The cosmic connection of surfing and music
WORDS BY Chris Coté
“Surf music is actually just the sound of the waves played on a guitar, that wet, splashy sound.”—Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar
If you think about it, surfing is as sonic as it is physical. The sound of the ocean is the first song the Earth ever played. The ocean creates its own music. An angry sea sounds violent; the cannon crack of a barrel hitting flat water is an audible monster that will wake all of the senses. The gentle brush of small waves lapping onto the shore is a sound humans have used to lull themselves to sleep for eons. Then there’s the rarely heard, otherworldly howl of a tube, only heard from inside said tube—this is “surf music”, but just one branch of the surf music tree that has roots and limbs sprawling and intermingling throughout the past, present, and future.
The cosmic connections between surfing and music are endless. You’ve got the actual genre of “surf music”, then there’s music that makes you want to surf, music made by surfers, and the music that lives in your head while you’re surfing. Obviously, there are a billion other links between surfing and music. But for the sake of brevity and priceless page-space in this magazine, let’s focus on a few elements that connect surfing and music utilizing the above-referenced list.
Surf Music, the Genre
In the early ’60s, surfing was having a moment. Hollywood was hyping the scene. Gidget was Gidgeting all over big and small screens, and the California beach lifestyle became a lifestyle that the whole world wanted in on. Why wouldn’t you? Sixties surfing was the best. Big, bright, beautiful boards, bronzed bodies, hot rods and woodies are parked at the water’s edge. Surfing enjoyed a rebellious yet wholesome feel, and at the time, the scene was small, focused on Malibu, in Hawai’i, and up and down the California coast for the most part. The sound of surfing back then was easy to pinpoint, so easy, they just went ahead and called it “surf music”. It started with bands like The Chantays, The Surfaris, Jan and Dean, The Trashmen, The Beach Boys, and of course, King of the Surf Guitar, Dick Dale. Truth be told, most of the musicians involved in early surf music didn’t actually surf, but they most definitely captured the essence of surfing.
Here’s a challenge to prove this hypothesis: Put on The Chantays’ “Pipeline”, close your eyes, try not to think about surfing—you can’t not think about surfing while listening to this jam and many of the songs created by early surf music masters. Maybe the genre name helped cement this sound into our collective consciousness, but they’re also a deeply spiritual and soulful connection that goes way beyond any classification. This music was invented and influenced by surfing and vice versa as surfers identified with the sound. Dick Dale and his reverb-drenched Fender guitar are often described as “wet”, and the pounding drums behind the guitar lines harken back to tribal war drum sounds of Polynesia, strong, forceful, driving, and exciting, just like surfing.
Only one or two of the Beach Boys surfed, but the band started as California surf music to its core and evolved along with surf culture, from Beach Blanket Bingo to psychedelic, Vietnam era counterculture sonic stylings. Spoiler alert, some surfers in the mid-’60s and early ’70s started dipping into mind-altering substances that caused a musical shift from reverb-drenched guitar-driven surf music to classic rock psychedelia.
Many surfers took one-way trips across the “Rainbow Bridge” to jam with Jimi Hendrix, trading their Beach Boy big boards for single-fin surfcraft built for speed and style. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix released “Third Stone from the Sun” and famously sang poetic, cryptic lyrics about never hearing surf music again. Music historians say this is Jimi hearing the news that Dick Dale was dying; therefore, surf music would, too. Thankfully, Dick Dale lived a long life after this song was released. Sadly, Jimi did not, except in his music, which was beloved by surfers then, and still celebrated by surfers now, namely, the world’s most entertaining surfer, Mason Ho, who could and probably will make surf edits using Jimi Hendrix tracks for the rest of his life, and we’re fine with that.
Surfing became much more audio/visual in the ’60s and ’70s. Hollywood tried to put surfing in a nice tidy box with bebop soundtracks and cute dance numbers between waves, but it wasn’t until the seminal surf cinema classic, Endless Summer, was released for the world to see, hear, and feel what surfing was really like at the time. The undisputed king of surf cinema, Bruce Brown, changed the game with a perfectly crafted surf film soundtrack played by The Sandals. The vibe oozed California cool but left room for the visuals to shine as well; the music and the movement matched so perfectly that for any surfer who sees and hears Endless Summer for the first time, it’s a moment one never forgets. That legacy has lasted, and no doubt informed surf filmmakers from then on how important music is when accompanying visuals of surfing. This brings us to our next topic.
