Wiping Out a Myth
The true story behind a surf classic

Just after Bob Berryhill married his wife, Gene, a repairman visited their house. Noticing a copy of the famous surf instrumental ``Wipe Out'' on the stereo, he said, ``I played rhythm guitar on that song, you know.''

``Really?'' Gene replied, both angry and amused. ``I thought that was my husband.''

The lying repairman hurried out, shamed. But that was only the first time the Berryhills encountered someone who falsely claimed ``Wipe Out'' as their own. In the 40 years since it was recorded by Bob Berryhill and his band mates, The Surfaris, a surreal assortment of people have tried to hijack its legacy. Everyone from the former chairman of Nevada's Republican Party to the splenetic talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. has bragged about composing the song. Every year, someone tells Berryhill about some guy in some bar who flattered himself with playing the rippling drum part.

Like valor in Vietnam or attendance at Woodstock, recording ``Wipe Out'' is one of those colorful falsehoods some slip into a reconstructed memory of the '60s. Everyone recognizes the song's twittering laughter and driving beat, but few can name the band that wrote it. Its ubiquity and anonymity makes it irresistible for those looking for a lively boast.

``All kinds of people, famous and not famous, have claimed that song,'' Berryhill says. ``It's taken on a life of its own.''

The truth behind ``Wipe Out'' is as strange as any lie.

In the winter of 1962, Berryhill was a 15-year-old in Glendora, playing in a surf band with guitarist Jim Fuller, bassist Pat Connolly and drummer Ron Wilson. Wilson had written a song called ``Surfer Joe,'' so Berryhill's mom paid for studio time in Cucamonga to record the track. Though the session went fine, the boys were chagrined to discover they needed a B-side for the single.

Wilson, 17, was the oldest and the principal songwriter. He started playing a riff inspired by a high school marching band cadence, the familiar rolling drum line that forms the backbone of ``Wipe Out.'' Fuller, Berryhill and Connolly hashed out the guitar parts in minutes.

The song was originally called ``Switch Blade,'' and Fuller tried flipping open a knife he bought in Tijuana as a sound effect. But the producer, Dale Smallen, preferred the less-provocative ``Wipe Out,'' and Berryhill's father found a piece of concrete- soaked wood to simulate the crack of a surfboard. Smallen provided the wild laugh and the two-word introduction. In three takes, The Surfaris had their B-side.

But the trouble started almost immediately. ``Wipe Out'' was sold by Smallen to two producers, one of whom, Richard Delvy, had a band called the Challengers. Delvy took the song and included it on a full-length album recorded by the Challengers but sold under the name The Surfaris. Through a series of questionable deals, meanwhile, the boys lost all their royalties, just as the song reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts.

Then came the lawsuits. The Surfaris joined Decca Records and sued everybody, eventually correcting the album credits and receiving a settlement for back sales. From then on, the royalties for ``Wipe Out'' would be divided among the four band members, Delvy and another producer, and, of course, 20 percent for the lawyers.

But for the average music fan, The Surfaris were a trivia question, a one-hit wonder (``Surfer Joe,'' the single, only hit No. 62). Adding to the confusion, another band called The Surfaris (renamed The Original Surfaris after court arbitration) added ``Wipe Out'' to its repertoire. Other groups, like the Ventures and the Beach Boys, also played ``Wipe Out'' in concert. The Surfaris were just high- school kids, and hardly anyone knew their faces or their names. Their song was just part of a scene.

``We didn't have publicity agents,'' Berryhill says. ``When that girl from No Doubt writes a song, you know when she wrote it and why she wrote it. In those days, nobody really cared.''

The surf music wave didn't last long for The Surfaris. The Beatles were invading, the draft was looming, and Berryhill had married. ``Wipe Out'' entered the Top 40 again in 1966, because states that had previously banned the song as ``too riotous'' started playing it. But by then, the band had wiped out.

''I lived the entire life of a professional musician when I was 16,'' Berryhill says.

