Surf music and the Summer of ’63
“Two girls for every boy.”
In the summer of 1963, Jan & Dean’s “Surf City” became surf music’s first (and only) #1 single. It was a genre that sold the promise of adventure and romance; the perfect girls, their skin glistening in the sun, sitting on the shore while the boys showed off on their boards, riding the perfect waves. With rippling guitars meant to mimic the rush of motion through the water, frantic drums heightening the tension, warm vocal harmonies beckoning everyone toward the ocean, surf music was the sonic equivalent of a travel poster, and Jan & Dean’s “Surf City” was one of the most seductive invitations. It wasn’t like they were literally guaranteeing that every guy would be issued two females at the city line, but that the odds were certainly favorable that when you were finished with a day of shooting the curl, there would be lots of available surfer girls (“Surfer Girl” was riding up the chart right behind Jan & Dean, and peaked at #7: it was like the songs were talking to each other).
Surf music was aspirational; it painted a cultural ideal, and you could argue whether that ideal was elitist and entitled, and not necessarily inclusive, but in 1963, it felt like being asked to join a hip club, with its own jargon and rituals. As its primary architect, Brian Wilson (the cowriter of “Surf City” and sole writer of “Surfer Girl”), was responsible for putting surf on the top 40 map but he was, famously, not a surfer, and you got the sense that he, like a lot of listeners, felt slightly on the outside looking in. The funny thing about “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” a spring-into-summer smash for the Beach Boys, was that realistically, there was no such thing as a national surf scene. How could there be? In Wyoming, Vermont, Oklahoma? So the song has to start conditionally: “If everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A./Then everybody’d be surfin’…” Well, sure. If it snowed in Louisiana, people would go skiing, but no one wrote “Skiin’ U.S.A.” Even on “Surfer Girl,” sweetly sung by Brian, he’s gazing at her wistfully, from a distance. “We could ride the surf together,” he imagines, and go riding in his woody. But it sounds like a fantasy.
And who could resist it? What an optimistic, sunshiny time the summer of 1963 was, the global scare of the Cuban Missile Crisis behind us, the New Frontier in full ring-a-ding swing, the abrupt shattering of innocence still months away. It was the ideal time for the hedonistic escapism of surf music, for records with a Coppertone tan. That whole year was surf’s apex, the crest of its popular wave. Dick Dale and his Del-Tones released King of the Surf Guitar, their second album, their first on a major label (Capitol), as Dale expanded his aggressive guitar soundscapes to include folk (“Greenback Dollar”), R&B (“What’d I Say”), and the hora (“Hava Nagila”). There was a Surfing album by the Ventures (of course—their sound was an obvious precedent for the many surf groups that popped up: the Lively Ones, the Astronauts, the Challengers), and Surfin’ by Bo Diddley (it’s really just a good Bo Diddley album with a few “surf” song titles tacked on). Duane Eddy, another inadvertent surf music pioneer, released “Your Baby’s Gone Surfin’,” and his prior record label took a bunch of his old masters and repackaged them as a surf album. It was like when the Twist was a big deal, and all the record labels flipped through their catalogs for tracks that were Twist-ish enough. It was shameless: Chess Records overdubbed live crowd noise on some Chuck Berry songs, including “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and said the resulting LP featured “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which Brian Wilson had adapted, let’s say, from Berry’s tune.
Many of surf’s classic tracks came out that year: Jack Nitzsche’s atmospheric “The Lonely Surfer,” “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris (and the follow-up “Surfer Joe”), “Pipeline” by the Chantays. Jan & Dean followed up “Surf City” with “Honolulu Lulu” (she was “queen of the surfer girls”); the Honeys, with an assist from Brian Wilson, put out the delightful “Pray for Surf” and “Shoot the Curl” (and Brian’s nutty “Surfin’ Down the Swanee River”); and the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl LP included such surf-centric classics as “Catch a Wave” and “Hawaii.” On that album, Brian turned Stephen Foster’s “The Old Folks at Home” into “South Bay Surfer.” In July, future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston’s album Surfin’ Round the World came out on Columbia; the album has a song called “The Hamptons,” not a spot known for hanging ten. Perhaps the coolest “surf” album from ’63, Soul Surfin’ by trombonist Kai Winding, with guitarist Kenny Burrell and keyboard player Paul Griffin, came out on the jazz-oriented Verve Records. From that album, “More” (the theme from the film Mondo Cane) broke out to become a summer-’63 top 10 hit.
Capping off the surf summer was the August release of the movie Beach Party. It wasn’t the first film to zero in on surf culture (Gidget and Moondoggie beat Annette and Frankie to the screen), but in its dopey way it captured the appeal of the scene: the freedom from responsibility, the lack of adult supervision, the minimum daytime clothing. Even if you didn’t believe Annette and Frankie as surfers—did their hair ever get wet?—it had all that wish-fulfillment (I didn’t count, but it looked like a decent female-to-male ratio), and there, in the center of everything, were Dick Dale and his group doing a couple of songs by surf-pop mavens Gary Usher and Roger Christian, “Swingin’ and Surfin’” and “Secret Surfin’ Spot.” It’s “Secret Surfin’ Spot” that sums up the complicated dynamic of surf music. On the face of it, there’s an open-door policy: “If everybody had an ocean,” “Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how.” Everyone is welcome in Surf City. But not really. Dale’s section of the beach, where he goes hot-doggin’ on his board all day, is a tightly held secret. He doesn’t even tell the other kids at school, at least not the gremmies and the hodads. Who wants a bunch of gremmies and hodads wiping out all around you?
Like most summer romances, surf’s moment in the sun wasn’t designed to last. Pretty soon, even the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean stopped doing surf-centric material (“Gotta take that one last ride,” Jan & Dean sang on their final hit surf single, “Ride the Wild Surf”), and the fine Tell ’Em I’m Surfin’ album by the Fantastic Baggys didn’t make much commercial noise in ’64, by which point the pop scene had moved on. When the Beatles came along, the only single on the chart with “surf” in its title was that absurdist gasp of musical anarchy by the Trashmen, “Surfin’ Bird.” And that’s a whole other thing.