In August of 1964, the kids who worked as volunteer crossing guards for the Marquette Area Public Schools were rewarded with a trip to the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba. We were told to wear our iconic Safety Patrol belts to gain free entry to the fair, but it seemed unnecessary as we arrived all together in a school bus. Strolling the midway, some kids wore them like they did when on duty but most of us kept the belts rolled up and hanging from our regular belts. All during the previous year, the daily ritual was to tromp off to my duty station a block west of Whitman Elementary School (the corner of Waldo and Lincoln). We were instructed to take our job conducting students safely across Lincoln seriously, so we were all business. When the final bell rang on the playground, we were given an extra five minutes to get to class (a little late – and admittedly, we took full advantage of our little bit of comp time from the normal schedule). We learned to tuck and fold our SP belt as we headed back to school so it could be stashed in our desk until the end of the day. We would get released five minutes before the final bell to repeat our daily duties. Rain or shine, wind or snow, if we were in school, we were at our posts.
Two remarkable things took place on our reward trip to the State Fair. The first was me missing an opportunity to see a rising star perform on the grandstand stage. I saw his picture on the posters and heard some of his show filtering out to the noisy midway, but it would be several years before it hit me that seeing Roy Orbinson could have been my first famous live concert. I passed it up in order to make a couple of more rounds to my favorite rides. The second event was me being mesmerized by a song that had been a big hit on the radio. I can’t recall hearing Wipe Out by the Surfaris before the fair trip, but I heard it plenty that day on the midway. What burned it into my head? The way it was used on a ride (if my memory hasn’t failed me) called The Bubble Bouncer. The BB was a rotating platform with oval seats. At the center of each cup-like seat was a round handhold resembling a large valve like one would see on a pipeline or a compartment door on a submarine. The riders would hold on to this handle and use it to control whether or not the seat would spin as it rode around on the large circular platform to which it was attached. Every so often, the ride operator would stomp on a lever that caused the entire rotating platform to tilt up about thirty or forty degrees accompanied by the same kind of ‘whoosh’ one hears from air brakes on a large truck. It was loud, fast, and scary and as the Scrambler or Tilt-a-Whirl were my rides of choice, I was a little surprised that the music convinced me to ride the BB.
The ride operator must have liked Wipe Out a lot because this was the song he played most often when the ride was operating. It took awhile for me to realize that he was timing the sudden upward tilting of the ride to the accents in the song. When I finally mustered up the courage to get on the ride, I had already figured out when to expect the big ‘whoosh – tilt’ from watching the operator’s M.O. If he wasn’t getting a good enough reaction from these ‘surprise’ bounces, he would call out on a speaker, “Let me hear you scream!” before triggering the next one. This was still a good eighteen months before I would own a drum set and almost three years before I would actually learn to play Wipe Out. The melding of the music with the ride was the main story I repeated over and over whenever the topic of the State Fair came up. Bob Berryhill, a guitarist in The Surfaris, gave an interview to the Songwriters Hall of Fame Backstage series that reminded me about the fair trip. It turns out that Wipe Out wasn’t the song that they thought would be their claim to fame. In fact, when they made their first recording (Surfer Joe) in late 1962, they hadn’t even written a second song to put on the flip side of their first 45 rpm disk.
According to Berryhill, “The producer hit the ‘talkback’ button from the control room (and I learned what that was) and said, ‘Okay boys, now you need another song for the other side. You could put Surfer Joe on both sides or write another song.’ We didn’t have another song yet. [Drummer] Ronnie began playing the drum part [Berryhill pounds out the iconic drum fill on the table top in front of him] – he was a phenomenal cadence marching band drummer and could play anything”. The drum part sounded a lot like the drummer’s high school marching cadence sped up and may also have been influenced by Preston Epps’ 1959 release Bongo Rock. Berryhill continued: “We said, ‘Okay, cool, we have the drum break. We better put some guitar chords with that or it will end up a drum solo.’ I decided to use something in the key of ‘B’ because everything else we played was in ‘A’ or ‘E’ – I slid up to ‘B’ because I love big barr chords and started to play along with Ronnie. The bass player began to find a part and eventually Jim Fuller began playing the main riff off of that. We built it up from there. Finally, we got it all put together and it sounded pretty good. When we got it down, the engineer said, ‘Okay – what are you going to call it?”
