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Reveling in reverb: Concert celebrates rich history of Bay Area surf music

KFJC to host Sixty and Surfin' concert on Saturday, Oct. 26, at Foothill College

Ferenc Dobronyi, a key player in the Bay Area surf music scene, plays a Fender Stratocaster in his home studio in Corta Madera on Oct. 21. KFJC is hosting a surf music concert on Saturday, Oct. 26, at Foothill College. Photo by Magali Gauthier

Every Saturday night when the clock strikes 8 p.m., the Bay Area radio waves are drenched with a torrent of heavy reverberating guitars and powerful drum beats evocative of crashing waves, seaweed, sand and bubbling sea foam.

It's been a staple of local radio station KFJC's weekend programming for decades, broadcasting the mostly underground genre of surf music that has proliferated in the Bay Area. The region remains one of the pre-eminent places in the world to hear the classic twangy, echoing sounds reminiscent of beaches, bikinis and surfboards.

Celebrating that rich history, KFJC will be hosting a high-profile surf show Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Foothill College campus in Los Altos Hills, bringing together some of the biggest names in Bay Area surf and drawing fans from California and beyond.

"Like most people who like surf music, there's just something about it that grabs you," said DJ Cousin Mary, who has been curating and playing surf music for more than a decade for KFJC's "Reverb Hour." She said she remembers hearing it on the radio in the 1990s when her kids were in high school, not knowing that she would later end up becoming an international promotional resource for surf bands and fans.

By her tally, there are somewhere between 30 and 40 surf bands here in the Bay Area, making it a hotbed for the genre. But there are plenty more across the globe, she said.

"The thing a lot of people don't realize is how much new surf music is going on -- there are a lot of bands," she said. "We just got a compilation that has more than 60 bands from Brazil. I've gotten compilations from bands in Greece, there are bands in Eastern Europe, some in Japan, and it's constantly evolving."

One list compiled by the website Reverb Central lists 742 bands, active and inactive, including plenty from landlocked locales. The Trashmen, famous for the song Surfin' Bird, is from Minneapolis, while The Astronauts started in Boulder, Colorado.

What unites these disparate bands is that they're typically instrumental -- very little vocals, if any -- and the wave-like reverberation of the guitar. The style was popularized in the early 1960s by bands aptly called the "first wave" of surf music, particularly Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. Dale relied heavily on Fender amplification and a single-coil pickup to give him that unique sound, and would frequently blow up his amps and speakers trying to bring the volume up above boisterous crowds.

It was a case of Leo Fender trying to build equipment powerful enough that Dale wouldn't destroy it, said Bruce Brewington, a guitarist for The Reefriders currently living in Pacifica. What came of it, he said, is the discovery of that iconic reverb-laden sound.

"Dick wanted to play powerfully and he wanted to recreate the sound of surf, what he felt out surfing, and the power inherent in surfing," Brewington said. "He wanted to translate that into music."

Some of Dale's most well-known hits include "Miserlou," which Brewington described as a Lebanese folk song-turned surf music anthem. The song, along with many other surf tracks, surged in popularity after the release of "Pulp Fiction" in 1994, which played "Miserlou" at the beginning of the movie as Tim Roth's character decides to commit armed robbery in a diner.

Another early influence was the Surfaris, a Southern California band best known for hits including "Wipe Out." In a recent interview on KFJC, Surfaris guitarist Bob Berryhill said the breakout hit was actually completely improvised, done on the spot after the recording engineer -- who Berryhill described as an ex-Marine who looked like a leprechaun -- told the band of 15-year-old kids that they needed to figure out a B-side song on the spot. The song was essentially a drum solo with a marching band cadence.

The Bay Area surf scene bloomed in the years following the "second wave" starting in 1979 with early bands like the Mermen, based in Santa Cruz. Bands that followed include the Phantom Surfers, the Trashwomen, the Berzerkers, the Shockwaves and the Torpedos.

By the 1990s every club in San Francisco wanted to have a surf rock band play, said Dave Becker, a former Sunnyvale resident and member of the Tube Sharks and later the Aquamarines. He said it's a misconception that "Pulp Fiction" resuscitated the Bay Area's surf scene, which was already going strong by 1994.

"There were already surf rock bands in the San Francisco club scene that were starting to get traction in the underground while grunge was popular," he said.

Becker, who has since moved to Reno, concedes that the genre hasn't really been part of the mainstream and remains under the radar, but that the bands and the musicians are extraordinarily talented and do good work.

"It may not get recognized at the Grammys as important, but it damn well is," Becker said.

Largely credited for keeping the surf scene thriving in the Bay Area is Ferenc Dobronyi, who plays an integral role supporting and promoting surf shows and putting on major events like the International Surf Classic at The Ritz in San Jose. There, bands from all over the world -- including Spain, Argentina, Canada, Russia, Germany and Italy -- bring rarefied surf sounds to the South Bay that frequently diverge from the classics.

Events like Battle of the Surf Bands are more locally focused, bringing more than a dozen bands from the area all together under one roof for a fast-paced show that rapidly switches between acts, Dobronyi said. Past battles have been held at Menlo Park's British Banker's Club and more recently San Jose's Art Boutiki.

Back in the early 1990s when Dobronyi put together his first surf band, Pollo Del Mar, he said nobody was really putting in the effort to support surf shows and promote bands. Venues are only going to stay interested in hosting surf events if enough people show up, which is dependent on promotions online and through KFJC.

"You really gotta fill the club, otherwise they won't want to do it," he said.

Dobronyi said he got into surf music after deciding in 1989 that he didn't want to be in a band with a singer anymore -- a useful way of avoiding drama and relieving the worry of playing over the singer. He got into KFJC's surf show, then hosted by DJ Phil Dirt, building a relationship that started with trading tapes and eventually led to big surf shows hosted in lecture halls at Foothill College. KFJC's upcoming event on Oct. 26 is intended to be a throwback to those old shows.

Phil Dirt, now retired from the station and living a reclusive life in Felton, has legendary status for playing two solid hours of surf music at the station each week for more than 25 years. His website, Reverb Central, contains thousands of his album reviews, including song-by-song comments. Cousin Mary joined the station in 2007 and, after a two-year lapse, brought back the reliable reverb sounds the station is famous for.

Surf music has always been an underground genre, and probably always will be, Dobronyi said. The genre is instrumental in nature, which turns a lot of people off.

"I don't think it ever will appeal to a larger audience because it doesn't have vocals," he said. "People who like it will (often) like classical music and jazz or progressive rock."

Still, surf music seems to have lasting power. Bruce Brewington said he continues to perform with the Reefriders, and at a recent show got the nod from millennials reaffirming that their sound is cool.

"The melodies are great, it has such a great beat and you can certainly dance to it," he said. "Nobody doesn't like it once they hear it, but many don't know it exists."

KFJC's upcoming show, Sixty and Surfin', will be in Foothill's Appreciation Hall from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., with doors opening at 4:30 p.m. There's a recommended $20 donation to benefit KFJC at the door, and parking is $3. The show will include the Mermen, Pollo Del Mar, Insect Surfers, The Berzerkers and Glasgow Tiki Shakers. More information can be found on the KFJC website.

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