Music to surf by
By Carey Fleiner
The 20th of June is International Surfing Day. I’m not sure if I have the proper street cred to write about surfing. For one thing, even though I grew up on the Mid-Atlantic coast, I can’t swim. My nephew, however, was part of a hardcore crowd who surfed regularly on the beaches near Ocean City, Maryland, and the Indian River Inlet, Delaware, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It may not be Southern California, Hawaii, or Australia, but those guys were still amazing.
These days, I currently live on England’s south coast — perhaps not a place Americans immediately associate with sun and tans or images of jams, hoedads, and bushy bushy blond hairdos.
But heck, yeah, there’s surfing in Britain. Come to Thurso East, Scotland, Devon (where the University of Plymouth offers a degree in surfing) or Cornwall, where it’s only forty miles from Polperro to Perranporth if you want to see the sun rise and set in the sea on the same day (travel time may vary if it’s August Bank Holiday). We even have palm trees.
I do like surf music, and fortunately, not everyone who plays or listens to surf music must own a wetsuit. Some of the best stuff at the height of the original era (1960 to 1964ish) came from groups as far inland as Colorado (The Astronauts), Minnesota (The Trashmen), and Indiana (The Riveras); The Ventures up in Seattle pounded out terrific instrumentals; Engerland had The Shadows and The Dakotas; and landlocked Hungary has, these days, The Summer Schatzies.
Dancing is part of surf culture, but, I grew up too far north in Delaware, USA, to be part of the Carolina shagging scene (NB: ‘shagging music’ means something distinctly different in Blighty than it does in the Carolinas…). I drive, which surely counts as vicarious surfing. Jan and Dean went sidewalk surfing; surf-pop is, of course, nicknamed ‘surf ‘n’ drag.’ And I like the Beach Boys. A lot. Two years ago I flew to London from Philly just for the weekend to see Brian Wilson perform at the Southbank Centre, and I lectured on him when I taught history of rock. At the moment, the Beach Boys are in heavy rotation in my little car. Their cheerful surf-pop with its complex arrangements and polyphonic vocals kept me from road raging on I-95 in the US, and currently does the same when I navigate the M3 in Britain.
I need those bright vocals, because I’m afraid if I listened to surf-rock, I’d have to replace the Mini with something a bit more sinister as surf-rock’s exotic, sinuous melodies and pounding drums would awaken my dark side. If I’m listening and singing along to ‘Surfin’ USA,’ and you cut me off as you dart across three lanes of rush hour traffic and don’t signal, I’ll just smile and carry on. But if it were ‘Intruder’ by The Madeira, for example, with its relentless vibratos and mean minor chord changes resonating along my spinal chord, I would devolve to a primeval creature, my little car gliding through the traffic like a tiny British Racing Green-coloured shark. A smiling shark. Wearing shades.
Listen to ‘Ghost Hop’ by The Surfmen:
Can you experience Death Valley’s ‘Lammie Don’t Surf’ and not feel transformed?
Before Ritchie Blackmore went all New Age and Celtic music in the ‘70s, he teamed up with E Grieg to go on ‘Satan’s Holiday’ in 1965:
Whether you live in Sioux Falls, North Dakota (which Wikipedia tells me is the point of inaccessibility to the ocean in North America), or that point farthest from the sea in Great Britain (a subject of raging controversy whenever it comes up on chat shows or a slow news day at The Grauniad), these instrumentals capture more than the feel and excitement of riding the perfect wave, the crash of the surf, or the roar inside the pipeline.
Plato, the fourth-century BC philosopher, spent a good deal of his time banging on about how the harmonic intervals that vibrate throughout the cosmos (musica universalis) reverberate in the internal music of mortal beings (musica humana). Humans, he said, resonate sympathetically with the musical vibrations that pulse throughout creation. Consequently good music leads to good behaviour, and this maintains, at the atomic level, an orderly universe. Good vibrations, indeed.
Surfers themselves can be mystical and deeply spiritual, and quite honestly, there is something in the wet reverb and riveting solos of surf-rock instrumentals that vibrates within one’s very bones if not within the soul. Surf-rock, in any of its incarnations, is pure emotion and adrenaline pumped through a Fender amp, realised by vibrato, glissando, and a judicious application of the whammy bar.
The 20th of June is also Brian’s birthday.
Carey Fleiner is a lecturer in classical and early medieval history at the University of Winchester, with a background in teaching the history of rock music. Her areas of interest are imperial Roman women, popular culture in the ancient world, and the Kinks, with upcoming conference papers including ‘Simplicity and the Past as Haven in the Music of Ray Davies and the Kinks’ (which, coincidentally, she will be presenting on Ray’s birthday, the 21st June) and ‘Isabelle of Angoulême: Images of a Queen in the Popular Culture of the 13th, 19th, and 21st Centuries’.
Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
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Image credit: All images courtesy of Carey Fleiner. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.