Berryhill again: “Fuller had recently been to Tijuana where he had bought a switchblade. He comes up to the mic, flicked it open and says, ‘Switchblade’, but the engineer said the sound wasn’t very identifiable. My dad [Berryhill’s] went out to the alley behind the studio and brought back a piece of thin plywood. The bass player broke it over the mic and said, ‘Hey, that sounds just like a busted surfboard.’ The trouble is, there was already a song out there called Busting Surfboards so we couldn’t use that. It sounded like Goofy going over a waterfall and getting his board broken, so while we were trying to think, ‘What would make a board break like that?’ Dale Smallin, the band’s manager, came out of the control room. We walked up to the same mic and went, ‘Ha ha ha ha, Wipe Out’ and it went on the record just like that: the crashing sound, the laugh, and then into the drum intro. Two weeks later, we have a record. In January of 1963, we each had 25 copies and started to take them around because we wanted to be on radio. Nobody liked it.”
Finally, Berryhill got the record in the hands of a Hollywood record producer from Robinhood Records who did like it and put the song out on the Princess label. Singles of the day were always supposed to be between two and three minutes so the new label cut two verses of Surfer Joe and Wipe Out and released them both clocking in at two minutes and twenty seconds. The record got a little action, but nothing big happened. One day at lunch in North Hollywood, a waitress asked the producers what they did. They explained they were record producers. She said, “I have a friend named Johnny Hyde who is a DJ in Fresno. Do you have any good records I could send him?” They said, “Sure,” and handed her a copy of Surfer Joe/Wipe Out. Hyde would play new records at midnight in a ‘make it or break it’ segment and based on the response, put the ‘made it’ selections in his rotation. The first night, Wipe Out was rated the fifth best new song, the second night it was the third, and by the third night, it was number one on his show. Hyde in turn recommended the record to a representative of Dot Records who immediately signed it away from Princess. Berryhill said they had contracts in front of the band the next day with the band members earning $250 and their original label $750. Dot Records was great at promoting singles so they began pushing a wider release in March of 1963. By August, it was a big hit, but that was a full year before I heard it riding the Bubble Bouncer at the State Fair. Maybe the two minute and twenty second song was just the right length for the ride? In any event, the operator had probably been using the song for some time. It is also possible that it could have been the version The Ventures put out not long after The Surfaris’ Wipe Out first cracked the airwaves.
Once I started practicing on my own drum set in the spring of 1966, Wipe Out was already a golden oldie in the pop music world. I got my first dose of playing music with a live band at the Christmas Party my sister hosted in our basement near the end of 1966. A group of her friends played together and when they saw my drums in the corner of the basement, they dragged me downstairs to play with them (much to my sister’s annoyment. She was less annoyed when her party was deemed ‘cool’ because it had live music). I kept woodshedding on my own, playing along with records, but from that point on, there were no illusions about me being in a band. The live music bug took a big bite out of me that night. The only thing missing was the right opportunity.
Early in 1967, I got a call from a guitarist named Ron Phillips. My next door neighbor knew Ron and had taken me along to hear his band rehearse the summer before. Ron had remembered Harold introducing me as a new drummer, which is no doubt why he called. “Hey, our drummer just lost his drums and I was wondering, would you like to try out for our band?” When I said, “Sure”, Ron told me they would be over at 7 PM then next night to try me out. What he didn’t say was they were bringing all their gear and ‘try me out’ meant having me run through songs with them. At the appointed time, they carted their stuff into the basement, got things set up and off we went. I never did find out how the drummer ‘lost his drums’ but it made me nervous because a) they were all in high school versus me being in eighth grade and b) the old drummer was also their lead singer. For my audition, he was just singing and Ron said that if they found a drummer, the ‘lost his drums’ drummer would be playing organ as well.
