THE MUSICAL ROOTS OF THE SURF SOUND
What is the Surf sound and where did it come from?
The Surf sound of the early 1960s was built on the interplay of different musical traditions that came together to form something new, something that in its heyday took the nation by storm. In the case of the Beach Boys' early music, a mix of popular forms resulted in a sound with both black and white roots. Bringing together the R&B-inflected guitar of Chuck Berry with vocal-group harmonies associated with white groups like the Four Freshman, the Beach Boys hit their teen audience very directly.
In this lesson students will investigate the different elements of the Beach Boys' Surf sound by visiting four listening stations and identifying some essential elements of their early music. These elements include rich vocal harmonies, a production aesthetic influenced by Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" recordings, Chuck Berry-inspired electric guitar riffs, and the liberal use of “reverb” effects facilitated by technical innovations to Fender amplifiers in the early 1960s.
Video pages: The Beach Boys - Fun, Fun, Fun (1964) | Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode (1965) | The Beach Boys - Surfin' USA (1963) | The Beach Boys - The Things We Did Last Summer (1963) | The Four Freshmen - Angel Eyes (1956) | The Ronettes - Be My Baby (1963) | The Beach Boys - Don't Worry Baby (1964) | Dick Dale - Miserlou (1962) | Chuck Berry - Sweet Little Sixteen (1958) | The Surfaris - Wipeout (1963)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
Display the poster from the 1963 Hollywood movie Beach Party. Ask students to imagine what kind of music they think they might hear if they saw this film. What kind of mood would it create? What words come to mind to describe it?
The Four Freshmen were a popular male vocal group founded in Indiana in 1948 that combined the sounds of Jazz with the styles of traditional “barbershop quartets.” As you listen to the two songs, think about the ways the groups use their voices to create a specific mood. In these songs, is every singer singing the same part? How do the combined voices create a single whole? Note that the Beach Boys’ performance came seven years after “Angel Eyes.” How do you think groups such as the Four Freshmen influenced the Beach Boys’ vocal style? Note also that “The Things We Did Last Summer” is a 1946 song that was recorded by numerous artists. Why do you think the Beach Boys chose to perform this song in 1963? What does it suggest about the influence of earlier musical styles on them as a group?
Listening Station 2: R&B Guitar
The first time you listen, listen only to the first 18 seconds of each song. What do you notice? Then go back and play the rest of each song. Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode" remains one of the classics of early Rock and Roll. Think about why the Beach Boys might have borrowed its opening guitar riff for their song. What does it add to the song? Do the Beach Boys successfully take this famous guitar riff and make it their own?
Listening Station 3: Wall of Sound
Pay particular attention to the opening seconds of each song as you listen. What about them is similar? The Ronettes' recording demonstrates a production technique called the “Wall of Sound,” pioneered in the early 1960s by record producer Phil Spector. It was a style that influenced Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Listen carefully and think about how that sound was created. What kind of effect does this technique accomplish? What kind of mood does it create?
Listening Station 4: Instrumental Reverb
In the early 1960s, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation introduced a new type of electric amplifier that could produce a reverberating sound, an echo-like effect popularly known as “reverb.” This effect was featured on many instrumental songs of the Surf era. What kind of mood does it create in the two songs here? (Note that "Miserlou" is a recording of a traditional Greek song that was written in the 1920s.)
1. Briefly discuss with students
2. Ask students to vote on which of the songs in this lesson best represents the Surf sound.
3. Display the image that was shown at the opening of the lesson, this time accompanied by the song the students selected.
What is the Surf sound? Write an encyclopedia-style entry explaining it, using examples from the songs and techniques studied in this lesson.
Play the first minute of the Chuck Berry song "Sweet Little Sixteen" (1958), followed by the first minute of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (1963). Note that musically, these songs are almost identical; Berry sued and was given a songwriting credit after "Surfin’ USA" was released. Discuss with students the similarities and differences between the songs, how the Beach Boys’ lyrics changes the meaning of the song, and who the different audiences might have been for each song.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
Theme 8: Science, Technology, and Society
Core Music Standard: Responding
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.