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Surf Rock: Exploitation or a Soundtrack?

Since the beginning of surfing’s involvement in modern western culture there have been attempts to capitalize on it.

The romanticization of a surfers lifestyle can be seen in vast amounts of media from the moment surfing hit the mainstream.

One form of media that has stayed around the longest is music inspired by surfers and their lifestyle.

More particularly the genre of surf rock.

Surf rock is a subgenre of rock and roll that appeared in the early 1960s with bands like The Surfaris, The Chantays, and The Sandals.

The early forms of surf rock are purely instrumental and were used as the background for many early surf films. Just take the “Endless Summer Theme” by The Sandals as an example.

Then came The Beach Boys. Their album 1962 “Surfin’ Safari” introduced surf rock to the world. They had their first top ten single in 1963 with “Surfin’ USA”.

Their music which defined the surf rock sound for decades was derived from early rock and roll guitar licks that were made popular by African American artists like Chuck Berry. The Beach Boys also used double-track recording to record the vocals of their songs allowing them to sing their iconic harmonizing choruses.

Bands like The Beach Boys have been loved and appreciated for generations for their work as musicians.

However, many in the surfing community feel as though The Beach Boys exploited the surfing culture of the 1960s in an attempt to align with youth in California, where they hailed from.

After all, only one of the members of The Beach Boys actually surfed so what was all this business of posing with a surfboard at the beach and singing about surfing Waimea Bay?

Some bring up the argument that this music was a soundtrack to the early days of surfing in California. Watch any documentary about early surfing in the 1960s and it will likely be soundtracked by “Surfin’ USA”. So it makes sense why this music has stood the test of time. After all, who cared if the band knew how to surf they were still giving the youth a soundtrack to their surfing.

The Beach Boys slowly moved away from their surfing roots later in their career. Their magnum opus, “Pet Sounds”, features little to no lyrics about picking up girls at the beach and riding waves at Malibu. So that begs the question, did the Beach Boys use the surf culture to catapult their career and gain an audience?

I would argue yes because even Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson says so — “It wasn't a conscious thing to build our music around surfing. We just want to be identified with the interests of young kids,” Wilson said.

Even The Beach Boys identified that they were purely building an audience around the youth’s interest, specifically the youth of southern California.

However, they created a movement, a sound that would be tied to surfing for decades whether they meant to or not.

The sound evolved in the late 70s and early 80s into surf punk.

Ditching the high pitched layered vocals of the Beach Boys but keeping the fast guitar licks that defined the Beach Boys early sounds, surf punk resonated with the surfing community much more than the often cliched lyrics of early Beach Boys.

Bands like Agent Orange and The Dead Kennedys used their Southern California voices to create a unique sound that stayed true to some of the early surf rock sounds.

The surf punk sound is much more familiar and has stood the test of time within the surfing community compared to some of the early 60s surf rock music.

Today, bands like The Frights and Sun Room are continuing the tradition of creating original Southern California surf rock.

The question still stands though, is surf rock an exploitation or a celebration of surfing?

The answer isn’t necessarily one or the other.

The difference between the later surf punk bands and the Beach Boys is that the Beach Boys weren’t afraid to very overtly use surf culture to sell their records especially in their lyrics and album covers.

The later surf punk bands rarely ever sing about surfing yet the surfing community resonates much more with surfers.

So I think The Beach Boys original intent was to celebrate the surf culture around them but they were instead perceived as posers and surfers then turned to more subtle forms of surf rock to listen to and soundtrack their films.

So it’s up to the listener to decide if surf rock is too poser for them or not.

Surfers are stingy and protective of their culture and this is just a microcosm of this issue.

Surf rock has shown no signs of dying so it's up to each surfer if they want to embrace it or not.


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