Suburbs and soda shops, In the 1950’s the United States was moving to the easy beats of unheard rhythms, and new sound waves. While the nuclear family was enjoying tail winged cars and the 'ride' home every afternoon, the 'delinquent' surfer was subtly mounting up. As the surfer began to ride new waves, a raw sound of buttery Stratocasters and hollowed drums followed. Yes, the act of surfing itself alone retains compelling characteristics. Nonetheless, we cannot overlook the deep-seated relationship surfing shares with one of its illustrious partners in crime; music.
To best explore music and surfing's relationship, we will divide the work into two pieces. This article exploring the 'classic era'. The next article will explore where surfing and music is currently. With both articles your tribe here at Surf The Greats has also created a playlist to provide extra food for thought, and a more personable account of the music this article touches on. Who knows, this playlist may even provide some listening for the drives to the Fall waves which are surely on the horizon!
Check the Rhyme
One of the foremost, revealing features of surfing music in its early days was the spectrum of writing that seemed to inspire lyricism. On one end of the spectrum we have lyrics which are extremely vivid and poignant, akin to an almost scientific observation. An example of this vivid lyricism appears in G Wayne Thomas’ track Into the Blue. The track which appeared in the australian classic 'Crystal Voyager' unabashedly paints hypnotic images. Thomas achieves this realist approach by using lyrics like 'The shape of the waves, divides into shades... colours serene.' Thomas doesn’t refrain from trying to explain in vivid detail what the eyes of a surfer sees, and feels. Nonetheless, as Dave Rastovich says; 'describing surfing to someone who hasn’t surfed before is like trying to describe colour to a blind man.' In this case, the other end of the spectrum shines a light on the ambiguous by embracing it, and regurgitating it with unadulterated style.
Recently my new found pursuit of learning guitar has made me come to praise Jimi Hendrix for an unquantifiable amount of reasons. While I came to know him for a specific wammy based sound I was also not surprised to find Hendrix did dabble in all kinds of music. I hope to one day hear the rumoured recordings between Hendrix and Miles Davis. Nonetheless, even now I find out new things about his work, including his spellbinding work in the surf scene. In Hendrix's classic Voodoo Child he does not refrain from immersing his listeners in spellbinding settings which sit on the other end of the lyrical spectrum. With verses such as; 'I stand up next to a mountain, And I chop it down with the edge of my hand,' coupled with this song's appearance in the Australian classic Fluid Drive and, footage of Barry Kanaiupini literally surfing mountainous waves — killing his speed by stalling with his hand— Hendrix's already otherworldly wordplay takes on another dimension of meaning.
Bing Surfboards Strand Shop, Southern California 1959
Function and Form
The importance of film to surfing music begs us to consider the unabashed functional, and practical value early surf music retained. By and large as one of the booming hobbies of the 1950’s and 60's, the philosophy of materiality greatly influenced surfing’s popular sound. This material influence in my mind gave us infamous songs such as 'Wipeout' by the Surfaris. The tune is easily identifiable with a distinct raspy guitar and, rolling drum part structured around common time signatures, and upbeat tempos. All these features make the tune — just like the culture it was born in — easy to consume.
While the fantastic plastic scene dabbled in bubbly beats the surf scene also acted as a refuge for individuals who sat at the edge of society. Again, this dynamic births a spectrum; one end characterized by experimental music, on the other easy to consume, pop music. A glaring example of the other end of the spectrum heard in Santana’s 'Song of the Wind'. The tune — which also appears in fluid drive- thematically plays with a broad spectrum of styles. Rather than aggressive raspy guitar the listener is confronted with an elongated piece characterized by a sustained, and at times sharp attacks and licks. The drums themselves only add to the hypnosis of the piece experimenting with a Bossa Nova-ish rhythm. While both of these pieces are vastly different, they both played critical roles in surfing culture, giving sound to our image.
Malibu Surfrider Beach 1960
To wrap up, when exploring the idea of function and form, do not take my words as indicative of a final answer. Something I find intriguing is the position of the listener, or the consumer in the creation of music. These songs are not enshrined in stone, and their meaning will change as long as we wholeheartedly listen as we travel through new paradigms. The position of the listener is only given more weight when we start viewing ourselves as vessels that can change the music we consume. I think this dynamic is best illustrated by how the Momentum Generation — a group of young teens who changed the surfing world, comprising of names such as Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Shane Dorian — provided a platform for underground punk bands such as Pennywise and NOFX to grow.
In 'Fear Not Man', a piece by Yassin Bey says he explores the position of the individual in the creation of music. Bey says 'People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin' in the hillside, Comin' down to visit the towns people, [no] we are Hip-Hop.' Just as musicians carry the torch to create music, listeners must foster its flame. Hence, in the next article together we will explore where music and surfing is at now, and where it may be heading.
Words by Zane Elias. Leading photograph surfer Alex Boutillier, photographer Jackson Wit.