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Surf Music and Movies

The Channel region has served as the home for one of the most unique musical movements in recent history - Surf Music. No where else on earth has there been a popular music tradition established that was created in response to living close to the sea, and in particular, as a response to the ‘surf culture’. But the vehicle that really helped the Surf Music reach a national audience were Surf Films shot on location in Southern California, and popularized in small town cinemas and large metropolitan theaters across the country over a six year period.

Combining film and music depicting this new surf culture, the Channel region turned surfing from a sport enjoyed by a few hundred up and down the beaches, to a popular culture appreciated by millions worldwide, immortalizing the beaches and the waves of the California Channel Islands region.

Surf Movies

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a few bands sprung up in the Los Angeles beach communities that performed in large ballrooms drawing thousands of young high school and college students for each performance. One reason the surf culture developed its identity - and its musical sound - was the screening of popular movies that were based on the free spirited beach culture - for example, Gidget, a story written by a father about the bohemian lifestyle of his daughter and her surfing adventures, which was then turned into a film that later became a prime time television serial. Another film example is A Summer Place, also released in 1959.

These movies depicted the romance of living close to the sea, surfing challenging waves, and ranged from zany antics to longing romances. And one of the first surfboard shops that opened in the Channel region was the brainstorm of movie actor Cliff Robertson ( who had the idea while on location for the Gidget movie ), and The Robertson Surf Board Company was formed to supply the new beach culture with handmade surfboards along Venice Beach.

Surf movies filmed during the late 50s / early 60s had evocative titles sure to capture the youth’s interest in the surf phenomena. Here are the major titles :

Gidget 1959
Beach Party 1963
Muscle beach Party 1964
Bikini Beach 1964
Surf Party 1964
Ride the Wild Surf 1964
Pajama Party 1964
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini 1965
Beach Blanket bingo 1965
Girls on the Beach 1965

Dick Dale - Pied Piper of Balboa

The music industry was quick to capitalize on this new youthful movement and began scouring the Southland for musical groups they could harness as top ten bands. While the Beach Boys are undeniably the most famous group to come out of this early 1960s era of surf music, there were many other groups working to define a new ‘surf sound’. One of the most influential musicians on the scene was Dick Dale, a surfer with a passion for waves and music. He developed an instrumental style with fast ( staccato) electric guitar picking that was an effort to turn into music the fast, powerful feel of the true surfing experience.

Dale said " There was this tremendous amount of power I felt while surfing and that felling of power was simply transferred from myself into my guitar when I was playing surf music. I couldn’t get that feeling by singing, so the music took an instrumental form." In a short time he was attracting crowds up to 4,000 a night at beachside ballrooms, and he earned the title " The Pied Piper of Balboa " with cars back-upped for miles along the coast bringing teenagers eager to get into his concerts.

The Beach Boys

Surf bands started springing up along the coast the first few years of the 1960s - some garage bands that had one hit and then faded into obscurity - others have become enduring rock idols like the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys were formed by a family - a few brothers, a cousin, and a friend, and drew national attention to the ‘surf sound’ right before the Beatles hit the American scene, an entry now known as the British Invasion. The Beach Boys and their fellow surf sound musicians gave Americans a California sound that swept the nation, and has endured in the thirty plus years since.

The three brother who were the core of the Beach Boys group were Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, and they invited cousin Mike Love to join them in forming a band. Managed by their musician father, the boys developed a singing style blending a cappela harmonies with surf sound instrumentals. The musical genius behind the group was Brian, who wrote the majority of their songs combining now-classic lyrics about being young, being eager to drive, and about living with-in the surf culture. Brian started singing at age three, and inspite of a childhood injury that deafened him in one ear, was able to play-by-ear in his music lessons by age six - not relying on the printed musical scores, but hearing a song once and being able to repeat it by memory. The boys were influencing by Rock ‘n Roll giants like Chuck Berry, decided to form a band in 1961, and it was Dennis ( the truest beach boy in the group ) and Mike who came up with the idea of focusing on surf music one night on the way home from a church youth group. They brought the idea to Brian and tuned him into the surf news on the radio to get a feel for the surf culture. Then Mike worked on lyrics, Brian on the sound, and their first surf music began to pour out - a sound that is still sought after and appreciated today as classic surf music.

Independent Surf Movies

Other influential surf films were also appearing on the scene during the early sixties, and these were not big-budget movie studio productions - they were being produced by small independent film making crews who were often surfers themselves, and were impassioned to share the adventure with others. The classic surfer film of the sixties was Endless Summer, produced by Bruce Brown, who has continued to produce a series of Endless Summer films on a regular basis. The film crew took two hot dog surfers around the world on a surfin’ safari in search of the ‘perfect wave’. The film was several years in the making and was released in 1966 to critical acclaim from Life and Time, two major magazines who called it " a dazzling ode to sun, sand and surf’.