Surf Music and Dick Dale’s Misirlou

What’s amazing about sound is how incredibly fast it travels, approximately 768 miles per hour in dry air. It moves in invisible waves that become apparent as soon as they make contact with an open field, a hanging tuft of hair, or your delicate and precise personal eardrum. There was a time when it seemed almost as impossible to break the speed of sound as we believe it is to move faster than light. Now jets fly at two-to-three multiples of the sound barrier, casting off single or double sonic booms that make us crane our necks to the sky, so surprising that birds burst into the open air and fly home early for the winter—a boom that continues to make us marvel at our species’ ingenuity.

I experienced the breadth and universality of sound two weeks ago at The Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. Sound waves are no different than any other type of wave. If I clink my Heineken against Matt’s Pabst, the sonic waves will disperse in concentric spheres from the source of impact and continue until friction or the force of too many objects dissipates it to an infinitesimal trace of itself. That night the sonic wave from our brown glasses clanked against the hard body of a Fender Stratocaster in the hands of the man who brought the original Strat prominence, Dick Dale. Like most people, the sounds he emitted, or rather the sounds he coaxed from his instruments, traveled faster and farther than he ever could. They collided with other sounds and formed new types of music, just as the sonic tides of so many others reverberated and influenced Dale.

When waves collide they don’t impact and shatter like cars or bones. They move through each other and culminate into some sort of absolute value. If two waves move in the same direction, one larger than the other, by the time the faster wave catches up to the front-runner, the two will collide and form a larger wave. But if their frequencies are significantly different, the result is more like static: white noise. Dick Dale represents one of those moments when waves come together to form something more significant than was possible before the culmination. He is considered the man who invented the surf rock sound by attempting to recreate the rhythms he experienced while surfing in Orange County.

This isn’t a review or retrospective on Dick Dale. Its not an ode to surf rock. It is a consideration of the elements, or waves, that culminated in the mind of Dick Dale and his contemporaries in the early 1960’s—elements that to this day are inseparable from popular surf iconography. This is a jumping off point, the initial chord in a string of notes meant to examine what the sound of surf is and how it came to be. To start, here is a chronology of one of Dick Dale’s most famous songs, “Misirlou,” originally composed by Tito Demetriades in 1927.

The song is Greek in origin, but the title Misirlou means “Egyptian Girl,” which explains the more Arabic music style.

It wouldn’t be until later in the 1940’s that Misirlou would make it State side, but by the time it does orchestras in New York are ready to increase the tempo, jazz it up and make it their own. Some people opted to add in their own lyrics, but most renditions dropped the vocals completely, which is as important to bear in mind as is the ethnography of the song.

But around 1961 the song was popularized by Dick Dale in a version most people of my generation are familiar with not by association with Dick Dale, but by Quentin Tarantino.

Along with the adaptation of the song to suit a rock combo, Dale also included elements of Latin American Mariachi music by use of trumpets.

Misirlou encapsulates what Dick Dale determined to be the sound of surf. Perhaps. Maybe he never really found the sound, but the popularity of this particular sound became a permanent fixture of surf pop culture. There are three main sounds that culminate in Misirlou: The Arabic transient desert sound, the Latin American mariachi sound, and the sound of the rock guitar which was being invented as it was played by Dick Dale. His original contributions (the use of an electric instead of an acoustic bass, single instead of double-coil pick-ups, quasi-heavy metal tempo, screaming animalistic lyricism)along with the adaptation of classic elements acted like frequencies culminating into more potent waves.

Again, this is an introduction to this whole topic. It’s meant to do what seeing Dick dale perform did for me, which is mainly to explode a topic that you might not have given much consideration. These are thoughts on the association of sound and action; ruminations on how humans ascribe tones and meanings to actions. In the next few posts there will be a lot of ground to cover between Tito Demetriades and this:

but perhaps not as much as it seems…