And Then There Was Surf Music!
In 1961 surfers went from being a handful of young wave-riding enthusiasts to a full-blown social movement with a look, an attitude, and a music of its own.
By Paul Johnson
In Southern California in the early ‘60s, some way-cool surfer/musician dudes thought it would be really boss to invent some sounds to go along with surfing; so they figured out how to do it, and then all the cool surfer kids had a big party on the beach that lasted for several years. The Beach Boys were there every day they weren’t busy recording more hits; so were Jan & Dean and the Surfaris. Frankie & Annette were there too—twisting on the sand as Dick Dale played on and on and on...
The bad news (for those who cherish the “California myth”) is that this ain’t the way it happened; but the good news is that the way it really happened was better. Much better!
As one who was there in the eye of the storm through the whole incredible experience, I get bugged with the pop-media’s cornball caricature of what was, in reality, one of America’s genuine regional folk-movements. Authentic surf music (to be described herein) was just as soulful and meaningful to those who were there as was Motown for Detroit or reggae for Jamaica. It was California’s own version of the larger rock-instrumental genre, which served as a vital musical link between the early rock ‘n’ roll heyday (Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry...) and the later one (Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones...) during a time that was otherwise pretty bland.
How It Really Began
As the ‘50s came to an end, there was no such thing as the “California surf culture” as we know it today. Southern California had no clue as to what was about to happen there. The beach was just a nice place to go for some sun and a swim; kids would rather be cruising the boulevards that stretched out in all directions over the L.A. basin. They hung out at the ice cream and root beer stands and danced at sock hops to doo-wop and rockabilly records; live music was a rarity. The reigning cultural hero was still that remnant of ‘50s coolness, the “ho-dad” (i.e., the Fonz on Happy Days).
Surfing was for the few rugged collegiate-types who were strong enough to haul the massive boards of that day down to the water. And as the beaches were then the turf of the beatniks, it also had a bohemian connotation; accordingly, modern jazz and bongo drums fit the surfing image of that day better than electric guitars.
But subtle changes were afoot that would soon alter the entire picture: lightweight foam surfboards were introduced, making the sport more accessible to the masses; the new transistor radio allowed kids to gather on the beaches rather than the boulevards without having to leave their beloved music behind; and the 1959 film Gidget portrayed the vagabond life of the surfer as the very sort of romantic fantasy a teenager would love to escape to.
By the summer of ‘61, evidence of a new trend abounded: legions of kids embraced the sport and all the new styles, mannerisms and slang that grew up around it. The new “surfers” had arrived!
And purely by coincidence (not by design), an unrelated trend that had been growing on a different front was fated to stumble into a chance alliance with the new surfers: a few young musicians in the area were busy emulating the sounds of their heroes, the rock-instrumental bands of the late ‘50s—Duane Eddy, Link Wray, the Fireballs, Johnny & the Hurricanes, etc.—and forming bands of their own based on these dynamic all-instrumental stylings.
The fateful moment was the fabulous summer of ‘61, when these trends emerged simultaneously onto the scene. It was then that my band, the Belairs, having just cut our record, “Mr. Moto,” set out to gain a following. We were just kids (not seasoned surfers) but we did hang out at L.A.’s South Bay beaches; it was only natural that as we began throwing dances that summer, it was the local surfers who comprised the bulk of our audience.
What followed was a bona fide cultural explosion; we threw five dances, and each successive one doubled in attendance, forcing us to rent larger and larger halls. Our first dance drew about 200, and our last one brought in over 1500 of the new surfers, who by then were identified by long sunbleached hair, brown bodies, “surf knots” on the knees and feet, and huarache sandals (which they used to stomp on the hardwood floor, thus creating the dance that became their tribal ritual).
Dick Dale & The Del Tones perform ‘Misirlou’ in the 1963 film A Swingin’ Affair. ‘…solid R&B-tinged tunes, mostly instrumentals, that stood by themselves without any self-conscious reference to surfing.’
Meanwhile, Dick Dale & the Deltones were holding similar court about 30 miles south of us at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa. Suddenly that summer the thing exploded all over Southern California; the surfers went from being a handful of young wave-riding enthusiasts to a full-blown social movement with a look, an attitude, and now a music of its own.
So who deserves the credit for “inventing” surf music? Obviously, it could not have occurred without the musicians; but the bulk of the credit should go to the surfers themselves. For contrary to the popular myth, no musician could have planned this; it was a classic accident of history—a chance alliance, due largely to the affection the surfers held for the music. A prominent local said to me at one of our first dances, “Wow, man—your music sounds just like it feels out on a wave! You oughta call it ‘surf’ music,’ man!” Another said, “You guys oughta make a record and call it the ‘Surfer Stomp!’” These comments went right by me, as I had never made any such association in my mind.
Nor had any other musician, to my knowledge. Upon making my own pilgrimage to see Dick Dale that summer, I was dazzled by his sheer power and virtuosity; but I recall no hint of pandering to the “surf” image—he just played tough, solid R&B-tinged tunes, mostly instrumentals, that stood by themselves without any self-conscious reference to surfing.
