 81.
Dick Dale passed away on March 16, at 81.
Jon Solomon
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Guitar wizard Dick Dale, the innovator of the reverb-heavy surf-rock sound, died on Saturday night, at 81. His fans, known as Dickheads, are in mourning, remembering an artist whose verbal antics were nearly as winding and frenzied as his playing.

In 2011, Tom Murphy wrote in Westword , "Dale, who invented surf rock, used to pay the Beach Boys fifty dollars to open for him in the early days. Dale's influence on rock and roll since the 1950s is immense, and he has shared the stage with legends while being a legend in his own right. He was a seminal influence on Jimi Hendrix, who immortalized Dale in song."

That same year, Jon Solomon reviewed Dale's show at the Gothic Theatre, writing: "At 74, Dale showed no signs of slowing down. Looking fit and healthy, the guitarist played the hell out of his gold sparkle Stratocaster, his left hand playing barrages of his trademark breakneck tremolo picking. Hell, the guy has been known to attack the strings so fast that he'll wear away nearly half of a pick, and pick dust will be all over the front his shirt by the end of the show."

Back in 1994, Michael Roberts wrote a profile of the guitarist, "All Hail Dick Dale," musing on Dale's loquaciousness and his impact on rock history.

We have republished that story in its entirety below:

All Hail Dick Dale

After asking guitarist Dick Dale a question, hold on. This rock-instrumental innovator, this creator of surf rock, this influential wild man beloved by players as disparate as the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore has a lot to say, and he says it fast and furiously. The effect is akin to standing on the deck of the Poseidon and being pummeled by a tidal wave.

"I do not play to musicians," says Dale, whose career is riding high again thanks to Tribal Thunder, the startlingly good HighTone Records album released last year. "I play to the people. I've never taken a lesson in my life, and I can play every instrument there is. I play by ear, but I can fool anybody into thinking I went to some conservatory of music. I create a nonchemical river of sound, and I never know what I'm playing next or how I'm going to play it. I just start ripping and take what I feel from the audience — and it comes. There's no bullshit. If you're not sweating, you're stealing people's money. That's why people feel what I do. In all these years, I've never had one person walk out of a show and say, `Dick Dale's a fake,' or, `He sucks.' One and one is two with Dick Dale. It's not three, like these politicians say. The kids who've been following me around on this tour call my music `Dick Rock,' and they call themselves `Dickheads.' And the reason they do that is because music is an attitude — and, man, my whole life has been an attitude, too."


According to the loquacious Mr. Dale, what's been written about him over the years has been largely inaccurate — "because a lot of historians weren't even born when this stuff was going on, or were wearing diapers." These ho-dads have mangled the record, Dale asserts — but he's more than happy to set things straight, in absolutely staggering detail. "If you ask me what time it is," he says, "I'm going to tell you how to build a clock."

The Dale legend began in 1954, when young Dick, a native of Quincy, Massachusetts, moved with his father to Southern California. By the following year, he was immersed in the surf culture — "I surfed from sunup to sundown," he recalls  — and had co-founded a motorcycle/car club known as the Sultans of Southwest L.A. Just as important, he was a budding musician who had the good fortune to meet Leo Fender, the famed guitar and amplifier designer Dale calls "a genius, like Einstein. He gave me this guitar, a Stratocaster, and said, 'Play it, beat the devil out of it, and then tell me what you think.'" Dale thought plenty of this particular Strat; he still plays it today.

When he wasn't hanging ten, Dale was hanging out at the Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor in Balboa. "This kid named Billy played the piano there," Dale notes. "His sister and his stepsister, these two long-legged beauties, wore these little leotards and did modern dancing while he played this Jerry Lee Lewis plinkety-plink-type thing that I really enjoyed." Soon, Dale had convinced Billy to let him sit in, and the rocking sounds they made began to attract crowds. The owner of the parlor was so impressed by the increase in business that he raised the group's nightly wage from $6 to $10. When Dale and company asked for $15, however, they were sacked.

