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A listener’s guide to Sand Rush [playlist]

Writing Sand Rush forced me to watch some of the worst teen movies ever produced by Hollywood— I’m never getting that one hour of my life spent watching The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) back—but the music associated with California beaches is top notch. Almost all of the songs on the Sand Rush playlist are from a very short period in time, roughly between 1961 and 1965 (not withstanding some obvious throwback songs from the 80’s, 90’s, and beyond), when the Southern California beach culture was on display everywhere, from music album covers to movies and magazine advertisements.

This obsession was part of the enormous cultural influence California exerted nationally during the postwar period. With its burgeoning suburbs, automobile-centered lifestyle, bountiful jobs, and youthful population, the Golden State came to embody the boundless opportunities that peace and economic growth had to offer. Furthered by the surfing craze and the popularity of beach “teenpics,” Southern California beach culture emerged as the perfect metaphor for the good life. The music of that era reflected the carefree nature of the LA beach scene.

By the 1970s, however, the tide had turned. Americans were singing a different tune as they became aware of the environmental cost of “progress.” Two years after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the Beach Boys released their uncharacteristically melancholic “Don’t Go Near the Water” (1971). This wasn’t their last foray into ecological music; in 1995, they appeared on the TV-show Baywatch for a good cause—fundraising for the Surfrider Foundation—and committed one of their worst tunes to date, “Summer in Paradise” (“Give me sunshine water and an ozone layer!” they pleaded). Nonetheless, apart from the latter example, most of the songs listed here make for some enjoyable listening whether you’re planning a road trip along the Pacific or simply want a taste of summer. I’ve included obvious choices, a few personal favorites, and some below-the-radar songs that combine historical value and musical appeal.

Listen to the full playlist and read on to learn about the songs that were a backdrop to the transformation of the California coastline.

1. Original music for Muscle Beach by Joseph Strick (1948); words and lyrics by Edwin Rolfe, composed and sung by Earl Robinson

This is one song that you are unlikely to see mentioned on most “California beaches” playlists. Muscle Beach is a wonderfully evocative short documentary by experimental filmmaker Joseph Strick, filmed, you guessed it, at Muscle Beach. Except this is the old site in Santa Monica, not the Venice one you may have visited along the boardwalk. From the 1930s onwards, acrobats and gymnasts started working out at this public playground, eventually improving it by building a wooden platform and other gym apparatuses. In the 1950s, Muscle Beach was the ideal place to observe beautiful, athletic bodies in motion. However, it wasn’t to the taste of everyone in Santa Monica and the conservative city council eventually got rid of it in 1958. The song that accompanies the film is typical of the folk music genre Earl Robinson was famous for and the lyrics, by poet Edwin Rolfe, poke gentle fun at the pursuit of the body beautiful when “laying off the custard cream” is so hard. His message (get out to Muscle Beach!) is a timeless reminder that the beach is a good place to get back into shape!

2. James Darren “Gidget” (1959)

The release of Gidget in 1959 is often praised (or blamed depending on who you’re speaking to) for starting the beach craze and turning Malibu into an overcrowded area full of “kooks.” Based on the young adult novel of the same name written by Austrian-born Frederick Kohner, Gidget was certainly a box-office hit and the precursor to the beach movie genre. James Darren’s “Gidget” may not be so much about the surfing culture (the lyrics focus on the “tomboy” charm of the main character), but it captures something of its carefree spirit. Darren’s vocals and upbeat rhythm evoke the sun-kissed beaches of California, where the fictional Gidget (short for “girl midget”) learns to ride the waves and finds herself (and a boyfriend). With its catchy melody and playful lyrics, the song became a symbol of youthful exuberance and summertime adventures.

3. Dick Dale “Let’s Go Trippin’” (1961)

Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” is a groundbreaking surf rock anthem that ignited a cultural revolution. Considered by many to be the first surf song, “Let’s Go Trippin’” encapsulates the thrill of riding the waves and the freedom of the open ocean. Dale’s innovative use of reverb and tremolo amplification creates a sonic landscape that transports audiences to sun-drenched beaches and blissful summer days. This legendary track not only launched Dale’s career as the “King of Surf Guitar” but also paved the way for the surf rock genre’s enduring legacy. It should also be noted that while many members of surfing bands had never set foot on a board (most of the Beach Boys, in fact), Dick Dale himself was a bona fide surfer.

4. Annette Funicello & Frankie Avalon “Beach Party” (1963)

Released in 1963, “Beach Party” by Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon epitomizes the core essence of 1960s surf culture, and is a renowned anthem of the beach movie genre. Funicello and Avalon, beloved icons of the era, didn’t exactly look like California teens. They both had dark brown hair, Funicello had pasty white skin and she couldn’t (or wouldn’t, it was never clear) show her belly button on screen, allegedly out of respect for Walt Disney who had launched her career as a Musketeer. Yet their undeniable chemistry on screen and the gorgeous background dancers and surfers made up for it.

In addition to the famous song that launched the Beach Party genre, I would also direct you to my personal favorite: the contrapuntal duet the couple sings in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). As the couple walks along the beach at night, they each give their version of what the future looks like for them. She wants a ring; he wants to fool around. “I think, You think” may be a stark reminder of the constrictive nature of 1960s gender roles, but it’s still a delightful pop tune evocative of summer flings and carefree evenings spent by the ocean.

5. James Brown “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (1965)

James Brown gave a rendition of his song “I Got You (I feel Good)” in Ski Party, one of the last of the era’s beach teenpics. Having exhausted the genre, filmmakers took the surfers to the slopes and James Brown got to perform in a garish wool sweater. This song reminds us that the beach movies famously lacked diversity, and kept people of color on the sidelines, only allowing them to appear as musical acts, fully clothed. In fact, it is worth remembering that at the same time as these movies were being released, African Americans in the South were staging swim ins to claim their right to the beach and the ocean. Brown’s electrifying performance for Ski Party stands as a stark reminder of the racial segregation and exclusion of that period.

Another famous Black artist who had a small role in a beach party movie is Stevie Wonder, who made his first appearance on screen, aged 13 years old, in the strangely compelling Muscle Beach Party (1963).

6. Jimi Jamison “I’ll Be Ready (Baywatch theme)” (1993)

In the 1990s, Baywatch epitomized beach culture, its red swimsuits and slow-motion rescues defining an era. Jamison’s powerful vocals and uplifting melody became the sonic emblem of the show’s beautiful bodies and easy lifestyle (casting aside the actual job of saving people from drowning). And that song, and all that it carried, travelled far. Let’s not forget that Baywatch was rescued from cancellation after its first season thanks to viewers in Europe who couldn’t have enough of Pamela and the Hoff.

As my Northumbria colleague Joe Street told me recently, reminiscing about his youth in 1990s Britain, hearing the first notes of the song was the sign that pre-gaming for Saturday night could begin. A beloved “tea-time show”, you can easily understand why Baywatch was a hit in Britain where beaches are usually enjoyed wearing a raincoat and rubber boots.

Featured image via Pixabay.

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