Music That Makes Us Want to Surf
The scene in the old school movie house is a ruckus. It’s the summer of 1985, and the seats are packed with surfers, old and young. Empty beer bottles bounce off the ground. Somebody’s smoking reefer, but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s going. The lights darken; the crowd erupts with hoots, hollers, whistles, and random noises more fitting for a barnyard than a movie theatre. The screen lights up, and the speakers explode with the opening staccato guitar riff of The Untouchables’ “Wild Child”.
The crowd goes next level nuts. This was the scene that happened in surf towns all over the world when Chris Bystrom released his penultimate surf classic, Beyond Blazing Boards. This wasn’t the first surf film with a memorable soundtrack, but this particular opening salvo of stoke sent shockwaves around the surf world. This was OUR music, and this song echoed in our collective minds while we all attempted to surf like Occy; just ask Jack Johnson who puts this song on his list of ultimate surf songs.
“This song became the one song we’d all listen to before we surfed,” says Johnson in a 2010 interview for the Willamette Weekly. “We would listen to this song on repeat every morning before surfing, and we all imagined we’d be surfing just like Occy.”
This opening segment to Beyond Blazing Boards is the pinnacle of surf film stoke. Ask any real surfer between the ages of 30 and 70 what happens at the 1:22 minute mark of this song in Beyond Blazing Boards, and you’re likely to see a grin, a thoughtful smile, and most likely some chicken skin. This is the moment when surfing and music click so perfectly.
The song hits an early crescendo while the on-screen action pauses for a brief second with someone locked into a little tube, then the screen cuts to Occy, bottom turning towards an oncoming section, all spliced and cut precisely in time with the music. There’s an audible dip and rise in the song’s intensity. Occy winds up; the song starts to kick back in, then BAM! Occy hits the lip, launches above the wave, just as The Untouchables’ horn section kicks into a high note. It’s a miracle move, an early air accentuated by this wild upbeat ska rock punk moment that is too good for just one pass.
The wave starts again as the music is still ramping up. The air is shown again, chopped up, in slow motion matching the beat of the song. The crowd loses it, and the theatre is shaking. Occy is king, and The Untouchables hold court as the best surf rock band in the world.
Surf rock is now something completely different than Dick Dale intended it to be. Surf rock was now music that is used in surf films—our music. Before surf movies, surfers got music from friends, the radio, and the like, but then surf movies came along and made it easy for us to find the music we quickly loved.
Surfers like Rabbit and Kong made sure that the music they loved made up the soundtracks to their surfing visuals. Rabbit and Bowie, now that’s a match made in surfing and music heaven. Surf flicks set the musical trends, maybe not for the mainstream, but for surfers, the music we heard in surf movies became the soundtrack of our lives.
Surfers were tuned in and turned on. Soundtracks to films like Morning of the Earth and Bali High blasted from record players and cassettes, filling our heads with dreams of travel and adventure. American surfers found bands like Hoodoo Gurus and Ganggajang via Australian surf flicks, and Australians listened to T.S.O.L. and The Cult from their movies.
The ’80s were a golden era of surf cinema soundtrack radness. Speaking of Rabbit, have you watched the “Born To Be Wild” performance from Billabong’s “Pump” lately? It’s truly epic even though Rabbit himself said that he can’t sing and suffers from a bit of “rock star tragic” disorder. It’s safe to say that just as he asked to be, we all consider Rabbit to be the Mick Jagger of surfing. This is not the first or the last time surfers had an urge to jump on stage coalesced—more on that later.
With the advent of VHS tapes, double cassette recorders, early CD technology, and a burgeoning international surf scene, bands that lent their music to surf films were getting paid back with a hardcore fan base. INXS, Men at Work, and Split Enz were just a few rising bands out of Australia that featured heavily in surf flicks, which definitely had to help grow their respective global fan bases. To this day, songs like Hoodoo Gurus’ “What’s My Scene” and Split Enz’s “Hard Act To Follow” (as heard in Storm Riders) are considered sacred surf songs. They belong to us.
