Surf music can be described in a number of ways. Although it is arguable, that surf music is more a sound that captivates a feeling associated with surfing. Whether it be the stoked, adrenaline pumping feeling of catching a good tube ride, the thrill or rush of risking life and limb or the chilled out feeling after a surf session. And it is the individuals' taste in music that decides what genre, artist, band or song is attached to each of these feelings. Although it is not hard to understand why the rock, punk and beach pop genres have been so heavily associated with surfing and surfers.
In the beginning, surf music was a deeply spiritual affair. It was Hawaiian tradition for 'Kahunas' (priests) to pray to the gods for a good swell, and to bless the surfers. Similar ritual chants were also used in the creation of surfboards when trees were cut down and shaped into the old 'Olo' and 'Alaia' boards of the time.
Surf music was and is a cultural phenomenon. Over the years the line between what is and isn't 'surf music' has become blurred, confused, debated, faded and almost extinct!
Although surf music has been around for many, many years, it first became popular and mainstream at the start of the 1960's. Musicians who did not necessarily surf themselves introduced it as a new genre of music. Many bands adopted this new style, and most sounded very similar, as is always the case when any musical genre goes mainstream (like Indie Pop in 2005/06!). Southern Californian surfers were quick to adopt the edgy guitar and thumping drum beat as their own.
Surf music back in the 1960's, could be described as being very instrumental… the combination of rockabilly, 1950's blues and the electric guitar. This new musical sound did not take long to be connected with going to the beach, surfing, girls and cars. It was white, danceable, and non-threatening. Themes of sex and social deviance were also prevalent, along with the beach and surf themes, adding to its popularity amongst a rebellious youth market. Kids all over America picked up on it very quickly despite the lack of beaches and surfboards in areas outside of California. It was a musical phenomenon!
Music is a massive medium, and very popular the world over. As surf music grew in popularity, as did surfing as a sport and as a lifestyle.
The first real surf band's to emerge were The Bel Airs, Del-Tones and Dick Dale, with famous songs like 'Let's Go Trippin' and 'Mr Moto'. Later bands like The Beach Boys, The Ventures, The Sandals and The Safari's made surf music popular, at least up till around 1963 when bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles took power of the charts! Although it was the catchy up-beat vibes of surf music that spawned or influenced some of the most famous artists and bands of our time, including The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Ramones, Sublime, Pearl Jam etc…
While in the beginning surf music was primarily instrumental, new surf bands tried to recreate the feel of surfing through the music. Singing about the surfing lifestyle of Southern California. Foremost of this group was the Beach Boys. Here's an example of the Beach Boys' lyrics:
I got up this morning, turned on the radio,
I was checkin' out the surfin' scene to see if I would go.
And when the DJ tells me that the surfin' is fine,
That's when I know my baby and I will have a good time.
I'm goin' surfin'…
Although the Beach Boys wrote lyrics so directly to do with surfing, they are not necessarily considered to fall under the genre of surf music, despite being so stereotypically associated. Their music in fact, bore little to no instrumental resemblance to traditional surf music. A more accurate pigeonholing would be 'beach music', 'surf pop', or surf inspired lyrical pop.
Another big name connected with surf music was of course Elvis Presley. Although his musical style was not surf music as such, his image at the time in Hawaii was linked in with the surf culture scene. Many of his fans in Hawaii would have been surfers. He first arrived in Hawaii in 1957. He appeared either in films or in concert over three decades - the fifties, sixties and seventies. Elvis's music, image and film's boosted the Hawaiian tourist trade, and young people's interest in surfing and particularly its culture all over the world.
Surf music was not merely a new musical genre; it had a strong influence on youth culture of the 60s! The lyrics and messages within the songs affected/influenced the attire, attitude and language of youth's in Southern California, eventually spreading all over the world. Surfers were adopting their own private language, a language of slang words. Surf music sold or spread this language to the impressionable youth of the 60s, through song lyrics, song or album titles, throughout their marketing, promotions, packaging (etc…) and the way they addressed fans at live performances.
One obvious name associated with contemporary surf music is Jack Johnson. And although in the surfing world, respect is key, surfers still generally love his music, despite his mainstream success. Jack Johnson is a great surfer and native Hawaiian who in many respects, is the embodiment of the aloha spirit, with his work for charity and his overall temperament. While his music does not speak of surfing lyrically, it is possibly more in tune with more traditional surf music with its melodic, raw, instrumental sound. And could also be argued that it captures that 'post-surf' chilled feeling that many surfers relate to. And his surfing and Hawaiian roots only strengthen this connection.
Going back to this 'feeling', that music can inspire or encapsulate. Music can act as a soundtrack to our lives. It is true, as we all know, that people associate or attach music with/to people, places, events and feelings… So why not surfing. Watch any surf movie, and listen to the music playing in the background… One good example that jumps to mind as I write this; is 'Alive by P.O.D.', from the movie Blue Crush of 2002, portraying the rush of a surf action scene. Other bands that I have heard associated with the feeling of surfing are Incubus or Metallica, or the more chilled vibes of Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley.
Many band members of recent times are themselves keen surfers, and many of these band members will tell you that their surfing and their music are in many different ways connected. For some it is about inspiration, where others recognise the connections between the two, from the soul factor of both to the movements, tempo, improvisation, challenge and expressive nature that both hold. To name but a few of these bands/artists… Incubus, Metallica, Jane's Addiction, Jack Johnson, Rob Machado, Timmy Curran, Tom Curren and even the great Kelly Slater.