Without Surf Music, Would There Be a Van Halen?

Would Van Halen exist as we know it – or even exist at all – without young Eddie and Alex first being influenced by Southern California surf rock? Two Van Halen authors share their thoughts on the subject…

Kevin Dodds, author of Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography:

The Van Halen legend regarding “Wipe Out” is well-known by most fans. Ed rode a newspaper route to pay for a set of drums. While Ed was out peddling his bicycle, Alex mastered “Wipe Out” on Ed’s drums, and, of course, Ed and Al famously switched instruments.

But why “Wipe Out?” The Van Halen family’s arrival in Pasadena, California in 1962 perfectly coincided with the rise of surf music, which had its hey-day from 1961 to 1964. The Beach Boys are often mistakenly considered a surf-music band, and with songs like “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and on and on, there’s no wonder why. But The Beach Boys were a pop band that wrote pop songs about surf culture.

Surf music was born out of the rise of Fender amplifiers, electric guitars, and electric basses that were built and assembled directly east of downtown Los Angeles in Corona. Fender was “instrumental” in creating the sounds that defined surf music: heavy amplifier reverb and tremolo bar tricks. More importantly, however, was that virtuosity was a staple of surf-music musicians, far more so than any rock and roll or R&B of the 1950s (save perhaps except for Les Paul and Scotty Moore). My own young son, not quite ten, described the surf music classics I introduced him to as “show-off music.” He said that because of the rapid-fire drum lines as found in “Wipe Out,” but also the fast, staccato guitar picking that may be the genre’s most defining element. The music was almost exclusively instrumental, so the players had to be strong. Additionally, surf music was predominantly in 4/4 time – a straight beat as opposed to a more traditional rhythm. Oddly, the music even incorporated elements of Latin and Middle Eastern scales and modes.

Pioneers of the genre include solo artists such as Link Wray, Duane Eddy, and Dick Dale, and bands like Jan and Dean, The Surfaris, The Ventures, The Bel-Airs, and The Chantays. “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris is arguably the most famous song of the era, followed closely by “Pipeline” by The Chantays and “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures. The music first found audiences in surf-heavy Orange County, but soon spread all over Los Angeles and, eventually, the nation. Jan and Dean even name-checked the Van Halens burb in the surf-pop classic “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”

The Van Halens arrived in Southern California in late 1962 almost in perfect sync with the explosion of surf music from the very place the art form emanated. Less than a year later, “Wipe Out” went to #2 on the record charts, and was obviously highly revered by both Edward and Alex. Ed himself was so intent on learning “Wipe Out” that it drove him to ask his parents Jan and Eugenia for a drum set. This set forth in motion what is likely the most famous lore in Van Halen history: The Great Instrument Switch.

But Alex’s guitar was a nylon-string Flamenco style instrument that Edward had no desire at all to play. (Interesting to note that to this day, Ed still has very little if any interest at all in acoustic guitars.) Jan and Eugenia swapped out the acoustic for an electric, even though Eddie still did not even have an amplifier at the time.

The very first song Edward learned to play on electric guitar was “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures. The song is one of the most distinct surf-music chord progressions of all time. However, Ed had only mastered the three-finger 5th chord at the time. In a 1998 Japanese television interview, Edward said, “[The] very first thing I learned—I played it for hours—and I didn’t have an amp—so I would put my guitar on the table—so it would be louder. So it would resonate on the table. So, the first thing I learned was . . . [Ed demonstrated the descending bar-chord sequence, E-D-C-B, for “Walk Don’t Run”] I would just play those four chords for hours. I never learned [demonstrated the very distinctive single-note riff part of the song]. I never learned that! Just—[plays E-D-C-B repeatedly again and laughs].”

Both of the songs that Edward and Alex learned on their respective instruments they would ultimately become well-known masters of were both instrumental surf music tunes. They were challenging and unique, and incredibly distinctive. Ed and Al did not cut their chops on simple 12-bar blues arrangements. They dove headlong into the considerably more challenging surf genre. Anyone to this day that can master “Wipe Out” is still considered a damn good drummer, and Dick Dale at 75 years of age still wows audiences with his hyper-fast staccato picking – something that Edward is also particularly well-known for.

By 1966, the onset of psychedelia and heavy-blues rock out of England had pushed surf music out to sea. If the Van Halens had moved to another country, or a different state, or even a different part of California, the time-space continuum essentially demands that the band Van Halen would likely never have existed or succeeded. Having landed at the epicenter of a new, virtuosic style of music influenced Edward and Alex to push themselves to play more challenging material than the standard pop fare of the pre-Beatles days. The California-based surf music of the early 1960s contributed greatly to the establishment of the world’s greatest rock band.

If only they had a tape recorder at the time to capture Alex on “Wipe Out” and Ed on “Walk Don’t Run,” what incredible archival treasures those would be. But they are left only to the imagination of Van Halen fans. There is no question that the songs from the surf music genre set the dominos in motion–dominos that have continued to pleasantly fall all the way through 2012.

From John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll:

Eddie’s route to the guitar began, as was the case with so many others of his generation, with the so called British Invasion bands of the early to mid-1960s: The Dave Clark Five, The Beatles and The Kinks. Later he became a fan of Southern California surf rock, particularly guitar instrumentals like ‘Pipeline’ by the Chantays, and ‘Wipe Out’ by the Surfaris. ‘Walk Don’t Run’, the Venture’s surf instrumental in 1963, was the first song he learned on guitar. The progressive opening chords of the guitar got under his skin so much that he would spend days on end – before he knew how to do anything else – playing the descending chord run. The influence of surf guitar and it’s continuous, often dramatic sounding lead lines on Eddie’s playing is not usually remarked upon, but is evident in a number of Van Halen songs that don’t conform to the blues derived structures of much rock guitar playing. The clearest example of this is perhaps ‘Loss of Control’ (1980) which – instrumentally, at least – might be the soundtrack to surfers breaking on the waves and crashing amid the spindrift. Other songs that, instrumentally, would fit within the surf rock genre include ‘Romeo Delight’ (1980) sinners Swing!’ (1981) and Top Jimmy (1983).