How do you intonate the blue Pacific against the light? Which music describes a dynamic gliding through whitecaps? What does the feeling of riding the waves sound like? In the early 1960s, the scene on the South Californian West Coast dealt with such poetic questions.
Regional bands like the Surfaris, Surftones or Chantays translated beach life into sparkling instrumental songs, which in turn guitarist Dick Dale took to the extreme with his hopping, high-speed sound. An underground phenomenon on the verge of losing its innocence. Parallel to the musical approaches, Hollywood had also discovered the fun of surfing with the cheap genre “beach movies”. The quickly produced “Gidget” series started as early as 1959, later bold little films à la “How To Stuff A Wild Bikini” or “The Beach Girls and the Monster” focused on bust sizes, romance and fumbling with towels.
Beach Party (1963), starring shapely teen starlets Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, struck a chord with mainstream audiences. The subculture became a Malibu shooter. “The plots that Hollywood planted in the early ‘surfer movies’ were incredibly shallow,” states Leonard Lueras in his standard work, Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure.
The Wilson brothers, of whom only the handsome Dennis actually had real beach qualities, began right at the interface between underground and sellout. Undeterred by the fact that Carl was too chubby for Los Angeles’ body cult and Brian was a downright anti-surfer, they have been trying to give this special world their own aura since the garage recording of the first single “Surfin’”.
And when Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote the euphoric line “Catch a Wave – and you are sitting on top of the world” in the early summer of 1963, the direction had long been clear: airy layers of sound, arched over by multi-layered harmony singing, especially in melancholic, carried ones Songs like “Surfer Girl” or “In My Room” had come to perfection. Pimped hot rods and hearty romances made the Californian cosmos complete.
In any case, the light-flooded surfing image was never scratched with this cultivation. The dark and aggressive that emerged in later decades with the concrete ramp surfing grandchildren from the skateboarding scene or even in Katherine Bigelow’s film Point Break (1991) was not her thing.
The Beach Boys turned away from the beach at the same time as the surfing wave died down in the summer of 1965. It was not just a musical change that followed. Middle-class and all-white Southern California fun culture suddenly looked terribly naïve in the wake of the Watts riots and the black civil rights movement in the southern states. And when the evil side of Los Angeles came into play for Dennis Wilson with Charles Manson, their surfboards had long been gathering dust in the evidence room. The sun had fallen from the sky.
Michael Ochs Archives
Michael Ochs Archives