Summertime...the perfect season for listening to "Wipe Out" over and over, drumming along on whatever's handy: your car's dashboard, your thighs, with pencils on desktops, sticks on the side of an abandoned building (or your own house if you dare risk mom's wrath) or even - why not? - on a set of drums! During a devil-may-care phase of my life, having gotten pretty good at beating out the song's persistent rhythm on a pair of bongos, I appeared in public wearing a long blonde wig someone loaned me (so I'd look like a surfer-dude, I suppose), pounding away to a tape of The Surfaris' 1963 hit version (with the drumbeats edited out so I could show off my skills!), just one example, no doubt, of the many times this type of tomfoolery has been inflicted on unsuspecting bystanders. But the song has a certain allure..."Wipe Out" is one of those tunes nearly everyone knows, the kind that grant a rhythmically challenged person a flash of ability while turning others into madcap exhibitionists.
So it figures this famous piece of music would be more or less an accidental creation, thrown together lickety-split at a late-'62 recording session thanks to the long-established requirement that every single have two songs (an oxymoronism that has always fascinated me). Ron Wilson, the Surfaris' drummer and lead singer, had written "Surfer Joe," an anecdotal biography of your not-so-typical beach bum with '...a green surfboard and a woody to match,' a trophy winner at a Huntington Beach surfing competition and, ultimately, a Marine on KP duty. Once the finishing touches were put on this hoped-for hit, the group improvised an instrumental B side with simple guitar licks between a punched-up, repeating drum solo pattern Wilson had learned in his high school marching band. The famous intro to "Wipe Out," a delirious laugh (sometimes referred to as a "witch laugh") was supplied by the band's manager, Dale Smallen. The opening sound effect, made by breaking a dry cement-soaked board left over from a construction project, took on a unique crackling sound once reverb was added.
The Surfaris had gotten their start a short time earlier in Glendora, California when guitarists Jim Fuller and Bob Berryhill began jamming with bassist Pat Connolly. The lineup came together quickly in the latter months of 1962; the three friends met Wilson, then a bit later saxophonist Jim Pash joined. A few hundred copies of "Surfer Joe" and its hastily-conceived flip (the title hyphenated as "Wipe-Out") were pressed on the DFS label and offered for sale wherever the band performed. Then another label, Princess, released the single and the record began getting airplay on Los Angeles stations, but the instrumental flip was preferred by disc jockeys; an instant hit, it appeared on local charts in June '63 and by the time it reached number one in July, Dot Records had picked it up for national release (the label had been licensing L.A. surf singles, including The Rumblers' "Boss" and The Chantays' "Pipeline," for several months). Its rise on the national charts was nearly as impressive as in L.A.; "Wipe Out" hit number two in August and "Surfer Joe" got its due as well with a respectable late summer chart run, though it was edited from the original 3 minute 40 second length to 2:20, the version most radio listeners are familiar with.
Once the record had made its big splash, problems started to crop up. The Impacts, led by guitarist Merrell Fankhauser, claimed to be the originators, though the "Wipe Out" they recorded, released by Del Fi Records, is an entirely different song. A bigger threat came from a group in Fullerton called the Surfaris, which featured guitarist Larry Weed, who claimed they had been together a few years, though their first record ("Moment of Truth," on Northridge and, later, Reprise) had only recently appeared; there was also a single on Del Fi ("Bombora" backed with "Surfari"). After some initial pressure from this group, the Glendora band filed a suit and won exclusive use of the name. Weed's band went ahead and put out another record, on Felsted, as the Surfaris ("Psyche-Out"), then started calling themselves The Original Surfaris, a name that appeared on one single, "Gum Dipped Slicks," on their own Surfari label. Confusing? Wait, there's more. Safaris, the vocal quartet whose "Image of a Girl" had been a top ten hit in 1960, suddenly popped up on Valiant with "Kick Out," an imitiation of "Wipe Out" right down to the drum solo gimmick. Schemer Hal Zeiger, a record peddler holding the rights to the Safaris name, was behind the whole thing; the group's original singers most likely weren't a party to the hoax.
Decca Records signed the Surfaris to a long-term contract, steadily releasing singles and albums for the next few years. "Point Panic" came first, another "Wipe Out"-influenced instrumental, though heavier on Fuller's guitar and Pash's sax than Wilson's drumming; it spent a couple of months on the national charts that fall. Seasonal single "A Surfer's Christmas List" achieved a certain notoriety and the group supplied a vocal tune, "Boss Barracuda" (penned by Bobby Darin and Terry Melcher), for the soundtrack of the summer '64 film The Lively Set, a race car soirée starring James Darren amd Pamela Tiffin. One record followed another in the surf and drag vein, going well past the surf cycle as U.K. invasion sounds and U.S. folk rock began to dominate mid-'60s music. Connolly decided he'd had enough and quit; Ken Forssi signed on as his bass-playing replacement. The guys gradually became garage rockers with tracks like "Hey Joe Where Are You Going," a rugged rendition of "Hey Joe" that hit the streets in spring '66, just in time to be buried by The Leaves' hit version. Forssi was seduced by the harder rock of the era and left to join Love, getting in on the ground floor of the band's well-received debut on Elektra.
Dot Records, ignoring trends, rereleased "Surfer Joe" in '65 with a different flip side. A year later the label gave it another shot with the original coupling, pulling off a rare coup in the summer of '66 when "Wipe Out" hit big all over again, having a nice run in the top 20 during September and October. The Surfaris put together a rehashed version for Decca (skipping the spoken intro) but the revival of the original, firmly affixed in pop culture consciousness by that time, was too much to overcome. Decca dropped the group shortly afterwards and they called it a day...occasional reunion appearances notwithstanding.