With surf video soundtracks becoming as memorable as the videos themselves, it became not only an arms race on who could get the best footage, but also who could get the best music. This is when big business came in and told us that surf videos had to pay to use big bands like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, and as usual, surfers adapted. Surfers found new music to use, resulting in the endless and awesome cycles of surf video soundtracks becoming as diverse as the filmmakers who made them.
A press release celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Morning of the Earth soundtrack says, “Morning of the Earth took a unique approach to music. For the first time, music was not treated as a background or incidental to the vision on the screen.
“The music was the narrator, with each track played in its entirety. The original soundtrack produced the Australian #1 single Open Up Your Heart and was the first Australian soundtrack to achieve gold sales. It was also recently included in the 100 Best Australian Albums.”2
Not bad for a little surf film soundtrack.
Music has always been a key factor in creating a good surfing film. “Music can 100 percent make or break a surf movie,” says surf filmmaker and artist Thomas Campbell. “Music sets the tone. If you don’t have dynamic music that engages your emotions, then what’s the point?”
Thomas Campbell has expertly blended the “sound and vision” of surfing since he made his first full-length surf film, The Seedling, in 1999. Like the movies that inspired him, his film relies just as heavily on surfing as they do on music—great surfing can be ruined by bad music. Luckily for all of us, Thomas has excellent taste in music and has introduced the world to some incredible new bands like Tortoise, The Mattson 2, and the sonic styling of Tommy Guerrero and Ray Barbee, just to name a few.
“I really like linear music that heads off in one direction,” says Thomas. “Surfing is linear, so to me, music that drives in a certain direction feels best and works for the movies I like to make and the surfing I like to watch.”
Thomas has curated some of the greatest surf film soundtracks ever made and, at the time of this writing, is hard at work figuring out which “linear” form of music will go best to his latest opus.
Andrew Kidman is another name that must be talked about when thinking of unique surf soundtracks. His musical work on Litmus is stellar, game-changing, and stands on its own in terms of musical craftsmanship but goes along so perfectly to the surfing he presents that the two simply have to be seen and heard congruently.
Jack McCoy is a master surf soundtrack curator as well. For surfers of a certain age, the soundtracks to Bunyip Dreaming and The Green Iguana will never get old, never get tired, and will always get you amped to go surf.
Taylor Steele flipped the whole surf soundtrack game on its head back in the ’90s. His formula was simple, fast-paced punk rock music set to chopped-up, high-energy surfing—no tricky edits or cinematic leanings, just punk rock and surfing, and, wow, it worked to massive effect.
“I would put raw footage to tracks and saw what fit,” recalls Taylor. “It was just a feeling I got when it made the waves look more dynamic. Then I would sell it to the surfers [laughs], which wasn’t always easy. Secretly, I would usually use my favourite tracks for whoever had the best clips.”
Taylor had friends in bands and mates all over the world showing him new stuff from unknown bands at the time like Pennywise, Sprung Monkey, Bad Religion, etc. And smartly, Taylor would team up with bands like these for radical surf video tours all over the world.
If you ever went to an old school Taylor Steele premiere, you probably still have the scars to prove it. There is no metric to account for how many teenagers set up tape recorders next to their TV sets to make their own Taylor Steele soundtrack tapes.
For surfers who wanted to emulate Slater, Benji, Ross, Shane, Machado, and the like, you better have listened to a steady diet of Pennywise and punk rock before every session, or you were gonna get left behind.
“When I got into surf movies, it was all about punk music,” smiles seven-time world champ Stephanie Gilmore. “All I listened to was Pennywise, Nine Inch Nails, Grinspoon, and bands like that. We just wanted to get excited and go surf! That music worked so well for that at the time.”
Stephanie Gilmore, like the millions of other young surfers at the time, cut their teeth on surf punk, then enjoyed an era of expansion in terms of what was happening in surf cinema. Horizons were broadened, and surf music as we knew it was becoming a much wider genre.
Techno and hip-hop started showing up in surf flicks, and for the most part, we liked it. Kai Neville created soundtracks with wide-reaching musical inspirations, using new and old songs by bands like Sonic Youth and Sébastian Tellier while going back into the surf-inspired vinyl crates and re-visiting classic surf rock bands like Split Enz and Simple Minds.
