REINVENTION OF SURF MUSIC

End of the 20th century to now

Surf music no less died out by the late 1960s than it was “invented” in the early 1960s.  The conventional focus on this so-called “golden age” reflects the way in which surf music entered the mainstream at a particular historical moment—mirroring the growth and global gaze on a booming southern California in these years.  As the nation became increasingly divided over the war in Vietnam, student movements galvanized around independence movements, anti-war and, in the United States, challenged deeply rooted racial discrimination.  The popularized and saccharine version of “surf music” that topped the charts and sold “Beach Blanket Bingo” movies no longer spoke to a mainstream audience.  Unable to ignore these deep-seated tensions, the media gaze on predominantly white, middle-class care-free California youth gave way to a youth movement of a different type.  Yet, the instrumental rock sounds inspired by Dick Dale continued its evolution, for example, through Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.

To follow up on music and surfing today, there are two approaches that we recommend.  One way is to research contemporary bands that play updated versions of surf music as first named in the 1960s.  Musicians who play surf music today talk about various “waves” of the genre’s popularity, especially one encouraged by the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction that used Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and other surf rock hits.  Today there are more active surf music bands than in the early 1960s!  This includes the continued performances of a number of the original southern California surf music stars including Dick Dale, Paul John Johnson of the Bel-Aires, Gill Orr of the Chantays, and several versions of the band Surfaries with original members.  There are also many more-recently established surf music bands in California and around the world.  Notable examples include Blue Hawaii and June Suckerfish Spawn from Los Angeles; The Mermen, the Aqua Velvets, and Pollo del Mar all from the San Francisco area; Man or Astro-man from Alabama; Los Straightjackets from Nashville; and 9th Wave from Connecticut.  A few of the surprising number of surf-rock bands from other countries includes Laika and & Cosmonauts from Finland, the Bitch Boys form Slovenia, and the Psycho Surfers from Italy.  There are many, many other surf bands active today around the world (see surfmusic for links).  While some of these bands have members who surf, most of them do not. The name “surf music” has come to refer to a genre of music more than surfing itself.

The second approach to music and surfing today is to research what music different surfing communities and surfers themselves are creating and listening to.  Here we focus on notable surfers who also make music.  Jack Johnson is the best known, but there are other successful popular musicians who are also notable surfers.  From California this includes Donavon Frankenreiter, Tristan Prettyman, and the three-time surfing world champion Tom Curren, all of whom have released recordings.  Ten-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater, together with professional surfers Rob Machado and Peter King, recorded a CD Songs from the Pipe in 1998. As might be expected, many musicians in Hawai‘i are also surfers. In the 1990s surfers Ernie Cruz, Jr. and Troy Fernandez formed the band Ka‘au Crater Boys that recorded four CDs with several top hits in the Hawaiian popular charts, big-wave rider Titus Kinimaka released several commercial recordings, as has former pro-longboarder Kelli Heath.  Notable examples in Australia are longboard champion Beau Young, surf movie maker Andrew Kidman, and world champion female surfer Stephanie Gilmore.  In Europe there is Neil Halstead and Ben Howard, just to mention a few.  Another way to search for music linked to surfing is to pay attention to the soundtracks of surf movies and the bands hired to play at surfing contests and festivals.  The best way may be to ask people you know that surf what music they associate with surfing.

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