Surfing, which became popular with Hawaiian nobility centuries ago, caught on as a popular recreational activity along the California coast during the post-World War II period. By the early 1960s, surfing had developed into a youth subculture. The surfing lifestyle was widely disseminated by publications such as John Severson's Surfer Magazine and series of excellent film documentaries produced by Bruce Brown, including Slippery When Wet (1959), Barefoot Adventure (1961), and Endless Summer, which documented the mythological worldwide search for the ultimate wave. This way of life was described by Rob Burt and Patsy North, in West Coast Story:
The surfer was not only different in the way he mastered his board at Malibu, but
in the way he dressed. He wore pendletons, white levis, baggies; his hair was sun-
bleached (or helped a little by peroxide), and he used slang surfing terms: "woodie"
described his souped-up old wooden-sided station wagon, which he used to haul
his boards; a "goofy foot" was a surfer who rode with his right foot forward on the
board. He would most likely have a "hobie" surf-board, built of Clark Foam, and
would use a special wax to prevent him from a having a "wipe-out." Schools were
divided into the "Surfers" and the "Ho-Dads," who kept up a friendly rivalry.
Although he failed to achieve national stardom, guitarist Dick Dale is generally credited with introducing surf music. Backed by the Del-Tones, he developed a strong following in the Southern California area as the "Pied Piper of Balboa," most notably via weekend dances at the Rendezvous Ballroom. The essentially instrumental sound--a visceral stew of wailing saxophones and atmospheric guitar accented by a pounding twelve-bar bass beat--attempted to evoke tremendous sense of power felt through bonding with the forces of nature while surfing.
The Beach Boys almost single-handedly made the surf sound a national sensation through the addition of evocative song lyrics. Brian Wilson's compositional gifts were so fertile that he was able to give a number one hit to the comedy rock duo, Jan and Dean, while keeping his own band supplied with a steady succession of Top Ten material. That gift, "Surf City," catapulted Jan and Dean past second echelon surf interpreters such as the Surfaris, the Chantays, the Astronauts, the Challengers, the El Caminos, the Fantastic Baggys (featuring P.F. Sloan and Steve Barrie, later to make a name in protest music), and the Marketts. Like the Beach Boys, however, Jan and Dean were savvy enough to avoid too close an identification with the surf sound, mining the car songs genre ("Drag City"), new fads such as skateboarding ("Sidewalk Surfin'"), and assorted novelty material ("Batman").
At its peak, between 1963 and 1965, surf music was as popular with eastern and midwestern youth as in its native Pacific Coast environment. Bands like the Minneapolis-based Trashmen, Chicago's Rivieras, and New York's Trade Winds all climbed the upper reaches of the singles charts with surf songs. In addition, Hollywood supplied a steady stream of beach movies, most notably American International Pictures. The studio's highly successful titles--including Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Bikini Beach, and Ski Party--helped expose many surf acts to a mainstream audience. Other popular surf films included Surf Party, Girls on the Beach, and Ride the Wild Surf.
Surf music gradually lost its momentum in the mid-1960s in the face of changing fashions. The pressing social imperatives of the period (e.g., civil rights, the Vietnam War) rendered the genre irrelevant. It retreated back to its former subculture status; however, a small core of cult bands (e.g., Man or Astro-Man, Agent Orange) continue to produce new music utilizing surf sound conventions into the new millenium.
Top Artists and Their Recordings
The Astronauts--"Baja (Ba-Ha)" (1963)
The Beach Boys--"Surfin'" (1962); "Surfin' Safari" (1962); "Surfin' U.S.A." (1963); "Surfer Girl" (1963); "Do It Again" (1968)
The Chantays--"Pipeline" (1963)
Dick Dale and His Del-Tones--"Let's Go Trippin' (1961/2); "The Scavenger (1963)
Jan and Dean--Jan and Jean Take Linda Surfin' (1963); "Surf City" (1963); "Honolulu Lulu" (1963); "Ride the Wild Surf" (1964)
The Marketts--"Surfer's Stomp" (1962); "Balboa Blue" (1962)
The Pyraminds--"Penetration" (1964)
The Rivieras--"California Sun" (1963/4)
The Sunrays--"I Live For the Sun" (1965)
The Surfaris--"Wipe Out"/"Surfer Joe" (1963); "Point Panic" (1963)
The Trade Winds--"New York's a Lonely Town" (1965)
The Trashmen--"Surfin' Bird" (1963/4)