“Then you’ll never hear surf music again”- Jimi Hendrix. 1967
“Oh yeah ? Says who ? ” Me. 2011
No one knows quite when surfing was invented. At some point in the past someone on one of the Hawaiian islands looked out at the waves breaking 30ft tall over the shark infested waters, looked at a tree and thought “Hey ! I have an idea”*.
Cut to the early 60s and California was booming, the state was young, sunny and aspirational. Times were good and, for the young ( at least those from comfortable backgrounds) there was plenty of leisure time and the money to enjoy it to the full.
Surfing and beach culture fitted naturally in to this environment and , like so many “youth cults” , pretty soon the kids developed their own style of clothes, dancing and music ( in no small part helped by the Fender guitar company , also based in California, and their innovative guitars and amps).
It couldn’t last, of course, as the 60s progressed various black clouds loomed over America, the Cold War, The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Kennedy assassination, Vietman, drugs.
By 66 surf music was, more or less , dead in the water. A few die hards clung on but by the time I went to “big” school anyone professing ( as I did) a love of the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean would be mocked, scorned and poked with pointy sticks by the bigger boys.
I never lost my love of surf music though. The twang of the Jaguar or Strat, the tremulous tremelo the reverb..oh ! the reverb ( words never heard at surf music mixing session include “Hmmm. To much reverb I fear , Gervais”.)
And so, as the weather is sunny and I don’t have any money ( or honey) I thought I’d raid the old archive for a few surf beat classics.
I hope you enjoy them, dudes, the are boss to the max !
Let’s kick off , as one does when paddling out on one’s “board” with The Fantastic Baggies and the fairly self explanatory “Summer means fun”. A studio group hiding the identities of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, writer of many a 60s hit tune. Very much in the “two girls for every boy, no matter how ugly or malodorous” ballpark.
Next the Sunrays with “I live for the sun”. I first heard this on an album ( a rather poor one) by The Surf Punks , a late 70s surf-punk hybrid band. It has a fine , upbeat sound and rhymes “fun” with “sun” which is only right and proper and how things should be.
From there we lurch into the world of commerce with Jan and Dean’s Coke ( the drink) ad. First featured, in an edited form, on a Pebbles L.P in the 70s this is the full version. Many 60s bands cut adverts for Coca Cola, including the Troggs, Fontella Bass, the Supremes and Herman’s Hermits. Jan and Dean’s take, I think, is by far the best. Surfing and Coke go together like surfboards and wax. Made for each other.
“California Sun” is well known these days thanks, I suspect, to the Ramones. Back in 1965 the Rivieras, who had already had a hit with the song, decided to “update it” and the product is , I think, pretty wonderful, it stretches the song a bit and ,whilst staying pretty faithful, brings something new to the table.
Big guns next, in the form of Gary Usher and producer Brian Wilson with “Sacremento”. Perhaps not overtly “surf” this song most definitely draws on the influence of the genre. It’s a tale of settling down, of wanderlust sated of California dreaming becoming a reality.Lovely.
It had to end though. Summer turns to Autumn and Autumn to Winter , as is the way of the world, and, from the tail end of the surf era comes one of the best numbers of the whole genre.
Literature has it’s Shakespeare, Art it’s Leonardo and Surf Music has the Tradewinds and” New York’s a Lonely town”. Just listen to the words here. California has been left behind, the singers “Woody” is covered in snow, the fun and the sun are gone and what’s left is but a poignant reminder of better, warmer days. This is American Gothic music. At it’s best.
Back in California the mid 60s saw a change in mood, things became all the more introspective, the ocean ,which once represented fun now stood as a metaphor for something deeper, darker perhaps.An ever shifting, dangerous world of wetness. Where could it go , musically speaking ?
Why, to the sandbox in Brian Wilson’s living room. From which, his toes dabbling in the sand and cat poop he produced the sublime “Surf’s up”. Surf was, indeed, “up” but not in the way the surfer boys and “bunnies” imagined. They were out of date, washed up on a more unstable shore and musically as relevant as a caveman banging a rock on his head and humming “The me eat mammoth song”.
Still, every now and then a revival , of sorts, resurrects the ghosts of surf music past. Tarantino revived Dick Dale’s career with the use of Miserlou in his film and, over in Japan, some girls who called themselves That’s a no no ! picked up a copy of the old Lee Hazelwood song “Surfin’ Hootenany”, poured a few gallons of finest reverb over it and let loose with a wild, hypnotic version that has the whiff of authenticity about it.
And there we leave them, sand in their shoes, seaweed in their hair and dreams of a California that shone , however briefly, like a diamond on an Hawaiian black sand beach.
I hope you like them.
* They also invented and even more dangerous land based form in which they, basically, hurtled down sheer cliff sitting of bits of tree.