One ride, and you’ll say there’s nothing in the world, not even flying, that has the fun that this thrilling water sport has. And that the water sled is the greatest invention in the world.’ So promised an American magazine article in 1933, complete with instructions how to build your own ‘water sled’.
A shame no one told Brian Wilson, the songwriting genius of the Beach Boys, who sent the band on their way to fame and wealth in the autumn of 1961 by writing the first of his many paeans to the sport, ‘Surfin”’. One of the saddest scenes ever captured on film involves the Blues Brothers, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and a misguided effort to wring some PR mileage from Brian Wilson’s mental-health problems.
Dressed up as the Surf Police, they lead a confused Brian out of the bed he has spent the past few years composing ‘Surf’s Up’ in, then drive to the beach where they hoist the massively overweight singer aboard a surfboard, which they proceed to drag out into the waves. Wilson – panic-stricken, with pyjamas soaked – does a terrifying, pitiful impression of a man tortured and robbed of his dignity by the real police.
Surfing is all about elation. So is rock’n’roll. One of the great ironies of pop history is that the man who elevated surfing from a sport to a musical genre should harbour a lifelong fear of it. Another is that the only Beach Boy who lived the surfer’s life to the full, Brian’s brother, Dennis, should die by drowning.
Modern surf bands tend to apply a pleasingly droll sense of humour to the task of naming themselves. The website www.surfmusic.com lists well over a thousand active surf bands and solo artists (and a couple of dead ones, including Joe Meek). Among them are the Bent Sceptres (Iowa City); the Bottlenose Koffins (Seattle); the Fin-Dictators (Dunellen, New Jersey), and Meshugga Beach Party (San Francisco).
While the overwhelming majority are based in the USA, Messer Chups, reside in St Petersburg, Russia; Jason & the Retronauts in Madrid, Spain; the Hawaiian Astro Boys in Ghent, Belgium; and Vic Torea & The Nakeds in Winterthur, Switzerland.
Perhaps surprisingly, the only band listed from Hawaii, the cradle of surfing incidentally, are Sex With Lurch. As early as AD 1000 Hawaiians mastered the art of standing on planks of wood and gliding across the waves. News of this glorious pastime reached the old world through the writings of Lieutenant James King, a member of Captain Cook’s expedition that landed on the Polynesian archipelago in 1778. Paradise did not last for long after that. An influx of explorers, traders, whalers and desperados brought alcohol, disease and death to the native population. Their culture, in turn, was frowned upon by the Calvinist missionaries who arrived in the early 19th century, and were especially troubled by the sight of naked surfers. Rather than forcing them to surf in more formal attire in order to preserve their modesty, they strove to eradicate this ancient practice altogether. For nearly a whole century, surfing remained the sole domain of a handful of renegades. One of these was George Freeth, who happened to be emerging from the waves just as a holidaying Jack London was taking a first dip.
‘Shaking the water from my eyes,’ gushed London later in Woman’s Home Companion magazine, ‘as I emerged from one wave and peered ahead to see what the next one looked like, I saw him bearing in on the back of it, standing upright with his board, carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.’
These lines inspired Californian industrialist Henry E. Huntingdon. His Pacific Electric Railway was woefully short of passengers for the new Los Angeles to Redondo route. In order to attract more fares, he figured he had to make Redondo seem more attractive, so he hired Freeth for a series of surfing demonstrations to publicise the pleasures of Redondo Beach. Freeth stayed and became a minor celebrity – the first official lifeguard in the United States. Meanwhile back on Waikiki Beach, a few more rebels in the cause of Hawaiian culture, a bunch of lads who liked to call themselves the ‘Waikiki Beach Boys’, had followed the Victorian British example of founding a club for every new pastime they discovered. Among the founding members of this club, Hui Nalu, was Duke Kahanamoku, a swimmer of world-renown who, in 1912, won gold in 100-metres freestyle at the Stockholm Olympics, and silver in the 4 by 200 metres freestyle relay, followed by gold in both disciplines eight years later in Antwerp. Kahanamoku used his fame to travel the world, dazzling people with his exotically elegant surfing skills.
In 1928, the first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships took place at Corona del Mar, following which an increasing number of small surfing communities sprang up along the Californian coast. The promise of sporting glory, however, was not the primary attraction of surfing at the time: what attracted many young men to these gatherings was the lifestyle. After the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and the ruin of Southern agriculture during the dustbowl era (which, among many others, brought a youthful Woody Guthrie to California), an air of disillusionment was fuelling the activities of a new generation of non-conformist freedom-seekers, many of whom found their salvation in surfing. After the end of the Second World War, they were joined by soldiers unwilling to return to their previous lives in grim factories and dull banks. The surfers of California were closer in spirit to the ‘Beats’ – pre-rock’n’roll bohemians who followed the example of casual labourers by criss-crossing the continent hitch-hiking and stowing away on trains – though not in search of work, but thrills.
Alas, in contrast to the Beats, the surfers had no Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs to document and romanticise their quest. When the world at large discovered Hawaii, and surfing in particular, it was not because of the scene’s literary endeavours: it was thanks to the introduction of the jet plane for commercial travelling. Hawaii had become a holiday resort within easy reach of the masses.
Consequently, all things Hawaiian – especially clothing designs inspired by the colourful Hawaiian aesthetic – became all the rage. The Californian surfing community was soon swelled by large numbers of weekend surfers. The film Gidget, released in 1959, bottled the Zeitgeist for Hollywood. It told the real-life story of writer Frederick Kohner’s daughter’s adolescence spent among the ‘outlaws’ of Malibu. One day in June 1956, Kathryn Kohner had pulled up at the beach in her Buick. Veteran surfers Mickey Munoz, Mickey Dora and Terry ‘Tubesteak’ Tracey commented on the arrival of the tiny intruder with loud, semi-serious abuse. Kathryn, intimidated, fell. Tubesteak ran to assist. ‘Gee, it’s a gidget!’ he exclaimed in surprise – a new word for ‘girl midget’ – and an unlikely friendship and influential box-office smash were born. Thanks to the film, Hawaiian shirts and shorts became de rigueur among young Americans who preferred a more laid-back lifestyle..