WAS ANY underground music more quickly and thoroughly mediated by outside forces than surf music? On the cusp of the ’60s, California’s coastal teen subculture was still a-borning when major movie and record companies swooped down to claim their percentage. Yet in spite of the gold rush, there were still enough obscure, self-taught SoCal rockers left to keep a wild strain of instrumental surf pop alive. Garage bands started trying to steal surf music back from the corporate philistines beginning with the manic protopunk performance of the Pyramids in the film Bikini Beach. But not until 30 years later, with the equally subversive deployment in Pulp Fiction of classic surf instrumentals like “Miserlou” and “Surf Rider,” could the surf-punk movement feel vindicated by mainstream recognition of what it was really trying to do.
In 1959, Hollywood adapted the novelized adventures of a girl surfer-wannabe named Kathy Kohner into a vehicle for Sandra Dee called Gidget. This movie and its sequels replaced the spooky Zen-hobo aura of the actual surf community with the clean-cut glow of a varsity letterman. Fusing the weedy, dissipated hipster with the sun-bronzed high school jock to make a new, improved heterosexual male was as tricky a maneuver as desexualizing intimate friendships between half-naked boys and girls. Nubile young white women were suddenly offered a role other than the standard ’50s menu of slut or saint The spunky female protagonists portrayed by Sandra Dee, Annette Funicello, Donna Loren, and athletic go-go dancer Candy Johnson weren’t “good girls” or “bad girls.” They were tomboys, really — smart, independent, unashamedly physical, and despite all their seaside semi-nudity, they were never judged or approached solely upon the basis of presumed sexual availability. Cowbunga!, Rhino’s four-CD grouping of tracks into protosurf (’60-’63), “mainstream” surf (’63), postpeak surf (’63-’67), and surf-revival material (’77-’95), makes a needed reassessment of surf movies, myths, and music both easier and more accurate. The first disc of danceable instrumentals running every conceivable variation on boogie-woogie bass lines, wailing saxophones, “Hanky Panky” chord changes, Bo Diddley shuffle, and Duane Eddy twang shows early surf music to have more in common with juke-joint r&b and Mexican mariachi ballads than the chirpy fratboy doo-wop of the Beach Boys. In actuality, the racial dynamics of surf music’s development were as intriguingly mongrelized as the music itself.
In ’63 and ’64, there were no fewer than 18 Hawaiian surf-pop combos of Asian and/or Polynesian extraction, including the all-girl guitar band Angie & the Originals, who did a fierce cover of “Surf Rider” by the Lively Ones. During those same years, Bo Diddley released Surfin’ With Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley’s Beach Party, albums he later disowned for making it seem like he was following a trend for which he (like Chuck Berry and Little Richard) was actually a progenitor. The considerable Hispanic influence on surf music was taken as much for granted as the Spanish names of Californian cities. Tunes like “Latin’ia” by the Sentinals, “Pintor” by the Pharos, and “Surfin’ at Mazatland” by the Centurians were products of a fluid multiculturalism never acknowledged by the mainstream. The Tornados and the Surfmen, though gringos, were originally called the Vaqueros and the Espressos, before professional marketeers moved in to codify what was just starting to come together as “The California Sound.”
Beyond the studio polish and manicured vocals of the most commercial surf singles lay a deeper commitment to innovation and individuality. A listen to the dreamily impressionistic drums and fret-work on “Paradise Cove” by the Surfmen shows how subtly expressive surf pop could be. Some musicians studiously worked to transmit a vivid synesthesia of sea, sun, and sand through their music, stumbling upon a surprisingly anthropomorphic variety of “soul.”
Dick Dale (Richard Monsour) was already a committed bandleader and instrumentalist when Hollywood discovered the surf movement he helped catalyze. Always experimenting with equipment to pump up his sound, Dale developed a relationship with audio engineer Leo Fender, who started customizing amps, guitars, and reverb boxes to Dale’s specifications. Not every track on Cowabunga! deploys the resultant Fender Reverb Unit, but those that do are redolent with the characteristic “wet” echo that put Fender equipment on the map for a whole generation of rock & rollers. Dale himself, turbo-boosted by the popularity of his contributions to Pulp Fiction, continues to tour and record material not much different from that included on his first indie album, Surfer’s Choice, in ’62.
The late ’70s saw the first stirrings of a surf-pop revival, as Dale’s DIY legacy began to attract the scrutiny of the punk movement. While surf’s impulsive optimism might at first seen at odds with punk’s angry disillusion, both aesthetics have emotional directness and purity of intent. Dale usually tried to capture the sustained adrenaline rush of surfing when he played, so it’s easy to see how “live-fast-die-young” speed freaks could embrace such music as their own.
“Surf-punk” bands retain the cerebral edge and no-nonsense attitude of punk but acquire a sense of humor and a life-affirming appreciation of hedonism from surf culture. In 1968, Corky Carroll was voted number-one surfer in the world by Surfer magazine. In 1978, he teamed with rocker Chris Darrow for a parody of the Tubes’ “White Punks On Dope” called “Tan Punks On Boards.” Not long thereafter, older bands like the Ventures, the Chantays, and the Surfaris regrouped for reunion shows — playing just for fun. Their fans — many of them still participants in a surprisingly tenacious surf culture that now includes skateboarders and snow-boarders — formed bands of their own, playing material influenced by hip-hop and reggae.
Tongue-in-check surf-punk experiments on Cowabunga! like “My Beach” by the Surf Punks (1979) and Man Or Astro-man?’s “Reverb 1000” (1993) prove that every old surf or punk cliché can be deconstructed in useful new ways. Although the first wave of surf music didn’t produce any lasting female stars, women are having fun with the surf revival. Italy’s girl trio the Ups recently hit these shores on a 7-inch vinyl compilation called Surf’s Up Two (Misty Lane). Singapore’s Force Vomit is led by a female drummer named Neng who sells their nine-song cassette of “surf classics” via ads in her own xeroxed fanzine. Lesbian satirist Phranc even turned her 1995 Kill Rock Stars EP into a mini surf tribute with the Beach Boys-esque “Surfer Dyke Pal” and the Sandal-esque “Goofyfoot.” Shown on the cover riding a longboard with her acoustic guitar slung around her neck, Phranc reclaims the beach for every little surfer girl who might want to learn a G-chord as well as hang 10.
Surf punk derives most of its energy and iconography from the Kennedy era, with its potent evocations of the Peace Corps, space races, and civil rights The music’s ambient frustration stems from the fact that all those sweet ideas turned sour. Man Or Astro-man?’s newest release, Experiment Zero (Touch & Go), blames most modern-day confusion on four decades of television programming. Skulking out of Athens, Georgia, this band pays sardonic homage to a generation bludgeoned brain-dead by a lifetime of commercials, soap operas, and sitcoms. No wonder their prettiest chords often decay into unexpected distortion. But as usual with surf music, the subversion here is sly and incremental. You can frug or pogo to their beat for hours before you twig to what they’re trying to say, because the only real lyrics are on “9 Volt” and a cover of David Byrne’s “Television Man.” Everywhere else on the record, music is merely interrupted by cryptic one-liners or sampled movie dialogue. In a way, Man Or Astro-man?, along with other politicized surf-punkers, are only using the conventions of surf music to underscore how far from the promise of Kennedy’s Camelot the world has drifted. That’s why Cowabunga!‘s juxtaposition of more traditional surf acts with their newfangled mutant brethren is so instructive — and exhilarating.
Published in: Village Voice, September 17, 1996