And for the rest of his life, he lived with -- and, to a certain extent, off -- ''Wipe Out.'' Since its original release, the song has gone gold nine times and platinum a few more, as part of surf compilations and soundtracks, appearing in movies like ``Dirty Dancing'' and ``Meet the Parents.'' It was covered by the Fat Boys rap group. ``Wipe Out'' has sold everything from Stri-Dex acne medication to Wendy's hamburgers. During the Winter Olympics, the laugh was sampled in Visa commercials.

''A savings and loan in New England wanted to use it,'' Berryhill says. ``I couldn't understand why. To wipe out your savings?''

Despite past disputes with Delvy, Berryhill credits him with being the song's shrewdest advocate. The legal team vigorously defends the rights, making sure that every auto dealership and skate shop that tries to use ``Wipe Out'' in their advertisements pays for it. The song earns about $200,000 a year for its shareholders, according to lawyers.

But they still can't get everyone to know who wrote it.

Morton Downey Jr. claimed in speeches that he was ``involved'' in the production of ``Wipe Out,'' and it even slipped into the original draft of his Associated Press obituary last year. Others, like John Mason, former head of Nevada's Republican Party, played in Surfaris cover bands and mixed fact with fiction. When Mason was lobbying for an ambassadorship, he admitted to the Wall Street Journal that he was ``confused'' when he made the claims.

Berryhill usually lets it slide. But after hearing repeatedly about a guy in Dana Point who boasted he played drums on ``Wipe Out,'' the guitarist couldn't let it go. ``I called him up, and said, `will you please stop telling people that -- you were not there,' '' Berryhill says. The man quieted down, but he didn't admit the lie.

``Some people have just convinced themselves of it,'' Berryhill says.

Now 55, Berryhill lives in Laguna Beach and teaches automotive engineering at Fullerton College. He plays gigs occasionally as The Surfaris with his wife and their two sons, Deven and Joel. They perform tonight at the House of Blues in Downtown Disney.

Jim Fuller and Jim Pash, a saxophonist who was part of the band but didn't work on ``Wipe Out,'' also tour as The Surfaris, separate from Berryhill. Pat Connolly dropped out of touch and vanished. Ron Wilson died of a brain aneurysm in 1989.

``Wipe Out'' still closes Berry hill's concerts, and it is still practiced in his garage. Though he's played it thousands of times, he doesn't get sick of it.

``I couldn't put it away even if I wanted to,'' he says. ``It's a signature of my life. It's our family's heritage.''

So why are so many clamoring to co-opt Berryhill's heritage? After rehearsal one recent weekday evening, his family gathered to ponder that question.

``Two reasons,'' Deven says. ``It's a good song. It makes a lot of money. And it's easy to play. It's not easy to make it sound like it did, though.''

Joel steps in. ``Who knows The Surfaris?'' he says. ``Only aficionados know them. They were an unknown group, not on TV ...''

``We were this close to being on Ed Sullivan,'' Bob Berryhill interjects, holding his fingers a half-inch apart.

``No one is going to say that they wrote a Roy Orbison song,'' Joel says.

Gene thinks it over and adds, ``because we don't want to be in court day and night. Our publisher fights the big battles, but we don't go after every person who claims it. We don't want that to be our whole lives.''

Earlier that evening, the family gathered in Sound Matrix Studios in Fountain Valley, with Berryhill on his old 1961 Fender amp, running through a reverb-laden set of surf songs. Finally they got around to ``Wipe Out.''

A cassette tape held the original crack and cackle, then Joel started pounding away on the drums (``it was the punk music of its day,'' he says later). Berryhill picked up, on lead guitar this time, ripping through the song he's played for four decades -- the song that has shaped his life.

``If I had a nickel for every time I heard that,'' he says as the last notes fade away. Then, laughing, he adds, ``Wait! I do!''

And that is why the guys in bars can have their lies. As long as rock history books and the royalty checks get it right, Berryhill is content to hang loose.

``The Beach Boys play `Wipe Out,' and everyone thinks they wrote it. The Ventures play `Wipe Out,' and everyone thinks they wrote it.'' Berryhill pauses. ``Well, I'm the only one getting paid.''

By Stephen Lynch; Originally published, 2002, The Orange County Register