Dale was not depressed by this turn of events. He and his father promptly contacted the owners of Balboa's Rendezvous Ballroom, a massive venue (capacity 4,000) that had sat unused, with the exception of high school graduation exercises and similar events, since a failed attempt to revive the big-band era. Although Dale says the city fathers regarded his style of playing as "evil — devil music," he was allowed to rent the ballroom as long as those attending wore ties. "They felt, `If they're dressed up, there won't be any trouble,'" Dale remembers, laughing. "So my dad and I bought a box of ties and handed them out at the door. The first night [May 31, 1958]. there were seventeen surfers with ties and bare feet."

From this humble beginning, Dale built a rabid following that filled the Rendezvous night after night to hear his unique guitar sound. "Hank Williams was one of my big influences, so what I was actually doing was playing country music," he claims. "But I was doing it with this ruck-a-tuck beat that I'd developed from listening to [big-band drummer] Gene Krupa. It was this rickety-dickety-dickety-dickety feeling and a bump-bump-bump-bump — that really heavy sound — with the Gene Krupa music-is-sex thing. It just got everybody dancing, doing the jitterbug and the lindy with their petticoats flying. They loved the rhythms that I was playing."

The surf sound Dale pioneered was vastly influential, but he wasn't able to translate it into the kind of fame the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and the Ventures achieved; his songs "Let's Go Trippin'" and "Miserlou" were popular in the early Sixties among surfing aficionados, but failed to hit the Billboard Top 40. To Dale, the reason is simple: "`Let's Go Trippin'' was so tinny that I smashed it against a wall in frustration when I heard it. Every time I tried to record, I'd get some engineer who'd say, 'I can't capture your guitar. It's too big, too heavy, it's bleeding into everything, we're going to have to pad it.' So they'd pad it and it would sound like shit, it was so tinny."

As a result of his frustration and a public fonder of his imitators than the real thing, Dale stopped making records in 1964. For the majority of the next quarter-century, he stayed away from studios; among the rare exceptions was "Pipeline," a duet with guitarist/fan Stevie Ray Vaughan that was nominated for a Grammy in 1988. When he finally agreed to make a new album for HighTone last year, he said he would do so only if the finished product captured the sound and the excitement of his on-stage work — and even he admits that Tribal Thunder (produced by Scott Matthews and featuring a band anchored by drummer Prairie Prince, formerly of the Tubes) surpassed all his expectations. The first track, "Nitro," is as explosive as its name, and his version of the Link Wray classic "Rumble" more than does justice to the tune. Even better, new Dale originals such as "The Long Ride" and the title cut update his approach without watering it down.

So adamant is Dale that people understand what was in his mind when penning Tribal Thunder's songs that he's been known to fax writer's notes on their meanings. In conversation, this background floods out in Dale stream-of-consciousness style: He goes from talking about the plight of the American Indian and air pollution to experimental use of underwater loudspeakers in the Pacific Ocean ("The fish'll go crazy — they'll smash into liners, they'll smash into ships"), food additives ("They're putting cement dust into cattle feed to make the cows heavier; the FDA knows all about it") and the case of Michael Fay, the young man sentenced in Singapore to four lashes for vandalizing a car ("Slick Willie calls up their government and says, 'Let this kid go; you're being a little bit too harsh.' But I say they should've whacked him on the face with a cane instead of his ass. That way, he'd never do it again"). Dale promises that his forthcoming album, tentatively titled Uncharted Territory, will sport instrumental approximations of insights like these — "and if the record company doesn't put my liner notes onto the record," he adds, "I'll just have to fax them to everybody again."

In the meantime, Dale is enjoying a surge of renewed popularity fueled by Tribal Thunder and a national tour (believe it or don't, it's actually the first of his career), and inspired, he says, by his second marriage, which recently produced his first child — two-year-old Jimmy, who can already play drum solos to his dad's scorching songs. "What I play now isn't surf music," he proclaims. "It's too powerful. I used to go through paper bags; now I go through brick walls. I play hard. People say, `Why do you have those expressions on your face when you play?' And I tell them: It's pain. I don't play on wussy strings — I play on sixty-gauge strings, and I break them. It's like playing on concrete, but that's what I do. Because I am Dick Dale."

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