The Belairs, 1962: (from left) Chaz Stuart, Jim Roberts, Richard Delvy, Ed Betrand, Paul Johnson. ‘Wow, man—your music sounds just like it feels out on a wave! You oughta call it ‘surf’ music,’ man!
This uncontrived, serendipitous merging of trends testifies that surf music was one of those rare and marvelous phenomena that comes in like the wind and sweeps everyone along for the ride. It retained this air of carefree innocence and remained virtually free of pretense well into ‘62 (by which time Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” and our “Mr. Moto” had hit the local charts).
The bare beginnings of exploitation came in from the outside, when someone did make a record called “Surfer Stomp” (with studio musicians who had nothing to do with the movement). When the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’” hit the air waves in early ’62, it was met with puzzlement turning to scorn among the surfers, who perceived them as “gremmies” (pseudo-surfers) trying to exploit the trend. I recall some locals once threatening to go beat up the Beach Boys for candy coating (so they felt) the image of the sport.
This is not to disparage the Beach Boys, who themselves later acknowledged that they were not a “real” surf band. It should be noted that once they went on to sing about cars, cruising and girls—things more germane to who they actually were—they were warmly embraced by everyone (surfers included) because now their music came across as more authentic. This resulted in an even larger phenomenon that I call “California music” (to distinguish it from surf music) through which the Beach Boys realized a far greater popularity around the world than the instrumental bands ever dreamed of.
The commercialism reached a peak when the Beach Party movies came along; inured as they were by this time to such exploitation, the surfers would just go to the theater and howl with derisive laughter at the ridiculous caricature of themselves that they saw on the screen!
Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan tear up ‘Pipeline’ in the 1987 film Back To The Beach
Apart from and despite all of this, the surf instrumental sound evolved, taking on the unique qualities that distinguished it from the other instrumentals of that day. When Leo Fender introduced the reverb unit for guitars in 1962, many of these new bands quickly embraced the wet, hollow tone that quickly became synonymous with surf music. Again, a pure accident of timing figured into defining the genre’s identity.
With the Tornados’ “Bustin’ Surfboards,” bands began to acknowledge their adoption by the surf culture by using surf themes in their tunes. However, surf’s biggest hits, “Pipeline” and “Wipe Out” (both in ‘63), originally bore non-surf titles (”Pipeline” was originally titled “Magnum 45” and “Wipe Out” was called “Stiletto” before being transformed by surf-oriented titles), indicating that at first, bands weren’t actively pursuing a surf image. In fact, very few “surf” musicians surfed. They simply played along with the game, lending their music a larger identity and thus a greater perceived significance than it might have had otherwise.
Surf music continued to prevail, with reverberations felt around the world, until it was "wiped out" by the British Invasion of '64. The further details of this very colorful story are beyond the scope of this article; my mission here has been to focus on the true origins surf music, and point out that to fully appreciate what really happened during those dizzying days, one must look past the media hype. Something very real was going on around Southern California’s beaches in the early ‘60s—something that rallied the spirit of the youth and gave them an identity and a musical expression all their own.
Only in recent years has it become apparent (with the benefit of hindsight) just how significant and influential the events described herein would prove to be upon the musical attitude of subsequent generations. Surf-style instrumentals were nowhere to be heard—they were regarded as trite if they were regarded at all—during the tumult of the late ‘60s and all through the ‘70s—a decade given over to a ponderous, self-important musical attitude, at odds with the carefree simplicity of surf music.
But the post-punk “new wave” movement of the early ‘80s was in large part a return to those simpler musical values pioneered by the early surf bands. (Just listen to the Go-Gos, the Cars and the B-52s...) Correspondingly, a revival of interest in instrumental surf music began in earnest at around that same time. Ever since then, there has been a worldwide subculture of avid fans and myriad bands dedicated to those values, and to keeping surf music alive, growing, and relevant to a changing world. The current scene includes both “traditional” surf bands faithfully echoing the sound of the ‘60s heyday, and “progressive” bands taking the music into daring new directions.
And it all traces back to that fabulous summer of ’61...
A Google search will help you to flesh out the rest of the story. You may find my own website—http//pjmoto.com—to be useful in this regard. In closing, I can think of no better way to put all of this into proper context than to provide a link here to the preview ofPounding Surf—a video documentary about surf music that some friends and I recently put together. This clip is “the picture worth another thousand words” that I would otherwise have to resort to in summing up: http://pjmoto.com/flash/pounding_surf.html.
The Belairs, 1961, ‘Mr. Moto,’ by Paul Johnson (guitar). One of surf music’s early, defining hits, and an acknowledged classic of the genre.
About Paul Johnson
Far from being a relic, Paul Johnson remains quite active in a thriving surf music subculture as a member of The Surfaris (‘Wipe Out’), his own bands The Duo-tones and the Hepcats, and as a writer, whose surf music documentary Pounding Surf, is now available at Johnson’s website.