The Lasting Allure of Surf Rock
Surfing, among other laid back recreational sports surging in popularity in the 1960's, including rock climbing and ultimate frisbee, has a unique culture surrounding it. From lounging at the beach and hitting on surfer babes to heading out and catching the waves, the lifestyle is dominated by waiting for the perfect time to make a move. Naturally, much of a surfer's time is spent waiting to catch a swell – usually relaxing and letting their rhythm mimic the mercurial forces of the ocean. But what permeates the void that is left when you are waiting for these forces beyond your control to cooperate?
Surf music arose in the early 1960's to compliment this aspect of the sport. The penetrating treble of the guitar and the dampening reverb remind one of the nature of the surf. The music itself becomes an emblem of the act of surfing – a sound you can lounge to; music that you can socialize to; a cadence that is light enough to carry your mind on a hot summer day but that can compliment the sadness that comes as the waves retreat into the cool night.
The form that came to dominate early surf rock has its roots in instrumental rock and roll – a burgeoning sub-genre pioneered by Link Wray, Dick Dale, and The Ventures. Taking a lot of the structure of contemporary rock music, these artists invented novel ways of picking on guitar and added different styles taken from Spanish and Middle Eastern music to create an entirely unique sound.
The native lands of these new groups were the sunny beachside towns of Orange County and other locations along the southern California coast. Most rose and fell in relative obscurity, playing small clubs in their locality or traveling around the area in search of big waves and bigger gigs. Some, however, took off as the laid-back culture and image of surfing took hold on the popular imagination. Groups like The Ventures and The Beach Boys – who both released albums in 1961 and later became household names. They later toured the country, serving as diplomatic liaisons of sorts from the paradisiac landscape of California to the real world.
Stylistically, the sound these groups created are like nothing the world had ever heard. The structure is essentially simple blues-rock progressions that were being played in more conventional rock groups, but little flairs of excess were thrown in here and there. One notable feature was that the guitar – and the now iconic image of a lead guitarist – took on a more prominent role in the overall structure of the band. These guitarists added a significant amount of reverb to their amplifiers and turned down the bass leaving a crisp, treble sound. Saxophones also became a recurring instrument where solos liter the soundscape and many songs become dominated by their thick and grungy sound.
"Comanche" by The Revels
Surf music also has a distinct Western feel to it. As the region grew in the popular imagination – through the explosion of the Western genre of movies and interest in the West as a source of counterculture – so did the desire for all things Western. Surfers were literally the new frontiersman, battling an inhospitable and untamed landscape that could claim their lives at any moment. They brought forth civilization and embodied the spirit of a nation longing for exploration: individuality, casual rebellion, and ultimate freedom.
The genre was further popularized after being featured in a series of significant films. Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, utilized a surf-inspired guitar riff in their theme, which has since become one of the most recognizable songs in the world.
In 1964, the surfing "documentary" The Endless Summer was released to significant fanfare. It featured a band of friends who travelled around the world in search for an endless summer: a quest for a beach with the “perfect wave” and where the sun was always shining. The soundtrack was written and performed by the Santa Barbara surf band The Sandals, and the tone of the movie is dominated by their nostalgic interpretation of surf rock.
The dramatic alterations to the good-natured pop rock and roll provided fodder for more expansive musical experimentation. Surf music, along with the growing popularity of the Beatles, helped spur the garage rock craze of the mid-60’s. Many prominent psychedelic groups from California – including The Doors, The Zombies, and The Byrds – were inspired by the cultural transformation that they saw around them. Without surf rock, the link between conventional rock and roll and the future genres of psychedelic, progressive, and heavy rock would have been severed – leaving no solid footing for many of the musicians that have come to dominate the popular conception of rock and roll.
Similarly, the vocal pop sound popularized by The Beach Boys later grew into what was known as the "California Sound". Light, airy songs such as "All Summer Long" inspired many groups to create their own spin offs – many of which grew into the Flower Power groups like Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and the Papas, The Sunshine Company, and The 5th Dimension, all native to California.
The unique sound coming out of California – principally the sunshine pop from the South and the psychedelic rock in San Francisco – came to dominate the culture of the 1960's. Surf music was an integral component to the rapid popularization of the genre, lending itself to become indicative of the national temperament at large.
One of the interesting facets of Surf music is that it was always resigned so a sort of independent or fringe success – unlike most music it is not necessarily ahistorical in terms of who is listening. Outside of the Beach Boys, most groups never received much national attention – the only other examples of mainstream success was Dick Dale and Link Wray, both of which were more national rock and roll musicians than purely surf artists. Because of this, Surf rock has had waves of independent revival and has had varying levels of interest throughout its history.
The clearest example of this is the rise in interest following Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Despite being set in Los Angeles in the 1990’s, the film utilizes many songs from Los Angeles over a disjointed period of time. The contemporary music was the West Coast hip-hop scene, but Tarantino used surf music and obscure rock to portray these seedy underworld figures as endemic to the city – figures that exist in space irrespective of time.
Surf music remains one of the few genres that have retained an intense relationship with history and setting; it never took on the same prominence that it did outside of southern California. Its cultural significance is akin to the ties of bluegrass and folk to Appalachia or country to the Midwest. Listening to it today provides incredible insight into the spirit of a certain time in a particular place and provides a unique glimpse into the early foundations of modern rock.
No other type of music can bring forth the same sense of nostalgia and dislodge a listener from the realities of the world in the same manner as surf. The genre invokes raw emotion such that one can throw on some tunes and completely understand the appeal of taking off from work, packing up their bags, and heading to the Golden Coast in search of that perfect wave.