Why Surf Rock Is Southern California's Folk Music
By: Jonny Whiteside
Courtesy of the label Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar
Yes, you could call surf rock SoCal folk music. It's an almost unique subculture, which has somehow managed to survive with all of its complex social codes, vocabulary and rowdy behavior intact -- up to and including last year's riot in the streets of Huntington Beach, AKA Surf City.
While modern corporate life has inflicted an irrevocable homogeneity onto most every other youth-sparked cultural movement (seen the current Ross department stores' "Pretty in Punk" ad campaign?), the archetypal Southern California surf culture remains steadfast, and it is ours alone.
From its eruptive launch in the late 1950's, banged out along a shoreline frontier that stretched between the South Bay and Orange County, teenage grinders the Bel Airs and Eddie & the Showmen pioneered the style with glorious primitivism, paving the way for his majesty Dick Dale's swift ascension as universally acknowledged King of the Surf Guitar.
Theirs was a combustible, spontaneous rivalry, one often battled out mano a mano at a series of famed confrontational throw downs at local dance halls and band shells.
Although the practice of surfing originated in Hawaii, the cultural surf music phenom is an almost geographic-based, purely expression-driven California style. Dale was inspired to try and recreate the physical experience of shooting the curl via his guitar playing, and it celebrates the ritualistic lifestyle which grew up around the practice.
The surf set's outsider views were also reflected in the concurrently blossoming hot rod and skater cultures, but the perpetually sunny, scantily clad appeal of surfing rose to a prominence which transcended its small originating cult.
In turn, it became a new cultural wrinkle with sustained international impact, and most all of it was transported via music. By 1963, this horde of instrumental fixated rockers and their avid following -- surfers, ho-dads and gremmies all -- had established and codified the sound itself and sent it around the world via hits like "Mr. Moto," "Pipeline," and the mother of all surf instros, "Wipe Out."
Despite achieving profound commercial infamy, surf is the closest thing we have to a legitimately local folk music style, and the fact that it survived some extremely vigorous attempts at exploitation--all those dopey Beach Blanket movies--underscores surf's natural, sturdy longevity.
When the British Invasion completely overshadowed surf music, it was a blessing, one which allowed the loyal and true to keep on hanging ten, unimpeded by the crass demands of hot rock & roll commerce.