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The Origins of Surf Music — a first-hand account by Paul Johnson

Submitted by pjmoto on January 24, 2012.


Prior to 1961, Southern California kids didn’t hang out at the beach all that much; you’d be more likely to see them cruising in their cars, hanging out at the ice cream / root beer drive-ins, or dancing to 45 rpm records at sock hops. Live music was a rarity, and there was no such thing as “surf music.” In short: prior to 1961, there was no “California surf culture” as we know it today.

But the new trend was on the rise that year: with the advent of lightweight foam boards, surfing caught on big with the beach-area kids; by summer this had grown into a major cultural explosion — a mass youth-movement complete with it’s own styles, mannerisms and slang.

Going into that memorable summer of ‘61, I was 15 and a fledgling guitarist with a fledgling band (the Belairs) that emulated the sounds of the rock-instrumental heroes of the late ‘50s (Duane Eddy, Link Wray, The Fireballs, Johnny and the Hurricanes, the Ventures, etc.). When we heard that a lot of these new young “surfers” were driving thirty miles south to Balboa on the weekends to hear somebody named Dick Dale play similar stuff, we decided to throw our own dances locally. The result was like jumping onto a speeding train!

We had never given the slightest thought to calling ourselves a “surf” band. But at our first dance that summer, which drew about 200 beach-area kids, a prominent local surfer came up to me and said: “Wow, man — your music sounds just like it feels out on a wave! You oughta call it ‘surf music’!!” By summer’s end we were filling halls with 1500 fully “stoked” surfers who were doing just that: over the summer they had embraced our music (along with Dale’s) as their own, and now they were calling it “surf music!”

It was pure serendipity; no one could have planned or “invented” such a phenomenon; and as its effect was felt inland, further developments ensued which transformed the California youth scene for all time (and in turn affected the entire world)... Early the next near, guitarmaker Leo Fender began marketing the “Fender reverb” unit—a device that gave the guitar a wet, slippery tone; following Dick Dale’s lead, this sound was quickly adopted by growing numbers of new So Cal “surf” bands seeking to be a part of what Dick Dale and the Belairs had begun. By the summer of ‘62, multiplied thousands of kids were stomping to the sound of reverby instrumentals all over the area. “Surf music” was now in full flower!

Also in early ’62, just as the Belairs’ record, “Mr. Moto,” hit the local charts (along with Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’”), another record started getting airplay: “Surfin’” —a vocal tune by a group from Hawthorne (just east of the South Bay) called the Beach Boys. Here was a twist — a song (with actual words) touting the sport and the new phenomenon surrounding it!

Ironically, the local beach crowd (who insisted that “real” surf music must be instrumental) initially scorned this record. It wasn’t until the Beach Boys began singing about cars, “honeys” and cruisin’ the boulevards (subjects they could sing about with more personal authority) that they finally won everyone over and earned the local respect that their talent deserved. When Jan & Dean began cranking out similar hits, it became clear that this was a whole other phase: while instrumental bands like the Chantays (“Pipeline”), the Surfaris (“Wipeout”) and others continued to champion the authentic, original “surf” instro sound, the vocal groups captured the imagination of the whole world with what I prefer to call the “California sound” — songs interpreting the “So Cal experience” for mass consumption.

When Hollywood jumped in with the Frankie & Annette “Beach Party” movies, the local surfers, inured as they were by this time to such exploitation, would howl with derisive laughter at the cornball caricature of themselves that was being put up onto the screen. Yet this became the popular image of the surf culture (and its music) that remains to this day for many people all over the world.

To understand the truth about this phenomenon, one must leave this idea behind and take hold instead of the fact that true surf music (according to the surfers) was nothing more or less than kids in California playing in the instrumental style they had learned from their above-named heroes (with the Fender reverb giving their version of this music a distinguishing tonality); and the association of this sound with surfing was purely a chance phenomenon initiated by the surfers themselves, who happened to find something in the music that so resonated with their feelings about surfing that they laid claim to it and named it accordingly!

I will be the first to confess that I had no part in contriving to “invent” a music to go with the feeling of the ocean or of surfing or any such thing. Although I’m sure that growing up around the beach must have subconsciously affected the attitude of my playing in some characteristic way, the “surf” music I played was not inspired by the surf so much as it was by the guitar work of guys like Duane Eddy and George Tomsco of the Fireballs.

It is vital to understand that: a) just as reggae was for Jamaica and Cajun music was for Louisiana, instrumental surf music was the indigenous folk music of its day for the youth of California; and b) surf music is best understood as the west coast regional variation of the larger rock-instrumental form, which had enjoyed enormous acclaim nationwide all through the prior history of rock ‘n roll.

Category: Articles Story Permalink

This story has 6 comments.


Paul has also graciously responded to Ivan's "50th Anniversary of Surf Music" thread. You can read his post here.

Brian | 24-Jan-2012 19:59:54 | Flag

Thanks Paul,
and Welcome to SG101

bigtikidude | 24-Jan-2012 23:13:35 | Flag

Thanks a lot! Greetings from the west coast of France.

apolloben | 25-Jan-2012 01:55:04 | Flag

TFT Paul. Smile

tubeswell | 25-Jan-2012 22:16:18 | Flag

Interesting stuff! Who was the "prominent local surfer"?

WhorehayRFB | 26-Jan-2012 16:09:16 | Flag

What a useful and learned article - and there is no questioning the credentials of its author...

LosCalamares | 11-Feb-2012 03:59:48 | Flag

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