Filmmaker Joe G and Globe hired out soundtrack duties to Black Mountain, a cutting edge band that created a soundscape that matched the frenetic energy of the surfing on screen.
Nowadays, the want and need for fresh music for surfing usage are at an all-time high, with loads of surf vlogs being dropped daily. Super surf vloggers, like Jamie O’Brien, don’t have time to mess around with music clearances on a daily basis, so teaming up with music licensing firms help with the constant need for sick sounds.
Other content kids like Jake “Zeke” Szekely go a bit more rogue. “We use gangster rap or fast-paced punk rock music to get us fired up for a session,” yells Zeke over a barrage of motorcycle and skateboarding sounds in the background. “We just kinda say, ‘Screw it!’ and use whatever we’re feeling in the moment.”
Music Made By Surfers
With constant waves of music pouring into our ears, surfers can also make great musicians, at least some of the time. The traits that make a great surfer are very similar to those of a great musician. You’ve got to have style, a unique approach, technical ability, creativity, and perseverance. When you’re first learning, surfing is hard, so is guitar or piano. Playing music, like surfing, is historically easier to start at a young age—sorry, that’s just how it is.
“I learnt the guitar around the same time I started surfing at the age of nine,” says Stephanie Gilmore, who is primarily known as one of the greatest surfers ever to grace a surfboard but is handy on the six-string as well. “Surfing consumed me right away,” says Steph. “But, I really fell in love with playing guitar later in my teens. As surfing got more serious, I found I could escape into music. Playing the guitar is a must for my mental state.”
For the record, Dick Dale was a surfer, but for surfers who want to be musicians, the road to rock ’n’ roll has often been bumpy and uninviting. Take Kelly Slater and his band, The Surfers, who were actually made up of amazing surfers, including Rob Machado and Peter King. They were killed by critics unfairly, as all they did was get together and make some
good pop music. Not sure why they were skewered for an admirable side hustle.
Some surfers have broken through to the other side. Jack Johnson is the first name a lot of people think of when you ask about surfers who became musicians. Jack is the only person on the planet to have sold over 20 million records and seen the inside of a proper Backdoor pit.
Donavon Frankenreiter has a loyal and rabid fanbase, which has allowed him to live the dream of performing on the road as a musician, afforded him houses in Kauai and California, and guess what, he’s about the happiest dude you’ll ever meet. He cracked the code: a surfer who plays music for a living. You think a couple of grumpy trolls in a chat room complaining about his music can wipe that permagrin off his face? The answer is no. Donavon is cruising in life—thanks to a perfect balance of surfing and music.
Alex Knost is another example of a surfer/musician who has done things in music that the biggest music snob in the world would die to be involved with. Alex Knost formed a band called the Japanese Motors in the mid-2000s, which helped develop an entire scene of music now ruled by The Growlers. But after that band went away, Knost went deeper, creating amazing artistic, eclectic music with his friend and fellow pro surfer, Ford Archbold. Knost even teamed up with the queen of dissonance, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, for a project that was met with rave reviews from the ultimate avant-garde musical circles Yoko Ono approved—say no more.
For many surfers, like Tom Curren, Conner Coffin, Stephanie Gilmore, and Kelly Slater, who won’t have to be asked twice to jump on stage and jam, there are as many others who wouldn’t know what to do with a piano if it landed on their head, and that’s fine, too. But before you cast stones at a surfer making music, realise that playing the guitar, recording a song, and singing into your camera on Instagram, takes guts and practice to make perfect.
Before you disparage a surfer for also being a musician, remember that it’s not easy, and guess what? It makes that person happy, and for those who have actually done it, being on stage has a similar effect that surfing does.
“Being on stage is such a nerve-racking thrill, because obviously, you don’t want to mess up, and you want to perform,” says Stephanie Gilmore. “But, I really love the feeling of being up there on stage completely out of my comfort zone. It’s exhilarating.”
