Who Killed The Great American Surf Song?

Getty Image

In 1971, the Beach Boys released an album called Surf’s Up. This was an ironic album title. The band was looking to connect with contemporary music, and to “modernize” their aesthetic by poking fun at their past as the most popular and visible proponents of surf-related pop music. The sound of Surf’s Up has been described as prog rock by some folks, perhaps because it seemed interesting to call a Beach Boys album prog rock, but it isn’t entirely unfounded, and even the titular song, a holdover from Brian Wilson’s Smile album, will not put you in mind of “Little Deuce Coupe.” The Beach Boys, the platonic ideal of surf music, had stopped being surf musicians. They weren’t the only ones.

When we talk about surf rock and surf pop, this is not just limited to songs about surfing. We are also talking about songs about the beach and cars and girls and the subjects that were popular among the bands that made surf music.

Some call this topical evolution “hot rod music,” but for the sake of convenience, and because specific designations aren’t terribly important beyond pedantry, we will stick with the “surf” moniker. In the ‘60s, surf culture and beach culture were huge. The late ’50s had given birth to the modern concept of the teenager, which American Bandstand helped foster, and by the ‘60s teenagers were in full force. They were at the forefront of the beach culture, which, at the time, was built around surfing.

Beach-party movies, often fronted by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, were released with frequency throughout the decade. This includes notable movies such as Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo, and hilariously weird movies like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. These movies involved a lot of (ostensible) teenagers in bathing suits, dancing and partying at the beach.

Surfing figured prominently into the plotting, and so did a lot of surf music. Dick Dale and the Del Tones, for example, appeared and performed in Beach Party. It was a formula that was repeated in all of these sort of films. Beach party movies were so prominent in the ‘60s that they were parodied in the best episode of the Batman television show. There is even a band performing a surf song. More importantly, Batman and Joker compete in a surfing competition, but that’s a story for another day.

Of course, not every surf musician was limited to appearing in beach party films. Up and down the radio dial were songs about sun and surfing and a desire for them all to be California girls. The Beach Boys were, obviously, the most famous of the surf bands, or at least the “vocal surf” bands, as opposed to the instrumental surf rock bands who were also there at the forefront of the genre. Before Pet Sounds, almost every Beach Boys album had the word “surf” or “summer” in the title. One of them that didn’t is a Christmas album, and the other is Beach Boys’ Party!.

You know the Beach Boys songs that fit into this genre. “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and “Surfer Girl,” for example. Then, there are the car songs like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” However the first vocal surf song to be a No. 1 hit was Jan and Dean’s “Surf City,” which you may have assumed was a Beach Boys song. That’s not unfair, considering Brian Wilson wrote the song.

For several years, surfing was synonymous with popular music. “Surf culture” was the predominant culture of the musical landscape, and of teenagers. When you think of music of a certain era, you will think of music like the Beach Boys and similar bands. Then, something happened. People didn’t stop surfing. California didn’t stop being sunny. Beaches didn’t go anywhere. Yet, surf music essentially disappeared from the charts. Its popularity dropped off a cliff.

Some chalk it up to the British invasion. There’s some sense in that. They still sang about love and romance and girls and the kind of stuff that has been popular from generation to generation. The trappings had just changed; fads do come and go. It seems sensible that surf music wouldn’t stay on top forever, especially with these handsome British lads and their charming accents wooing through psychedelic song. What’s odd though is that it almost completely disappeared.

Name the last song you can think of about surfing. They are very rare, and probably tucked away in some niche market that nobody hears from unless they seek it out. Brian Wilson did eventually get around to releasing Smile, but it was only really noted by people who were excited that Wilson had overcome his demons long enough to achieve his goal. Even so, that’s probably the pinnacle of surf music in the last few decades, which is striking.

Surf music wasn’t like “Pac-Man Fever.” It wasn’t a gimmick. On top of that, though, the whole beach aspect of it all, the California fetishization of it all, has also really dropped off. Instead, we get generic party songs. Songs about cars are very different. Songs about girls are decidedly different as well. Best Coast may be repping for California, but she only occasionally dips into what would be considered surf music. You could make an argument for Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” The title of the song obviously makes the comparison, with Jan and Dean’s “two girls for every boy” dreams of “Surf City” replaced with the notion of California gurls being so hot they will melt a man’s genitals clean off their body. Times certainly do change. However, it feels like for every “The Only Place” by Best Coast there is a “California” by EMA. The dream, it would seem, is dead.

The question that pops up, then, is what replaced surf music? Not in the sense of what became the popular style of the time, since that has changed repeatedly in the ensuing decades, and you can chronicle that pretty easily by scouring the Billboard charts. This isn’t about genre popularity. It’s about what was at the core of the surf music explosion. What is the escapist dream? What’s the fun, carefree activity that people dream of? Where is the place to desire to go? What’s the modern equivalent of songs about heading to California to hit the beach and go surfing?

One might argue there is no contemporary equal to the surf music craze, owing to these being less innocent times. What’s popular now isn’t so simple, this hypothetical argument might go. This would be a bit of modern exceptionalism, though, as pop music remains quite frothy, though it has gotten more forthright in its sexuality and other such overt themes. The mystical aura of California that may have persisted in the ‘60s is certainly gone. It’s just a place, albeit one that is sunny and has beaches. Miami has beaches though, too, and Miami feels as popular as, say, Los Angeles in terms of the musical landscape.

You know, when you think of the world now, and you think about global connectivity, maybe songs don’t need to be grounded in a specific location. Pitbull, after all, is Mr. Worldwide. While surf music may have been about surfing and going to the beach, their essence was really always about people getting together and partying and meeting sexually attractive counterparts. Those remain core principles of pop music. They just lack the specific bells and whistles of the bygone era. Partying is an abstract concept. If you don’t live in LA, you can’t party there, but you can still party, and you may not be dreaming of doing it somewhere else. Or, conversely, if you don’t live in LA, or Miami or another party destination, it is not predetermined that you will never be there. People travel more than they did in the ’60s. If you don’t travel, the fact that Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean, feels so attainable may demystify it, makes it something other than an impossible, and impossibly wonderful, dream. The world has gotten smaller.

Another way that feel-good music, and pop music, have changed, and for the better, is that it’s not as pointed toward a specific audience. That is to say, country music and hip-hop have both gained traction in the world of pop music, and party music, and their audience is perhaps not an audience that would have found surfing so alluring. While rap is something that simply did not exist in the time of surf music’s heyday, country did, but mainstream modern country is an entirely different kettle of fish. So much of what is popular in country music is about partying, but it appeals to people whose idea of a fun time does not involve surfing. It’s more blue collar, or at least faux blue collar. Maybe some of the teens who grew up on this music would have been drawn to surf music in a different era, but as they were presented with escapist music that they could relate to on a day-to-day basis, they didn’t need those dreams of riding a wave.

Generalized party music may be more generic, but in a way that makes it more applicable to a wider audience, especially if they don’t desire anything beyond having a good time. People still surf, but it’s not as cool and trendy as it was when it was a newer sport, so why sing about it if you are a pop musician? Why do that when you can make songs about hitting the dance floor and getting drunk and other broadly relatable experiences? While surfing and beaches and the California Sun are all still out there, they lack the intrigue they once did. Teenagers moved on, and pop music moved on with them. It may not make logical sense, but pop music has never been about logic. It’s been about trying to tap into what makes people feel good and buy music. If that’s ever surfing again, the Beach Boys and their cohorts will finally have some spiritual successors.