Dick Dale, who has died aged 81, was the progenitor of what become known in the 1960s as “surf music”, a sub-genre of pop whose most famous exponents were the Beach Boys; he belatedly achieved wider recognition when Quentin Tarantino used his track Misirlou as the opening theme to one of the key films of the 1990s, Pulp Fiction.
Although mainstream success did not come to him until late in his career, it could be argued that Dale did more than many better-known guitarists to shape the direction of rock music. His influence lay not so much in what he liked to play, which never gained more than local popularity in his youth, as in the style of his attack.
Not to mention this aspect of his influence, excerpted from a recent post of mine:
Leo and Freddie clumsily made their way to the center of the room and focused on the stage, where their friend was leading his band. Dale was a marble statue, animated: a shovel-chinned superman wearing a madras blazer and a tie. A curl of greasy hair fell over his face while his dark eyes stared down at the veiny hands pummeling his Stratocaster. There were perhaps five more musicians up there, all dressed as immaculately, all swaying in unthinking unison to the beat, which was relentless. There was a drum kit alongside a Fender Precision Bass cranked up, and a trio of horns, but the star was Dale’s left-handed Stratocaster. It wasn’t playing just rhythm or lead, but somehow both. As the loose shuffle of the band swayed beneath him, Dale jackhammered electric notes out into the ballroom, as if trying to stab the sound of his guitar through the chests of his fans. His picks disintegrated on his thick guitar strings, and flurries of white plastic rained down on the checkerboard stage at his feet. Dale was punishing his guitar, pounding it, sawing it, threatening to tear it in half, and the resulting blare was like nothing Leo Fender or Freddie Tavares had heard. It wasn’t a sweet, clear melody. It was a jagged rhythm, a howl of steel, a squall of electric nails to which every single one of the three-thousand-something young people inside the Rendezvous Ballroom appeared desperately and completely in thrall.
Amid the din and the sweat, Leo turned to Freddie. “Now I know what Dick is trying to tell me,” he yelled. Some weeks later, Leo called Dale down to the factory. He’d ordered a new fifteen-inch speaker from the James B. Lansing company and installed it in its own cabinet. An amplifier he’d built for Dale was housed separately, to make the rig easier to move. During use, the amp box stacked on top of the speaker cabinet. Both pieces were wrapped in cream-colored vinyl.
“This is you,” Leo said to Dale. “You are the Showman. This is your amp.”
Another bit from the same post, telling the story of my own encounter with Dale:
As it happens, I have a Dick Dale story of my own for ya. Years ago, back in 96 or 98 or so, my band opened for Dale in Orlando, at the famous Sapphire Supper Club downtown. Our hotel, and Dick’s, was an easy stroll from the venue, so after our set was done we walked back to our rooms to imbibe a few cocktails and such in preparation for Dale’s headlining set. As I was walking back, I ran into Dick on his way to the venue, stopping him to thank him for having us on the bill and telling him I was a fan and really looked forward to hearing him play. He looked deep into my eyes, placed a hand firmly over my heart, and quietly said in a deep, serious voice: “It’s one thing to hear it. But you really gotta FEEL it.”
I was, I dunno, flabbergasted yet flattered to have been granted a moment of such serious attention from him. It felt like he was sharing something that was truly important to him, although I was admittedly a bit puzzled by it in the moment. Then we got back to the joint just as he was cranking up, and that shattering volume hammered at my chest like artillery. And then, right then, I knew just what he meant, I got it.
You gotta FEEL it, sure enough—and when Dale cranked up the volume to hang ten off that well-worn slab of lefty Strat, you definitely, definitely did.
As Dale knew, there’s a physical aspect to high-volume rock and roll that the thing lives or dies on. The pounding of the bass against your heart, the agonized wail of the guitar, the crash and bash of the drums: these things are the oxygen that makes the music breathe. Or…not. Granted, a bad band that tries to mask their lack of ability with sheer obnoxious volume is a painful thing to endure. Still, the fact remains: the only thing more frustrating than a bad band that’s too loud is a GOOD band that ain’t loud enough.
I’m still fielding texts from music-biz pals of mine passing the news along, and in every one of those texts one descriptor has come up: “total BADASS.” That, the late Richard A Monsour most certainly was. Rest in peace, Dick. Long may you wave.