SURFERS’ PERSPECTIVE

Doheny, 1950

Likewise, what came to be called “surf music” in the early 1960s represents certain aspects of Californian surfing, while hiding, or, at least, ignoring others. For this reason surf music was then, and remains today, controversial among surfers themselves. In 1961 when the term “surf music” was coined, California surfers who were adolescents and young adults still in high school were more likely to accept instrumental and vocal surf music as their own. For example, Paul Johnson of the 1960s instrumental rock band, The Bel-Airs, from Palos Verdes tells about a gig his band was playing at Redondo Beach when a “prominent local surfer” approached the band and said, “Wow man, your music sounds just like it feels out there on a wave. You oughta call it ‘surf music.’”[1] A surfer himself, Dick Dale deliberately tried to express the sensation of surfing with his guitar playing. On the one hand, at least for the first years of the 1960s, some musicians and surfers agreed that there was music intimately linked with surfing.

On the other hand, Mike Doyle, already an established surfer by 1961 when the first surf music hits were released, had a very different reaction. In his memoir, he vividly describes the first time he heard the Beach Boys’ song, “Surfin.’” He was driving north along the Pacific Coast Highway looking for surf when the song came on the car radio. He says his gut reaction was to pull over and vomit. He felt at the time that The Beach Boys were commercializing and popularizing the lifestyle he had sacrificed much to live. Now, decades later, he admits that they did capture much of the spirit of coastal California in the early 1960s. The music certainly sparked the imaginations of people across the country and around the world about California and a surfing lifestyle. For example, Rodger Mansfield, the author of The Surfing Tribe: A History of Surfing in Britain (2009, Newquay, UK: Ocra Publications Limited), recalls how he and his British surfing buddies were inspired by California surf music in the 1960s. They did their best to replicate that Southern California lifestyle in Southwestern England. Today, many people around the world still associate both songs about surfing (Beach Boys, Jan and Dean) and instrumental rock (Dick Dale, et al) with the sport and lifestyle of surfing. But among surfers, then as today, it is not that simple.

Just as surfing itself changed when it was revived in Californian waters, the creation of 1960s surf music represents a rupture between surfing culture in Hawai‘i and in California up to that point. Early surfers in California identified the sport and the lifestyle with Hawai‘i. The earliest music associated with surfers in California drew from Hawaiian sources: Hawaiian ‘ukuleles on the beach, often accompanying Hawaiian language songs and even hula dancing. As San Onofre surfing pioneer, E. J. Oshier put it: “Early on, the Hawaiian influence was dominant. Hawaii to us was like what heaven is for religious people. It’s as place where we all wanted to be, and we knew we’d get there sometime, but for 99 percent of us, we never made it there before the war. The next best thing was to sing about it. ‘Nofre was like a satellite out there trying to soak up all the Hawaiian culture we could.”[2] During World War II, many surfers found themselves in the military, some stationed in or passing through Hawai‘i as Oshier implied. As surfers regrouped after the war, the veterans brought new ideas and experiences from around the world back to California’s beaches. Combined with the increased accessibility and popularity of surfing that developed after the war, surfing started to be something increasingly identified with California as well as Hawai‘i.

May 1960 - Rick, Vicki Newton, Bill, Deni, Anton

Hawaiian music may have had special resonance among surfers, but it was also popular throughout mainland USA for most of the first half of the twentieth century. Music from the mainland had also been popular in Hawai‘i for some time, and certainly by the 1950s jazz and Hawaiian popular music were deeply entwined. The two-way influence between Hawai‘i and mainland USA is illustrated by the invention of the electric guitar. The first commercially produced electric guitar was the 1932 Ro-Pat-In Company (later renamed to Rickenbacker) A-22 “Frying Pan” model lap steel guitar designed for Hawaiian-styled playing. This guitar was created in Los Angeles, where many leading Hawaiian musicians lived and worked at the time, including the arguably best Hawaiian lap steel player ever, Sol Ho‘opi‘i, who was an early adaptor of the A-22. The Los Angeles Rickenbacker company also developed one of the first Spanish-style electric guitars, which came with the option of a vibrato bar (whammy bar) that could bend the pitch of the strings in a way that sounds similar to a steel guitar, thus producing a vibrato sound favored in Hawaiian music. Yet the primary motivation for the invention of the electric guitar was to make it louder so that it could be heard over the increasingly large and loud jazz ensembles. The electric guitar is another example of post-war technology that benefited the now closely linked developments of popular Hawaiian music and mainland jazz.

Though Dick Dale may be indebted to Hawaiian musicians for his electric guitar, his guitar playing influences came from a different direction: African American blues and 1950s rhythm and blues, the direct ancestors to rock ‘n’ roll. The same could be said of the Beach Boys. Though we might make tenuous links between their vocal harmonies and popular Hawaiian singing styles, their more direct influences were the jazz-influenced vocal quartet The Four Freshmen, doo woop, and rhythm and blues. Both groups’ connections to surfing were somewhat circumstantial. Dick Dale did surf, but the basic sound that he became famous for was already in place before anything was called “surf music.” Brian Wilson was not a surfer, but he composed “Surfin,” the band’s first recording and hit. Both the Beach Boys and Dick Dale were creating music in the Los Angeles area as surfing was growing rapidly in popularity and becoming a defining characteristic of post-war California youth culture. Seen more broadly, by 1961, surfboard technology, surfing films, and an increasing numbers of surfers in California were creating a shift in popular conceptions of surfing from Hawai‘i to California. It almost makes sense that a music would emerge to complement this conceptual shift.

[1] Transcribed from /Pounding Surf: A Drummer’s Guide to Surf Music/, DVD, Bob Coldwell, Tracy Longstreth, Dusty Watson, Paul Johnson, Matt Quilter. 2006. E.G.O. Productions.

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[2] Oshier, E. J. 2002. “The Bamboo Room Philharmonic: A History.” In The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952-2002, 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album. Pp. 204-211[?]. Published by the San Onofre Surfing Club. P.O. Box 324, San Clemente, CA 92674.

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