Surf music, while not always about surfing, emerged out of the subculture created by surfers in Hawaii and California in the late 1940s and 1950s. Two distinct streams of surf music developed, one primarily instrumental, the other predominately vocal, each expressing a distinctive aspect of the surfer subculture. The sound was most prominent in the early and mid-1960s, when instrumental surf music was heard accompanying television shows such as Hawaii Five-O, and vocal surf music by The Beach Boys was topping the sales charts.
While surfing as a form of recreation and sport developed in the nineteenth century as a Polynesian pastime, it was not until the early twentieth century that surfing caught on outside of Hawaii. Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku (1912 and 1920 Olympics) toured the mainland U.S. in the wake of his Olympic triumphs and created interest in surfing through exhibitions on both the East and West coasts. Early in the twentieth century, surfboards were made usually of solid wood, but big-wave riders increasingly preferred hollow boards after Tom Blake introduced one in 1928. Still, the lightest boards made of plywood weighed around 50 pounds, with big-wave boards weighing more than twice that. Blake introduced other design modifications, such as the addition of a tail fin, which aided in maneuvering.
World War II stalled surfing's development for the duration, then it transformed the sport as technological developments in plastic foams and resin revolutionized surfboard construction. Bob Simmons, a hydrodynamics student from Santa Monica, California, sandwiched polystyrene between two pieces of wood, wrapped the entire board in fiberglass, and sealed it with resin. The result was a lightweight, durable board that was shaped easily and could be maneuvered well with minimum experience. Postwar prosperity led to the development of local surfing communities in southern California, Hawaii, and eastern Australia. For many of these surfers, dedication to the sport required them to maintain "open" work schedules that allowed them to hit the surf whenever it was good. This often meant many of them were unemployed or worked only during low periods in the surf. This preference for surf over employment, reinforced by the traditional Hawaiian ideas of leisure, community, and nature, went against the grain of mainstream American postwar thinking, in which conformity and economic success were paramount.
Creating a counterculture of sorts, surfers not only promoted their sport but a way of life as well. This surfer lifestyle included Hawaiian "palapas," or palm-frond huts appearing on California beaches, with after-surf barbeques and campouts serving to bind this community together. Surfer magazine appeared in 1960 to inform the surfing community of events, products, developments, and achievements. Surfing films portrayed spectacular rides from Hawaii and Australia to California and vice versa, but these documentaries, shot on 16mm film, received little attention outside of the surfing community. Bud Browne, the pioneer of the surf documentary, presented The Big Surf, Hawaiian Surfing Memories, and Trip to Makaha, all in the 1950s. This subculture was too small to have an impact on mainstream culture until writer Frederick Kohner penned a 1956 novel based on some of the exploits of his daughter Kathy on a Malibu beach where she "hung out" with several prominent surfers including Mickey Dora (one of the sport's first superstars), Billy Al Bengston (aka "Moondoggie"), and Terry "Tubesteak" Tracey. Tubesteak began calling Kathy a "girl-midget" since she was around five feet tall, and the name quickly transformed into "Gidget." The film Gidget, based on these stories, appeared in 1959, starring Sandra Dee and James Darren. Numerous sequels and knockoffs followed, such as Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Beach Party and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).
The sound tracks for these movies were composed primarily of pop music with lyrics pertaining to the beach, but a new sounding music also made an appearance in these films, surf music. Created by Dick Dale, "King of the Surf Guitar," surf music began as a musical attempt to recreate the sensation of riding a wave. Dale's combination of cascading licks, rapid playing, and a powerful bass line served as a perfect soundtrack for surf documentaries, and occasionally turned up in Hollywood beach movies, but like films based on surfing, the music also developed along two different lines. Surf music by instrumental groups like Dick Dale and the Deltones, The Ventures, The Chantays, and the Surfaris, found a devoted audience among surfers themselves, as did classic documentaries such as Bruce Brown's Endless Summer (1964). Meanwhile, beach music by vocal groups like Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys flooded the mainstream airwaves and, along with beach movies, represented the surfing subculture to most other Americans.
Instrumental surf music reached its widest audience with the Ventures' theme for the television series Hawaii Five-O. The group also had hits with "Walk, Don't Run" and "Perfida" (both 1960). The Surfaris (from inland Glendora, California) are best known for their 1962 song "Wipe Out," characterized by the hysterical laugh and high-pitched "wipe out" that opens the song. The Chantays reached number four on the sales charts with its classic "Pipeline," while Dick Dale and the Deltones continued their reign as the official cult band of the surf crowd with songs like "The Victor" (1964) and "Let's Go Trippin"' (1961). These instrumentals took elements of popular music and transformed them by emphasizing the bass line and using the guitar as a melodic instead of rhythmic instrument. A good example of this is found in The Ventures' "Walk, Don't Run." Written and originally recorded by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, who was inspired by a "walk, don't run" sign in a New York subway, the song was recorded by country guitarist Chet Atkins in 1957 as a lilting ballad. By adding a driving beat and bass line, The Ventures created a version that recalled elements of Atkins' guitar work plus jazz elements such as "bending" notes and a blue tonality, all with a rock and roll beat. The song peaked at number two on the sales chart in 1960, right behind another beach-inspired song, Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."
Despite the popularity of instrumental surf music, or perhaps because of it, vocal surf music became the more widely disseminated form of the genre. While the music had little to do with the blazing guitars and heavy bass of Dick Dale and The Ventures, the lyrics of vocal surf music sought to capture the feel of the surfer subculture. "Surfin"' (1962), the first hit by a teen group from Hawthorne, California, called The Beach Boys, describes the dedication of surfers to their sport: "Surfin' is the only life, the only way for me." Written by non-surfer Brian Wilson and based mainly on stories from Beach Boy members and surfers Mike Love and Dennis Wilson, the songs of the Beach Boys presented an American youth market with an image of sunshine, beautiful girls, and surfing that was wholesome and superficial. In songs like "Surfin Safari" (1962), "Surfin' USA" and "Surfer Girl" (1963), "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "I Get Around" (1964), "Help Me, Rhonda" and "California Girls" (1965), "Wouldn't it Be Nice" and "Good Vibrations" (1966), the leisure pursuits of young southern Californians became a national industry. Reinforced by other performers, such as Jan and Dean ("Surf City" 1963) and the beach movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, the surfer subculture became a marketing tool used to sell not only entertainment, but a whole range of products as well, such as clothing. Hang Ten, founded in 1961, produced clothing with its trademark symbol of two bare feet representing the act of hanging ones toes off the front end of a surfboard. Offshoot sports also developed, like skateboarding, originally called "sidewalk surfing," and, in the 1980s, sailboarding.
Instrumental surf music witnessed a resurgence in the 1990s with the release of compact disc compilations of surf music and its use in new films like Quentin Tarrantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) and Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer II (1994), a sequel to the 1964 original.
—Charles J. Shindo
Carroll, Nick, editor. The Next Wave: The World of Surfing. New York, Abbeville Press, 1991.
White, Timothy. The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience. New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1994.