Most of the stuff we ran through was Top Forty radio stuff I knew so the more we played, the better it felt. Out of the blue, Ron asked “Do you know Wipe Out?” I replied that it was a song I had never played. With the old drummer watching, Ron the guitar player sat down at my drums and showed me how to play the tom tom intro to the song. Once he was satisfied I could play the drum break, he said, “You start, when the guitar comes in, go to ride cymbal and snare, then when we come out of the verse, I will point at you to go back to the tom tom part.” We played it all the way through and when Ron said, “Alright, that was good!” it sounded like they were happy with what they heard. They departed with, “We will let you know,” but I never heard from them again. It was the first and last time I had to audition for a band but the lesson stuck: any time we auditioned a new band member, they got a call one way or the other instead of the silent treatment.
I always respected how Ron ran his bands and thoroughly enjoyed having The Twig (my high school band) play a double bill dance with Ron’s Sweat Equity several years later.
As the weeks ticked by, it became apparent they were not going to call so I replayed the audition over in my head. What kept jumping out at me was the question the rhythm guitarist asked as they were packing up: “Hey, I heard there is a state bull (State Trooper) that lives in this neighborhood. Do you know him?” I pointed my drumstick to the ceiling and said, “Yeah, he’s my dad.” I wondered if that had anything to do with it, but in the end, it was just as well because
I wasn’t ready to be rehearsing and gigging regularly. For Ron, it was his job and he worked his band hard. I got to know the drummer they did hire (Ted Thomas by name) and he was a much better fit with their group. When the next summer rolled around, I was getting a lot of practice in as a rehearsal drummer for my sister’s Christmas party group of friends. It was not in the cards for me to become a member of The Self Winding Grapefruit, either, but one of the moments that stood out for me occurred just before their drummer figured out that he was in danger of being replaced.
We were near the end of a two hour practice session when one of the Grapefruit guitar players asked if there were any songs I would like to play. For some reason, Wipe Out came out of my lips so he said, “Hit it.” We ran through it in one take and I was smiling ear to ear when we finished. “Hey, that was fun,” said the same guitar player, “We haven’t played that one in a long time.” They never asked why I suggested it and I never told them the story of learning the drum part from a guitar player. For them it was just an oldie they played once in a while.
I played with my high school and college bands (The Twig, Knockdown, and Sledgehammer, in that order), from 1969 through 1975. None of them had Wipe Out on the regular set list but I do remember playing it a couple of times with Knockdown at the NCO club at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base. When a non-com requests a song, it gets played and if the band doesn’t know it, then something similar gets the nod. At the time I joined Easy Money in Ontonagon (1976-1983), Wipe Out was covered regularly. In two of my other bands, drum solos were fit into The Twig’s mash up of Toad (Cream) and Born To Be Wild (Steppenwolf), and Knockdown’s Get Ready (Rare Earth). Because Easy Money did Wipe Out regularly, it ended up being the ‘drum solo’ song. I always managed to work in a few passages from Ron Bushy’s iconic Iron Butterfly solo from Inna Gadda Da Vidda no matter what the main tune was. Wipe Out was probably the easiest to play a solo in because the recognizable drum line was easy to get back into no matter where the rest of the solo went.
There is one thing that Wipe Out demands from a drummer. One does not stray too far from the original tom tom line without ruining the song’s feel. If soloing, all bets are off, but when it comes to playing something as well known as Wipe Out, one better not get too creative. It better start and end with the familiar tom tom beat, otherwise, it just isn’t Wipe Out.
I can not say whether the State Fair still used the song in 1965 or if they still had the Bubble Bouncer ride. Just after Christmas of my sixth grade year, I showed up for my first day back from break and found an older gentleman wearing a blue uniform at my usual corner. He wore what looked like a patrolman’s cap and had a small STOP sign on a stick in his hand. When he saw me coming, he answered my question before I could even ask it: “Hey kid, didn’t they tell you? The school hired some retirees to take over crossing guard duties.” Fired at age twelve! Nobody ever explained why we weren’t told about this new development. Worse, there was no reward trip to the fair in 1965. They could take away my job, but not my first encounter with Wipe Out.
Top Piece Video: Before Smoke on the Water, just about every cover band had to do Wipe Out. Here is a mash up of many years of The Surfaris playing their iconic tune.