Wanna talk exhilaration? You all must know the story by now of former WQS bad boy, and wild-eyed freesurfer Paul Fisher, who started deejaying with another ’QS standout, Leigh Sedley, under the moniker Cut Snake. He is now one of the highest-paid DJs on the planet. We’re talking private jets, Grammy noms, sold-out Vegas pool parties, massive festival appearances, chart-topping production credits and all that. He’s kind of a big deal, and surfing is proud of him. No one is having more fun with a post-surf career than FISHER.
Plenty of pro-level surfers have either added to or extended their careers by starting bands. Ozzie Wright and the Goons of Doom was a band that started out as a gag and to this day will still sell out any venue they play. Noa Deane has been making noise since he was a kid, and his musical influences like Sonic Youth and Mudhoney loom large in his band, Blistar, and guess what, they shred. Makua Rothman and Landon McNamara have both released chart-topping records with their unique takes on modern Hawaiian reggae. They have toured the world sans surfboard and with ukuleles and guitars. Plenty of the world’s best surfers have musical chops, and if you listen without prejudice, you might actually like a lot of what these surfers are playing when they’re not riding waves.
Music in our Minds
What happens during the paddle out that invites music into our minds? The act of paddling through waves, duck diving, and forcing your way through the impact zone to the outside must shake up the mind somehow, because what happens the second you make the outside and sit up on your board?
A song pops into your head. It’s automatic, insanely random, can inspire or completely ruin an entire session.
“Why the heck does ‘Call Me Maybe’ pop into my head every time I surf,” screamed former ’CTer Fred Patacchia, after a tough loss at a far-flung ’CT event, lambasting the 2012 smash hit, session-killing song, “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepson.
We have all felt Freddy’s pain when a bad song creeps in and lodges itself inside your skull, with nowhere to go, just in there bouncing around in your brain. The “Call Me Maybe” effect, as Freddie would call it, actually has a scientific name known as an “earworm”.
A Harvard University study in 2017 states: “Earworms are unwanted, catchy tunes that repeat in your head.”3 The research also reveals “98% of the western world suffer from earworms.”
So yeah, it happens to everybody, even the best pros. Still, earworms aren’t necessarily unwanted. Especially if it’s the right song at the right time, you could be in for the session of a lifetime.
“The other day during a pretty crappy session, I had a song pop into my head that changed everything,” says Conner Coffin with a smile. “This kind of obscure Black Crowes’ song, ‘Sting Me’, just starting ringing in my head, and my whole session was just boosted after that. So weird but I’m glad when it happens like that.”
On the flip side, for every session ruined by “Call Me Maybe”, ten times that many sessions have been destroyed by two words: Baby Shark, followed by an annoying string of “do-do” sounds!
“I was hanging out with my little cousins a while back, and for weeks after that, I had the ultimate surf song shocker,” yells Conner’s brother Parker Coffin from the background. “I had Baby Shark, stuck in my head, on repeat, for seriously a month straight every time I surfed. I almost had to quit surfing.” He laughs.
While sometimes unavoidable, Parker Coffin’s month-long “Baby Shark” brain attack serves as a warning—it can happen any time, any place, to any brain. There is no way to stop “surfing earworm”, but there is a way to arm yourself with at least a sonic shield.
One tried and tested method of jamming good music into your skull before surfing is simple: blast music from your car speakers while you’re changing in the parking lot. Make yourself a surf stoke setlist and have that thing ready when you pull up to the spot. You can never go wrong with classic surf movie soundtrack songs. Sure the people around you might not want to hear Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” or T.S.O.L.’s “Revenge” pulsing out of your speakers. And they most definitely don’t want to be assaulted with the Pennywise’s classic “Living For Today”. But that’s their problem, not yours. If you get vibed or even yelled at by a passer-by telling you to “Turn that crap down!”, your simple yet effective reply has to me, “Sorry, mate—can’t turn it down. It’s the culture.”
Surfing and music are really one and the same. Both are escapes. Both are exercises. Both incite and excite, and both are art forms that deserve equal celebration and reverence. Surfing and music will always go together in the best way. That is unless you find yourself out the back with a nice wedging peak coming your way. You quickly reach into your brain to figure out which way you’re gonna go. The right has a ramp! The left has a tube! But your brain has a different idea … Baby Shark lyrics are do-do do-ing round your head. You just went over the falls, and that baby shark is laughing at you. The earworm won this time.