BACK IN the mid-'50s, back before surfing became a national fad, a few Californians pursued the obscure Hawaiian sport with the zeal of any small group onto a good thing. Boston's Dick Dale moved to Southern California as a high school senior in 1954, and he was soon in the water with his board every day at dawn.
"It's a wonderful, spiritual experience," the guitarist said before last Sunday's show in Baltimore, "to stand in the water at 5 a.m. and face the majesty of those waves. You paddle out to a 15-footer, stand up, and the wave comes over your head, going tiddle-tiddly-dee. Then you're sucked down in a roll in a big roar. When you witness the power of mother nature that way, it makes you humble." (Dale performs Sunday at the Birchmere.)
In his attempts to recreate those sounds of surfing on his electric guitar, Dale invented a whole new way of playing. To reproduce the "tiddle-tiddly-dee" of the ocean spray, he developed a staccato eighth-note picking style. To replicate the rumbling roar of the undertow, he played the fattest strings he could buy on the fullest-sounding amplifiers he could find. To mimic the rise, fall and forward momentum of the waves, he led his rhythm section through fast, rolling phrases.
His dad rented the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Calif., for weekly teen dances, and Dale unveiled his new guitar sound for his fellow beach bums. "We started with 17 surfers coming into the ballroom," he recalls, "and we built it up to 4,000 people a night. The city officials said the kids had to wear ties -- which was ridiculous, who ever heard of surfers in ties? -- but I bought a box of old ties and handed them out at the door. We had to put in 13 new fire exits. We blew up more than 48 amps. But we kept going."
They called him "the King of the Surf Guitar," and Dale was certainly the lord of the California beach-music scene. All the acts who came later -- the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Ventures, the Surfaris, the Chantays, the Fantastic Baggys, the Marketts -- got their first taste of surf music at Dick Dale dance parties. Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys remembers taking guitar lessons at age 14 expressly so he could learn the Dick Dale picking style.
It wasn't until 1961, six years after Dale started playing the Rendezvous Ballroom, that this new surf sound appeared on recordings. He released the instrumental "Let's Go Tripping" on his own Del-Tone label and sold enough copies in his Southern California stronghold to push the single onto the national charts.
Capitol Records signed Dale for a $50,000 advance, more money than RCA had paid for Elvis Presley, and released five albums by Dale between '61 and '64 (anthologized on 1989's "The King of the Surf Guitar" on Rhino). None of the songs ever became hits, though, and Dale claims none of the records ever captured his sound.
"I was never recorded properly," he insists. "I was always fighting with engineers who'd tell you how many years they'd been in school, how you couldn't do this and you couldn't do that. So I did what they said, and when I heard the records, I hated them and smashed them against the wall. At a certain point, I got fed up and said, 'If people are going to hear me, they're only going to hear the way I sound on stage.' So I quit recording."
Of course, it didn't help his career that he refused to leave home. In fact, when he comes to the Birchmere Sunday, it will be as part of his first tour outside California. Ever. "Before," he explains, "I was surfing every day from sun up to sun down. Plus I had my animals -- panthers, lions, ocelots -- to take care of."
He disappeared to Hawaii for a while. He learned to fly. He played on Keith Moon's solo album. He won a Grammy nomination for his duet with Stevie Ray Vaughan on the 1987 soundtrack for "Back to the Beach." He joined Brian Wilson and Joe Satriani for a cut on Paul Shaffer's 1989 album. Mostly, though, he played roadhouses, a Southern Californian version of our own Danny Gatton.
Finally Dale was coaxed up to Slim's nightclub in San Francisco, where he was surprised by cheering, sold-out crowds. The small Oakland label, Hightone Records, approached him about making another album. He decided to give it another shot, and he moved himself, his wife Jill and his infant son Jimmy into San Francisco's Brilliant Studios for two weeks.
"The producer, Scotty Matthews, asked Ry Cooder, 'If you were going to produce Dick Dale, how would you produce him?' " Dale recounts. "I had just played with Ry at the Guitar Player magazine 25th anniversary show, and Ry told Scotty, 'Don't infect Dick Dale's brain with what's going on today, because he doesn't care what's going on today. Just plug him in, let him play and don't let the needles go into the red.'
"That's what they did and that's why it worked. I finally found an engineer who didn't have an ego problem. He just said, 'Dick, it's going to be tough, but we won't leave here until we got it the way you want it.' That's what I wanted to hear. It was like going into the jungle and bringing back a big cat alive."
The resulting all-instrumental album, "Tribal Thunder," is the first recording to demonstrate why Dale is held in such awe by California guitarists. The tone is fat, the rhythm relentless and the licks amazing. Dale includes a medley tribute to his favorite '50s guitarist, Maryland's Link Wray, as well as remakes of his old surf hits "The Eliminator," "The Victor" and "Misirlou." He says new songs like "Esperanza" and "Speardance" were inspired by his anger over the destruction of rain forests and traditional villages, and his guitar seems to sizzle with the fires and violence he's describing.
"I'm not some great guitarist like the Satrianis and the Van Halens," he claims. "I never went to school and learned music theory. When I play, I go, 'This sounds like a tiger; this sounds like a volcano; this sounds like the lip of the water coming over my head when I'm surfing.' My bass player says, 'When I stand behind you, I don't just see your arms moving, I see your shoulders shuddering, your back straining.' That's because I put all my physical force into my playing. I take people for a ride on a non-chemical wave of sound."
DICK DALE -- Appearing at the Birchmere Sunday. Call 703/549-5919. To hear a Sound Bite from "Tribal Thunder," call 202/334-9000 and press 8121.