Here's some copy that I wrote for the re-issue of our album Surfbeat on
Elvis Costello's label, Edsel, in England.
Who would ever know, when I think back to how I started, that I would
get swept into an international phenomena called Surf Music? I was in
the 8th grade, played records for school dances and had some musical
training. When two guys in the neighborhood started playing guitar, I
thought it would be much more fun to be in a group. I asked "If I learn
how to play guitar, can I be in the group?" They said they already had
two guitars but if I learned how to play bass guitar they could use me.
I bought one, started playing...I'd go sit in the lead guitar players
bedroom and he'd show me parts and within a year the Belairs had a hit
record "Mr. Moto". The parents started interfering and we split up. Half
the group formed The Challengers Band.
The Challengers recorded the first album of "Surf Music". It was called
Surfbeat. We did it in 3 1/2 hours at a jazz studio owned by World
Pacific Records. It was basically a live set of songs that we were
performing at dances up and down the Southern California coast. I think
the next night we did a gig with the Beach Boys at the Hermosa Biltmore
Hotel...admission was $1.00 and the fan club sold sodas. Afterwards we
divided up the money in a coffee shop nearby...one for you, one for you,
one for me, until each of us had all our pockets stuffed full with
dollar bills. I remember feeling rich!
The album was a huge success and when other people heard how simple it
was the market became flooded with imitations trying to capture some of
the profits...there were some good ones too but Surfbeat was the first.
As a group we became accomplished studio musicians and played on albums
and singles for Sonny & Cher, The Surfaris, Boyce and Hart (who wrote
for the Monkeys) and others. I got 10 bucks a track for recordings, 50
bucks for the entire Wipeout album by the Surfaris...the money wasn't
important, we were having fun. At concerts we would back other singers
during their parts of shows and these included Little Richard, Chuck
Berry, The Righteous Brothers, Trini Lopez, Donovan, Jimmy Clanton, Jan
& Dean, Dick Dee Dee, The Rivingtons, The Olympics, The Drifters & The
Coasters...I can't remember them all. We did portions of the first US.
tours of the Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Dave Clark Five...TV
and live work with Marvin Gaye, The Byrds, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wilson
Pickett, James Brown, Duane Eddy, Ike & Tina Turner, Joe Tex, The
Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas and Papas and many more. We had our own
weekly one hour TV show called "Surfs Up" and did guest appearances on
American Bandstand, Shebang and an endless stream of other music shows.
Surfing was a regional folk art culture with its own language, clothing,
movies, magazines, comic strips, dance steps, music and television
shows...a complete lifestyle. The simplicity was having a car, a pair of
trunks and a board. You'd come home from high school, throw your stick
in the back of you woody and head for a blast off evening riding in
God's little envelopes (hollow, tubing waves). You desire was to arrive
at the beach, temperature hot, water surface glassy, waves like corduroy
to the horizon, paddle out, take off on a steep one and get locked in
the green room hanging ten (toes over the nose of your board). At sunset
you'd climb back up the bluff to the car, listen to Surfbeat on the
radio and go back to rendezvous with the reality of Mom and homework.
The real culture was amazingly small. Geographically, less than 1000
miles, stretching from 39 kilometers below the Mexican border to Steamer
Lane, south of San Francisco. You had to know the secret language with
words like outside, cutback, kickout, crystal chambers, spoonmeat,
stoked, spinner, Goofy-Foot, Quazimodo, Kamikaze, hot-dog, hooting and
head dip...wear the costume of white low cut Jack Purcell tennis shoes,
Levi's, Penny's Towncraft polo cut T-shirt, Pendleton wool shirt,
baggies (loose fitting trunks for mobility)...have sun bleached
hair...spend hours and days driving up and down the coast looking for
the best waves...and be willing to go out in the most enormous bone
crushers. You had to be in good physical condition just to do the
paddling involved in getting out, taking off and swimming in if you took
gas, went over the falls and lost your board.
Independent film makers would tour high schools showing their 16mm
collections of great rides, incredible wipeouts and funny bits. The
music we created filled the audio voids. Hollywood was always trying to
jump on the bandwagon with films like Beach Blanket Bingo and
Gidget...films which lacked the vitality of the real stuff. "Endless
Summer" was the only legitimate surf film to achieve world wide release.
The Beach Boys were a Southern California "Four Freshmen" that
synthesized the culture happening all around them with a Glee Club
sensibility that was incredibly commercial. They weren't really a surf
band...nobody in the group knew how to surf (sorry boys).
Surf Music, as it was eventually called, was mostly simple instrumentals
copied from the early Ventures, Fireballs, Duane Eddy and Johnny and the
Hurricanes and originals composed by the guitar players in the groups.
It was danceable and provided a centerpiece for evening social
activities on weekends for a lot of us who had spent the day riding
waves and generally hanging around at the beach. The surfer's stomp was
pounding each foot twice hard on the floor. You'd be wearing heavy
Mexican sandals, huaraches, soled with tire treads and maybe taps. The
effect of 2000 people doing this in time to the music was cataclysmic. I
loved calling the sets and building the intensity...the dance halls
would literally bounce, you could hear it from several blocks away...and
the surfer girls looked great.
The music became more of a "genre" as the individual groups had hits
with original compositions. There were a lot of songs and bands that
came up which I enjoyed. Latin'ia by the Centinals, Baja by the
Astronauts (a group from Colorado, 1000 miles from the ocean) and of
course Pipeline and Wipeout. As we became better singers we did more
vocals...some originals, some of the hits of the day and standards by
Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
I would say that the classic surf music period begins about 1958 and
ends about 1966 with the emergence of the San Francisco psychedelic
incarnations of surf, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service
and Big Brother... message bands. In general, the introduction of
Marijuana and LSD into the culture was a beginning of the end of
innocence...the beginning of a colorful new change in culture and values
that spread from California around the world with it's language,
costume, music and lifestyle.
Surf music changed the face of popular music in two major ways. We
introduced the electric bass guitar on hit records. Previously all hits
were recorded with the stand up bass (Elvis' Bill Black Combo). The
physical limitations of the stand-up dictated the bass style. With the
electric bass came a harder and more driving bass. We drew the worlds
attention to California and paved the way for the 'San Francisco sound'
The simplicity and directness of surf endures. The Challengers recorded
about 28 albums. I live in Malibu, still surf and still play bass.
Bass guitar, The Challengers Band, November 18, 1993