By Randal Hill
“Surf music is one of those things that makes people happy when they hear it,” declared Bob Berryhill, at age 75 the lone surviving member of the group responsible for the best-known surf instrumental in history.
Jim Fuller, Pat Connelly and Berryhill were three 15-year-old guitarists who attended Glendora High School, located in a middle-class suburb east of Los Angeles. Their drummer, Ron Wilson, was the “grand old man” of their band at the advanced age of 17. They called themselves the Surfaris.
Dale Smallin, Berryhill’s former scoutmaster, was a cartoon voice-over actor who also owned a photography studio in nearby Azusa. With no experience in band management, he took on the Surfaris’ affairs and lined up gigs for the guys.
One night, when Ron Wilson came to practice with his bandmates, he told the others about a dream he had about a surfer who joined the Marines. That dream had inspired Wilson to create an ingenious spoken-word story-song he called “Surfer Joe.”
Smallin felt “Surfer Joe” was good enough to record as a novelty single — something they could sell at their concerts — and scheduled a recording date. As none of the boys had a driver’s license, Berryhill’s father offered to drive the band members to the studio that day.
The soon-to-be-immortal session took place in nearby Cucamonga, at a cramped former shoe store now dubbed the PAL Recording Studios, which was owned and operated by Paul Buff, a self-taught electronics genius who had built the recording studio by himself.
After the Surfaris finished “Surfer Joe,” Buff announced, “Boys, you need a second side for your 45.” A second side? Uh-oh. They hadn’t thought about that.
Ron Wilson spontaneously began a furious drum riff called a paradiddle, a quick succession of drumbeats with alternating left- and right-hand strokes. Lead guitarist Fuller joined in with some basic rock guitar chords, with bassist Connelly and rhythm guitarist Berryhill soon adding to the effort. Within 10 minutes, “Wipeout” had been created.
For the third and final “take,” Berryhill’s father suggested adding the sound of a surfboard breaking as a novel way of announcing the introduction. In the alley behind the studio, Berryhill’s father found a sun-dried plywood board to break near the microphone.
Smallin, who had named the future classic instrumental, later recalled, “I came up with the idea for a laugh. That laugh was based on a witch’s cackle that I did for a cartoon voice-over for a series called Fractured Fairy Tales. … I pictured a little wannabe surfer sitting on the rocks, laughing at some surfer who’s wiped out.” (In surfing lingo, a “wipeout” means being thrown off one’s surfboard and has nothing to do with a board breaking.)
Issued on Dot Records, “Wipeout” — not “Surfer Joe” — raced to Number Two on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart by mid-summer 1963, the peak of surf music’s popularity. It has since been recorded over 700 times and is frequently used by rock drummers and guitarists as the first tune they learn to play.