I listened to a lot of frat rock relatively recently, so this post has been on my mind. The genre always makes me think of Animal House, which perhaps isn’t surprising, given that “Shout” plays a prominent role in the plot. It might surprise you that “Shout” counts as a frat rock song in the first place, but it does. The loose criteria seems to be simplistic lyrics that are easy to memorize, along with chords that are equally simple and easy to memorize. I did a history lesson on surf rock not too long ago, and this post could be considered a pair to it: surf rock’s twangy, vibrant guitar (think “Miserlou”) appears in frat rock as well.
The ur-example of frat rock is “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. It’s been the target of many urban legends about just what was in those lyrics. Regardless of the actual content, they were investigated by the FBI and banned from many radio stations as a result of those rumors. I like “Louie Louie” a lot. There are similarities between it and “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles, not least in the ragged, ill vocals of John Lennon.
The 1960s came and went, and frat rock eventually evolved, as genres do. It became punk: the guitar turned more raw, the lyrics even more abbreviated. As a genre, frat rock doesn’t really exist today, except in echoes within garage rock.
One of the hallmarks of summer for me is listening to surf rock. I wasn’t exposed much to the genre as a child, unless you count the Beach Boys. Full disclosure: although they are often classified that way, I don’t entirely think of the Beach Boys as surf rock because their sound tends to be softer and veer into the pop realm.
I want to dive into (heh) surf rock today with an abbreviated history lesson. It’s straight out of the culture of Southern California. That’s why you’ll often hear lyrics about surfing and sunny days, beach babes and boardwalks. Surf rock is also very heavy on the reverb. Think “Miserlou” by Dick Dale or “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris. That’s why, even though surf rock does still linger today, the genre feels very vintage to me. Reverb guitar was huge in the ’60s, which was when surf rock hit its peak.
Surf rock’s musical descendants include another California creation known as pop-punk. Like surf rock, pop-punk is enmeshed in a culture. This time, its origins overlap with California’s skateboarding scene. (More details about pop-punk and the wild vocals that live there can be found here.)
Grab your sunglasses and listen to some of my favorite surf rock songs below:
As a music fan and critic, I’m always interested in finding new songs and artists. That’s part of the joy of it for me. And, too, there’s a similar element of “knowing what you don’t know” by continually educating myself about music history and how it shapes our present. I don’t know if this will become as regular a series as, say, my Covers Corner or Throwback Thursday features, but I’m interested in sharing something recent I learned. This time it’s about a guitarist named Link Wray. Perhaps fitting for a post during Native American Heritage Month: Wray was of Shawnee descent. Representation is important in music; it’s unfortunate that this detail seems to be downplayed.
Link Wray is another example of someone who was incredibly formative for rock’n’roll, but whose recognition isn’t comparable to their influence. His guitar work set the stage for Jimmy Page and his ilk: titans of the genre who are known by chords alone. In Wray’s case, his most iconic chords are in the instrumental tune “Rumble.” Funnily enough, “Rumble” is the only instrumental song to be banned from radio. Why did the powers that be condemn this song if there weren’t any controversial lyrics involved? Well, they felt that the chord progression would encourage gang violence. To be sure, there is something kind of sinister in the song; “Rumble” is just slow enough to be unsettling and gives off Sharks and Jets vibes. Listening to it now, I picture myself in a diner somewhere while the greasers crowd into a booth next to the jukebox.