Surf music went from a regional phenomenon in the early 60s to a national craze by the mid-60s to a Pop sound loved around the world that continues to attract listeners. If any one group is associated with Surf more than others, it is the Beach Boys, a five-piece combo that brought together the rich harmonies of the Four Freshman, the driving guitar of Chuck Berry, and themes focused squarely on the West Coast teenage experience. But Surf music knew many forms, including the instrumental, guitar-driven sound of the Ventures and Dick Dale, the Garage Surf sound of the Trashmen, and much more. Surf proved so infectious that bands across the country adopted its musical elements and, even more commonly, paid homage to the birthplace of Surf, Southern California.
It is impossible to separate Surf music from the cult of the teenager that sprung up in postwar America, when a new prosperity meant that young people suddenly had money to spend and time in which to spend it. By the early 60s, the teenager was a fact of American life — if a threat to some, the teenager was most certainly a figure of euphoria to others. And songs like the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” portrayed California as a kind of utopia, the perfect place for the quintessential teenage experience. As home to Disneyland, backdrop of countless beach movies, site of a growing suburban culture made possible by the growth of the highway system, Southern California of the 1960s came to emblematize a crucial moment of transformation in American life, with leisure time increasingly becoming the focus of life’s possibilities. Surf was the soundtrack to that transformation.
It was the Beach Boys’ music that best represents the Surf worldview, capturing the spirit of a time, a place, and a teenage experience that was an object of national fascination. The California brought to life in the Beach Boys’ early recordings is a mythic place, where teenage life centered around cars, dancing, amusement parks, romance, and surfing—a melody-rich celebration of leisure time’s full possibilities. If you were a teenager living outside of California, the Beach Boys gave you the impression that you were living a half life.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time the American West was assigned a mythic power. From the age of Manifest Destiny and western expansion to the Gold Rush and the Dust Bowl refugees depicted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the West has long been portrayed as something special in the American experience, something better. In its own way, Surf music carried the tradition forward.
In the lessons that follow, the musical culture of Surf is related to developments in American life that include the growth of the suburbs, the advance of car culture through the highway system, and, of course, the rise of teenage culture.